With the 2012 season now just weeks away, the players who have received the majority of the attention have been the new face of the program Brandon Magee, Cameron Marshall and his bevy of watch list appearances and the three quarterbacks vying to take over for Brock Osweiler. However, no Sun Devil may be as important to this season's team as safety Alden Darby.
The 5'10", 187 pounder saw action at cornerback, safety and nickel linebacker in 2011, showing promise with 51 tackles (highest total among returning players) and three interceptions. Yet, much like the team as a whole, such successes were undone by a disappointing end to the year.
Now a junior, Darby has a firm home at safety and has emerged as a team leader. His ability to tap into his vast potential and become a stabilizing presence along the back of the ASU defense will be a critical factor to follow this fall.
We caught up with Darby and discussed a wide range of topics, such as his thoughts on the failures of the past, what surprises to expect from the defense, new schemes, leadership and what talent he wishes he had, but doesn't.
House of Sparky: Coming into last November, ASU were the masters of their domain, and then it all fell apart. In your estimation, what were the primary reasons for the 0-5 finish?
Alden Darby: The 0-5 finish came from a lack of discipline, and a lack of coming together. We stopped believing in each other and believing in ourselves, and we thought it was going to be handed to us. The first six games that we won, those were the hardest games. We rolled through those. We blew USC out of the water and beat Missouri in overtime. We were rolling. We felt that since we got "the hard part of our schedule" out of the way, that is was going to be easy for us. It really wasn't. When we got beat against UCLA, then the Washington State loss, it hit us hard, because those were games we were expected to easily win. It took a lot out of us. It was discipline and we stopped believing.
HoS: Last season, you saw action at cornerback, safety and linebacker in some situations. Do you feel that moving around in that manner helped or hindered your development?
AD: I see it as beneficial. It allowed scouts and other people to see that I'm an athlete. You can play me anywhere on the field--at corner, at safety, at nickel linebacker inside the box--so I don't see it as a negative thing. In my off time, I still perfect my craft at corner and at safety, but if they need me to play anywhere else, they know I can play that position.
HoS: The overall culture of the team has changed dramatically from the hiring of Coach Graham to now. What has that transition been like for your individually and the team as a whole?
AD: Individually, I've had to work a lot harder. I've been put into a role player's seat, and I know I can't do what I did last year. Extra reps, extra workouts, I've got to get guys to meetings, I've got to get guys to the field. I have to be a leader out there, I have to lead by example. I just can't lead by talking. A lot of dudes look up to me and follow me, even if they are older than me, because they can relate to me because they see I'm a hard worker. I have to be sure that if I tell anyone to do something, that I'm doing it 100 times.
HoS: With the departure of several great leaders as Brock Osweiler and Omar Bolden, you have been one of several players to step up and fill that void. How have you embraced that role and where do you feel the leadership situation on the team currently stands heading into fall camp?
AD: Being a leader...actually, I wouldn't even call it being a leader. This is just who I am, on and off the field. I'm just that type of dude. It's not an act. It's not a "hoo-rah" act. It's not because of the new coach. This is who I am, who I've always been. From when I was young, I've always worked hard and gotten people around behind me. People call it the "leadership role" or the "captain", but this is just me. It's been instilled in me. Going into fall camp, I'm not going to change a thing and go out of my way to be something I'm not. Label me as a leader, and that's just who I am.
We have some good leaders on our team right now: Will Sutton, Brandon Magee, Cameron Marshall, Brice Schwab, Andrew Sampson, the quarterbacks. We have a lot of good dudes on this team that lead by example, not just by talking. Omar Bolden was a tremendous leader, and I followed behind him since day one. He's like a big brother to me. I learned a lot from him both on and off the field, just the way he carries himself, his character, it's unbelievable. I learned a lot from him about how to be a better leader and a better person.
HoS: One of the most exciting changes for the team is the shift to an attacking style defense featuring multiple fronts, and by all accounts, the players have really loved this change. But new systems take time to learn, so how long do you think it will take before the defense really has mastered the scheme?
