ASU defense experiencing growing pains

Justin Toscano, Staff Writer
ASU Devils

Arizona State senior linebacker DJ Calhoun feels like his team should be sitting at 5-0 during the bye week.

“A lot of plays, we beat ourselves,” he said of the defense on Wednesday. “We just got to fix it. Once we fix it, I feel like there can’t be any stopping us.”

Instead, the Sun Devils are 2-3 and ranked 118th in the country in total defense. They’ve played three standout running backs thus far, and two of them have recorded career games against them (SDSU’s Rashaad Penny, Stanford’s Bryce Love).

Most recently, Love posted a Stanford single-game record 301 rushing yards on ASU. When reflecting on Love’s performance, Calhoun conceded that he was a good back. However, he said Love may have only been touched on one of his many big runs.

He showcased his speed and quickness on the others.

“When he finds that little crease, that’s what he wants,” Calhoun said.

ASU defensive coordinator Phil Bennett said he felt the game boiled down to five big plays.

“Anything you say will be an excuse, and I’m not going to do that,” Bennett said. “We had guys in position to make plays.”

It seems that’s the way the season has gone for ASU. A couple key plays here and there have swung games.

In Week 2, the Sun Devils had San Diego State in in a third-down situation backed up on its own 5-yard line. Then, poof, Penny hit a hole and went 95 yards to the end zone. In the same game, they had the Aztecs at 3rd-and-21. A costly missed assignment then led to Penny catching a pass out of the backfield and taking it for a 33-yard touchdown.

“You’ll see if you really watch film sometimes, that we’ll do good in the first or second quarter,” Calhoun said. “Then we’ll kind of get overwhelmed and somebody will just mess up. One person will have a missed fit or something like that.”

ASU plugged holes on defense with inexperienced players. For example, no one in the secondary had ever started a game before this season. And senior J’Marcus Rhodes, a respected junior college cornerback, is now the starting spur linebacker. He’s played well, but it’s been an adjustment nonetheless.

Inexperience on defense was inevitable for ASU.

“It’s not like anybody sucks on our team, it’s just experience,” Calhoun said. “A lot of people’s first games, so you can’t help that.”

Junior Joey Bryant, a former walk-on who started the season opener at corner, is out for the season after tearing his ACL in practice. Redshirt freshman Chase Lucas, who made his first career start in the win over Oregon, was a high school running back before transitioning to a defensive back at ASU. Kobe Williams, the other starter alongside Lucas, is listed as a sophomore but played at a junior college last season, so this year marks his first taste of Division I football.

Bennett on Wednesday said his goals with the secondary are more long-term. He’s always talked about this season being a “journey” for the defense, and he’s tempered his expectations for the secondary.

That’s not to say he isn’t confident in his defensive backs. He’s just always been realistic about the time it will take to make considerable strides. A

“When you play in the secondary, it’s not just ability,” Bennett said. “It’s awareness, it’s reps. You got to have a total package. There’s a reason they pay those people $40, $50 million in the secondary (in the NFL). You got 4.4 (40-yard dash) guys coming at you.”

ASU’s defense has struggled to find its footing, and losing senior linebacker Koron Crump for the year didn’t help. Crump, perhaps the defense’s most talented player, suffered a knee injury early in the game at Texas Tech. In his absence, ASU started former walk-on Abraham Thompson and converted tight end Jay Jay Wilson to a linebacker.

Crump’s four sacks through two games led the nation. A team probably can’t replace a player like that, but it has no chance but to move on and fill the void as best it can.

Thompson and Wilson have both played Crump’s Devilbacker position. This week at practice, ASU has tried A.J. Latu — a defensive lineman who has played Devilbacker before.

“We got guys who might be just as athletic, who maybe can’t be the same pass rusher, but who can play the position just like he can,” junior linebacker Christian Sam said. “I don’t think it’ll be too much of a drop-off if a drop at all. I don’t think it’s really affected us not having him. I mean, we would love to have him out there, but I don’t think it’s hurt us.”

Part of that may be because Bennett’s defense seems to be player-friendly. Both Calhoun and Sam said they love the new system.

“I just love the way his defense is, it’s like a linebacker’s defense,” Calhoun said. “It’s a linebacker’s dream to play in.”

Added Sam: “You play free. There’s not too much thinking. When you can play free, you can just see ball, get ball.”

ASU has faced a unique schedule this season. The Sun Devils have played two pro-style teams that love to run the ball and three spread offense teams who go up-tempo and use a heavy passing attack.

They’ve have made mistakes in the process — many costly — but they seem to feel like those are natural growing pains that’ll be ironed out with more experience. And even so, some of the veteran players have missed assignments that have led to big plays.

But through it all, no one has pointed fingers or made excuses.

“The accountability factor leads me to believe that we will get better as we progress,” Bennett said.


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