In Todd Graham's 3-4 defense, the Sun Devil head coach asks for so much more out of his safeties than just excellent pass coverage. The safeties are the anchors of the defensive backfield, and must be strong communicators and able-bodied run-stoppers.
Coming into 2013, Arizona State had a void to fill after field safety Keelan Johnson graduated and moved on to the NFL. Alden Darby was back and ready to hold down his spot at boundary safety, but the Sun Devils were in quite a predicament as they looked to find Johnson's replacement.
2013 Expectations: Arizona State's two-safety scheme is unique in that the Sun Devils don't have their defensive backs play traditional positions. Instead of using a free safety and a strong safety, the Sun Devils employ a field safety and a boundary safety.
The main difference in this scheme is that the Sun Devils don't have a safety geared toward covering the strong side of the formation, but instead have their safeties devoted to the wide side of the field (field safety) and the short side of the field (boundary safety).
In Graham's scheme, the field safety is traditionally a little more of a linebacker type, and someone who presents well against the run. Prior to the season, a few different players had a shot at winning the starting field safety job, but true freshman Marcus Ball put his stamp on the spot.
Ball stands 6-foot-3 and weighs 205 pounds and is as imposing a physical presence as you'll find in the Sun Devils' defensive backfield. Ball owned the position throughout fall camp, and appeared poised to become one of only a few true freshman to ever start for Todd Graham.
Unfortunately, a shoulder injury suffered at Camp Tontozona provided a major setback for Ball. The injury kept him out deep into the season, and by the time he was healthy, the coaching staff knew that redshirting Ball was the best available option.
With Ball out, the Sun Devils turned to redshirt freshman Laiu Moeakiola. Moeakiola had some understandable growing pains and wasn't quite ready for the limelight, but the Sun Devils decided to push through and integrate him into the lineup anyway.
After trying cornerback Robert Nelson in Moeakiola's place during a few fall practices, Graham determined just before the first game against Sacramento State that Moeakiola had earned the start.
The expectations at field safety were tempered, but that was not the case for boundary safety Alden Darby. Darby returned after earning Second Team All-Pac-12 honors as a junior and was recognized as one of the best leaders on the Sun Devil team.
With Darby in the secondary aiding his new partner at field safety, missed communications and coverage breakdowns would not be tolerated. The Sun Devils knew exactly what Darby was capable of and they prepared to rely heavily on the senior as the season began.
2013 Production: Through the first four games of the season, Ball's injury had a noticeable affect on the Sun Devils' secondary. Moeakiola has the potential to be a solid defender at Arizona State, but his true position might be at nickelback or at the "Spur" linebacker spot.
Asking Moeakiola to play field safety was requiring a lot of the youngster, but he still managed to provide the Sun Devils with the reliability they were hoping to find when Johnson graduated.
Still, there was something missing in the secondary and that was a tough-nosed run-stopper. Junior college transfer Damarious Randall was recovering from an injury, and by the time the Notre Dame game rolled around, the junior was ready to step in and earn playing time.
After barely a week of practice under his belt, Randall earned the start against the Fighting Irish and responded with 17 tackles in a memorable performance. Randall proved to be the answer the Sun Devils were looking for and he held down the starting field safety spot the rest of the season.
Despite missing four games, Randall finished tied for third on the team with 71 tackles. The JUCO transfer also added in 5.5 tackles for loss and three interceptions including a pick-six that sealed the Territorial Cup victory.
Randall was the only member of the Sun Devils' secondary that didn't earn All-Pac-12 honors, but he has a chance to find himself on preseason All-Pac-12 teams for the upcoming season and will give the Sun Devils a veteran presence they can count on.
As for Darby, the senior played some of the best football of his career in 2013. There were times where he struggled (Stanford, Texas Tech) and allowed coverages to break down, but he was one of the most dependable safeties this side of the Mississippi.
Darby had his best game against the USC Trojans when he forced and recovered a fumble and turned the momentum of the game with an interception return for a touchdown. Darby's 72 tackles and four interceptions put him second on the team in both categories, and his 13 passes defended led all Arizona State defenders.
For his efforts, Darby earned First Team All-Pac-12 honors in a conference stacked with elite pass defenders. The Sun Devils knew they would be asking a lot of Darby, and he definitely delivered.
While some fans will only recall the rough outing against Texas Tech, it's important to remember that this secondary was among the nation's best in forcing turnovers this season. Much of Arizona State's success started with its defensive line play, but the safeties helped back up the men up front and gave the Sun Devil defense opportunities to thrive all season long.
Who's Returning in 2014?
Damarious Randall-Starting field safety (Could move to corner to accommodate Ball)
Laiu Moeakiola-Started the season at field safety before Randall returned from injury
Marcus Ball-Took a redshirt in 2013 after a shoulder injury
James Johnson-Redshirted in 2013
Jayme Otomewo-Redshirted in 2013
Who's Moving On?
Alden Darby-First Team All-Pac-12 at boundary safety
Shane McCullen-Backup safety who played on special teams.