Defensive backs impressing in camp; freshmen proving the group has depth
CAMP TONTOZONA- Out of every position group on ASU, one could argue that none benefitted more from the 2019 recruiting class than the defensive backs.
The Sun Devils brought in four players that were either safeties or cornerbacks in high school, plus Connor Soelle, who has been making the transition from linebacker to Tillman safety during preseason camp.
Defensive backs coach Tony White loves the resulting depth, which he says has led to his players practicing harder through the first week of preseason camp.
“It’s a group that is competitive,” White said. “There’s somebody right behind each one of them to make them not complacent.
“Kudos to (recruiting coordinator Antonio Pierce) and (director of player personnel) Al Luginbill and stuff, because competition does that for you. Last year we didn’t have as much, and so you’re kind of stuck in position, but now you got guys right behind you that’ll step on you or run right past you if you don’t keep your end of the bargain, so it’s been good.”
Competition hasn’t affected the group’s chemistry, however, as White makes it clear how well everyone’s worked together in every practice.
“They’re actually talking to each other- everybody, vets to the young guys, they’re all talking,” White mused. “That’s when you got a good group…because (senior cornerback Kobe Williams) has been here and seen it all, he’s the oldest guy, and he’s helping out (sophomore safety Aashari Crosswell) as much as Aashari’s helping out (redshirt freshman safety Cam Phillips) as much as they’re helping out (junior Tillman Evan Fields). So, it’s good to see the communication, it’s good to see them work their football intelligence, their football IQ, that’s a sign of a good competitive football team.”
This has been evident in the performance of the group in scrimmages. They’ve intercepted at least one pass in five of the six practices thus far and have oftentimes been silencing the receivers.
There’s been very few converted deep throws during scrimmage portions, and even fewer when looking strictly at 11-on-11’s, factoring out the pass-heavy 7-on-7 drills.
“Yeah, for the most part they have been,” White answered about if the veterans are executing consistently, “not too many blown assignments, they’re pretty technical.”
A lot of this starts with Williams and redshirt junior cornerback Chase Lucas, entering their third season as the starting cornerbacks. Williams intercepted one pass last season and tallied eight pass breakups, while Lucas picked off three passes and defended five. They also were both top five on the team in total tackles.
The two have grown together as cornerbacks, despite their contrasting personalities on the field.
“The thing (coach Herm Edwards) always says is ‘be yourself,’” White said. “Kobe’s the quiet, steady guy and Chase is the loud guy, but as long as they’re both executing, both performing, then just be who you are.”
White has also noticed Williams does the little things right this offseason, only serving to elevate his play between the lines.
“The thing you’re going to get with Kobe is consistency,” White said, “but he takes pride in his work, so he’s taking pride in reshaping his body, learning all the little techniques and nuances, and also him studying the offense. It’s no coincidence he’s in a spot making plays a lot this camp, but that’s him, that’s who he is.”
Just as crucial to the success of the secondary is the younger Crosswell, who led the team in interceptions and pass breakups in 2018 with four and nine, respectively.
By the sound of it, the starting safety has continued to progress, sometimes too much for his own good.
“The game has truly slowed down for him,” White commented. “Now the plays he’s giving up, a little lax because he knows what’s coming and stuff, so you can see him take plays off a little bit. But in terms of knowing what to expect, he’s right there.
“I mean those plays, the interception (last week), he doesn’t make that play last year. There was a deep ball that was thrown, I think up the seam, and he came from the deep third across the field…now he sees it and he feels it and he goes and gets it, it’s going to be fun to watch him play.”
As far as the rest of the group, the team is stocked with freshman talent plus a few veterans as well.
For right now, it’s Phillips who’s holding down that other starting safety spot. The redshirt freshman snagged his first career interception in a crucial November game against Oregon, and maintained his redshirt, playing in only two games.
