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'Next man up': The mentality behind football's secondary success

Despite injuries, ASU's defensive backs have stepped up to become one of the top units in the Pac-12

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ASU redshirt sophomore defensive back Jordan Clark (1) covers wide receiver Chase Cota (23) during a game at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California on Saturday, Oct. 2, 2021. ASU won 42-23.

Following ASU’s 28-10 win over Stanford University on Oct. 8, graduate student defensive back Jack Jones gave a three-word answer to a reporter’s question about how the team regrouped following an injury to graduate student defensive back Chase Lucas: “Next man up.”

The short postgame response was met with almost 10 seconds of silence, but the message within was loud and clear.

The Sun Devils have started a different secondary foursome each of their last three games due to injuries. Last week versus Stanford, they had 10 different players play in the secondary. 

No matter how many players ASU has plugged in, its secondary remains one of the best in the conference. It has allowed the fourth-fewest passing yards in the Pac-12 this season and the fewest among teams in the conference who’ve played at least six games. 

Senior defensive back Evan Fields and Lucas have played a combined 91 games for ASU. Both suffered injuries last week and were not seen in practice on Tuesday and Wednesday, leaving their statuses for Saturday’s game against the University of Utah in question. 

“I’m sure you’ve heard it numerous times, but it’s always a next man up mentality," said graduate student defensive back DeAndre Pierce. "I think there’s a phrase that’s like: ‘success comes when preparation meets opportunity.’ If you’re preparing for the opportunity and you get that chance and do what you’re supposed to, you’ll have success. If you don’t, that’s where the next man up phrase comes from — the next man to do it.”

The mentality could even be said for the coaching staff. Chris Hawkins joined the staff in December 2019 as the defensive backs coach. In August 2021, he was placed on administrative leave by the University following alleged recruiting violations.

He was replaced by interim defensive backs coach Donnie Henderson, who was originally a consultant to Sun Devil Football.

Jones secured his second interception of the season in a memorable fashion. With 2:38 left in the third quarter, Stanford sophomore quarterback Tanner McKee dropped back and threw a pass on a slant route to sophomore wide receiver John Humphreys

Jones’ intuitions went into overdrive as he jumped the route and secured the interception. Immediately after the catch, he managed to stay on his feet as the 6-foot-5 Humphreys climbed on his back attempting to tackle him. He pitched the ball to Pierce, who ran 27 yards for the touchdown.

“Pitching the ball is something the defensive backs have been talking about since fall camp but we just never got the opportunity to do it in-game,” Jones said postgame. “I turned around and Dre (Pierce) was there and he caught the ball.”

Redshirt sophomore defensive back Jordan Clark stood next to Jones before the play and recalled him saying: “If he throws it again, I’m gonna pick it.” 

“We had seen that slant earlier in the game,” Clark said. “I was thinking to myself, ‘there’s no way they’re about to run it again.'” 

And they ran it again. The result? The play of the game for ASU.

The Sun Devils' secondary is an interesting mixture of youth and upperclassmen; exuberance and even-keeled demeanors. Jones can be seen dancing on the field throughout the game, while other guys such as Fields are reserved.

But within the group is a burning desire to be the best version of themselves and get the job done whenever their number is called.

“There’s a lot of different personalities in that room," head coach Herm Edwards said. "They all function differently. The good part is that the younger guys have gotten playing experience. The more they actually play, the more you can coach them off tape. The more they get that experience — and hopefully have some positive things happen to them — the more confidence they’ll get."

ASU’s secondary depth will be tested this Saturday at 7 p.m. MST against Utah in Salt Lake City. Since 2015, the Sun Devils have played at Utah three times, losing twice. 

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Sean Lynch

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