AD: I don't think very long. I'm going to go back, give credit to Coach (Craig) Bray, tremendous defensive coach, a mastermind. The dude was nice when it came to coming up with schemes. But for some players, and sometimes including myself, the things he had us doing were a little too much to learn. Too much thinking on the field. At corner, I was doing more thinking than playing. But now, it's a big difference. I feel I can just go out there and play. I'm more free. It's simple, honestly, from my eyes. From the corner position, one check, we're running it, let's go. We're already catching on. Guys are in there, watching film. We're locked in. We're going over the checks, going over the calls. It won't take us long to get it.
HoS: With an offense that may take some time finding it's groove, especially in the passing game, has the defense put on any added pressure on itself to take the lead and make this a defensive team?
AD: We've had our moments, I will say. Spring ball was about getting our feet wet, learning the system, learning Coach Graham's practice style. We weren't used to it. It was fast. We were getting tired a lot, we weren't used to that speed. Now that our feet are wet, now that we know what to do and are familiar with the defense, we're going to make an impact during camp. We're going to make a statement.
HoS: You have proven to be quite an effective ballhawk during your time at ASU, so from a strictly safety's perspective, how does this new defense play to that ability and exploit your strengths as a playmaker?
AD: Oh, I've been loving it. Being back at safety, reading the quarterback. I'm always looking at the quarterbacks, trying to bait them. I've been a playmaker, a ballhawk, an athletic dude going back through high school. I've just been that type of dude to get the ball in my hands. Being at safety just gives me the freedom to roam, to make plays, to read the quarterback and to bait players. It's just fun back there.
HoS: Will we see you lined up anywhere besides safety to take advantage of your versatility?
AD: Mainly safety and nickel. I'm going to be everywhere. Dropping into the box, blitzing, manning up. I'm going to try to go out to corner sometimes and play man-to-man press. You're going to see me everywhere, making plays all over the field. Everywhere. Kickoff. Punt. Punt returns. I'm not going to leave the field. I'm going to do everything to help my team win.
HoS: How has it been working with new defensive coaches like Coach Randolph and Coach Ball?
AD: I love them. I love them to death. Coach Ball is a good dude. He stepped in, and the way he is, the way he carries himself, how open he is to us and how close he wants to be to us. I can feel it, I can feel he wants that relationship. Talking to players he's coached in the past, hearing from them that he's a good dude, and not just a guy that will keep that relationship only while you're here, he's going to keep it up for the rest of his life. Hearing that makes me feel good. I'm glad he's here. He brings a different type of coaching style.
HoS: What is one element of this year's team that you feel will be the biggest surprise both to the fans and to the national media?
AD: The DBs. People keep putting us into press clippings, but what they fail to realize is in the beginning of the season, we were getting six picks a game. We had a downward slump the last six games. The DBs we have, we all work hard, we all work together. What they don't see right now is the work behind closed doors. Come this season, they're going to see it. We're going to bring it every play, every person on the field. Every defensive back who gets into the game, we're going to be hitting, getting interceptions. All that talk about us being the weak link of the team is going to stop.
HoS: Many people in the media have labeled 2012 a rebuilding year, with any successes for the program coming in in future seasons. How do you feel about that characterization?
AD: It is a rebuilding year...as far as the locker room, and the training room [laughs].The locker room is the only thing being rebuilt, not the team. Not to sound arrogant, but this isn't a rebuilding year at all. New coaches? Hey, let's roll. New coaches and new system? Let's learn it and get the ball rolling. It's not like we're all new players. We know each other and have played together for some years now. We're all Division I athletes. We're after one thing, and that's to win the Pac-12 championship and to go to the Rose Bowl. So it's not a rebuilding year at all. We're going to fight and we're going to win, and we're going to show everybody that we're here to play.
HoS: What are you expecting from the trip up the mountain next month to Camp Tontozona?
AD: I'm excited. I watch Remember the Titans once a week, and every time I watch it, I think "That's going to be us." We're going to be that underdog team, go to camp, everyone will have all these speculations about us, then we're going to come back and in our first game they'll say "Wow, they went out there and they came together." We're already coming together a ridiculous amount. We're closer than ever right now. The things they have us doing outside of practice, meetings we're having, team bonding and such...it's crazy. Camp T sets it off. I wish we were going a full two weeks. I wish it was more than four days. If I had a say, it'd be the full time. When we go up there, it's going to be like Remember the Titans. No cell phones, no iPods, just team activities. It's going to be great.
