The Sun Devils' collapse over the final five games of the season was a product of many factors.
A lack of discipline, poor special teams play and an anemic pass rush all played major roles in the terrible finish. However, above all other reasons, it was the play of the secondary that knocked the Sun Devils from the Pac-12 South perch to the indignity of a sub-.500 finish.
The numbers don't lie. Through the first eight games, the opposition averaged 240.2 yards-per-game through the air, with 10 touchdowns. Those are solid defensive numbers, and not surprisingly, ASU was 6-2 in those eight games.
Starting with the loss at UCLA, those numbers jump to 325.4 and 12, which makes the corresponding 0-5 record not at all shocking. The low point came against Washington State, when the Cougars inserted third-string quarterback Connor Halliday into the lineup, and he proceeded to throw for 494 yards and four touchdowns. Those 494 yards were actually the highest single-game total put up in 2011 by a Pac-12 quarterback, surpassing any total put up by Matt Barkley or Andrew Luck.
That implosion led to Arizona State's 108th ranking among the 120 FBS teams in passing defense, meaning that new defensive coordinator Paul Randolph and defensive backs coach Chris Ball have a lot of work to do.
Thankfully, the cupboards are far from bare. Let's take a look at where the Sun Devil secondary stands as the start of spring practice on March 13th nears.
The Sun Devils return both their starters at the position in senior Deveron Carr and junior Osahon Irabor. One strength of the pair is experience--Carr has 21 starts under his belt, while Irabor has 20.
Carr has the tools in place to be among the conference's best. He has good size at 5'11" and 190 pounds, and his speed and agility are impressive. He has shown excellent coverage skills during his time at ASU, notably against UCS this past year, and led the team with 10 passes defended. However, a lack of consistency has been costly. Now in his final season, he must find that quickly if he is to become the type of player his skills warrant.
A similar story can be told about Irabor. He registered the only interception of the season by an ASU cornerback, but at times was exposed in coverage, particularly struggling against double moves. Like Carr, he has all the tools to be a top-flight cornerback in the Pac-12, but until he displays it consistently, ASU fans will be on edge every time a pass leaves an opposing quarterback's hands.
One intriguing cornerback prospect is Robert Nelson. A redshirt junior, Nelson played two seasons at Louisiana-Monroe before transferring and sitting out 2011 due to NCAA rules. He has excellent coverage and ball skills, and should see time in nickle and dime situations. He may even push for a starting job if Carr and/or Irabor continue to struggle with consistency.
Rashad Wadood saw action in 10 games as a freshman last season, making six tackles. He is recovering from a torn ACL injury suffered late in the year against Washington State, so he may not return to full strength until fall camp. When healthy, he is a talented athlete with tremendous speed who needs development in his coverage skills.
Joining Wadood on the injured list is redshirt sophomore Devan Spann. A heady player with good size at 5'11", 175 pounds, Spann has battled ailments during his time at ASU. A thyroid issue hampered him in 2010, but he rebounded with strong spring practices last season. However, a chronic shoulder injury ultimately ended his season in August. he'll miss spring ball, but has a chance to shine, if he can stay healthy, this fall.
Redshirt sophomore Ronald Kennedy Jr. and redshirt freshman Joe Eason are young guys who have decent size who will have a chance to become depth contributors. Eason is a speedy corner while Kennedy relies more on technique.
In contrast to the cornerbacks, the backline of the Sun Devil defense will be replacing both of last season's starters, Eddie Elder and All Pac-12 Second Teamer Clint Floyd. However, that doesn't mean that there will be a lack of experience.
Keelan Johnson is now a senior, and for all of the major talent he has, it has yet to manifest on the field. He saw action in all 13 games last season--including four starts--making 48 tackles with a sack and two interceptions. He has tremendous skills to complement his good size (6'0", 203) but has not shown the ability to be a reliable backline defender. If he can elevate his mental game to the level of his physical skills this spring, Johnson would go a long way to shoring up ASU's defensive issues.
The new defensive scheme of ASU requires versatile and athletic defenders, and no one in the secondary fits that bill as well as junior Alden Darby. One of the possible Breakout Candidates, Darby saw time at cornerback, safety and linebacker last year, making 51 tackles (most among returning players) and had three interceptions. Now strictly a safety, Darby has a chance to become a major contributor and leader in the Sun Devil defense. Like many others, he is prone to costly mental lapses (3rd and 29, anyone?), but his athleticism and playmaking skills are immense. The Sun Devils need a stabilizing force in the secondary, and Darby has a chance to be that man.
Senior Kevin Ayers saw action as a reserve in all 13 games last season, making 15 tackles. He has good size for the position at 6'0", 200 pounds, but didn't get a chance to see the field much with the four players ahead of him. He brings a strong physical presence to the field, and now that the path to playing time is thinner, he can do himself a great favor and have a strong spring.
Among other spring participants, junior Shane McCullen returns after seeing action in 11 games on special teams. He figures to retain that special teams role in 2012, and probably needs a few things to fall his way to see time on defense.
On major absence in the spring will be redshirt freshman Ezekiel Bishop. Another Breakout Candidate, Bishop is a great talent who is recovering from an ACL tear suffered in last season's opener against UC Davis. Despite his size (5'10", 175 pounds) Bishop is a dynamic safety who has great range and knockout hitting power. He figures to be a physical presence in the ASU secondary for years to come, but his 2012 debut will have to wait until fall camp.
Coming This Fall
ASU's 2012 recruiting class is bringing in two safety prospects that should help shore up things.
Chris Young comes to ASU from Arizona Western College after a dominant junior college career. He brings great size (6'2", 220 pounds), speed and ferocity, and will be an immediate contributor. The only question is whether that will be at safety or at linebacker.
ASU is bringing in a three-star safety prospect from Texas in Laiu Moeakiola. He is a rangy sideline-to-sideline defender and sure tackler, but will need work in coverage, and may be a redshirt candidate.
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