Sun Devils attack way to defensive prominence

BY foxsports • September 25, 2012

TEMPE, Ariz. --
Any time a new coaching staff installs a new defensive scheme -- let alone a complicated, hybrid one -- there is an adjustment period.

But if early returns at Arizona State are any indication, the Sun Devils' defenders have adapted quickly to coach Todd Graham's attacking philosophy.

"This group of guys, they've really taken to it like ducks to water," co-defensive coordinator Paul Randolph said. "They're explosive, they're athletic, they're smart, (and) they're soaking up everything like a sponge. Each week they're just eating up the knowledge we're trying to bestow upon them.

"Add that to the talent we have and we're really moving forward. It's really exciting to know that with each week we're going to get a little better with our system."

There are plenty of numbers to back up Randolph's words. The unit ranks 10th in the nation for total defense, allowing just 274.0 yards per game. It ranks 14th in scoring defense, holding opponents to less than 13 points per game.

The numbers expected of an aggressive, attacking defense are there, too. Through four games, ASU (3-1) is tied with Tulsa for the Division I lead in tackles for loss (39) -- nearly 10 per game. All told, 19.5 percent of the opponents' plays from scrimmage have gone for a loss or no gain.

"We've had a really good mix between attacking, pressuring and those things and playing base also," Randolph said. "Our guys no doubt like the attacking and pressure. They understand that, in our eyes and their eyes, they're suited for it. So, naturally, if you want guys more aggressive, you send them. That's what we're doing."

That pressure has so far led to 14 sacks, tied for second in the Pac-12. The Sun Devils are also tied for most interceptions (eight) in the conference -- and second most in the nation. Their 10 takeaways are tied for ninth nationally.

In other words, the defense is working just as it's supposed to.

"We bring it," said junior safety Alden Darby, whose two interceptions are tied for the team lead with linebackers Brandon Magee and Carlos Mendoza, who has been lost for the season with a shoulder injury. "It's exactly what I expected in the preseason. There's a lot more coming, too. Even though teams know we're going to blitz, we're not going to stop doing what we're doing for anybody. We're going to continue to attack.

"Guys love to blitz. Coach calls a blitz, and we're going like our hair's on fire."

While the confidence is high, there's one note of caution to be factored in: The Sun Devils have yet to face an elite offense.

A matchup with Illinois in Week 2 might have provided a formidable challenge, but Illini starting quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase missed the game with an ankle injury. Next up was Missouri, led by dual-threat quarterback James Franklin and a group of tall receivers. But Franklin missed the game with a shoulder injury. And in ASU's latest game, Utah had turned its offense over to backup quarterback Jon Hays after starter Jordan Wynn was forced to end his career due to shoulder injuries.

All told, the Sun Devil defense has faced a true starting quarterback, Northern Arizona's Cary Grossart, for just 15 snaps. (Grossart was injured early in the season opener.) Randolph recognizes the defense's toughest challenges lie ahead, starting this week against California on the road.

"That's going to come, it's going to get tougher," Randolph said. "Each week is going to present another challenge. We just want our guys to continue to work to answer that challenge."

The players understand that the toughest challenges are yet to be faced -- those will likely come Oct. 18 against Oregon and Nov. 10 against USC. But they're eager to be tested.

Darby recalled a conversation this week with starting safety Keelan Johnson: "I said 'Man, Keelan, I'm waiting for a quarterback to try to throw a post deep on me or something.' I want that to happen so I can just go up and get it. Keelan was like 'Me, too.' So we're ready for it."

A step up in competition is likely this week. California senior quarterback Zach Maynard is averaging 235.2 yards per game, more than any opponent to date. But the Bears also can move the ball on the ground.

"This is by far, in my opinion, the most talented offense we've played, and very well coached up front on the offensive line," Graham said. "And I think (it is) the best running attack that we've played against all year long, so this is going to be a big challenge for us."

Statistics and rankings aside, the ASU staff believes the defense still hasn't reached its full potential. To Randolph, where ASU sits so far in the conference and national defensive rankings is simply a testament to the defense's work ethic.

"We're not there yet, and that's the good thing about it," Randolph said. "We're not there yet fundamentally. We're playing well, but there's so much ground still to cover, and our guys are covering it day by day, little by little."

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