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ASU Football Position Group Preview: Safeties

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Fields and Pierce lead the way

NCAA Football: Arizona State at Arizona Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Across the board, Arizona State will feature veterans throughout its position groups during this upcoming 2021 season. The safeties are no exception, as projected starters DeAndre Pierce and Evan Fields have a combined nine years of college playing experience.

Both players chose to stay in college over testing the professional football market in the offseason, and were allowed to do so by the extra year of eligibility rules due to COVID-19.

Of the pair, Fields has been in Tempe the longest. His first start as a Sun Devil came during his freshman year in 2017. Pierce transferred in ahead of the 2020 season after a successful start to his career at Boise State was slowed by injury trouble in his junior and senior seasons.

The duo of Pierce and Fields are backed by a cabinet of depth pieces that have all been collected by head coach Herm Edwards’ coaching staff. But if health can uphold, which it did last season for Pierce, those depth pieces may have to wait until 2022 to make noise.

A Great First Impression and Continued Excellence

On the field, the pair have shown they are more than capable of performing at a high level. Before he only managed nine games in his last two seasons and Boise State, Pierce was an All-Mountain West Honorable Mention in 2017.

Pierce, the son of defensive coordinator Antonio Pierce, appeared in all four games the Sun Devils played in 2020, making a tremendous first impression with his play. His number of total tackles last season (24) eclipsed his total in his last two seasons at Boise State in the same amount or less games played.

Against Oregon State, Pierce secured his first interception since 2017 on the Beavers first drive of the second half. That same night in Corvallis, Fields punched out one of his three forced fumbles during his 2020 campaign.

Since Edwards took the mantle as head coach in 2018, the secondary play has been excellent. Of course, that was expected to be a point of focus from a coach who was also a nine-year starting defensive back with the Philadelphia Eagles during his time in the NFL. But the numbers support the notion that Edwards, his coaching staff, and his safeties have all elevated their performance.

In the last three seasons under Edwards, the secondary has allowed just 16 passing plays over 40 yards. Teams can dink and dunk as much as they want against the Sun Devils, but rarely will the safeties be caught out of position or getting beat over the top.

Last season, with Pierce and Fields manning the last line of defense, the secondary allowed just one pass play of over 40 yards (1-158), that was fourth-best among Power 5 teams.

Leadership Through Troubled Waters

As two of the elder statesmen on this Sun Devil team, the voices of Fields and Pierce will resonate with their younger, impressionable counterparts in the safeties room.

Considering the uncertainty involving the Arizona State coaching staff due to an ongoing investigation into recruiting violations, an increase in presence and leadership from Fields and Pierce will be essential for the group’s success as a whole

Defensive backs coach Chris Hawkins was recently placed under administrative leave ahead of his second season with the team, and his return is unknown. Donnie Henderson is now the interim defensive backs coach, his second stint in Tempe after he previously coached the defensive backs from 1992-1997.

The Next Generation

It is the nature of college football, the best players leave, transfer, or graduate out just as supporters begin to associate their jersey and name with the position they occupy.

Circumstances over the past two years have dictated the familiarity of Fields and Pierce will continue through this season, but barring another unprecedented society-shaking occurrence, this will be their last college football season.

That means come 2022, two new faces will occupy their spots. A whole crop of current understudies will have their chance this fall to audition for two roles.

Junior Kejuan Markham and redshirt sophomore Cam Phillips appear next in line in the safeties room. Both have playing experience as Sun Devils, with Phillips making a name for himself in Arizona State’s primetime upset win over Oregon in 2019 by recording 10 tackles.

If injury to Pierce or Fields ushers in any of those new candidates prematurely, the coaching staff can rest easy, knowing the newcomer or newcomers have developed their abilities by emulating and learning from two of the best safeties in the country.

Read more positional groups previews:

Wide Receivers

Tight Ends

Linebackers

Cornerbacks