“He did a nice job of getting up to 175ish (pounds), he’s still working on getting up to 180,” White said. “But again, he’s a guy who last year started off moving a little too fast for him, settled down, got all the reps in the Spring, comes in here, knows he’s the number one, so he’s taking pride in that.”
However, the redshirt freshman’s spot on the depth chart is nowhere near as secure as Williams, Lucas or Crosswell.
“He’s got a guy behind him who could unplant him at any point in time,” White added, “so he knows he can’t rest on his laurels either. But he’s moving around fast, he’s making some plays…we played all those guys last year, so we expect those guys to be a little ahead of the curve.”
It seems like the player White is referring to is freshman safety, Willie Harts. The native of Pittsburg, California played multiple positions on offense for his high school team, which may explain his ability to pick up on things quickly.
“He’s pretty twitchy, pretty fast. Of the younger bucks, you can see he’s pretty smart like he’s getting it, he knows where somebody’s supposed to be and stuff,” White said.
“I knew he was smart because he had to play quarterback and play wide receiver at Pittsburg (high school). But then, you come here and play DB, with all the moving parts, it kind of comes natural to him…it’s surprisingly cool.
“Again, he has a couple mental lapses here and there, but he’s another one you’re like ‘wow, he gets it.’ The kid gets it, he’s just like Aashari, you know last year Aashari got it, ended up playing ball, now you got Willie, it’s the same deal…you got another player there who could play a lot as a true freshman and be a really good player for a long time.”
Another freshman who has stood out through the first week of preseason practice is, unsurprisingly, Jordan Clark, the only four-star recruit amongst the new defensive backs.
As a matter of fact, White sees the corner as very similar to one of their current starters at the position.
“Kobe 2.0,” White interjected when Clark’s name was brought up. “He’s steady man, he’s sharp, he gets it quick. I joke around the older guys, they’re tired of hearing from him because he’s always ‘hey what about this, what about this,’ you know that Dennis the Menace kind of guy.
“He’s very smart, and it doesn’t take too many times for him to mess up to fix it back on the field, so he’ll be another good one that’ll play a lot for a long time.”
This only scratches the surface of ASU’s freshman talent in the secondary, as White stated that Connor Soelle has let his athleticism and IQ take over to make some nice plays as the second-team Tillman this spring, and that Kejuan Markham- at second-team cornerback- has shown an instinct for the ball.
Nevertheless, even the starting Tillman spot seems as up in the air as ever, with Fields taking advantage of senior starter Tyler Whiley’s absence in the last two practices.
“You’re getting a mature performer over there, so with him, it’s just a matter of him knocking off the rust,” White said. “That’s with everybody when they come back from a major injury, they’re going to be tentative, and you can see at times he has a chance to go and shoot it and he doesn’t, and rightfully so, you know that’s what camp is for.
“Before this last practice, coach had a talk with him, and then before you know it he’s in there running around…so he’s back to being normal. Again, it’s about competition, because now you see Evan (Fields) out there, and Evan’s making plays, so now I’m sure it’ll only push Tyler, his competitive side, and now you’ve got something big happening there.”
Even with what could become a crowded secondary if players start to reach their potential, White’s value on rotating players could allow many of them to see the field in their first season of college football.
“I’ve always been a big fan of rotating guys,” White said. “Number one, it keeps you fresh, and if you plan on going and playing in the Pac-12 championship game and going farther than that, you got to be somewhat fresh.
“The times nowadays with spread offenses and them running 100 plays a game, you can’t just have one set of dudes play the whole time, you’re running them down by game six or seven. So, with (the backups), as long as they can do it, now you’ve got guys you can put back in there, so if you can save these older guys 25 plays a game, you’re talking about over a course of 10 games, now you just saved them three games, technically.”
Veteran cornerbacks Terin Adams, Timarcus Davis, and Darien Cornay will all have something to say about freshmen playing in the secondary too, at least at cornerback. However, it’s not out of the question that a lot of new faces will play throughout the season in the secondary and yet still elevating the overall talent.
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