TEMPE, Ariz. — In the locker room at Cowboys Stadium last Saturday, as Arizona State prepared to take the field against Notre Dame, coach Todd Graham remained unsure of his decision to give safety Damarious Randall his first career start.
“Honestly, I didn’t think he was ready,” Graham said. “I was sick to my stomach worrying about it.”
Graham asked safeties coach Chris Ball repeatedly if he was sure Randall was ready and nearly talked Ball out of starting Randall. Both coaches are glad they stuck with him.
“He didn’t just play average,” Graham said. “That’s as good as I’ve ever had a free safety play for me in his first game.”
Though the Sun Devils dropped the game to Notre Dame 37-34, Randall was a bright spot, even on a bad day for the defense. The junior college transfer finished with 17 tackles, including 1 1/2 for loss, and a pass break up. He nearly had his first interception.
Not bad for a player the head coach didn’t think was ready.
The doubt about Randall stemmed from a lack of evidence. Randall missed almost all of ASU’s fall camp with a groin injury and had to catch up both physically and mentally once he was healthy.
“He hasn’t scrimmaged,” Graham said. “He didn’t go through any of our camp. I haven’t really seen him do a lot full speed, and when he has been in there he’s kind of felt his way around.”
Randall saw a little action against Wisconsin and Stanford but didn’t look sharp. A turning point arrived when he didn’t play against USC.
“He was a little bit down because he thought he was ready to play, and I didn’t think he was quite ready,” Ball said. “So we sat down and talked about it and I said ‘This week you’re going to get a lot of reps.'”
Ball said Randall took the majority of reps in the following Wednesday’s practice and showed enough to gain his confidence. Graham’s uncertainty nearly made Ball back down, but he stuck with his instincts.
“I thought mentally he was ready,” Ball said. “He had proven to me that he knew the stuff and was mentally ready to do it. The only hesitation I had was if he was going to be able to tackle or not.”
The 17 tackles pretty well answered that. But Randall also excelled in man-to-man coverage, which Graham says freed up other players to pressure the quarterback.
Randall said he never doubted he was the ready for the opportunity to start.
“I felt like I was as ready as I was ever going to get,” Randall said. “Honestly it was just a matter of me getting back to 100 percent healthy, and it was a matter of me actually getting on the field and playing.”
The competition to replace Keelan Johnson at free safety went unresolved in spring practice and remained wide open entering fall camp. Freshman Marcus Ball appeared to have won the job while Randall was sidelined, but Ball hurt his shoulder in a scrimmage and still hasn’t played.
Redshirt freshman Laiu Moeakiola started the first four games, but the position lacked the field leadership coaches wanted at a spot they often refer to as the quarterback of the defense. Randall just might be the answer.
“He’s a long way from arriving, but I do have great confidence that that position is really going to be elevated as we move forward,” Graham said.
Randall knows there is still much he can improve.
Graham said Randall was “a little flustered at times” last week, which presumably referred to the back and forth Randall had with some Notre Dame players.
“Usually I don’t respond very good to that,” Graham said. “We don’t do that. We don’t have time for that. Our leaders said (to Randall) ‘Hey, we don’t do that.’ So they coached him.”
Ball says Randall must keep improving week to week in his technique, alignment, tackling and man-to-man coverage. But Ball, Graham and Randall all went to the same thing as their first priority: His dropped interception in the second quarter.
Asked about the play, Randall shakes his head, just as much in disbelief as embarrassment.
“I’ve been thinking about that interception since I dropped it,” Randall said. “I just knew when I dropped it … it was definitely going to be a pick-six. That would have definitely changed the game and we probably would have ended up winning, because that would have put us going into halftime up 20-7. That was a very key moment in the game.”
Instead, Notre Dame ended up scoring to take a 14-13 halftime lead. Randall says it was the first interception he has dropped in his career. He had nine interceptions at Mesa Community College last season.
Randall is hungry for his first interception at ASU and though he doesn’t want to call it, he plans on getting one this week against Colorado.
Either way, Randall appears poised for many opportunities at it going forward.
“What I found out is when you turn the lights on, that kid’s going to play,” Graham said. “That’s a good sign, because you should be better on game day than you are in practice. He was a lot better on game day.”