Kareem Orr missed just one game last season, but the injuries that hampered him in almost all of the other 11 contests robbed him of the breakout sophomore year he’d hoped to have.
Still, Orr — Arizona State’s top cornerback — continued to take on the challenge of covering the opposing team’s top receiver. Week after week, he would face one of the Pac-12’s best.
“You try not to think about it, but you know it’s just bothering you in the back of your head,” said Orr of playing through injuries. “You just got to stick to your assignment, do what you got to do on the field just to hold it down.”
There were times when Orr succeeded. In a Sept. 24 win over Cal, he held Chad Hansen — the Golden Bears’ leading receiver — to just two catches for six yards in the second half. Hansen had a big first half, so Orr shutting him down after that played a large role in the victory.
Then there were struggles. The week after Cal, undefeated ASU traveled to play USC. Standout Trojans wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster caught seven passes for 123 yards and three touchdowns with Orr as his primary defender in a 41-20 USC win.
Covering Smith-Schuster is a large task for any corner in the nation. But containing him while hampered by injuries seemed practically futile.
“You got to tip your hat to a guy that’s going out there that isn’t 100 percent healthy, who’s going out there and kind of just balling out for the team,” said ASU receiver Ryan Newsome. “You respect a guy like that because he’s out there hurting.”
Orr’s situation is somewhat synonymous with the entire defensive backs group. ASU’s 2016 secondary was close to becoming statistically the worst in FBS history.
Just as the unit is looking for a fresh start this season, so is Orr. There is often change that comes with a clean slate, and ASU checks that box too.
Orr, a rising junior, said new defensive coordinator Phil Bennett is bringing in a different scheme that should help minimize big plays, which were fatal for a struggling Sun Devil defense last year.
“It’s more zone, less help over the top,” Orr described. “It was always zero coverage, but all that’s changing now.”
Not that Orr minds playing in a man-to-man system.
“He’s not super tall, but his arms are pretty long, so he can put his hands on you,” Newsome said. “I feel like his best technique is man. He’s not the fastest guy, so he has to allow his technique to do it for him, and he does a great job.”
Orr said he is busy learning new techniques for the new scheme, but he has another big role. He is also the secondary’s leader.
Newsome may be on the other side of the ball, but has seen Orr display continued leadership. Orr insists he’s not a vocal leader, but Newsome has seen him take charge on the field.
“It’s like he always knows what to do,” Newsome said. “We got a couple new faces on the defense, so he’s always pointing and telling the younger guys where to go, where to line up, what coverage to be in.”
Orr said seniors Chad Adams and J’Marcus Rhodes, and redshirt freshman Chase Lucas have stood out during spring practice. However, there should be a better gauge of the group during fall camp when new faces like four-star corner Alex Perry, and fellow defensive backs Evan Fields and K.J. Jarrell arrive.
As the secondary looks to improve during spring practice, Orr looks to keep healing a bone calcification in his thigh. It is the last step to being fully healthy for the fall.
In a matter of months, fall camp will arrive and the secondary will be trying to make last year a distant memory.
“We look back on it and we didn’t make the plays that we should have made, so we want to get better and move from there and show the world that we can do what we need to do,” Orr said. “I think the scheme and stuff will help us a lot.”