Live by the turnover, die by the turnover.
Over the first half of 2011, the Arizona State defense was a turnover-generating juggernaut, and the team thrived.
Beginning with the Illinois game in Week Three, the Sun Devil defense created 24 turnovers over a six game span, an astounding total. Included in that stretch were a trio of five turnover games. Not surprisingly, ASU went 4-2 in that span and was leading the Pac-12 South Division.
Once the calendar turned to November, that ballhawking dominance came to a screeching halt . Over the team's 0-4 month to close out the regular season, the defense only generated four total turnovers, while simultaneously being carved up by opposing passing quarterbacks.
One of the key figures during both of the streaks was Alden Darby.
After All-Pac 10 cornerback Omar Bolden tore his ACL last April, Darby made the change from safety to cornerback. At 5'10" and 185 pounds with great quickness, Darby began to make good on his vast potential with an impressive performance during fall camp. His playing time in ASU's secondary only increased further when another cornerback, Devan Spann, was lost for the season late in camp.
Darby made good use of that playing time from the start, making a team-high seven tackles in the opener against UC Davis. His athleticism allowed him to see time both at cornerback and at safety, keeping on the field for greater stretches as the season wore on.
So impressive was his versatility that against Oregon State Darby saw time at linebacker in nickel packages, and the end result was the best game of his collegiate career. He recorded the first two interceptions of his ASU career in the Sun Devils win. He made another interception a week later against Utah, and both Darby and ASU were riding high.
Sadly, their fortunes would soon change.
In the season's defining game against UCLA on November 5th, ASU was clinging to a late 28-23 lead and had the Bruins facing third and 29. However, Darby was burned for a 33-yard reception by Nelson Rosario, and three plays later UCLA scored the winning touchdown that began the Sun Devil spiral.
Darby's play, and that of the entire secondary, became maddeningly inconsistent. Lapses in coverage were exploited by opposing passing games, an issue compounded by countless missed tackles across the defense. These problems were the primary factors in ASU's descent from presumptive South division champs in November to sub-.500 team by the end of December.
But that was then, and this is now. Both Darby and the team have that experience to learn from and a new attitude to which to accomplish their lofty goals.
Perhaps the most noticeable change will be the one that benefits both player and team the greatest. The new defensive scheme being installed is one that favors an attacking style, something that plays well into the dynamic Darby's skillset.
Helping his efforts will be a focus on the safety position. Secondary coach Chris Ball stated that Darby will return full-time to his original position along ASU's backline. Both of last year's starters--Eddie Elder and Clint Floyd--are gone, creating a major opportunity for Darby, now a junior. With several other challengers for playing time at safety unavailable for spring practice--Ezekiel Bishop due to injury and incoming players Chris Young and Laiu Moeakiola not yet enrolled--the stage is set for Darby to lock down a starting spot.
He is the team's leading returning tackler with 51, an impressive total considering he only made two starts. With a starting spot in hand, it's not hard to imagine that number could doubling in 2012, along with a healthy number of other big play statistics.
For a team in the midst of heavy transition, his experience and play making presence could stabilize the unit and bring it new life.
Read about other House of Sparky Breakout Candidates Rashad Ross and Ezekiel Bishop
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