ASU sees Beavers’ Cook as ‘biggest challenge’ of year

TEMPE, Ariz. — Arizona State faces a marquee wide receiver almost every week playing in the Pac-12 Conference — sometimes more than one. This week is no exception.

The ASU defense on Saturday will face its greatest challenge yet from an opposing receiver with national leader Brandin Cooks and Oregon State coming to Sun Devil Stadium.

“Cooks, man, he is really special,” ASU coach Todd Graham said. “In my opinion, he’s the best receiver I’ve seen on film in this conference, and that’s saying a lot when you’ve got guys like Marqise Lee and Jaelen Strong. He has been unbelievably productive.

“I think he’s probably the best overall player we’ve played against.”

Added co-defensive coordinator and safeties coach Chris Ball: “He’s the whole package. He’s a great player, one of the best players in our league.”

There are plenty of reasons backing the coaches’ claims, perhaps 1,344 of them. That is Cooks’ FBS-leading receiving yards this season. The junior also leads the country in receiving yards per game (149.3) and is tied for the lead in receptions per game (10.1). His 14 touchdowns catches are second only to Fresno State’s Davante Adams (15).

It helps that Cooks has the nation’s leading passer, junior Sean Mannion, throwing to him. Mannion leads the country with 393.3 passing yards per game and 3,540 total passing yards. He’s tied for second in the nation in passing touchdowns (31).

But even with a less potent passer slinging balls his direction, Cooks would probably still be thriving

So what is it that makes Cooks such a special receiver?

“His explosiveness,” Graham said. “He’s no question the quickest guy off the ball that we’ve seen. He’s dangerous vertically, he’s dangerous intermediately, he’s dangerous on screens and unders — that’s probably where he’s most dangerous — he returns punts, he does just about everything.”

Ball said Cooks’ toughness also sets him apart from most other top receivers in the Pac-12. Cooks isn’t afraid of contact, Ball said, and goes all out from start to finish. Ball also stressed that ASU can’t focus all its attention on Cooks but must be aware of where he is on every down.

ASU’s defense, which includes the No. 1 pass defense in the Pac-12, welcomes the challenge of trying to limit Cooks.

“We’ve been watching the film, and he’s a very dynamic playmaker for them,” senior cornerback Osahon Irabor said. “We’ve got the No. 1 pass defense in the conference right now so we’re looking to keep that and show why we have the No. 1 pass defense.”

Perhaps part of the secondary’s eagerness to face Cooks comes from success in past challenges. The Sun Devils haven’t been burned much by opponents’ top receivers this season.

With assistance from ASU sports information and stats guru Jeremy Hawkes, here’s a look at how the defense has fared against opponents’ top receivers (plus Lee, who has missed time due to an injury):

Clearly, only Jones put up big numbers. In that game, an ASU loss, the secondary broke down handful of times.

However, ASU isn’t leaning on past success as it prepares for Cooks. Just because the Sun Devils succeeded in limiting other top receivers does not mean they have the answer for Cooks.

“It’s week to week,” Ball said. “We don’t like to look back on what we did. We want to accept the challenge ahead of us. This is the biggest challenge we’ve had all year.”

Still, having stopped some of the Pac-12’s best receivers gives the ASU secondary confidence it is up to the challenge.

“You can definitely draw from those games and see how we stopped those guys from having huge games against us,” Irabor said. “We’ve got a lot of confidence we can do that again. It’s just all about executing our game plan.”

ASU likely will have Cooks in bracket coverage, as it did with Lee and Richardson. Cooks has finished with more than 100 receiving yards in six of the Beavers’ nine games and topped 200 twice.

The ASU secondary has played its best football all season over the past few games. After allowing just 121 passing yards against Utah last week, it moved into the No. 1 spot for pass defense in the Pac-12 with 206.4 passing yards allowed per game.

The unit is starting to show signs of the dominance it displayed last season, when it finished as the nation’s third best passing defense. ASU had to replace two starters in the backfield, and Robert Nelson and Damarious Randall are now starting to fill those roles capably.

“We’ve gotten better each week, which we knew would have to be the case because we knew we had to replace a couple guys,” Ball said. “I think they’re playing extremely hard. I’m really proud of where we’re at right now, but it’s a new week and we’ve got a hell of a challenge.”