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November 13, 2013

Senior corners proving valuable for Sun Devils

Arizona State's defensive backs have been praised by their head coach, held Utah to only 121 yards via the air last weekend and now lead the Pac-12 in passing defense.

Yet, something is bothering senior cornerback Osahon Irabor. At this point in the season he is a little jealous of senior cornerback Robert Nelson on the other side of the field.

"It's kind of hard to watch Rob have four picks when you've got two," Irabor said. "Me and [senior safety Alden] Darby are kind of getting a little upset that he's leading the DBs right now."

Irabor might be envious of Nelson's stats but he gave credit to his teammate for coming up with big turnovers in the last two games.

The ASU secondary, especially its cornerbacks, seem to be trending in the right direction with three games left in the regular season. The corners are playing at high level because of Irabor's discipline and Nelson's natural athleticism.

One of the reasons Irabor does not have as many picks as Nelson is because teams are not throwing the ball to his side of the field as much. That means he is doing his job.

He is also doing his job cleanly.

On Utah's last drive of the game, right before senior defensive tackle Will Sutton grabbed the interception to end the game, Irabor was called for defensive pass interference.

It was the first time he was called for pass interference this season. In fact, it was the first time he got flagged for PI since his sophomore season; meaning he did not get flagged for the infraction once during his junior campaign.

Irabor has always been a corner who prides himself on getting physical with receivers and loves to play in press coverage. In his final two seasons he has found the balance between putting his hands on receivers and playing within the rules.

In his sophomore season, Irabor said he was called for a lot more penalties, along with the rest of the team. When coach Todd Graham came to ASU before his junior season, Irabor said the outlook on the team was different compared to the old regime.

"I think it's just all about perception," Irabor said. "The perception of the [old] defense was undisciplined. I think we set the record for most penalty yards in a season. So there was our perception. I was part of that perception. We were all part of that perception.

"The perception has changed. The refs understand that we play within the rules and they see that. I think definitely coach Graham bringing in more discipline has helped."

Graham's philosophy has always been that penalties are detrimental to any defense. Irabor said every year, the players meet with officials to learn about the rules and find out what specific acts referees are looking for.

When Graham arrived in Tempe two years ago, he brought along safeties coach and defensive passing game coordinator Chris Ball. Ball, who along with cornerbacks coach Joe Lorig has worked with the defensive backs every day.

Ball has tried to instill Graham's philosophy of playing physically within the rules with the defensive backs.

"If you use the proper technique and don't hold and don't grab and use the proper technique there aren't any penalties," Ball said. "You can have contact with the guy all the way up until that ball is in the air in college. I think we do a great job teaching technique, our coaches do. Coach Graham being an old secondary's coach helps also."

At some point, the technique coaches teach can only take a player so far. Sometimes athletes rely totally on their natural talent to make difficult plays.

Nelson's interception against Utah was one of those plays.

Late in the fourth quarter, ASU had a one-point lead over Utah and when its sophomore quarterback Travis Wilson overthrew senior wide receiver Anthony Denham. The ball was thrown a foot or two out of bounds but Nelson was able to jump, grab the ball and barely touch his foot in bounds in a motion that looked effortless.

Nelson said he actually stumbled a couple steps before making the interception. Before he fell, he decided to jump and go for the ball. As it worked out, he ended up making the play.

Ball said uses his innate talents well on the field.

"He's really athletic," Ball said. "We've said it all along, that he's one of the best athletes out there. He's a big play guy."

The offseason workouts and the daily grind of playing for a Pac-12 team puts a lot of stress on Nelson's body. He said he gives extra attention rehabbing outside of practice so he can perform to the best of his abilities.

"I do a lot extra stuff just trying to work out my hips and keep my hips loose," Nelson said. "This offseason has been a strain, getting our bodies right and keeping our bodies right. I get massages twice a week and getting in the cold tub. So it's just about keeping your body right. If you keep [your body] right, it will take care of you."

After the Utah game, Graham admitted the Utes came out in different offensive formations he did not prepare for in practice the week prior. Graham decided to go back to the basics the team practiced in fall camp midway through the game.

When Graham made the change, the corners were mostly in man coverage for the rest of the game.

When he made this decision he put a lot of trust and gave a lot responsibility to the secondary, especially the cornerbacks, to shut down Utah's receivers.

Graham talked about how influential Irabor was in the Utah game and the rest of the games this season in man coverage.

"Osahon Irabor plays matched up almost every play and he'll make a living doing it," Graham said. "He's a tremendous, tremendous cover corner and loves to press."

With Oregon State junior wide receiver Brandin Cooks coming to Tempe this Saturday, Graham will be relying heavily on his corners again.

Cooks leads the country in pretty much every receiving category. Irabor said the defense will face Cooks at the right time this season.

"We're the number one pass defense in the Pac-12 right now so we're ready for any challenge," Irabor said. "We're ready for this challenge. We did a good job against [Colorado junior wide receiver] Paul Richardson, we did a good job against [USC junior wide receiver] Marqise Lee and we plan on doing a good job against Brandin Cooks coming in."


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