The fifth and last week of spring football practices opens up and our attention needs to be directed at Arizona State's secondary.
As expected, the running back corps is crushing the competition, the race for the quarterback starting position is very close and everybody across the team is just getting up to speed. However, the secondary reported to football activities with massive rebuild to accomplish.
Starting cornerbacks Lloyd Carrington and Kweishi Brown are gone, as well as starting safety Solomon Means.
Despite the atrocious season this unit experienced, ranked dead last in the nation in passing defense with 337.8 yards allowed per game, Todd Graham seems to be confident enough to organize a complete turnaround of forces in the secondary.
The ASU head coach was put under pressure after his first lousy season with the Sun Devils, criticized by many fans, and the defensive performance happened to be a focal point. It shouldn't come as a surprise that his primary offseason goal is to improve the secondary, at all costs apparently.
Three starters in the back end have to be replaced. Veteran players show playmaking abilities and versatility across the defense, while newcomers do not lack talent.
Todd Graham is a creative defensive mind. That is probably why he announced that Laiu Moeakiola was moving from SPUR linebacker to ground safety. Shortage of experienced players and atypical skills give sense to a move that will likely improve the defense as a whole. The senior has been one of the best defensive player the last two years but his durability raises questions.
Moeakiola has been banged up a lot the last couple years. Moving him back to safety will allow him to fly around, as well as keep him further from injuries and providing experience to the back end.
"One of the things we can't have with replacing that many people on the back end is just losing that experience," said Todd Graham according to AZCentral Sports' Doug Haller. "Some of the things that we're modifying with our coverage, we'll be very similar when the safeties spin down. He'll be doing some of the things that he did all year last year. ... But Laiu is such a smart player, we need experience back there with that group. He'll play free safety starting in fall camp, and obviously we'll have different packages. I'm looking forward to watching him do that, and obviously, I do think it'll help keep him healthy."
Laiu Moeakiola changed position partly because sophomores Kareem Orr and Armand Perry, recruited as cornerbacks, are moving back to their original position on the outside. Orr ended up being one of the defensive bright spots last year. He grabbed 6 interceptons and was selected to the USA Today Freshman All-American Team.
Both of the safety battles are going to be very interesting during fall practices. But the main work remains on the cornerback positions.
The shift of both sophomores to cornerback confirms the cross-training trend on both sides of the ball. Todd Graham is a fervent believer of cross-training, and he is not shy of generating competition by putting players into new positions. This spring, senior athlete sensation Tim White earns training time on offense and defense.
Initially wide receiver with the Sun Devils, Tim White has been working lately with the cornerback squad. He is indubitably one of ASU's best playmakers and trying him at a position of need shows the willingness of improvement in this area.
"We always had planned on looking at him there,'' said Graham, emphasizing that White's primary duties still will come on offense. "That's something we talked about before spring. I just think his athleticism and his ball skills, he's long, and he's always come to me (and said), 'Hey, Coach, I can play corner.' He wants to do it, so we'll let him try to do it a little bit, but also we needed (for him) to get work done offensively, that's why we waited to this point."
White is not the first offensive player to be tested on defense. Running back recruit two years ago, senior De'Chavon "Gump" Hayes started to get reps on defense at the end of last season because of injuries, and it has continued during spring practices.
However, senior receiver Eric Lauderdale seems to have permanently moved to cornerback.
These two players have not shown much on offense since their arrival in Tempe. Moving them to cornerback might be a way of getting contribution out of them, and if it works out, it could benefit to the team. Win-win solution.
As the end of spring football looms this week, the back end of the defense is setting up for fall with a totally new look. Multiple defensive players are switching positions to better fit their assets, and three offensive players are getting attention in a revamped secondary, the most Todd Graham has ever had.
There is quite a lot of uncertainty going into a new phase of the offseason.
The depth at cornerback is not going to appease concerns, but the talent is here. JUCO transfers J'Marcus Rhodes and Maurice Chandler, who were expected to be major contributors immediately, are already in the mix for a starting position. Moreover, incoming freshmen Robbie Robinson and Chase Lucas should join the party this summer and seek playing time.
At the end of the day, the best players will be named starters for the season opener against Northern Arizona. Todd Graham is taking the bull by the horns and tries to improve his secondary, last year's biggest weakness by a mile (or two), as soon as possible. It often requires drastic changes, which is exactly what ASU is doing.
Creativity, guts, projection. What if Todd Graham's boldest maneuver in Tempe could pay dividends right away? Once again, talent is here. The coaching will do the rest.