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Friday, April 4, 2014
ASU undergoing spring defense rebuild

By Ted Miller


TEMPE, Ariz. -- The Arizona State offense is cruising along, owning the line of scrimmage and making plays. Taylor Kelly and company are efficient and dominant, even with a couple of negative outcomes here and there. Hard-to-satisify Sun Devils coach Todd Graham says later, "Our offense should score every time it has the ball."

But who are these guys getting gashed? This isn't the Arizona State defense, is it? Where's Will Sutton? Where's Carl Bradford? Where's Alden Darby and Chris Young?

Here's a guess that unless you're a regular on Sun Devils football message boards, you can't name a single guy who will be starting on defense for Arizona State next year.

Not only did Arizona State lose nine starters, it lost all of its defensive stars. Six of those guys were first-team or second-team All-Pac-12.  Two others were honorable mention.

"Every year you've got to hit the restart button," defensive coordinator Keith Patterson said. "Some years more than others."

That's for sure. Not only are just about all the players new -- several top backups also finished their eligibility -- so is Patterson, who was hired away from West Virginia to coach with Graham, his college roommate.

Yet things aren't dire. Only uncertain. Of course, the Sun Devils probably will play some barn burners next fall, particularly with 10 starting quarterbacks returning in the Pac-12. The measure of whether they can repeat as South Division champions, however, probably will come down to how quickly folks stop calling the defense inexperienced and start calling it surprisingly good.

The two returning starters are linebacker Salamo Fiso and safety Damarious Randall. Nose guard Jaxon Hood and DB/LB Laiu Moeakiola, part-time starters in 2013, also are back. You can pencil in Lloyd Carrington at one corner. Marcus Hardison will take on a spot on the defensive line. After that, things are pretty fluid and figure to remain that way until a bevy of first-year players arrive in the fall, including several juco transfers who are expected to immediately be in the starting mix, such as linebacker Darrius Caldwell.

Will Sutton
All-conference DT Will Sutton is one of nine starters the Sun Devils must replace on defense.
That, in fact, is one of the challenges this spring. While the focus is on the present, there is some forward thinking in terms of what an eventual pecking order and rotation might be.

"No doubt. We spend an enormous amount of time talking about personnel, people who aren't even here," Patterson said. "But the focus right now, in the middle of spring ball, is more to the people on campus."

It's clear the coaches are excited about several young players. Safeties James Johnson and Marcus Ball, both redshirt freshmen, have been impressive. True freshman linebacker D.J. Calhoun, an early enrollee, seems certain to earn playing time, if not a starting role.

Still, there are a lot of questions, particularly with the front seven. It's pretty clear that the production of individual players won't match the past two seasons.

"We are not going to replace Carl Bradford and his production," Patterson said. "I don't think we'll have that type of individual player. We're not going to replace those guys. We'll play more as a unit, play more team defense."

Last season, the Sun Devils ranked 18th in the nation and second in the Pac-12 with 7.21 tackles for a loss per game. They ranked 18th in the nation and third in the Pac-12 with 2.86 sacks per game. They were sixth in the nation and first in the conference with 1.5 interceptions per game.

Graham's defense, which Patterson will run, is predicated on negative plays. It doesn't matter if no one on the 2014 defense picks up 19 tackles for a loss, as Bradford did, or grabs six interceptions, as Robert Nelson did, but it does matter if the Sun Devils are close to their 2013 team averages next fall.

Even though the Sun Devils will be young, they will continue to use an aggressive scheme. Said Patterson, "That's the core of who we are. We're not going to change that."

That also means taking chances. Another issue beyond piling up negative plays will be how often aggression ends up yielding an explosion play by the opposing offense.

The good news is Arizona State's defense might not face a better offense than the one it scrimmages against in practice. If the defense starts forcing a few three-and-outs against Kelly & Co., then it would be perfectly reasonable to imagine the Sun Devils again making a run in the South Division.