TEMPE, Ariz. — Ahead of Saturday’s scrimmage at Sun Devil Stadium, Arizona State coach Todd Graham was "very concerned." He didn’t know if his defense, in rebuilding mode after losing nine starters from last season, could stop an offense loaded with returning players.
To Graham’s surprise, the defense did more than hold its own Saturday, the rough midway point of spring practice.
"They had something to prove today, and the defense dominated the day," Graham said. "How about that?"
The defense largely stifled ASU’s vaunted offense — which was led at different times by starting quarterback Taylor Kelly and backup Mike Bercovici — collecting 12 tackles for loss, three interceptions and a fumble. The offense only found the end zone three times in the roughly two-hour scrimmage.
Among the defense’s highlights were interceptions by safety Damarious Randall, defensive lineman Marcus Hardison and linebacker Marcus Washington. Hardison’s pick came on a Taylor Kelly pass, which Hardison tipped straight into the air and watched into his hands. Washington, in his second week on defense after moving from running back, intercepted Bercovici, who finished 9 of 20 passing for 67 yards and a touchdown.
"Our guys came out here to compete," Graham said. "It goes to show you this game is meant to be played with great emotion. It doesn’t matter what happened last year, doesn’t matter what somebody says or reports or who picks you or any of that stuff. You’ve got to come and bring it every day."
New defensive coordinator Keith Patterson, who will initiate play calls on defense this season, said he wasn’t surprised by the defense’s performance. He also echoed Graham’s sentiment that the defense is ready to forget about what players it lost from last season and focus on what it has now.
"It’s a mental game, and it’s about playing as a unit," Patterson said. "I think that’s been the emphasis the first two weeks that, sure, we’ve lost a lot of great players, but our kids get tired of hearing that. That was last year. We’ve got to focus on what we’re doing next year, so we’ve got to start talking about the group of young men we’ve got now. And sometimes it’s good to play with a chip on your shoulder."
Patterson, not having seen film of the scrimmage yet, hesitated to say too much about which players stood out to him Saturday but did say he thought the defense was explosive blitzing off the edges and creating negative-yardage plays.
Graham said he focused Saturday on showing Patterson, who was also Graham’s defensive coordinator at Tulsa and Pittsburgh, how ASU runs its defense so that Patterson can begin calling plays next Saturday.
As pleased as Graham and Patterson were with the defense’s performance, they aren’t getting ahead of themselves. There will be plenty of changes and more work to do come fall.
"We’ve got a lot of work to do to be where we need to be, but I like how they went out," Graham said.
As one of two returning starters on defense, Randall knows now is his time to take on a leadership role. It’s also an opportunity to take his performance to the next level, setting an example for how to compete.
In fact, Randall was the only player Patterson did mention by name as someone who stood out Saturday. Along with his interception, Randall seemed to be involved on just about every other tackle.
Everybody just did their job on every single play. We just forced the offense into some bad situations, and we created a lot of turnovers.
ASU safety Damarious Randall
"Everybody just did their job on every single play," Randall said. "We just forced the offense into some bad situations, and we created a lot of turnovers."
Randall said he and linebacker Salamo Fiso, the other returning starter, have tried to be more vocal this spring to keep the defense fired up. Learning the defensive scheme, though, will be the unit’s biggest step in rebuilding.
"People say we’ve got a young defense, but our defense is kind of complex and aggressive, so if everybody just learns their job, the defense is going to be real good again," Randall said.
Said Patterson of Randall and Fiso: "We’ve challenged those guys. If you played a year ago, you’ve got to step up as a leader and you’ve got to show these younger guys and these inexperienced guys the way."
The offensive line has been a bright spot this spring, as it is perhaps deeper than it has been at any point since Graham took over, which has created good competition for starting jobs.
"The offensive line has been the thing that’s gotten me most excited this spring," Graham said. "I feel like we’ve got eight guys or more that can play. I think they’ve got a mean disposition about them — we’re bigger, we’re more physical."
Saturday’s scrimmage saw a little shuffling on the offensive line as ASU determines its best five linemen. Jamil Douglas, who started at left guard last season, saw his first looks of the spring at left tackle, where the Sun Devils are seeking a replacement for Evan Finkenberg. Evan Goodman has gotten the majority of opportunities there, and if he wins the job, Douglas will stay inside.
With Douglas outside, Chrisitan Westerman took first-team snaps at left guard. Westerman, who sat out last year after transferring from Auburn, is likely to crack the starting lineup, but where remains unclear. He was worked at both guard spots and right tackle.
— Running back D.J. Foster didn’t participate other than a couple early series. Graham said ASU is being proactive in keeping him healthy.
— Tight end De’Marieya Nelson went down on the second play of the scrimmage and didn’t return. He walked off the field afterword with a brace on his left leg, but it didn’t sound like a serious injury. "He just got rolled up on," Graham said. They said they thought he had a little sprain."
— Viliami Latu, who’s battling for starting job at Devil linebacker, was held out for precautionary reasons after sustaining a big hit earlier in the week.
— Placekicker Zane Gonzalez hit three field goals of longer than 40 yards Saturday, including one from 49 yards, and went 7 for 10 overall. "I thought he made some good kicks today, (but) he missed three field goals," Graham said. "You can’t do that. It doesn’t matter if you were the best field-goal kicker in the country last year. It matters what you do this year."
— Personnel notes: Randall and running backs Kyle Middlebrooks and Deantre Lewis handled kick and punt returns. … Sophomore Matt Haack handled all the punting and earned praise from Graham afterward. … Redshirt freshman tight end Grant Martinez stepped in for Nelson with the first team and made seven catches for 83 yards. … D.J. Calhoun got the initial first-team snaps with the defense at will linebacker, but Antonio Longino spent time there with the first team as well.