ASU defense rally around passion, experience on first day of camp
At this time last year, the Arizona State defense was making things difficult for the offense early in the preseason.
The secondary was lights-out. The linebacker group had been playing together for years. The defensive line stonewalled gaps and closed off the run.
That defense finished as the top unit in the Pac-12. It was such a dominant showing that the offense could not drive to the end zone for a full week. Herm Edwards had to manufacture some positive momentum by placing the offense on the goal line.
It’s not uncommon for preseason camp to be that way, especially when the offense is picking up where they left off learning offensive coordinator Glenn Thomas’ scheme in the spring. The defensive system, which enters its third year, should be a well-oiled machine. While there are still plenty of newcomers on that side of the ball, a smoother start for the defense isn’t unexpected.
“I think it’s how it should be,” redshirt fifth-year linebacker Kyle Soelle said. “The defensive side of the ball particularly is a little bit older, a little bit more experienced. So we kinda put the pressure on us to bring the juice every day.”
The defense never got truly caught out during the inaugural first day. Quarterbacks were forced to aim through tight windows all afternoon. If they were late in the progression or on the release, the ball ended up swatted free from the catch point.
“I could chalk it up to having more snaps with each other,” defensive end Michael Matus said. “I don’t think there’s necessarily anyone ahead of anyone else. There are moving parts right now, and we just have to figure out where they all fit.”
Even so, one of those newcomers made an early impact. Kailua product Blazen Lono-Wong infiltrated a slip-screen run by Paul Tyson during Wednesday’s 11-on-11 period. Lono-Wong found the ball and tipped the pass to himself for an interception. The defense was ecstatic.
“It’s good to see that energy and passion on the first day,” Matus said. “Especially when it’s new guys getting that. It was a freshman that got the pick.”
Big plays are a necessary part of the practice. They keep the competitive intensity level high as well as engage the players. Plus, the coaches would rather uncover the reasons why they happened during an instruction period rather than on game day.
“I think it’s good to build those players’ confidence,” Soelle said. “It’s a learning lesson for the other side, and vice versa; if the offense makes a big play, it’s a learning lesson for us.”
The chemistry in the linebacker group especially helps. Merlin Robertson and Soelle are proven, consistent starters who can confidently execute any play call. Connor Soelle (Kyle’s brother) has filled in nicely at the third outside linebacker spot.
But it’s Robertson’s physique that has got the defense excited for the Butkus Award watch list recipient. Robertson is trimmed down from last season, and shedding some of that extra bulk allowed him to be more agile in coverage and when coming downhill. It took an offseason of discipline and work in the weight room, which has made Robertson determined to stamp his mark on the program after passing on the NFL Draft last year.
“I think he’s dedicated,” Matus said. “I think he’s ready to get out there and show people what he can really do.”
On Monday, Edwards likened getting back on the grass to an elementary school recess. While technique drills under the hot Tempe sun are a unique form play, returning to the field has the players feeling rejuvenated as they can feel the football season start to ramp up
“It’s work, but it’s a kid’s game, man,” Soelle said. “We enjoy it; we have fun; that’s why we play.”
Whether it’s new guys coming into the fold or veterans getting comfortable in new positions, ASU has done well buckling down the basics. Jordan Clark filtered in with the first-team safeties, which he saw an increased role in when the team practiced in March. His progress over the offseason to
“Just bigger, stronger, faster,” Clark said. “When you get to college, and you see some running backs, you’re like, ‘yeah, I need to eat a little bit more.’ So I just prioritized that this offseason, knowing that I was going to be moving up high and playing safety, having more run gap responsibility. Just wanted to take that on and be able to withstand that workload week in and week out.”
A vocal leader in the secondary, Clark sees the potential of his group after playing with another talented crew last year.
“If you think people are just going to throw the ball to us when we have 6-4 corners standing out there and All-Americans everywhere,” Clark declared, “then I don’t really see how that’s a sound thought process.”
Clark referenced Ro Torrence, an Auburn transfer that joined the Sun Devils over the summer. He already made an impact as a physical cover man that can control the skies. Torrence offers ASU a ton of length at the position, a popular trait throughout the unit.
The other player mentioned, Chris Edmonds, earned national recognition with his eye for the ball. Edmonds racked up eight interceptions in three years at Samford. He’s expected to slide into the same duties Deandre Pierce performed last season, like dropping down to cover slots and being a rover alongside Khoury Bethley, another spring transfer, in single-high alignments.
“Those two guys make it really, really easy, man,” Jordan Clark said. “KB and Edmonds, they have so much experience; they are such natural football players. I’ve learned a lot from them. I feel like our chemistry is really good no matter what two are on the field, what three are on the field.”
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