Arizona State's secondary seemed to make one boneheaded play after the next late last season, so when its new coaching staff began repeatedly referring to the same group of players as extremely smart even prior to its first game this season, it was a sentiment understandably met with some skepticism.
One game after the next though, the same players who contributed to a historic collapse last November are turning skeptics into believers, as the Sun Devils rank sixth in pass efficiency defense, ninth in pass defense and tied for first in passes intercepted nationally through three games this year.
"We're right where we want to be but we want to end up where we're at now at the end of the season," safeties coach Chris Ball said Wednesday. "So we're very pleased with the progress we've made but there's a lot of football to be played. We've got smart players which is a bonus. Coming into it we weren't sure how much they'd be able to handle but they're handling a lot. We're really pleased so far."
With an attacking defensive scheme that blitzes from all over the field, ASU's secondary has been asked to play a wider variety of coverages this season, making its structural soundness even more surprising. But this development wasn't unexpected to all.
"It really hasn't been that tough," junior safety Alden Darby said of learning and executing the various schemes. "We all -- me Keelan (Johnson), Osahon (Irabor) and Deveron (Carr) -- came together and the main thing we wanted to elevate about our game is the mental aspect of the game. We wanted to get a lot smarter as a group, as a core. We wanted to make sure we were all on the same page. And them getting us Ipads and being able to watch film at home has been a big plus but we just know that we've matured a lot last year and half the game is mental so that's what we've stayed focused on.
"You could say 100 times more (film has been watched). The only time I watched film last year, sad to say, was when I was here. When I'd go home, I really didn't watch that much film because I was distracted by other things. But I know now, it's a lot different focus this year. I go home and I just sit in my bed and watch film."
Bombast is common nowhere if not on a college football field, so Darby's pre-seasons boasts of being the nation's best secondary were largely written off by media types not unfamiliar with such talk, but it seemed particularly arrogant given the group's most recent results. ASU ranked No. 108 out of 120 FBS teams last season in passing defense, and in the season's final two months, was even worse.
It's with that reality in its past that ASU head coach Todd Graham has taken to reminding what can happen when overconfidence sets in, something Darby and his teammates have experience with. Prior to a Nov. 5 game at UCLA last season, when it looked as though ASU might be the odds-on favorite to play in the inaugural Pac-12 title game, Darby was on the field chanting "January swag." A few hours later, he was defending Bruin receiver Rosario Dawson on a converted third and 29 that spiraled into a five game losing streak to end the season.
"I told them today, don't start taking things for granted," Graham said. "We did some things fundamentally [Wednesday] that we haven't been doing. I said, 'hey, what are we doing?' You do that Saturday and think you're just going out there and showing up and think that's why we're doing well…it's because we're executing a system. The key for us defensively, we want to be the smartest team in the league. Guys that do what they're coached to do, 100 percent, zero deficiencies. I've been proud of those guys. I think we've got really smart guys and a system that suits them and we've got to continue to put them in a position to be successful. That's a challenge. In the Pac-12 every week you're going to go up against guys with dynamic receivers and the biggest chance for them to score this week is on big plays. So we've got to do an equal good job this week."
Utah, even without its top quarterback Jordan Wynn, who retired recently due to shoulder injuries, is capable of testing the ASU secondary, which has thus far benefited from not having to go up against an opposing No. 1 quarterback from a BCS team, a fact which has certainly contributed to its success in the national rankings. Backup Jon Hays has developed a reputation as a gunslinger, which ASU took advantage of last season when it intercepted him three times, including one by Darby in what may have been his best game of the season at nickel back.
"No cheap ones," Ball said. "We can't give up big plays. We're preaching that because they throw a lot of seam routes, a lot of big seam routes downfield and a lot of things to loosen you up so they can run the football and we have to be prepared for that."
Darby just wants to continue to make his prediction come true, and give credibility to the "no fly zone" label he and his mates in the secondary have affixed to their group.
"We take a lot of pride in that," Darby said. "A lot of people said the weak point were the defensive backs and I kept telling you guys that we're going to be the strongest point of the defense. So we worked hard and prepared and we're letting our hard work and effort take over."