(Photo: Scotty Bara/WCSN)
A spring packed to the seams with uncertainty for Arizona State football concluded on Saturday morning, with a televised practice open to season ticket holders.
While the quarterback battle, the offensive line and even the receiving core have garnered most of the attention to this point, the defense, while also in-limbo, has been as exciting as it has uncertain.
With playmakers like Jo-Jo Wicker and Kareem Orr returning for their sophomore season, expectations for their follow-up campaign have been set high by defensive coordinator Keith Patterson.
Following an encouraging spring, Patterson thinks Wicker is ready to anchor an already strong defensive line.
“He’s playing with so much more confidence,” Patterson said. “The biggest thing I see is the work ethic that he comes to practice with everyday, he comes to practice trying to get better and if he’ll keep that up and continue to progress in that area, he’s going to help himself.”
Last season as a true freshman, Wicker tallied 21 tackles – 7.5 of which were for a loss of yards – and four sacks.
He admits that it took him longer than he had hoped to learn the defensive scheme and that he’s far more comfortable with another year under his belt.
“It [learning the scheme] was more difficult last year,” Wicker said. “It was a little bit different last year, this year it’s a little more simplified, easier, but it was hard, I’m not going to lie to you, it was hard.
“I didn’t really get it until the fifth game, probably.”
In a unit that already features Wicker and junior Tashon Smallwood, both Patterson and Wicker have been impressed by JUCO transfer Koron Crump.
“He’s a newcomer, so for him to come and do that good, it’s kind of impressive,” Wicker said.
With the addition of Crump, Patterson believes the defensive line will be able to pressure the quarterback on a consistent basis, which in turn will lead to a more effective secondary.
“It’s just his explosivness,” Patterson said. “His tremendous speed, his ability to move the quarterback off the spot, that’s what we said going into spring football, we want to focus on being able to get a four-man pass rush, it allows you to play coverage and take some of the stress off of those defensive backs who aren’t always in a man-to-man situation.”
In 2015, Crump totaled 54 tackles and 11 sacks, he also forced six fumbles with the Fort Scott Community College Greyhounds.
Throughout spring, though, Patterson has placed an emphasis on eliminating the big play, a goal that he believes the front seven as a whole has accomplished to this point.
“I like where we are,” Wicker said. “We’ve got good athleticism, size, experience, we have a little bit of everything. We’ve been pretty physical at stopping the run all spring long; we’ve really focused on eliminating explosives, which I think we’ve done, if we carry that into next season through fall camp, I think we have a chance to be a really solid football team.”
On the back end, Orr will be expected to take over as the leader in the secondary after a breakout of sorts last season.
Orr totaled 38 tackles and a team-high six interceptions as a freshman in 2015.
“Anytime you have people who have played and have valuable game experience, obviously that’s going to be key in the success of our back end,” Patterson said. “We just have to develop continuity in that unit.”
In the eyes of Orr, the chemistry in the secondary is much improved, and the unit could be one that surprises.
“To be honest, I think we’re going to be very good this year,” Orr said. “We’ve got a bond like we didn’t ever have last year, so we’re going to be communicating.”
One of the more polarizing players of the spring has been De’Cheyvon Hayes, known as “Gump” by his teammates. Hayes, as well as wide receiver Tim White, have been two of the main beneficiaries to the dual training approach taken by head coach Todd Graham. Both guys have earned reps on both offense and defense this spring.
Although the duo finished with a combined 2,125 all-purpose yards last season – Hayes finished with 416 yards while White amassed 1709 – Both have turned heads on defense, building a reputation at corner.
“They’ve got a lot of ability, a lot of talent, raw talent,” Patterson said. “They just continue to work their craft and the technique, that’s one position [corner] that’s just technique-driven, you can have all the speed in the world but you have to play technique, you’ve got to win at the line of scrimmage, then whenever you’re playing off then you’ve got to be able to challenge the ball at the point of attack.
“I like what I see from both of those guys, I think they can do some things for us defensively.”
Despite all of the turnover, though, the plan remains the same on defense and this season, it will all come down to execution.
“Same plan man,” Orr said. “We’ve got some new stuff that we’re putting in though, so we’re excited about it.”