In a time of transition for the coaching staff of the Sun Devils’ football program, there are many new voices to be heard around the Kajikawa Practice Fields this spring; none louder than that of newly-appointed defensive coordinator Phil Bennett.
While the 61-year-old was most widely recognized for his role and success in Waco, Texas, with Baylor the last five years, he’s in fact a well-traveled coach.
Bennett has been coaching at the collegiate level since 1984, just two years after his final stint as a tight end for Texas Christian. Many assistants at a Power 5 school like Arizona State have extensive resumes, but for Bennett, he brings something new to the table.
“I don’t want to say he’s crazy,” ASU linebacker Christian Sam said. “But it’s a good crazy, you know he loves football, he wants the best out of his players and that’s what drives him.”
Bennett is often sprinting around from unit to unit, screaming instructions as well as criticisms to nearly every player sporting the white defensive team jerseys. Bennett’s enthusiasm represents a shift from the mentality from last year’s program.
“It’s a different energy,” Sam said. “We have different coaches around so it’s a different atmosphere.”
Sam is one of many returning players on the defensive side of the ball, all of whom are adjusting to a new defensive coordinator for the first time since Keith Patterson’s first season in 2014. While Bennett’s ability to gain respect from his new unit will likely hinge upon the defense’s performance in the first few games of the season, the September 16th date with the high-powered Red Raiders offense in Lubbock looms large in this respect, many players have shown their appreciation for his approach thus far.
“He’s hands on with the defensive line, corners and safeties,” Sam said. “That’s what we really like about him, he knows his own defense and helps everybody out.”
Another Sun Devil experiencing a hefty transition this season is defensive lineman Dougladson Subtyl. While he’s still learning how to read the playbook and adjusting to the strict weight requirements of a Division-I athletics program, he too has cited an emphasis on one-on-one work with the coaching staff.
“I learned my stance,” Subtyl said. “I’m more used to the four-point stance, now I’m moving to the three-point stance so I’m trying to get used to it.”
Bennett’s coaching inspirations likely come from a variety of assistants and head coaches he’s worked with in the past, (10 different programs in the last 33 years), but he’s noted a couple of figures as crucial to his ideology.
“Both [Bill Snyder] and R.C. Slocum were so structured, and that’s what we are here,” Bennett said. “If players know what to expect, they’ll excel.”
This idea of knowing exactly what to expect, especially in an era where offensive coordinators complicate their schemes solely for the purpose of confusing defenses, is vital to Bennett’s message.
“It’s a game of matchups,” Bennett said. “You have to make sure your scheme is simple enough to create matchups that are positive to you.”
Because of this devotion to simplicity, Bennett often tries to stay away from confusing players with convoluted schemes and techniques, instead focusing solely on fundamentals.
“If you’re ever going to be a championship team, you’re going to have to tackle and be good at it,” Bennett said. “Most of the time when you miss a tackle it’s because you’re out of control, the wrap is so crucial”
In 2016, Arizona State finished last in total defense against the Pac-12, landing at seventh in rush defense and the worst against the pass. The 2017-18 season kicks off August 31st with a matchup against New Mexico State, meaning the Sun Devils have just over four months to improve upon the fundamentals (or lack thereof) that made last season so disastrous.