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September 11, 2013
In the House of Heat, it's their job to make sure Arizona State isn't the one getting burned.
They are the last line of defense and once that opposing ball carrier gets into the secondary, they are the ones who will either yield a touchdown or make a crucial third down stop.
It is a role that takes mentally disciplined players and the Sun Devils secondary believes it's ready to take on that challenge.
"Our motto is no cheap ones, so that's run and pass," safeties coach Chris Ball said. "If they break through that line of scrimmage, we have to get him down and help us live another day. We have to take away big plays. That's not just in the passing game, in the run game too. Once that running back gets in the secondary we have to get his butt down and give our defense a chance. Same with the pass, we can't be jumping up on the run and we cant be misreading our keys and jumping up. We have to play really disciplined with great eyes, and if we do that we'll be okay."
The Sun Devils were No. 27 in the country last year in total defense, giving up 41 touchdowns in the season and on average 4.78 yards per play. Their passing defense, though, aided by a blitz-heavy philosophy, finished third in the nation at 167.92 yards allowed per game.
This year, the Sun Devils look to improve both their passing and run defense and that starts with the personnel. They're replacing two high quality starters from last year's defensive backfield, cornerback Deveron Carr and safety Keelan Johnson.
"I think (senior cornerback Osahon) Irabor is twice as good as he was last year," head coach Todd Graham said. "(Senior safety Alden) Darby, I think is much improved from where he was last year. (Redshirt freshman safety) Laiu (Moeakiola) is very steady. He's smart and he's going to do things right. (Senior cornerback) Robert (Nelson) and (junior cornerback) Lloyd (Carrington) -- (Deveron) Carr did a good job -- but I think we're every bit as good as we were last year and we were pretty good last year. The deal is going to be, you're going to have a lot of 1-on-1 shots and you've got to win those shots and I've got confidence they will."
Despite giving up an average of 350.77 yards per game last year, the Sun Devils only allowed 167 yards in the first game against Sacramento State. However, on Saturday, ASU faces a tougher foe in No. 20 Wisconsin, one of college football's leading power running teams.
"This week it's the Big Ten champions," Ball said. "Averaging over 300 yards rushing a game, last year, they were fourth in the nation in big plays for 40 yards or more so we are really excited about that, really excited about the challenge."
Tackling was key in practices this week, especially the physicality aspect.
"This is the most physical practice I've been a part of," Moeakiola said following Tuesday's workout. "And just (in general) being here at ASU. We stress a lot about tackling because at safety, we are the last line of defense so we've got to make sure no one gets past us and no one gets behind us."
Last year, Wisconsin's rushing attack averaged 236.4 yards per game, No. 13 in the nation. Through two games this year it is averaging 390 yards, though it has played two severely outmatched foes, relative FBS newcomer UMass and FCS Tennessee Tech.
"We just prep by reading our keys," Moeakiola said. "Just make sure we are focused on every play, whatever we are defending, whatever our jobs are and trusting our teammates to do their because sometimes you get selfish on the field and you want to make a big play so it's all about being disciplined about how we approach this game. Number one just being disciplined and doing what we're supposed to be doing."
Moeakiola, back from only playing in two games due to a hamstring injury received last year, is one of the younger starter on the defense along with sophomore tackle Jaxon Hood. He plays a position that has received a lot of attention from coaches and fans alike as the Sun Devils look to find a competent replacement for Johnson.
"I feel good," Moeakiola said. "I just look up to the people that surround me like guys that I can trust and the coaches here; they put me in the best situation possible to be successful on the field. It's just a blessing to be out there."
Moeakiola learned a lot from watching during his medical redshirt year.
"Mostly what I took out of it was just taking all the mental reps, being on the sideline, listening what to do on special plays and that just put me a foot ahead when I came back to fall camp," Moeakiola said. "Also just understanding where I need to be for every play, just listening to all the guys and just being there for extra film study and working hard."
Despite his youth, Ball commended Moeakiola on his abilities, and in the first game Moeakiola demonstrated his potential with three tackles, two of which were solo stops.
"He's really mature and he's played," Ball said. "He started at Euless (Texas) Trinity (High School) since he was a sophomore, so [the pressure is] not a really big deal to him, but he comes out here every day trying to get better and we're really comfortable with him back there because he's going to be in the right spot. You can say a lot of things to him, he can handle a lot mentally, usually we only have to tell him once, and he gets it done so he's a really, really smart football player."
Graham pleased with preparations
A constant trend over the last month has been ASU coach Todd Graham's general level of happiness over his team's work ethic and overall approach to practice.
That sentiment has continued this week, with Graham calling Tuesday a great preparation day focused on first and second down situations.
"We got after it today," Graham said. "Love our guys' attitude and how they're working. They know how good of an opponent they're playing and this is what you do this for. The guys are excited, I thought they had a really solid day, really focusing on the things that win games and what I told them is that you've got a chance because of the discipline about you."
Graham reiterated his opinion that the team that wins the turnover battle and out-rushes the other will win on Saturday.
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