The Arizona State defensive backfield boasts a versatile group that combines experienced veterans and immensely talented but still unproven young players.
The Sun Devils need to fill the voids left by graduated seniors Deveron Carr and Keelan Johnson, who helped turn Arizona State into one of the nation's most productive secondaries last season.
In Todd Graham's first season, Carr and Johnson helped transform the Sun Devil secondary from one of the nation's worst to the third best in the country.
This season, Graham has his hands full as he must find the next man up at both safety and cornerback.
Fortunately, co-defensive coordinator Paul Randolph can rely on boundary safety Alden Darby and boundary corner Osahon Irabor to return to form at their respective positions. With the added benefit of having two of the Sun Devils' best leaders in the secondary, the coaching staff can focus the majority of their attention on determining how to replace two vacated spots.
Early in the fall, Graham believed he found an answer at field safety. Freshman Marcus Ball progressed faster than his peers and his 6-foot-3 frame looked as game-ready as they come for a true freshman. In the Sun Devils' Camp Tontozona scrimmage, Ball suffered a shoulder injury that is estimated to sideline him for three to five weeks.
"Really, I think Marcus Ball, if he's in there, would be our free safety right now but he's hurt so we have to make some adjustments," Graham said after practice on August 19.
Translation: Back to the drawing board.
At the field corner spot opposite Irabor, the Sun Devils hosted a four-way battle for the starting job. Robert Nelson, Lloyd Carrington, Rashad Wadood and Marlon Pollard challenged each other through spring and fall camp before Nelson took a definitive lead.
Nelson's speed appealed to the coaching staff, and it appeared that he secured the starting role. Then, Marcus Ball injured himself, and the drawing board included Nelson's name.
Redshirt freshman Laiu Moeakiola had the first crack at replacing Ball, but the coaching staff seemed concerned about the redshirt freshman's ability to handle such a prominent role so early in his career. With game day approaching, Nelson shifted to the field safety spot and Carrington slid into the open field corner position.
"We feel like Robert, Lloyd, and Darby and Osahon are our four best guys so we'll see if he can do a little bit of that," Graham said on the 19th.
The learning curve at safety can be difficult and the time Nelson has to work with is less than desirable. Will the Sun Devils' stick it out with the redshirt senior this week, or will they rely on Moeakiola to fill in until Ball returns?
"If we played today Laiu (Moeakiola) would start at free safety," Graham said on Friday. "He's been the guy who is the most consistent and has the best knowledge of what he's doing there."
Prior to Ball's injury, everything looked so simple. Now, the defensive backfield is one of the team's few remaining question marks heading into the showdown with Sacramento State.
If the Sun Devils start Nelson at safety and go with Carrington at corner, they'll have more speed on the field. But they will also subject themselves to possible limitations on the playbook, because Nelson is so new to the safety position.
Our guess is that the Sacramento State game will serve as a trial run for Laiu Moekiola. The redshirt freshman has come a long way over the past few weeks, and the Sun Devils remain confident in their ability to dominate their opponent. If Moeakiola excels, expect the job to be his until Ball returns.
If not, it's back to the drawing board for the second straight week.
We asked cornerback Osahon Irabor to help us with our position preview and break down some of his teammates in the secondary.
Names to Know
Osahon Irabor- Graduate Student- 5'11", 186 pounds: Irabor returns as the lead cornerback in the Arizona State secondary. Irabor led the Sun Devils with 14 passes defended a season ago without being called for a single pass interference penalty. He has seen action in 38 games in his Sun Devil career, including starting every game in 2012.
Irabor's take: "I want to be a playmaker, I want to make big plays and lock down our opponent's number one receiver. One thing I want to do better than last year is have more of an impact in each and every game, get interceptions and create more turnovers for our defense."
Robert Nelson- Redshirt Senior- 5'11", 169 pounds: Nelson is a veteran corner that provides depth in the Arizona State secondary. Nelson played in all 13 games last season and notched interceptions against both Arizona and Navy. With injuries to Marcus Ball and Demarious Randall, Nelson has been getting time at field safety in fall camp, making his value to the secondary even greater.
Irabor's take: "Robert Nelson is a very skilled DB, he can play safety and corner. You are going to see him a lot on the field so he is going to be a playmaker for us."
Alden Darby- Senior- 5'11", 195 pounds: Darby is the leader of the Arizona State secondary. He, along with Irabor, have both been wearing the Pat Tillman jersey in practice and Darby is the vocal leader of the ASU defense. He was fifth on the team last year with 80 tackles and the senior had three interceptions in 2012.
Irabor's take: "Alden Darby man that's my boy. He's the bandid safety, he's a playmaker and one of the team leaders. We are going to rely on him heavily in the secondary and as a defensive unit to keep us together."
Lloyd Carrington- Redshirt Sophomore- 5'11", 188 pounds: Carrington transferred from Pittsburgh and sat out last season. He is a big, physical corner that won the starting job next to Irabor. Carrington has not seen much game action in his college career but all signs point to him having a nice career in Maroon and Gold.
Irabor's take: "He is a big, strong, physical corner. He has progressed tremendously during spring ball and I think he solidified himself as the No. 1 corner behind me."
Viliami (Laiu) Moeakiola: Redshirt Freshman- 6'0", 205 pounds: If the season started today Laiu Moeakiola would most likely be the starting field safety. That may change as Demarious Randall and Marcus Ball recover from injuries but Moeakiola has been getting a lot of first team reps this fall.
Marcus Ball: Freshman- 6'3", 205 pounds: As of now, Ball seems like he is the crown jewel of Todd Graham's 2013 recruiting class. He is the most physically gifted player in the secondary and had it not been for a shoulder injury, would be starting week one. Ball has great range and will benefit from playing alongside Darby for a season. Look for Ball to be injected into the starting lineup when he returns from his injury towards the end of September.
Irabor's take: "Before he got hurt he showed a ton of promise as a true freshman. He was learning the defense really fast and we wish him a speedy recovery so he can help us in the secondary."
Ryan Bafaloukos and Nick Krueger contributed to this article.