At the apex of Arizona State head coach Todd Graham’s attacking defensive scheme is the capability of his secondary unit.
The group’s ability to maintain consistent coverage in man-to-man situations enables Graham to wage an aggressive rush at the line of scrimmage. Although, with an assortment of new faces within and around the secondary this year, Graham and defensive coordinator Keith Patterson have directed a more conservative approach.
Externally, there’s varied opinions regarding how the shift has worked out thus far—the statistics favor one view rather clearly. Internally, however, there’s not much debate.
ASU’s coaches and players will hold themselves accountable for breakdowns in pass coverage to this point. Regardless, as seasoned defensive backs Armand Perry and Kareem Orr will tell you: just look at the Sun Devils’ record.
“I don’t really care,” Perry said of criticism over the secondary's play. “We faced the No. 1 (Texas Tech) and No. 2 (California) offenses in the nation, and got the W. People always wanna bring up stats. They always wanna mix in these numbers, but they’re forgetting the most important stat—that we’re undefeated, and that we’re winning games.”
The redshirt sophomore isn’t wrong.
The ASU secondary, which Graham says is his most inexperienced secondary group since he’s arrived in Tempe, has been dealt trial by fire, facing pass-happy spread and Air Raid offenses early on in the season. The group has outlasted scoldings each game, overcoming “critical errors” to win, amidst allowing 404 passing yards per contest.
Defensive backs coach TJ Rushing said he does see growth and improvement from his unit.
“I’m a ball coach, so I’m not 100 percent satisfied,” Rushing said. “But, all-in-all, I’m glad with what our guys are doing. They’re making the plays that need to be made and communicating.”
The mistakes have only lessened each week, according to Orr.
“(The secondary’s chemistry has) actually grown a lot because we’re getting better at communication week-by-week,” he said. “We’re starting to eliminate the real, real big plays, one-play touchdowns; things like that.”
Communication is key to the defensive backfield’s success and is the very reason experience is so valued. Perry says he doesn’t worry about the inexperience of other defensive backs because it’s a matter of gaining experience under the bright lights.
“Some people might be spooked, but our group, we’re good, man,” Perry said. “It’s just about perfecting our craft every day.”
“We bonding a lot, as you can see, as a team,” Orr said amidst field corner De’Chavon “Gump” Hayes calling out to him, teasing him of a touchdown he allowed against Cal during an interview. “In the secondary, we’re starting to gel a lot better, we just gotta get the communication part down a little bit better. It’s getting better though, week-by-week.”
While there’s still mistakes, the amount has lowered. That can be attributed to the studying players have conducted in the film room during which Perry says performances on the field truly speak for themselves.
“That’s where the leadership comes from,” he said. “We all watched the film in there, and we see who’s playing hard, and who’s making plays, so it’s more of a lead-by-example kind of thing. Players respect that in the locker room.”
Perry, a player who sat out most of 2015 with an ankle injury, is one of the more confident players on the team. He takes pride in his tackling, and it shows up in his play, posing as one of the most physically-imposing presences on the roster.
“I hate missing tackles and everything like that,” Perry said. “And other teams see that on film. If they see you’ve got a violent dude in the secondary, quarterbacks aren’t gonna be throwing it across the middle.”
Likewise, Orr says he tries to be as physical a defender as possible, despite his 5-foot-11, 195-pound stature.
Only a true sophomore, Orr is often tasked with guarding the opponent’s best receiver. Last week, he did well holding the Cal receiver Chad Hansen—one of the nation’s leading receivers—to just two second half receptions for six yards after catching eight for over 100 yards and a touchdown in the first.
Orr said he doesn’t allow size disadvantages to discourage him. On facing larger receivers, he says he grapples opponents at the line of scrimmage “so they can’t be able to get off the ground and jump.”
As two of the most experienced members of the secondary, Orr and Perry’s chemistry has blossomed over their time together. Rushing has watched it develop first-hand.
“(Perry) and 25’s relationship has grown in the way they’re watching film together, studying together, making calls together,” he said. “They’re doing a lot of stuff to make sure that this secondary is as good as it can be.”
Perry echoed the sentiment.
“We might be out in a game, and I’ll be like, ‘Ay, Kareem. I need a play.’ Or, ‘Armand, you got me inside,’” he said, motioning. “Just little stuff like that. The chemistry is there.”
The two have helped play integral roles in keying ASU’s comebacks on the defensive end, and their importance to the side goes without question. Their chemistry will once again be test this weekend in Los Angeles against the USC Trojans, who last season, the Sun Devils ceded 375 passing yards and five touchdowns.
Orr said in order to contain USC targets JuJu Smith-Schuster and Darreus Rogers, the gameplan will see him man the boundary.
“They’re gonna both come to either side, both sides,” Orr said. “So I’m gonna get a fair amount of both of them.”
Perry said he’s confident heading into the contest, noting the importance of being disciplined against USC’s pro-style offense.
“I’m looking forward to going to The Coliseum,” he said. “I’ll always tell people it’s like an NFL-type atmosphere.”
Nonethless, he’s focused on the bigger picture and the team reaching its goals.
“We take every week like it’s the Pac-12 Championship,” Perry said. “USC’s in our way right now. So, in order to get to the Pac-12 Championship, we’ve gotta knock them off, and that’s what we plan on doing.
“We’ve gotta go out there, and put together a good game, and go 5-0.”
A complete performance from the secondary and a victory over the Trojans could be the very thing critics need to stifle their concerns over the unit moving forward and, potentially, beyond.
With the focus of Orr and Perry leading the charge, it’s certainly possible.