Last year’s football teams at Pac-12 rivals Arizona and Arizona State had one glaring trait in common – besides the fact that their head coaches suffered through one of the worse seasons since they took over at their respective schools five years ago.
Their defenses sucked. Both of them. Big time.
The result: a pair of losing seasons.
Todd Graham at ASU may have the biggest challenge in trying to fix the problem before the Sun Devils open the 2017 schedule Aug. 31 against New Mexico State.
He’s also the one with the most to lose if he doesn’t right the ship. Graham is coming off of back-to-back losing seasons and desperately needs to put lots of Ws on the board this year. His job may depend on it.
How bad was the ASU defense last year? That team featured a secondary that ranked last in the nation in pass defense and too often were unable to keep opponents from making the big plays that broke open games. Worse yet, it was the second year in a row they ranked last in pass defense.
By some estimates, the Sun Devils had the worse college defense in the country.
Down the road in Tucson, Arizona’s head coach, Rich Rodriguez, isn’t dealing with a lot of job security either. His Wildcats barely scraped together a winning season in 2015 (7-6) and last season they won just three games and lost eight out of the final nine. A 56-35 thumping of ASU in the season finale was the only ray of hope they were able to take into the off-season.
The Wildcats’ defensive problems during that 3-9 season stemmed more from their inability to get to the quarterback…or get to the ball. The team total of 22 sacks ranked ninth in the conference and their 14 take-aways was dead last. Their pass rush was often anemic at best.
Needless to say, both coaches have been focused on defensive improvements in the off-season.
Graham decided it was time to put the Devils’ defense in the hands of someone who could take a different approach. He hired Phil Bennett in January to be his new defensive coordinator and Bennett began immediately to upgrade the athleticism of the players he has to work with, which includes a recruiting class that was loaded with defensive backs.
Since the team lost cornerback Armand Hamand to medical retirement and safety Kareen Orr transferred out during the off-season, the secondary was getting thin on experience, relying heavily on returning safeties Chad Adams and Dasmon Tautalatasi. But a trio of transfers – Kobe Williams, Darien Cornay, and Kemonte King – have added some college seasoning to the mix of raw freshmen vying for starting spots.
Bennett is a specialist in building up secondaries and may be just the one to dissect and correct past problems.
Rodriguez, too, put one of the new guys on this year’s staff to work on last year’s biggest problem: the pass rush. Opposing quarterbacks were enjoying too much time to find receivers and make big plays.
Brian Knorr was hired in March to be the special teams coordinator, but Rich Rod has given him the additional reponsibility of working with a group of players they are calling “The Edgemen.” Their job, in a set-up that includes a hybrid defensive end/linebacker, is to get to the quarterback by rushing from the edge of the defensive line.
Knorr was hired away from Ohio State, where he was the quality-control assistant on Urban Meyer’s staff, but his 25 years of college coaching experience includes a wide array of position-coach jobs, as well as four years as head coach at Ohio University and three years as a defensive coordinator at Wake Forest.
By separating out a small group of players to focus on the pass rush, and assigning that job to a single coach, Rodriguez might have the answer to last year’s problems.
Only time will tell whether he or Graham have made the right moves. But there’s a lot riding on that outcome for both coaches, neither of whom can afford another disappointing season.
(Photo: ASU Athletics)