- Kevin Gemmell, ESPN Staff Writer
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Think of Arizona State’s defense as Joe Pesci’s character from “Casino,” Nicky Santoro, and then it will start to make sense.
You come at them with I-backs, they come back with a blitz. You come at them with a spread, they come back with a different blitz. You call a time out, they’ll still try to blitz you when you’re sucking down water. They’ll keep coming and coming.
No team in Power 5 football blitzed more last season than the Sun Devils and their “hybrid attacking defense.” That side of the ball is head coach Todd Graham’s baby. He designed it. He calls the plays. He presses the action and when it doesn’t work. He makes no apologies for his Texas swagger.
“Can you imagine how hard it is to defend the offenses in the Pac-12 each week?” Graham said. “Forget that. We’re going to make them defend us. That’s the philosophy.”
In the age of spread offenses where playmakers grab open space like the Oklahoma Land Rush, Graham wants to make quarterbacks very uncomfortable before those playmakers are even set. And not just on third down or traditional blitzing scenarios. They'll come regardless of down and distance.
Arizona quarterbacks coach and co-offensive coordinator Rod Smith has seen it in action.
“You have to give [Graham] all the credit in the world because they have back-to-back 10 win seasons, so they are doing something right,” Smith said. “They blitz you. They pressure you. They are actually a lot like us mentality-wise on offense. You want to put pressure on the defense. They are trying to flip it and put pressure on the offense to make you make mistakes and misdiagnose things and create havoc and conflict.”
And create havoc they have. Last season ASU blitzed 294 times. As a result, they generated 32 sacks -- most in Power 5 football when blitzing. They also had seven interceptions (third in P-5) and allowed 4.5 yards per play when blitzing (T14th in P-5).
“It’s not easy to pressure that much,” Graham said. “It’s not easy to attack that much. But what are the end results? It speaks for itself. You just have to minimize the risk. And if you have guys [who] are disciplined, you can do that. We have vertical lineman. We recruit that way. We train them that way, and it’s what we believe in.”
One of the benefactors of ASU’s aggressive approach is safety Jordan Simone, who notched 100 tackles last season -- including 4.5 for a loss, a sack and a pair of interceptions. He also forced a pair of fumbles and recovered another -- helping the Sun Devils to a plus-14 turnover ratio, which was second only to Oregon.
“I think it’s effective no matter what sort of team we play,” Simone said. “When we’re hitting our blitzes and we’re rolling, I think it’s really hard to get any sort of rhythm on offense. Whether you speed it up or slow it down, we’re still going to be brining pressure. It doesn’t matter. We’re not going to react. We’re going to make people react to us. What are you going to do to stop it?”
That’s a question Texas A&M is probably pondering right now. The Sun Devils open the 2015 season on Saturday against the Aggies in Houston. The Aggies are coming off their worst offensive season since joining the SEC -- and a lot of that probably has to do with the loss of Johnny Manziel. After posting 44.5 and 44.2 points per game in 2012 and 2013, respectively, the average dropped to 35.2 last year with almost 100 fewer yards per game.
But for Graham and Co., the opponent is less important than the process. And it’s the process that (usually) keeps the Sun Devils from getting burned when they press their aggressive nature.
“That’s our mentality,” Graham said. “We have smart guys, and it takes great discipline to be a team that attacks like that because you have to minimize risks. How we communicate and how we execute, that takes a lot intelligence. If you are just reckless it’s not going to work. You have to be so much more disciplined to operate faster and more efficiently. Character, smart, discipline and tough. That’s what we’re about.
“Our plan to be successful is to do what no one else in the country does. That’s what separates us from everyone else."