3rd and 29.
OK, I'll stop there. You know exactly what that means. Nothing more needs to be said, and no more old wounds need reopening.
That single play epitomized the Sun Devils' second-half collapse in 2011, but the threat it represented isn't going away. If anything, it's gotten even more dangerous.
In a sport now completely enamored with the passing game, no FBS conference in the nation threw for more yards (40,802) or more touchdowns (329) last season than the Pac-12.
Key takeaway from that stat? Learn to stop the pass, or risk losing five games in a row.
The much maligned ASU secondary from last season has shown signs of improvement over the course of the offseason, as they have put the past behind them and embraced the new aggressive defensive scheme that is now in place.
At the forefront of the revitalized group is perhaps the most talented member of the secondary, junior safety Alden Darby.
Last season, Darby saw action as a do-it-all defender, playing cornerback, safety and even linebacker in nickel situations. He collected three interceptions, and his 51 tackles are the most among returning players. While he showed a wealth of promise in 2011, he also—like most of his fellow defenders—displayed a sometimes maddening lack of consistency.
Over the offseason following the disappointing end to last season, Darby has been one of the most positively affected members of the team by the new culture of the program brought in by Todd Graham.
"I've had to work a lot harder. I know I can't do what I did last year," said Darby. "Extra reps, extra workouts. 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."
That new approach Darby has allowed him to take the next step to become the team's most essential player at one of the biggest areas of need. Both of last year's starters at safety—Eddie Elder and Clint Floyd—are gone, and the cornerbacking tandem of Deveron Carr and Osahon Irabor have had their own past battles with consistency. With the number of passes that Pac-12 quarterbacks will be throwing their way, it is essential for Darby and the secondary to emerge as a team strength.
To that end, the team's new defensive scheme is now allowing Darby and the rest of the safeties to become a more effective weapon for defensive coordinator Paul Randolph. After spending, as Darby said, "too much time thinking" in last year's defense, this season he feels that the players are finally allowed to just go out and play.
"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.
In addition to the schematic changes, Darby's immense athleticism allows the coaches to further utilize Darby in a number of other creative ways, outside of his spot as the team's starting boundary safety.
2012 ASU Season Preview
8/10: Running Backs
8/13: Wide Receivers/TEs
8/15: Offensive Line
8/17: Defensive Line
8/22: Defensive Backs
8/23: Special Teams
"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."
While his on-field playmaking will obviously be critical to the team's success, Darby's growth into a one of the team's leaders will also be essential. After the departure of players like Omar Bolden, Colin Parker and the Elder and Floyd duo, among others, the defense was left with a leadership void that Brandon Magee alone could not fill. Thankfully for the Sun Devils, a leadership role comes naturally to Darby.
"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."
With his vast potential, a starting spot and the team's needs all converging this season, Darby is embracing and framing these challenges with some very lofty goals.
"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-plus picks, 100-plus tackles, get All-Pac-12 honors. I know I've got it in me."
If he indeed does, consider this your warning, opposing Pac-12 offenses.
Check out the previous Most Important Player countdown entries:
3) RB Cameron Marshall
4) CB Deveron Carr
5) WR/KR Jamal Miles
6) Devilbacker Carl Bradford
7) LB Brandon Magee
8) OT Brice Schwab
9) K Alex Garoutte
10) MLB Steffon Martin
11) NT Mike Pennel
12) DT Will Sutton
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