Nearly halfway through the season, teams desire consistency within play and lineups. Unfortunately for the Arizona State Sun Devils, that’s not quite the case, especially at the bandit safety position where four different players have seen time.
Occupied by Jordan Simone for the better part of the last two seasons, the bandit safety is part cornerback, part safety and has important in coverage responsibilities when the boundary corner blitzes. Although the Sun Devils have blitzed less frequently than in previous seasons, the bandit still sits in plenty of zone coverage as a robber.
The bandit is also critical in making tackles on quick screens and runs toward the boundary side of the field, which is where Simone made his living.
Replacing Simone has been a group effort. Early in fall camp, ASU head coach Todd Graham explained his plans for redshirt senior Laiu Moeakiola to step in as safety, which is the position Moeakiola was recruited at coming into Tempe.
So far, ASU has featured four different players at bandit: redshirt senior Laiu Moeakiola, junior Chad Adams, redshirt junior James Johnson and junior J’Marcus Rhodes.
Naturally, inconsistency in personnel has led to inconsistency in performance on the back end, which is a significant issue given ASU’s struggles in the secondary.
“We put a lot of stress on our secondary with pressure,” ASU defensive coordinator Keith Patterson said. “You just got to get guys that are dependable and that are going to communicate. It’s just learning to function as a unit. That’s hard to do when it’s different people all the time.”
The original plan during fall camp was to have Moeakiola start at bandit, but hamstring issues forced Adams into the spot with mixed results. Rhodes also split time with Adams for a few weeks before Moeakiola returned against Texas-San Antonio. Rhodes has totaled 18 tackles while Adams has tallied six of his own plus a forced fumble.
Adams and Rhodes played well enough to the point where the coaching staff was confident enough to move Moeakiola back to SPUR, where he played the last three seasons. Johnson also got in for the first time against the Trojans after suffering a knee injury in fall camp.
But then the USC game happened, and ASU couldn’t ignore its glaring issues any longer.
ASU is giving up 296.4 yards per game through the air this season, good for 128th in the FBS.
The FBS has 128 teams.
ASU struggled mightily at tackling against USC, something that Graham, Patterson and defensive backs coach TJ Rushing put high on their priority list.
“We’re a physical group,” Rushing said. “We always preach physicality, and that’s just not us. We normally don’t miss tackles. Normally, we show up and do a good job.”
The bandit is often the position quarterbacks key in on when reading coverages, which means whoever is there has to be aligned properly and stay disciplined in that assignment. Redshirt sophomore field safety Armand Perry has also taken on the responsibility of getting whomever is beside him on the back end up to speed.
“It’s always challenging because we’re still trying to develop the best 11 on the field,” Perry said. “I just leave (who plays) up to the coach. Any guy that steps in, I feel like you just got to be ready to go and show you’re ready to perform.”
Johnson added that he and the other bandits are in constant communication to keep each other in tune with what is going on during the game, no matter who is playing.
“Each rep means a lot more,” Johnson said. “No matter how cold you are, you got to take each rep like its your last. Not a lot of room for error... We’re trying to all get on the same page and make sure our eyes are on our keys, make sure everybody is in sync and make sure there’s not a lot of miscommunication.”
Graham said earlier in the week that the team hoped to have junior Maurice Chandler healthy and repping at this point in the season, but injury has prevented that. Freshman Kyle Williams is another candidate in the secondary, but he is still making the transition from wide receiver.
Regardless of who is on the field, Rushing said the secondary is all in sync as far as their goals and methods to achieve those goals, and the message is just a matter of execution on a day-to-day basis.
“Go out and do what we do,” Rushing said. “Go out and do what you do during the week that has me have confidence in you. Just go out and put good stuff on grass. Our guys - everybody is trying their best to get it done, and they will. They will. It’ll happen. It’ll happen this weekend. They’re going to show up. They’re going to play well.”
ASU’s defense might have its most dangerous challenge forthcoming with the highly-regarded Josh Rosen coming to town with UCLA. Rosen’s ability to make any and every throw depending on what he reads from the defense seems like the worst-case scenario for a defense who is still shuffling an important position through several players, but according to Rushing, ASU’s defense is always a work in progress.
“From now until Jesus comes back, we’re always trying to get the best man on the grass,” Rushing said. “That’s what I tell my guys. I think that’s why everyone stays engaged all season is because it’s always competitive. If you have a great practice on Tuesday, I’m going to move you up on Wednesday.”