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ASU Football: Sun Devil defense’s ‘light clicked on’

(Photo: Scotty Bara/WCSN)

The No. 14 Arizona State Sun Devils continued preparation for a hugely important Pac-12 South matchup against the No. 17 Utah Utes on Wednesday, and things looked similar to the way they did on Tuesday.

Taylor Kelly again handled the first-team quarterback duties without any limitations and starting left guard Christian Westerman again worked on the side with a large leg brace.

With all eyes on the offensive storylines in recent weeks, it’s the ASU defense that has quietly plugged away and improved with some consistency. After a rough start to the year, the Sun Devils defense shut out both the Stanford and Washington offenses in the first half of the last two games, and carried the team to victory, despite lackluster offensive performances.

ASU head coach Todd Graham has long pointed to the victory over the USC Trojans earlier in October as the turning point for the defense, and defensive coordinator Keith Patterson agreed with that evaluation.

“Everybody talks about the catch,” Patterson said of Jaelen Strong’s 46-yard Hail Mary reception to beat the Trojans. “But what about the three-and-out to get us to that point? That was huge for building confidence with our players.”

After back-to-back strong defensive performances, confidence is sky high for the Sun Devils’ defense as it prepares to face the Utes. Patterson said the team’s recent showings have validated his patience through the early struggles.

“What most people have the tendency of doing is just ‘Oh man, let’s abort what we’re doing,’” Patterson said. “But not us because we’ve got extreme confidence in what we do, what we believe in, our attacking style of defense, and we knew eventually with those guys the light would click on, it was just a matter of when.”

The light especially clicked on for the ASU defense when the coaches elected to move Antonio Longino to WILL linebacker and place Demetrius Cherry on the line of scrimmage opposite Marcus Hardison. The three, along with cornerback Kweishi Brown, are each junior college transfers that have played especially well in recent weeks.

“We’ve always said newcomers and junior college players, it takes six to eight weeks during the season before you ever see the light come on and I think that’s what’s happened,” Patterson said. “It just takes time and that’s what you see happening. It’s right on, at about six weeks in to the season, all of a sudden, you see kids getting more comfortable with what we’re trying to do.”

Offensive line shuffles

As Jacob Garcia noted in his practice report yesterday, Stephon McCray is still preparing to take over for Westerman at left guard. However, at one point in practice, starting center Nick Kelly went to the trainer’s table to get his ankle wrapped. He tested the ankle, didn’t look to have much issues with it, and returned to offensive line drills.

That doesn’t look like something to be too concerned about, but what was interesting was the shuffle of the offensive line that came in Kelly’s absence.

Typically, if Kelly were to go down with an injury, the team would fill McCray in the role. The coaches elected to do that on Wednesday when Kelly left to the trainer’s table, but instead of filling in a third-string left guard, Jamil Douglas instead filled the role.

Douglas has played very well in his transition to left tackle and is one of the team captains on offense, but he was also a All-Pac-12 Second Team selection at left guard in 2013.

Evidently, the ASU coaches feel more comfortable with McCray at center, Douglas at left guard and Evan Goodman taking over at left tackle than they do with a third-string left guard stepping in.

Again, this is a moot point as long as Kelly is healthy and able to handle his duties on Saturday against Utah, which all signs point to, but its interesting information nonetheless.

Practice Notes

  • Coach Paul Randolph spent the first month or so of the season working primarily with De’Marieya Nelson, Antonio Longino, Edmond Boateng and Paul Crawford. The Devil-backers coach has now spent his practices, including Wednesday’s, working with Boateng, Crawford, Marcus Hardison and Demetrius Cherry.
  • Wide receiver Cam Smith was limited prior to the Washington game and did not play. He returned to practice on Tuesday and looked shaky at times, but on Wednesday he was a full go and looked to have no problems returning to his shifty self.
  • In addition to Goodman and McCray, freshman offensive tackle Sam Jones also got a little bit of work with the first-team offensive line in Kelly’s absence.
  • De’Marieya Nelson has been limited recently with an unknown injury, and while he wore a maroon jersey on Wednesday, he didn’t work much with the offense and spent some time on the stationary bikes instead.

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