No aberration: The ASU defense has flipped the script

The Sun Devils are stopping every team in their tracks

As ASU strolled out on the field against the Utah Utes, it would have been unwarranted to think the team would replicate its excellent outing against Washington the week before.

Why would people expect the Sun Devils to continue to play at that level? Entering the Utah game, ASU had not held consecutive opponents to under 30 points since 2015 and had not won a road conference game since that same season. 

Based on the five games before Washington (when the Sun Devils allowed at least 30 points in each matchup), there would be no reason to think the tremendous defense would stay at the same rate.

ASU put together its second straight defensive masterpiece with a 30-10 victory at Utah and now the Sun Devils have only surrendered 17 points in their last two games.

So, what happened to the ASU defense? 

Believe it or not, the only difference is more practice time and more opportunities for the unit to be coached up.

“We kept doing the same things. We knew each game we were getting better, and there was going to be a breakthrough and it happened,” redshirt junior linebacker Christian Sam said. “We weren’t surprised. Everyone else outside of us was surprised, but we weren’t.” 

It was not sweeping personnel moves or giant changes to the game plan, just repetition and good old-fashioned practice — those are the secret ingredients that completely turned around the defense. 

“We start from perfection in practice," Sam added.

It is clear ASU defenders have listened to the coaching at practice. Although their words are not always pleasant, the players respect their coaching methods.

“They stay on us — they are hard on us. They don’t let us think that we’ve done anything good — we’ve done good stuff but we haven’t really done anything worth celebrating yet," Sam said. "Once we win the Pac-12 then you have somewhere to start, but they stay on us in practice and they don’t let anything slip.”

That persistence from the coaching staff is just about molding the players to become better versions of themselves on the football field. 

“Coaching is developing — it’s taking a player that is not where he needs to be and putting him in a position where he can be successful," ASU defensive coordinator Phil Bennett said. 

The best example of this development is evident in junior linebacker Jay Jay Wilson's performance. Wilson played tight end in his first two years at ASU and was the starter at that position entering the season. 

However, once senior linebacker Koron Crump suffered a season-ending injury against Texas Tech, the coaching staff switched Wilson to linebacker, specifically Devil backer against Utah. Wilson has fit in well, partly because of the familiarity with the coaching staff from his time on special teams.

“It wasn’t really a huge change for me because coach Slocum was already my coach, because I play on special teams so I was always with him," Wilson said. "So going into Devil backer with (senior linebacker) DJ (Calhoun) and Christian helping me out, it was just easy. It was a very easy transition, way easier than I thought it was going to be."  

The switch has gone very smoothly — just take a look at his interception return against Utah.

Wilson said he intercepted that exact same pass in the practice week leading up to Utah, another example of practice time bolstering the ASU defense.

One of the biggest differences during the Sun Devils' impressive defensive stretch has been the improved tackling. Earlier in the season, ASU frequently missed tackles that resulted in huge gains for the opposing teams, but it appears that issue has been mended.

“In practice, we tackle. Coach Patterson emphasizes us going to the ball and makes sure we wrap up and tackle," Sam said. 

It may seem like a given for college football teams to tackle at practice, but many schools have done away with it for safety purposes. As it turns out, the USC Trojans, who play ASU on Saturday night, do not tackle at practice, so the Sun Devils could have a physical advantage.

The physicality at practice prepares the Sun Devils for arduous football games, but there is still plenty of work to be done to advance the defense.

“I want to continue our rise,” Bennett said. “We can get better. We haven’t arrived by any stretch.”


Reach the reporter at mpharri7@asu.edu or follow @Harris_Mark7 on Twitter.

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