As if once wasn’t bad enough, Arizona State’s defensive backs have had to hear a humiliating term used to describe them for another year.
They understand the label that comes with being the worst-ranked pass defense in the country in back-to-back seasons, even if injuries played a part in both years. But they’re tired of it. It didn’t feel good then and it doesn’t now.
They are determined to shed the “laughing stock” title, an embarrassing reminder of their performance over the past two seasons that has stuck with them.
“It hurt, but people don’t see what’s going on in the inside, how you feel on the inside, or what’s going on with your body,” said Orr, a rising junior. “You just got to keep moving forward. We’re not trying to be the laughing stock no more. We got something to prove.”
Said redshirt senior defensive back Marcus Ball: “It’s a feeling that we never want to feel again and a space that we never want to go back to.”
In 2015, ASU gave up 362.2 passing yards per game before allowing 356.4 this past season. The second year provided a minor improvement, but he Sun Devils still had two of the worst pass defenses in FBS history in consecutive seasons.
ASU’s secondary has already dubbed itself the “Darkside,” a title invented by cornerback Kareem Orr last spring and implemented last fall. Now, it’s taking on another in the “Desert Dogs,” one of many ways new defensive coordinator Phil Bennett has jolted the group during his short time in Tempe thus far.
The group is hoping to blend both attitudes and produce a result that erases the memory of the past two seasons.
“We’re dogs and we’re coming to bring something, we’re going to bring it to you every time,” Orr said. “As a defensive group, we’re still dark side. You’re coming to the darkness and you ain’t really coming out, there ain’t no light over here.”
When envisioning the strides that ASU’s secondary could make in the upcoming season, Bennett drew parallels to the 2016 Baylor defense he ran in his final year with the program. The Bears lost Xavien Howard, an All-Big 12 cornerback who left school early to enter the NFL Draft. Despite losing Howard, Baylor ranked No. 1 in pass efficiency last season.
“You don’t have to tweak much and you can fix a lot of things,” Bennett said.
Bennett said that Baylor defense pressured as much as usual and didn’t give up many big plays. ASU has tiptoed that fine line during head coach Todd Graham’s tenure. Graham’s affinity for pressure has sometimes forced turnovers, but other times has led to big plays by the opposing offense.
Disguising zero coverage is one schematic element Bennett is bringing to try and reduce big plays. Instead of playing man-to-man and having the corners press, he wants to throw some zone coverage in to fool the quarterback. He said there are many ways to play zero coverage.
“You can see and observe the whole field and see what’s going on,” Orr said. “It’s better than just being in man all the time. We’re giving multiple looks.”
Bennett said he has been pleasantly surprised by senior safety Chad Adams. He also lauded Orr’s toughness because Orr did not miss a practice while dealing with a bone calcification in his thigh, the one lingering injury from last season.
While laboring through practice, Orr noticed redshirt freshman Chase Lucas’ performance. Lucas played running back at Chandler High School and is still adapting to defensive back, but received first-team reps throughout spring practice.
“I see a guy that has a tremendous future,” Bennett said. “I’ve coached some great ones, but I told him, ‘We just got to keep working on you mentally, get you mentally stronger.’ There’s some things he’s not adapting to, but it’ll come with experience.”
Lucas is among those who received the first crack at making an impression. ASU’s secondary competition will look much different in the fall with new additions like freshman 4-star Alex Perry, and freshmen 3-stars K.J. Jarrell and Evan Fields.
“I told them, ‘You better take advantage of your reps now because we do have an influx of guys coming in the fall and we’ll have to evaluate those guys,’” Rushing said.
The secondary handled itself this spring just as it did the last. There are many corrections to be made, but no one talked about last season because there’s no good in doing so. It’s the start of a new year, a time to write a fresh story that will aid the unit in ridding itself of the dreaded label that has been associated with them for far too long.