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UCLA Football at Arizona State Defensive Preview: Sun Devils Have the Nation’s Worst Pass Defense

Blitzing less to save the secondary and allowing huge plays has become characteristic of the ASU defense this year.

NCAA Football: California at Arizona State Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

It’s no question. UCLA is the FAR better defense coming into Saturday’s game. ASU has statistically the worst pass defense in the country, and to save a young secondary, they are blitzing slightly more than half that of last year. With Rosen at the helm and the offense coming together in the second half of the Arizona game, the Bruins are poised for a win this weekend.

Defensive Line

Junior Tashon Smallwood is expected to be one of the team leaders on and off the field, anchoring the defensive line. He is an elite defensive lineman and a pass rusher with tremendous size and play-making ability. Sophomore Jojo WIcker has 15 tackles so far this year, and is actually a local kid out of Long Beach Poly. Redshirt Junior Alani Latu has nine tackles so far this year and has proven to be one of ASU's most versatile players. In their win over Texas Tech, the junior played three positions: nose tackle, strong-side linebacker and his normal position, Devilbacker. In looking for a definition for this position (which wasn’t easy), I came across a 2014 article published by The State Press, and this is how it was defined:

He lines up all over the field, finding the opponent’s weakest spot to attack. He can either line up with his hands on the ground or on two feet. The Devilbacker can attack you at any time, or he can drop into coverage. He has to be fast but also physically and mentally tough. To play it, you have to know what both the linebackers and defensive line are doing, precisely.

Yikes. Takes a smart man to be able to do all that on the fly. This is a position that has been the heart of the ASU defensive line since Todd Graham took over in 2012. Unfortunately, Graham is now rebuilding much of his defense.

Linebackers

With such a young secondary, the ASU staff wanted to have the best defensive backs in position as possible. In order to take pressure off the secondary, ASU has gone from blitzing on 49% of plays in 2015 to just 27% this year (31% is the Pac 12 average). Graham has said they are still trying to find the middle ground between applying pressure up front, but also helping out the backfield. Redshirt senior Salamo Fiso is one of the more experienced linebackers and one of the best on the team, and has 19 tackles in two games so far this year. He was suspended the first three games of the season for violating program standards. Graham would not elaborate on the suspension, although it was hinted that it may have been for academic reasons. Junior D.J. Calhoun is currently second on the ASU squad with four tackles for loss and 30 total tackles. Junior Christian Sam has not seen game action since he injured his ankle, and as of last week, was still riding the stationary bike on "Muscle Beach" during practice. With the return of Fiso, ASU should see some relief up front, especially if Sam returns as well.

Secondary

ASU has had issues in the secondary since the start of the season, which has led to such a poor performance on pass defense. Their safety position has had a revolving door of sorts. According to AZ Central, "against the Trojans, the Sun Devils tried four players at boundary safety, none sticking. Junior J’Marcus Rhodes started, but appeared to be benched for poor tackling. From there, junior James Johnson, senior Laiu Moeakiola and junior Chad Adams also saw action at the position". Graham has not found anyone to permanently fill the boundary safety position. Redshirt senior Villiami Moeakiola is probably one of the most valuable players on defense, starting the last two seasons at the hybrid spur linebacker position, but moving to boundary safety this year in fall camp. Due to his experience and versatility, Moeakiola is occasionally moved back to the spur position in key moments. Rhodes is currently listed in the safety position, but since open field tackling is an issue for him, there is no doubt in my mind that Graham will continue shuffling players around. Johnson injured his knee during preseason camp and missed the first four games this season. He finally saw on-field action against USC, which was a tall order coming off an injury. De’Chavon Hayes has started all five games at corner, but this is his first season switching to defense. He entered the program as a running back, so due to the switch, has been targeted by opposing teams. Redshirt Sophomore Armand Perry has been making some noise this year, with 28 solo tackles, including eight solo tackles, a pass breakup and tackle for loss against Cal. ASU is playing musical chairs at corner, which further complicates issues for the struggling secondary.

Analysis

This defense is young and does not have much depth. Graham is having trouble finding the personnel for a variety of positions without much luck so far. One can only hope that the team we saw in the second half against Arizona comes out of the tunnel this weekend. If that happens, this should be an easy win. In this series, the road team typically wins, so we have that in our favor as well. But in the end, it all comes down to which team shows up. We are currently favored to win by 10.

Go Bruins!