The Arizona State secondary will face a tough challenge in 2012, not just in adapting to their new 3-3-5 attacking defense, but also in attempting to slow down the Pac-12's passing games, including USC's, led by pre-season Heisman favorite Matt Barkley.
Despite head coach Todd Graham having all of spring and fall ball to make the necessary adjustments, game day is simply a different animal. The main difference between this year's scheme and last year is the amount of pressure that ASU will bring, and although bringing the heat will hopefully mean more sacks, it also means less players back in coverage.
In order to succeed in this type of defense, the team running it must have good one-on-one coverage corners, and The Sun Devils hope to be fine in that category with returning starters Deveron Carr and Osahon Irabor, as each are capable of marking great wide receivers. Yet beyond just talent, the team is hoping the simplified scheme will help.
"The main difference is last year it was a little more complicated," said Carr. "Our coaches have made things simple for corners, it's not flustering you with too much and know exactly we have to take away."
Many have asked me, with ASU having those same two corners last season, why am I so optimistic and what is the difference? The returning secondary members blame a lack of communication for their 0-5 finishes. Playing a zone defense when people are not on the same page is practically impossible. Do not expect the same mistakes for the 2012 season.
"Just need to play as one and continue to work hard and continue to believe in the defense itself," Carr said. "Continue to believe in the brothers that are next to you and in front of you...trusting everybody that's around you and playing with you, just everybody doing their job."
ASU's team chemistry has improved ten-fold, which will positively and directly translate into Saturday sucesss. The belief each member has in each other sounds like the famous Bill Bellicheck philosophy, "Do your job."
Media experts are not blindly buying the new hype, providing a strong sense of urgency to re-claim the national buzz. The starting secondary members are talented yet unproven, and depth presents a huge concern. This unit cannot afford to have any major injuries, or it will be just another disappointing season.
Most fans will gauge ASU's possible success this season based on quarterback play, yet the real key will be secondary play. The best way to judge if defensive coordinator Paul Randolph's plan is being executed properly, simply check the stats for turnovers caused.
Can the ASU secondary regain it's footing? I believe so. Let's take a look at each of the primary players, along with Carr's own assessment of each.
Safety Alden Darby - "Good team player, very funny guy"
Expectations for Darby were high after appearing in all 12 games during his freshman campaign in 2010. Darby is a tremendous athlete, but hard work defines him, having earned Hard Hat player recognition in ASU's offseason program. In 2011, superb special teams play lead Darby to eventually get the nod on starting D come crunch time. He made his debut with the "ones" in the most important game of the year, versus U of A. The old saying "just throw him into the fire, ASU did that. His first start was against a bitter cross-town rival, showing how much confidence the staff has in Darby.
Only one game later, Darby broke out, not only throughout the Tempe area but also nationally. ASU got embarrassed by a pissed off Boise State team who thought they belonged in a BCS game. Regardless of the Devils struggles, Darby left it all out on the turf, recording team high 10 tackles under the bright lights of ESPN. Coach Todd Graham loves competition, but Daby's starting role is not up for grabs.
2012 ASU Season Preview
Cornerback Osahon Irabor "He gets out of his break very fast and can tackle well."
Osahon Irabor is the real deal, easily ASU's premier coverage corner. The ASU athletic website describes Irabor by saying "Athletic, dynamic defensive back has the potential to be a shut-down cornerback... physical player..contended for time as a true freshman before getting injured... will be a big part of the defense for next two years."
The redshirt junior listed at 5-11 182 pounds almost reminds me of his predecessor, Omar Bolden. Big shoes to fill, lofty comparison? No doubt, but is Irabor deserving? Not yet, but I am going to be bold and say he will make me look like a genius come season's end. Irabor poses a good blend of size and speed and learned from one of the best in Sun Devil history in Bolden. Irabor should draw some of the toughest assignments, like Robert Woods, Marques Wilson, Keenan Allen and more. Watch out for No. 24, as I think he will be a game-changing player with legitimate All-Pac 12 team aspirations.
Safety Keelan Johnson "Awesome athlete"
Everybody loves a good old veteran, Johnson was originally redshirted but has gone on to be a staple of ASU's secondary. Now the local talent from Mesa is in his final season sporting maroon and gold. At 6'1" 207 pounds, Johnson also has great speed, enabling him to cover tons of ground. His versatility speaks for itself, entering ASU in 2008 as an athlete, with capabilities of playing running back, wide receiver, and obviously safety.
Johnson is quiet and mild mannered, a player who leads by example. Some guys prefer to bark (like me), yet others simply go about their business daily. It is clear; Johnson falls in category two, typical blue-collar guy. There have been rough patches and growing pains for Johnson, but hard work has helped him improve yearly.
Cornerback Robert Nelson "Very explosive for a small guy"
Nelson has one interesting and unique story, starting his career out at Louisiana-Monroe but decided to transfer to ASU. On the surface, it sounds like a typical transfer story, but that is not the case. After playing a game with Louisiana-Monroe at Sun Devil Stadium, Nelson stated that Tempe felt like home and loved it here. ASU's electric student sections atmosphere really intrigued Nelson, and is ready to compete after sitting 2011 out due to transfer rules.
Corners rarely play true bump and run coverage anymore, but Nelson is old school. His in your face, trash-talking mentality is intimidating. All summer camp long, the physical battles between Nelson and wide receiver Rashad Ross were incredible to witness. Nelson is one of the players everyone loves to have, but hates to go against. For a 5'11" 170 pound man, Nelson's strength is very deceiving. Nelson is currently Deveron Carr's back up, limiting his opportunities especially on early downs. However, look for Nelson in nickel and dime situations. As I stated earlier, ASU lacks secondary depth, Nelson is one of the few backups in this unit I trust out on the gridiron.
Rounding out the group, Deveron Carr
Carr helped me break down his teammates, now I will give him a little dose of his own medicine. In 2011, Carr started all 13 games. What Carr lacks in skill and speed, he makes up for with a high football IQ. Whenever I watch ASU play, Carr finds a way to always be around the ball. Carr had a team high 10 pass deflections last year.
At 6'0" 190 pounds, Carr is a big for his position. The average college corner is around 5'9". Carr specializes in zone coverage, being able to sit back and read the QB. Carr is the glue. When ASU was 6-2 last year, he was spectacular. When the Devils had the horrific 0-5 finish, Carr was mediocre, but definitely not the sole problem. The impact Carr has goes beyond a box score, the little things he does make him special. ASU has better one-on-one cover players and faster athletes, but no one more valuable than Carr.