No position group made ASU coach Todd Graham more nervous last season than the defensive secondary. After losing a few players early in fall camp, he worried much of the year about the other shoe dropping on the razor-thin unit.
But to ASU’s great benefit, the group remained mostly healthy and wound up leading the Pac-12 in pass defense, with just 167.9 yards allowed per game. While depth was a constant concern, the group proved one of ASU’s greatest strengths.
With the graduations of safeties Keelan Johnson and Kevin Ayers and cornerback Deveron Carr, new concerns about the secondary were carried into spring practice. Here’s a look at how things played out in the defensive backfield this spring and what questions must still be answered.
Rashad Wadood, cornerback
Wadood was one of the victims of the injury bug that bit ASU’s secondary early last season. A shoulder injury kept him out the whole year. He was still a little limited at the start of spring practice but was going at full speed in short order.
“I was a little out of shape, or maybe just a little tired,” Wadood said. “I had to get back in football shape, had to get my confidence back. I caught on after the second day, and I’ve just been doing my thing, doing my best since.”
Wadood was excellent in the spring game, making a pair of impressive pass breakups, and coaches praised him as perhaps the most improved defensive player over the course of the spring. While his name wasn’t atop the depth chart ASU released before the spring game, he’s still very much in the mix for the starting field cornerback spot come fall.
“Wadood has had an outstanding spring,” Graham said. “We’re much better at the cornerback position, much deeper.”
The competition at the position displays that depth, with senior Robert Nelson still the projected starter and Wadood, Lloyd Carrington — who sat out last year after transferring from Pittsburgh — and Marlon Pollard also competing for the job.
“It’s a battle,” Wadood said. “It’s great, friendly competition because we all make each other better. We all feed off each other.”
The battle gets even deeper in the fall when Damarious Randall and Solomon Means enter the mix. Wadood’s size — he’s listed at 5-foot-11 — could work against him, but his technique could make up for it. Either way, Wadood should be a significant contributor in the secondary this season, and he’s happy to be in the thick of things again no matter where he winds up on the depth chart.
“It feels good to be back in the mix of everything after being out for so long,” Wadood said. “I’m just doing my best, trying to help the team any way I can and work back into the rotation.”
POST-SPRING DEPTH CHART
Boundary cornerback: Osahon Irabor, Rashad Wadood OR Marlon Pollard Boundary safety: Alden Darby, Shane McCullen OR Laiu Moeakiola Field safety; Laiu Moeakiola, Ezekiel Bishop, Luke Williams Field cornerback: Robert Nelson, Rashad Wadood OR Lloyd Carrington
HELP ON THE WAY
ASU’s 2013 recruiting class included six defensive backs: safeties Marcus Ball, James Johnson and Jayme Otomewo, cornerback William Earley and tweeners Randall and Means, both of whom could wind up at either position. Ball and Johnson could be in competition for a starting spot during fall camp, as could Randall, whose nose for the ball makes him the kind of playmaker Graham wants on the field. No matter where these guys land on the depth chart, though, ASU should be much deeper in the secondary than it was last season.
Of the three defensive starters from 2012 lost to graduation, two were in the secondary, making it a hot spot for position battles in spring practice. The field cornerback and field safety spots remain up for grabs heading into the summer, though the safety job is more pressing.
“We’ve got to find a free safety,” Graham said. “We’ve had a lot of guys repping. I thought Bishop and Laiu both had good springs, so we’ll see where that ends up, but we’ve got to find a free safety.”
That’s about the extent of the competition for the safety spot until Randall, Ball and Johnson enter the fray in fall camp. As things stand now, it appears Moeakiola, a redshirt freshman who played in two games last season before missing the rest of the year with a hamstring injury, may have a slight edge.
“He’s put a lot of weight on,” co-defensive coordinator and safeties coach Chris Ball said. “He’s adjusting to it and he’s still maturing, but he’s really smart and he’s got a great feel for the game. He’s had a really good spring.”
The cornerback battle also remains unsettled, though more options exist at the position now, and even more will arrive in the fall. The boundary cornerback spot looks like it will be a strength of ASU’s defense, as senior Osahon Irabor had a quietly outstanding 2012 seasons and took another step this spring.
“He’s really getting better,” Graham said. “He’s really applied himself technically. He’s our best corner. He was out best corner last year.”
Irabor, along with senior boundary safety Alden Darby, did enough to wear ASU’s No. 42 Pat Tillman practice jersey on the final day of spring practice, an indication he stepped up to answer a challenge Graham issued early in the spring.
“It’s like, ‘Yeah, you can cover that guy (in practice), but that ain’t (USC receiver) Marqise Lee,” Graham said. “In this league, you’re going to play against the best receivers in the country, so your technique’s got to be refined every day. You’re getting better or you’re getting worse. So I think he’s taken on that challenge.”
Darby, too, appears poised to take another big step in his final season, so the ASU secondary ought be pretty effective again in 2013, though much will depend on how the new starters perform. Either way, with the secondary depth that will be in place from the beginning, ASU is in better position than it was a year ago.
Chris Ball on how the safeties developed through spring practice: “I think we’ve built depth. I think going in, after the freshmen show up in the fall, we’ll be better depth-wise than we were last year. And I think we’ve developed some great competition with Laiu Moeakiola, Ezekiel Bishop and Shane McCullen. All three of them have had a good spring, and they’ve gotten better, which helps us.”