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ASU Football: Osahon Irabor provides steady presence for Sun Devils

If you ask the ASU coaching staff who is the team's most valuable player, Osahon Irabor would surely garner a significant number of votes.

Matt Kartozian-USA TODAY Sports

There are few things guaranteed in life: death, taxes and Osahon Irabor starting at cornerback for Arizona State.

Heading into week five against Notre Dame, the senior has had 36 consecutive starts with the first team, a statistic that leads the Pac-12. Sustaining that quality of play over three seasons is rare. Even more unlikely is avoiding a serious injury over that span while playing the violent sport of football. Perhaps that's why even Irabor has a hard time believing it.

"It's crazy to play that many games consecutively," Irabor said. "But I've just been working hard and getting better. And good thing I've been able to be consistent over a long period of time."

Irabor isn't a national star like Will Sutton. He isn't as imposing as Carl Bradford. But ask any Arizona State coach and they'll tell you he is just as important to the Sun Devil defense.

"Oh, very, very important. [Irabor] is one of our better players," Co-defensive coordinator Chris Ball said. "In fact, if you start to looking at the plays he has made, he is one our better blitzers also...In order to do the things we want to do you got to have great corners, and he is one of them."

Ball was referring to Irabor's newfound ability to come off the edge and help stop the run. Despite his efforts, slowing down ground and pound teams continues to be the biggest issue for ASU on defense.

"I think I just got better at playing at run defense and it's showing on the field. Our troubles have been to the field side, out in space on the other side," Irabor said. "Things that we can get corrected by watching film and practicing well. So I think run defense will improve."

On the run plays, Irabor has held his own with sound tackling in the open field. But that alone wouldn't have earned Irabor all these starts. It's considered a luxury if cornerbacks can creep down and help the linebackers corral the ball-carriers. It's mandatory for the cornerbacks to go step-for-step with the wide receiver they are facing. That's something Irabor does routinely.

Irabor believes his strengths are "coverage man skills, being physical, ball skills and being a student of the game." Irabor knows the art of tracking wide receivers doesn't happen in the blink of an eye so he beefed up his film studying. So far, the extra attention to detail is paying off, allowing him to press with more confidence.

"More physical, [Irabor] is a lot more physical," Ball said of Irabor's growth. "At the end of spring ball we told him that he needed to be more physical this year. And he has come in and he has been a totally different guy."

Irabor's evaluation has even caught the eye of his head coach. Todd Graham called Irabor the best cornerback he has ever coached last week. And considering Graham has been coaching football since 1988 and has helped shape players such as the No. 6 selection in 2005 NFL Draft, Adam "Pacman" Jones, that's a compliment Irabor won't soon forget.

"It's great, it just means all the hard work has been paying off. Coach Graham has put a lot of time in helping me get better. Technique wise and stuff like that," Irabor said. "And it's just showing on the field this year."

In 2013, Irabor has exchanged blows with top-notch talents such as USC's Marqise Lee, Stanford's Ty Montgomery and Wisconsin's Jared Abbrederis. While that sounds like a headache to most coverage men, Irabor embraces the high-level of competition.

"Most definitely, that's a challenge that I welcome each and every week," said Irabor. "[That's] something I want to do for the team and for the defense...just be able neutralize their best receiver and help us win."

It's that type of attitude that has caught the eye of the coaching staff. The famous Pat Tillman camouflage practice jersey is an high honor rarely shared. But Irabor has sported the jersey for about one month, longer than any other player by a large margin.

Behind Irabor's bright smile and happy go lucky personality, he understands the responsibility and seriousness of being associated with Tillman.

"Wearing this Pat Tillman jersey means you represent everything he stood for. And that means you have to got keep it. You'd be tarnishing his legacy if you don't come out every day and work hard like he did and represent this family with pride and character. Just being a leader and wearing this jersey every day lets the guys know no matter how good you are, or how safe your spot is, you always got to come to work and work hard for the team."

Settling for good by maintaining the status quo happens regularly, as players fail to give 110 percent to get to the next level, but Irabor refuses to let that happen. When asked where he could improve, Irabor replied "everywhere."

Perhaps his lack of complacency comes from all Irabor has seen since his freshman season. He arrived to Tempe in 2009 and redshirted at the digression of Dennis Erickson. In that season and during the following years, the Sun Devil team grew a reputation of not living up to expectations. If that wasn't rough enough, penalties and mental errors were the difference in countless ball games. From 2009-2011 under Erickson, ASU went 16-21.

After five straight losses to end the 2011 season, Erickson got canned in favor of Graham. The transition period was supposed to take some time, but that wasn't the case. Graham is 11-6 as head coach of the Sun Devils. The team no longer hurts themselves on self inflicted wounds, consistently beating opponents with sound discipline. And Irabor couldn't be happier with the transition.

"It's night and day, [the program] has definitely changed for the better. The way we work, the way represent the program and the university." Irabor said. "We take a lot of pride in everything that goes on around here now. It's just a pretty beautiful thing."

Looking ahead, playing Notre Dame on the big stage at AT&T stadium should be foreshadowing of Irabor's next chapter of life. After all, his coaches believe it shouldn't be too long before Irabor is suiting up Sundays.

"Oh, no question," said Coach Ball when asked about Irabor's NFL chances. "If he keeps working and practicing the way he does, there's no question he'll have that opportunity [to go pro.]"