Arizona State is tasked with replacing three starters in the secondary.
But that might not be the worst thing.
Last season, ASU’s secondary was one of the worst in the FBS. It gave up 24 plays of over 40 yards (last in the FBS), and allowed a Pac-12-worst 337.5 passing yards per game.
It was an odd conundrum considering the personnel involved. Lloyd Carrington, Kweishi Brown and Jordan Simone came into their senior seasons respected and trusted on the back end, but for a multitude of reasons, it didn’t translate to a stalwart pass defense last season.
Now, with those three graduated and former defensive backs coach Chris Ball coaching at Memphis under the direction of former ASU offensive coordinator Mike Norvell, ASU’s secondary will look completely different.
Starting with a new position coach.
Defensive backs coach TJ Rushing returned to ASU (he was a graduate assistant from 2012-13) in the spring after spending last season as a defensive assistant at Stanford. He was able to connect to his guys right away.
The group has just one senior, redshirt senior Laiu Moeakiola, and he has spent the majority of his career as a SPUR linebacker. For Rushing, that allows him to freely teach how he wants.
"They’re not set in their ways," Rushing said. "They’re young, they’re sponges, they’re ready to soak up any information we can give them, so we’re going to give them a lot of information and see all what they can handle."
Part of that education process is getting his group to be strong upon contact. Missed tackles were a problem across the defensive board in 2015, but when the secondary is put in a position to make a play to prevent the offense from advancing to the next level, it has to be done well. In preseason camp so far, the SPUR linebackers have been included in drills with the rest of the secondary.
SPURs, a linebacker-safety hybrid, have brought a different element to drills.
"(SPURs are) physical, at the point of contact they got to show up and be physical," Rushing said. "Anytime we can do drills with those guys and pound with them, it’s good, and now my corners got to pound against the SPURs that are used to hitting linemen."
Rushing hopes to get his guys to compete well, but he is also looking for players to step up to lead the young group from within.
Although he mentioned all his guys have taken portions of that, he also pointed out two players in particular: sophomore Kareem Orr and redshirt sophomore Armand Perry.
"(Orr and Perry) are starting to do all the little things right," Rushing said. "Showing up to meetings early, meeting with the younger guys by themselves, watching extra tape. They’re just embracing the leadership role."
Orr came out of almost nowhere last season as a true freshman, filling in at field safety when Perry went down in the second game of the season with an ankle injury.
What ensued was a team-high and ASU freshman record six interceptions as well as USA Today and ESPN Freshman All-American recognition. However, Orr was also susceptible to the occasional blown coverage in a spot that leaves no room for error.
Coming into this season, Orr is back at his more natural boundary cornerback position, and he is taking the lessons from last year to heart.
"I’m probably going to change up a lot of things in the way I get ready for games," Orr said. "It’s a different approach and outlook on the game. Studying-wise, I didn’t study a lot last year, but now I’m working really hard, studying film. I’ve been watching film a lot lately."
The extra work is paying dividends as well. Todd Graham has cited Orr’s play in camp as "probably the most impressive just day in and day out."
Orr is also welcoming the role as a leader despite entering just his second season of college football.
"I’m just trying to bring all the defensive backs together," Orr said. " Last year, I feel like it was kind of separate, and we weren’t together as a unit. But this year, I feel like we’ll be a unit because everyone likes each other. We gel.
"This year, I feel like the whole unit, as one, I feel like we’ve playing together really good. This year, everyone likes each other. Everyone wants to be on the field with each other, flying around, having fun and making plays. That’s all you can ask for."
The man he stepped in place of, Perry, is also gearing up for a comeback season. Perry was ASU’s opening day starter at field safety, and led the team in tackles in its loss to Texas A&M, but an ankle injury suffered against Cal Poly the next week sidelined him the entire season.
For the first time, Perry wasn’t able to play his beloved game, and he admittedly struggled watching his team from the sideline.
"It sucked, but it was part of God’s plan, so I don’t really question anything like that," he said. "All I can do is control what I can control. I couldn’t help that I (wasn’t) healthy, but it took a strong mind from myself to attack rehab. I hit a couple plateaus, but other than that, everything is good right now."
Back at full strength and in control of the field safety spot, Perry is more than willing to help Orr lead the secondary. The two meshed right away - Perry calls Orr his "little brother - and now, they can utilize that chemistry on the field.
"I’m pushing him to be the best player in the country, and he’s pushing me to be the best player in the country," Perry said. "That reflects on everybody. There’s a competitive nature on this defense. We’re pushing everybody to the limit."
Rushing said he is looking for his guys to be "smart, fast and physical" players, and added that communication is a big part of being able to execute the gameplan in a nature in-line with those characteristics.
"Even in meetings, you make everybody communicate," he said. "It ain’t like the first time they hear a guy’s voice is out on the field. You’re communicating in the meetings, in every walkthrough and everything we do, there’s constant communication in what we do.
"The smarter player is the faster player, and that ends up being the better player."
And a better player is a confident player, and sometimes, a vocally confident player.
In AZcentral’s "Sun Devil Confidential," which anonymously polled the team, Orr was cited as the biggest trash talker on the team. Redshirt senior wide receiver Tim White couldn’t help but smile when asked to confirm that claim.
"Without a doubt," White said. "It’s fun. I’ll talk back without a doubt just for fun. It’s always good to play around and be doing your job at the same time."
When Orr was asked about it, he didn’t shy away.
"I talk my trash, but I can back it up at the same time," he said.
The only person who seemed to take exception to that was Perry, who also received votes in the poll.
"I would’ve said I am (the biggest trash talker), but being a DB, that’s what you got to do," Perry said. "That actually helps my game if I can get into the other guy’s head."
Regardless of who talks the most on the field, it’s clear the group is confident. With older players like junior J’Marcus Rhodes, redshirt senior De’Chavon "Gump" Hayes and senior Bryson Echols mixed with younger players like freshmen Robbie Robinson and Chase Lucas, the new-look ASU secondary is ready to show off the work they’ve put in throughout the offseason.
"We’re tired of losing," Perry said. "I’m tired of losing. I don’t come from losing. Just back there trying to motivate those guys up front."
And they have a new name for themselves, too. Letting go of the "Bird Gang" mantra from a season ago, the players had a group chat to decide what to name themselves.
"We just wanted something new because we wanted to start over and have a new name," Orr said.
Perry couldn’t remember who came up with it, but he did say that it’s not a Star Wars reference.
That in mind, in addition to the amount of unknown that surrounds the secondary, it’s safe to say that nobody knows the power of the Darkside.
Until the season starts, that is.