When junior defensive back Damarious Randall signed to play with Arizona State out of Mesa Community College he became the second straight Arizona Community College Athletic Conference Defensive Player of the Year to sign with the Sun Devils, following on the heels of linebacker Chris Young.
With the loss of safety Keelan Johnson, who led the team with five interceptions last year, coaches had to look no further than the city next door for the player they thought could be a capable replacement.
"He led the nation in interceptions, which obviously was one of the first things that stuck out to us," Arizona State head coach Todd Graham said of Nelson at a press conference announcing the ASU signing class in February. "We think he can come in and be impactful in the cornerback or safety position."
Randall tallied up nine interceptions and 69 tackles last season en route to earning some other prestigious awards including being named National Junior College Athletics Association first-team All-American and first-team All-Western States Football League.
Throughout all of camp and the first week or so of the season, the 6-foot-0, 185 pound defensive back struggled with a groin strain and did not see the field until Wisconsin on Sept. 14, when he had his first two tackles of the year.
On Saturday against Notre Dame, Randall finally earned his first career start over redshirt freshman safety Viliami Moeakiola and had a remarkable 17 tackles at the field safety position, the most by an ASU player since Brandon Magee totaled 17 of his own in the last game of the 2012 season versus Arizona.
"I am really proud of him," Graham said. "He was a little flustered at times. Our leaders coached him and it was nice how they brought him in. He didn't just play average, he played really good. That is as good as I have ever had a free safety play in the first game for me. He did some great things. He made some tackles. He made a big time tackle on a return that could have gone to the house. He made a lot of tackles all over the field in the run game. He did a great job in one-on-one coverage. If we can take our free safety and be able to match him up with people one-on-one it really helps us schematically. I really didn't think he was ready. Going back and reflecting on that game, I thought Damarious Randall was really a bright spot. He really played very well and that is exciting."
On Notre Dame's final offensive series of the first half, Randall had a chance to turn his very good performance into a truly great one but dropped an interception attempt. The Irish would go on to score a touchdown on the drive and take a lead into halftime. Had he come up with the ball, ASU could have extended to a two score lead before intermission.
"I've been thinking about that interception ever since I dropped it," Randall said. "I knew it was going to be a key factor at the end of the game. When I was going at it, I thought I was actually going to hit the guy but then I had seen that I had gotten to the ball so fast that I was trying to react to it and catch it and it just, yeah it just looked bad."
After his performance on Saturday, coaches feel more comfortable about their decision to start a player who hasn't scrimmaged or done hardly any real tackling since joining the program.
"He's worked hard," safeties coach Chris Ball said. "Unfortunately he got hurt this summer and it took him a while to recover. You're always nervous about putting a guy in there who hasn't necessarily tackled a whole lot but we put him in there and he played extremely well. He's really smart, covers extremely well, he has good football instincts and he's a really, really good athlete."
The fact that Graham is comfortable with putting Randall in one-on-one situations is key for ASU's secondary to improve and remain a steady force against the pass.
Due to the Sun Devils' aggressive style of defense, usually bringing five or six on the blitz, it leaves the secondary more prone to man situations which typically makes it more difficult to defend the pass if the attacking defenders do not reach the quarterback, which happened quite frequently on Saturday against Notre Dame.
"It's a lot more stress," Ball said. "We have our hands full but you know that has to be part of it. You want to impact the quarterback by pressure and that puts us in some situation but you know our kids are used to that. They're used to being put in those situations. A lot of it is safe, we aren't running a lot of zero coverage but at the same time you have to be more technique sound and you have to know where the pressure is coming from and understand the defense. You have to be really smart, have to think and be able to adjust to play for us."
In 2012, which was Ball's first year at ASU, the Sun Devil secondary ranked third nationally and first in the Pac-12 in passing defense, only allowing 167.92 yards per game. Additionally, they finished 10th nationally and led the Pac-12 in passing efficiency defense at 105.45 while also adding 21 interceptions which tied for fourth in the nation.
So far this season, the Sun Devil secondary hasn't quite lived up to expectations even with senior safety Alden Darby and senior cornerback Osahon Irabor, two veteran starters, back on the roster. They rank 59th in the nation in Defensive Passing Efficiency at 127.11 and are tied at 38th in passing defense allowing an average of 210.2 yards per game.
However, with seven regular season games left on the year and through the gauntlet of their schedule, coaches are optimistic that the secondary, no matter how inexperienced in key areas, will continue to progress and capitalize on opportunities that they get.
"I think we're coming along," Ball said. "We have some things that we have to fix for sure. But I think we have to continue to work on our underneath coverage. That's the biggest improvement we need to make. As far as where we are at I think we can get better and will continue to get better each week. We were really good last year, so anytime you have new guys and youth back there you are going to have a few issues. We should've had two interceptions Saturday night. I think that really cost us and we really have to make those plays."
Cameron Smith starting to make his mark
With the instability of sophomore wide receiver Richard Smith, ASU has had a hard time finding the third receiver to complement junior college transfer wide receiver Jaelen Strong and sophomore running back D.J. Foster, who most typically lines up in the slot.
The Sun Devils may have just found the answers to their prayers with true freshman wide receiver Cameron Smith.
"I think Cameron (Smith) has a lot of potential," Graham said. "Obviously, still a young guy and still trying to figure things out. (Senior wide receiver) Kevin (Ozier) has been a steady force for us. He continues to be the leader of that group. Jaelen (Strong) is getting better every week. Believe it or not, fundamentally, he could be a lot better. I love his attitude. I thought the play of the game was when [Rick Smith] fumbled the ball on the hitch screen. That was a very critical point in the game and we had just not done that (this season). I think Jaelen is playing at a high level, now we have to get other people playing at a higher level. The key is that everybody is improving and getting better."
Cameron Smith in particular has really come on during these last few weeks and on Tuesday he got first team reps at the 2-reciever spot and was backed up by senior wide receiver Alonzo Agwuenu.
"Well now that [Cameron Smith's] getting a little bit more healthy, all we're trying to do is find a role," wide receivers coach DelVaughn Alexander said. "He's obviously been in the games and we're trying to increase that role because we feel like he can handle it so it's just a matter of bringing him along like we've done and the opportunities will present themselves."
Neither Ozier nor Rick Smith -- a mainstay starter in camp and through the early portion of the season -- was observed practicing during the tempo team period on Tuesday, further indicating that ASU is working Cameron Smith into a more significant role and a start appears possible.
"He's been creeping up," Alexander said. "The expectations were high for him coming in. You talk about recruiting, you talk about the summer, you talk about the expectations and now that he's healthy, he's earned the right to have opportunities. So at the same time, different personnel groups are going to allow him to play on the field."
Though known for his speed and route running abilities, Cameron Smith has more in his corner than his athletic talents.
"I think he's solid because he's smart," Alexander said. "He's smart, he's determined, he's a focused kid; that's the only way you get on the field if you're a true freshman. You have to match your goals in terms of your effort."
Sophomore defensive tackle Jaxon Hood was not wearing a green non-contact jersey Graham said he would be able to play against Colorado Saturday.
Senior linebacker Steffon Martin received first team reps over freshman linebacker Salamo Fiso during defensive walkthrough at SAM but Fiso ended up getting first team reps during tempo period observed by media. Graham said the battle would continue at the position and senior Anthony Jones worked at first-team WILL, where he hasn't played this season.
Senior cornerback Osahon Irabor remained in a No. 42 Pat Tillman jersey. No other player was in the camouflaged uniform.