HoS: What have former players told you about Camp T?
AD: From former players, I've heard "No cell phones, there's no service up there, dude!" That's all I've heard. But the only info I need is the previous records from when they went to Camp T. All the teams that went to Camp T went 10-2, 11-1, 9-3. Those are spectacular records. I feel that is because they came together. Without a team being together, you have nothing. I want to look to the left and look to the right and see Keelan, Osahon, Deveron, and I know they are going to make their play.
HoS: The overriding theme since Coach Graham's arrival in December has been "Speaking Victory". How do you define that term?
AD: Doing the right things. Like you said, people see this as a rebuilding year, and that's not "Speaking Victory". It is being motivated in a positive way in the right direction, and reaching for the best and never seeing the worst in things. If you have a hard day of work, you don't want to say "I don't want to do it." You want to say, "You know what Coach Griz, is this all you got for me? Let's go. It's only going to get me better." We're all Division I athletes here for one reason, and one reason only-to win championships. You have to be speaking victory everyday to do that.
HoS: What do you feel is the one X-factor-whether it's a player, scheme, mentality-for this team to succeed this fall?
AD: On offense, the run game. Our run game is going to be ridiculous this year. The O-line, I have to give it to them, this spring, they worked their butts off. They've gotten stronger, faster, smarter and better. As far as from last year to now, I've seen them block for seven seconds some times. This year, the offensive line is going to be really good, the run game is going to be crazy. The passing game is going to be really good. I feel our offense this year is going to be a lot more balanced, maybe run first.
On defense, its' our coverage. It's going to be different out there. They're going to see a different DB corps out there. They're going to be seeing dudes hyped up and having fun and making plays. There's going to be a few linebackers that will surprise people and make plays, I like the defensive schemes. They let us play free. We're not playing scared anymore. A lot of us were playing scared. Myself, I was nervous to mess up and it took me out of my game. If I made a mistake, I was getting subbed out. None of that this year. They're letting us play through our mistakes like a coach should.
HoS: What's the biggest difference between Coach Erickson and Coach Graham?
AD: The discipline. The work ethic. The expectations. They are not slacking at all. Coach Graham is not cutting slack for anybody. There's no favoritism, there's no "You're the star of the team, so we will let you get away with this." We're going to treat everyone the same. So you're going to have to bring it every play.
HoS: What is your goal for 2012?
AD: I keep telling me teammates that I'm going to get 10 or more picks this year. I keep saying that, because the more you say it, the more you visualize it, the better the chance it is going to happen. I keep telling them I'm going to get 10+ picks, 100+ tackles, get All-Pac-12 honors. I know I've got it in me, I know the type of player I am. The critics, I want to shut them up. I know I had a couple bad plays last year, I know there are some things hit and miss, but I want to show them that I'm the real deal.
HoS: How do you define a successful year this fall?
AD: I'm going to be honest. We can go undefeated. Anybody can be beat in this league. We can go undefeated. I know we have USC and Oregon, but we can beat those dudes. Just like we could have last year. What went wrong last year was the discipline and we weren't all in. We had individuals. This year, we're together. We all believe, and we believe as one. We can go undefeated, realistically speaking.
HoS: What's something fun about you that the fans may not know?
AD: I love to dance. I dance 24/7. I love to sing, but I can't sing at all. It's crazy. Everybody on my dad's side can sing, from little babies on up to him. They all can sing, but I can't sing a lick. I walk into the weight room singing, and all the guys are like "Oh my gosh, Darby, you have the worst voice." I'm just a funny dude, and I love to make people laugh.
Previous interviews in our "12 in '12" series: QB Michael Eubank, K Alex Garoutte, RB James Morrison, C Kody Koebensky, CB Deveron Carr, QB Mike Bercovici, Devilbacker Carl Bradford, S Keelan Johnson, LB Brandon Magee