The term “no-fly zone” is usually used for military purposes, but the ASU safeties have given the expression a new meaning on Saturday nights in Tempe.
Neither junior safety Alden Darby nor redshirt senior safety Keelan Johnson remembers who first uttered the phrase in practice, but it has become a point of emphasis between the two.
“The only thing that flies is us,” Darby said. “No-fly zone, no passes. That’s the way we approach it.”
ASU’s secondary has been a bright spot for the Sun Devils through the first three games of the season. The unit is only allowing 147.3 passing yards per game, which ranks ninth in the country and first in the Pac-12.
Earlier in the week, coach Todd Graham talked about how proud he was of the way both Darby and Johnson have played. Safeties coach Chris Ball echoed these sentiments, but doesn’t want the two to stop working.
“They’ve been playing good up until now, (but) we’re only three games in,” Ball said. “We’ve just got to keep improving each week and figuring out ways to get better each day.”
Ball has also been pleased with the intelligence of the starting safeties. The ASU defense does a lot of different things in coverage, and Darby and Johnson have been able to learn the defense and the calls very quickly.
Each game, the safeties’ two main objectives are to not give up long touchdown passes or big run plays. Through three games they have been successful, but Johnson knows there is a ways to go.
“Our play has been above average, but there are still some things we can clean up,” Johnson said. “Focusing play by play (is key). If you lose focus on one play, it can cost you the game.”
Part of the safety’s success can be attributed to the fact that they are playing with a tremendous amount of confidence. While some may perceive this as cocky, Darby insists they aren’t.
“We’ll stand in the middle, shoulder by shoulder with our hands crossed just ready (to play),” Darby said. “That’s not being cocky, that’s just our swag ready to go.”
Senior running back Cameron Marshall and the rest of the ASU rushing attack had a hard time finding a rhythm during the early part of last weekend’s game against Missouri. Graham knows running the ball is important and wants to establish a ground presence against Utah.
“I really believe the team that can run the ball and take care of the ball is the team that’s going to win this game,” Graham said.
After a less than impressive performance on special teams a week ago, the Sun Devils have practiced with a renewed focus this week. Graham said special teams are the aspect of the game the Sun Devils worked hardest on this week, and they are also a key to victory.
“Any game that you lose (to) special teams in this league, you are going to lose the game,” Graham said. “I don’t care what you’re doing on offense or defense.”
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