Going into the season, establishing a more solidified run defense was something Arizona State head coach Todd Graham prioritized, and for good reason.
Even though Arizona State finished second in the Pac-12 in total defense last season, its weak spot was its run defense, where it allowed 182.8 yards per game, finishing tenth in the category in the Pac-12.
This year through three games the Sun Devil defense hasn't lived up to its goals. It has allowed 174 yards per game on the ground, most of which came against Wisconsin and Stanford. If there is a silver lining, a lot of those yards, particularly against Wisconsin, came on runs outside the tackles.
In its fourth game against USC this weekend, ASU will get another opportunity against a capable run offense.
USC averages 176.5 yards per game on the ground and 4.2 yards per carry. Leading rusher Tre Madden leads the Trojan rushing attack with 90 carries for 455 yards and an average of 5.1 yards per carry. It doesn't stop there however. True freshman Justin Davis is a capable backup with 32 carries for 189 yards and has an even higher average of 5.9 yards per carry.
"I'd say the biggest challenge they bring is just their system," linebacker coach/co-defensive coordinator Paul Randolph said. "They're big up front, have two really good running backs and they've got naturally dynamic receivers. That tight end (Xavier Grimble) is pretty dang good too. They still have all the tools there. But what they're going to do is they are going to run it, pound it, run it outside a lot and then they will play action naked and throw vertical shots to (Marquise) Lee. If they can establish the run game, they have both of their packages to where they can run and/or pass it. We have to eliminate one, preferably the run game, if we can."
Senior linebacker Anthony Jones is part of the more mature linebacker group this year and believes that experience will play a factor in rebounding this week and correcting its mistakes against USC.
"We are better than what we were last year in stopping the run," Anthony Jones said. "We are having a better mental focus and knowing of what we are doing because most of us have been in the system for two years. I would say we're way better than what we were last year but we can always improve. There are still a lot of errors that we still make. Errors will always be made, but it's more of getting rid of those critical errors that could and can cost you the game if the offense executes it correctly, and I know we can do that."
A new effort to improve on stopping the run is the switch being made at the linebacker position is the elevation of redshirt freshman Salamo Fiso to the starting SAM position over returning starter senior linebacker Steffon Martin.
During camp, Fiso was a sort of project of Graham's as he appeared to always be correcting and teaching him during breaks in the action. And while there's still much to learn for the young freshman, he's impressed the coaches with taking in as much and as fast as he has.
"He makes plays," Graham said. "He still hasn't figured out what he's doing completely, but that guy is going to be a great player. That guy is a redshirt freshman, I mean he's got what you can't teach. He's got unbelievable instinct as a linebacker. He came up and took on Stanford's line and knocking them on their back and that's pretty hard to do. He's very explosive and very powerful. Needs to get a haircut, but other than that he's pretty good."
Another big part of the continuing effort to stop the run this year was the transition of senior linebacker Chris Young from the Spur linebacker to the WILL position. The decision was made in part to try to put in a capable replacement for Brandon Magee who had 113 tackles last year as a key run-stopping position. At 6-foot-0, 240 pounds, Young was the best option coaches saw due to his size, athleticism and strength.
Young is just looking to help his team wherever possible, and said he doesn't care whether it's at Spur -- where he may play against spread teams -- or at WILL.
"It's just being refreshed on the assignments that come along with that position," Young said. "Going back and forth isn't really an issue and this week I think that we're going to stay pretty strong with me going back and forth at Spur and WILL. It hasn't been an issue and it won't be."
After watching tape on ASU, USC will likely try to drill the outside edge, as it's been the most vulnerable part of the Sun Devil run defense. The defense and linebackers in particular know about this all too well and know that they will play a big part in whether the Sun Devils walk away with a win or not this weekend.
"It's really about us stopping the perimeter run against USC," Jones said. "The majority of the runs that we've been giving up have been to the boundary and the outside. We've been stopping the run really well inside it's just those outside runs. That's what's been hurting us so once we stop that I think we'll be one of the best run stopping defenses in the nation."
Special teams under fire
While its special teams units under fire in general, one of the key areas being discussed was ASU's kickoff coverage last Saturday against Stanford after a good showing in the first two games.
With junior kicker Alex Garoutte only having one touchback, Stanford's average starting field position following a kickoff was at its own 32.5-yard line.
This starting field position for Stanford was noticeably higher than for Wisconsin and Sacramento State against Arizona State at Sun Devil Stadium.
Wisconsin's average starting field position following a kickoff was at its own 24.3-yard line while Sacramento State averaged starting at its own 22.9-yard line.
Taking out the four touchbacks by Garoutte against Wisconsin and nine touchbacks against Sacramento State, the Badgers' average starting position was at their 23.3 yard line, while the Hornets' started at the 14.5 yard line on average.
Through the first three games, ASU's opponent's average starting field position following a kickoff was its own 25.6 yard line. Last year, through the first three games, the opponent's average starting field position following a kickoff was its own 26.5 yard line.
Regardless of how the team is doing on special teams, it is something it works extremely diligently on every week.
"We make it (special teams) the primary focus every week," Graham said. "The way we go and prepare, we don't react to the way one thing's going or another thing's going. A lot of the things are very correctable mistakes that we made, areas that had been very good up until this game. A lot of these things you have to give credit to the other team that we were playing because they were a lot better prepared than we were and played a lot better than we did. Yes, after you have that many mistakes in the kicking game it will be a major priority, but it is every week. Early in the season you have to emphasize those things. Obviously, we do. We can't spend any more meeting time or practice time on special teams -- it's the most I've ever spent, so that will be our focus this week but, on the same hand, it's things we have to get corrected and be better prepared and be performing better than what we did Saturday."
Looking ahead to ASU's next opponent on Saturday, USC's average starting field position following a kickoff is at its own 27-yard line.
In response to the challenge that this presents ASU's special teams, senior linebacker Chris Young said there is a constant need for special teams to perform so it's important to emphasize no matter the opponent.
"You have to have the mentality of wanting to do it," Young said. "When it comes to kickoff cover, we obviously have our best guys on kickoff cover to have a mentality to go down of getting the ball and that's just our philosophy on kickoff covering."
Playing last year on special teams and currently on kick and punt coverage, senior linebacker Anthony Jones recognizes that improvements have to be made.
"Especially in the punt game, you have too many punts blocked and gave up too many yards on kickoffs." Jones said. "Maybe better kicks, maybe better blocking, getting down the field and hustling. That's all it is, just more of a want to. Got to have all hands on deck when it comes to special teams."
Regarding punting specifically, it has played a crucial role in affecting the field position game which has both negatively and positively impacted ASU this year as punt coverage has been an issue for the team.
Though the first three games, both junior walk-on punter Dom Vizzare and freshman punter Matt Haack have had their share of punts in the games. Vizzare was named starter for the first two games and then Haack stepped in and started against Stanford last week.
Combined, Vizzare and Haack have punted 10 times for 390 yards with an average of 39 yards per punt. Last year, ASU's Josh Hubner was one of top punters in the nation and punted 52 times for 2451 yards with an average of 47.1 yards and a long of 73.
Sophomore defensive tackle Jaxon Hood was dressed for practice but wore a green non-contact jersey and did not participate in individual drills or the team period observed by media.