Arizona State defensive coordinator Craig Bray candidly will tell you that if his players at the safety position he's responsible for performed early in the season like they did down the stretch, the Sun Devils would have won at least a couple more football games.
"We weren't very physical and it wasn't until I moved Max (Tabach) in there that the defense changed," Bray said. "We had a guy who had great instincts, made the calls and he was aggressive and everything and the last half of the season our safety play was pretty solid. In the first half it cost us a couple games. It cost us Oregon, it cost us Wisconsin. So I think we'll get that (right) because I'm not going to play with guys that aren't going to be physical."
Tabach is gone, but his partner at safety late last season, Eddie Elder, played increasingly well in his first year in Tempe and returns for his senior season in 2011. Elder is out of contact for the spring along with fellow safety Keelan Johnson, which has led to Bray moving sophomore Alden Darby to the position, where he's getting great early reviews while working with the first-team.
"I feel good about next year with one exception being two of our better safeties are sitting on the sidelines with shoulder (injuries)," Bray said. "If they stay focused as if they are in there they'll get the same reps mentally but they don't always do that.
"So we get to check the young guys out, move Darby inside (from cornerback, where he played as a true freshman), that helps us out, gives us some explosion and speed and it'll probably be a pretty good battle between three or four guys in the fall."
Bray said Darby is going through growing pains, which is to be expected, but is extremely promising given his versatility and athleticism. Darby, Elder, Johnson and senior Clint Floyd, currently working with the first-team, figure to be the main contenders for playing time.
"It's been good," Darby said of his transition to safety. "I feel that my knowledge for the game is a lot better. I'm a lot smarter, a lot wiser, I've still got a lot of mistakes I've got to get through but that will come with a lot of film study and a lot of reps. I figure by the end of spring ball I should be done making mental the little mistakes and by the time summer comes and even end of spring ball I'll be playing ball like I know I'm capable of."
Darby said he underestimated the importance of film study when he arrived at ASU last year and is now better able to transition what he learns in the darkroom to when the bright lights are on.
"You can be ready for a game if you just watch film. I think film is 95 percent," Darby said. "If you watch film you'll have a better feel for the game because you can go out on the field and be like, 'I've seen that' and know what to expect."
As it stands now, Darby is one of the two youngest players on the defense expected to play a major role along with classmate Junior Onyeali, who'll likely start at weakside end. But he'll be the only one switching positions, which sounds daunting, but Darby said he's had great help and mentorship from a number of players, most prominently senior cornerback Omar Bolden.
"Omar has helped me since Day 1," Darby said. "When I got here I was like, 'I'm the new guy, nobody is going to help me.' But he took me under his wing since Day 1, he'll text me and tell me stuff, he'll call me, he'll tell me to come watch film at 2 p.m. and just helps me."
Now it's a matter of getting his key reads and footwork down for another position in the secondary.
"The technique at safety because I'm used to the corner technique," Darby said. "It's simpler at corner. You'll know because the receiver tips off a lot of the routes unlikely safety where he's in the middle of the field, he can go left or right or vertical. That's the biggest transition."
So far, Darby said he appreciates the way Bray has allowed him to learn from his on field mistakes.
"With me he hasn't really been yelling a lot," Darby said. "He yells too but he's been trying to help me rather than yell at me because he knows I can be a potential starter and so do I so he's trying to form me and shape me into being a starter and I really appreciate the help he's giving me."
What Darby may or may not know is the importance of the opportunity given to him by Bray, who acknowledged the safety position is the biggest unknown entity on a defense he expects will otherwise be very impressive in the year ahead.
"Yeah, that's probably true," Bray said.