Opposing quarterbacks have crippled ASU's defense with long plays

ASU has one of the worst secondaries in college football, but it might be improving

If the phrase "defense wins championships" has any truth to it, you would never know it from watching an ASU football game. 

ASU's pass defense has been among the worst in college football for a number of seasons. However, there is good reason to believe that the defensive back unit is trending in the right direction. 

It is no secret that recent ASU teams have had a rough go of it against the other guys on offense. Yet, with a new defensive coordinator, new players and a new system in place, measured optimism might be in order for this season's team.

Anyone who watches ASU football knows that the game script does not change much from week to week — both teams trade touchdowns until the scoreboard reaches such high numbers that it starts to look like it belongs at a basketball game.

For this season's squad, the biggest weakness has been a tendency to give up the dreaded long ball. Indeed, the numbers paint a dismal portrait of a beleaguered defensive secondary. 

The core issue is that ASU gives up more long plays from scrimmage than almost anybody. In the past four games, ASU has allowed an average of 16.4 long plays, meaning any play longer than 10 yards, per game. That is worse than 90 percent of all teams in the FBS. 

The Sun Devils also have a knack for inspiring Heisman-esque performances in almost every quarterback they face. Opposing passers hold a near-perfect passer rating of 154.3 against ASU this year and complete around 65 percent of their throws, placing ASU among the bottom 30 teams in the country in these categories. 

ASU defenses only 5.6 percent of pass attempts thrown against them, which is worse than all but five FBS teams. The result is that teams have passed for 293.6 yards per game against the Devils.

For virtually every metric you can dream up to measure a secondary’s performance, ASU is likely to be in the bottom third for college football. 

The defensive back woes that ASU has faced are nothing new — the secondary was abysmal last year too. 

In fact, the 4,289 passing yards that opposing quarterbacks racked up against ASU last season would have cumulatively ranked seventh in the country, more than Heisman-caliber passers like Baker Mayfield and Mason Rudolph

But statistics only tell part of the story. Defenses are complex and ever-changing, and numbers do not necessarily show why defenses struggle or succeed. 

Behind the scenes, ASU has undergone widespread changes in its defensive formations, personnel and coaching staff, particularly with the introduction of new defensive coordinator Phil Bennett this season.

"Bennett came in, and what you notice right away is a lot more conservative coverages," Chris Karpman, publisher of SunDevilSource.com on the Scout Network, said. 

Transitioning from head coach Todd Graham's aggressive pass-rush schemes to a defense that plays more zone coverage with fewer pass rushers certainly comes with a learning curve for ASU's young, unproven secondary. 

This year's defense has a completely restructured identity and is still evolving and progressing each week. 

"What I see is that structurally, they look better," Karpman said. "They are improved and they have a chance to be better."

But ASU's defensive backs are still young and unrefined. Sophomore cornerback Kobe Williams was added to the roster only months ago. Redshirt freshman cornerback Chase Lucas is getting his first minutes this year, and highly-touted freshman safety Evan Fields is learning on the fly as he adjusts to Bennett's system.

"They're playing new techniques that they've never played before," Karpman said. "They're trying to figure to figure this out on the fly." 

There are other reasons to be optimistic on defense, too. With NFL prospects like senior linebacker Koron Crump and senior linebacker DJ Calhoun anchoring the front seven, ASU has had success in pressuring opposing quarterbacks with 15 sacks on the season.

When teams score as effortlessly as they have against ASU, games can turn ugly quickly. But for as much as the long ball has hurt ASU, there have been glimmers of hope, even against elite offenses like Texas Tech and Oregon.

As the young defensive backs begin to gel with Bennett's new system over the coming seasons, the long-term future of the defense has real promise. 

Reach the columnist at jmsloan3@asu.edu or follow @jakeuzzi on Twitter.

Editor’s note: The opinions presented in this column are the author’s and do not imply any endorsement from The State Press or its editors.

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