Entering the season, one of the biggest questions surrounding the Arizona State Sun Devils was if the secondary would be able to improve its lowly finishes the past couple seasons.
After intercepting two passes against New Mexico State and holding run-first San Diego State to 79 yards through the air, the Sun Devils get their first true aerial test in the Texas Tech Red Raiders Saturday in Lubbock.
Last year’s Sun Devil secondary allowed Texas Tech quarterback Patrick Mahomes to throw for 540 yards, but intercepted him twice en route to a win. But those numbers mean nothing this week, as not one of those starters will take the field when these teams meet.
With Mahomes gone to the NFL, the Red Raiders trot out senior Nic Shimonek in his second career start. Shimonek impressed in his first outing, completing 26 of 30 passes for 384 yards and two touchdowns, albeit against lowly Eastern Washington.
But who is back for the Red Raiders are six of the 11 receivers who caught a pass against ASU last season, including senior Cameron Batson who burned the 2016 Sun Devils for 148 yards and a score on nine grabs.
With so many options to go to, sophomore cornerback Kobe Williams said it’s hard to find one receiver to key on because they’re so varied.
“They use different receivers in different games in so many different ways,” Williams said. “They all just do different things for the offense.”
With a fast-paced attack and so many options to go to, Shimonek and the Red Raiders can take advantage of even the smallest misstep in coverage, converting big plays and big numbers on the scoreboard.
“Their whole goal is to run the tempo and get us unaligned,” redshirt junior cornerback Joey Bryant said. “Alignment is really the key this week. Everyone playing smart and knowing what they’re doing.”
Williams and Bryant each intercepted a pass in their Sun Devil debut against New Mexico State. To replicate that performance, the secondary contingent has preached one thing: alignment.
“It’s crucial,” defensive backs coach TJ Rushing said. “Our guys know every play starts with the alignment. If you don’t align right, you don’t give yourself a chance. And even when you give yourself a chance, it’s hard.”
Bryant noted that watching last year’s tape, he noticed Texas Tech’s big plays came with Sun Devil defensive backs out of position to begin the play, making it imperative. He, Williams and the rest of the unit is ready to go every play.
Reinforcements may be necessary to the cause and ASU should have a couple come Saturday. Junior DeMonte King and freshman Evan Fields, both safeties, are expected to be available for the first time this season, giving more options to defend the myriad of weapons at Shimonek’s disposal.
With so many new faces, including King and Fields, the Sun Devils don’t have much personal experience to go on against a team like the Red Raiders. But what they do have is defensive coordinator Phil Bennett, who spent the last six season scheming against the Red Raider offense as Baylor’s defensive coordinator.
“You’ve got to trust him because he played them so many times,” Williams said. “It gives us a great look at how he ran a defense versus them last year, but there are different tweaks with us.”