(Photo: Scotty Bara/WCSN)
The first test for Arizona State has been passed—a 3-0 showing in non-conference play that primarily was the result of an offense firing on all cylinders.
For the defense, however, many kinks are still being worked out to get the group into shape for Pac-12 play. Injuries, suspensions, and at times poor play, have been reasons for Sun Devil fans to worry about the group.
If there is something to look forward to heading into a matchup against Cal, a team that is averaging 47 points per game, it’s that for the first time this season, the unit is getting healthy again.
Head coach Todd Graham noted that communication on the defense will be the biggest benefit of getting the injured players back.
Redshirt freshman defensive lineman George Lea and veteran bandit safety/SPUR linebacker Laiu Moeakiola are both expected to be fully healed from injury and ready to play on Saturday. Moeakiola got significant playing time at SPUR in the second half of the win against UTSA, and looks to be nearing full health.
SAM linebacker Salamo Fiso will also play for the first time this season after missing the first three games of the season due to suspension.
“All training camp he (Fiso) was with the ‘ones’ the whole time,” Todd Graham said. “He’s a veteran, so it will be a little bit of a curve, but I know one thing, it’s nice to have him back.”
The only question mark among the unit members is Christian Sam, who has been out since getting injured early in ASU’s opening week win against Northern Arizona. Carlos Mendoza has filled in for Sam during his absence.
The Golden Bears present a challenge not entirely unfamiliar to ASU. The parallels to Texas Tech, a team ASU beat a mere two weeks ago, are hard to ignore. Cal’s quarterback, Davis Webb, played multiple seasons under Kliff Kingsbury in Lubbock, and has led a similar Air Raid system while with the Golden Bears.
Defensive backs coach T.J. Rushing noticed one stark difference between the two offenses that will help ASU in their preparation.
“Cal will run the ball more,” he said. “And they are physical about it. They have a little bit more physical nature about their offense than Tech did, so you have to be prepared for both.
Graham singled out secondary members Kareem Orr and Armand Perry as defensive standouts that have played consistently. Those two will play big roles in stopping Webb, as well as the running game.
ASU’s defense has been notorious for stepping up its play when it’s most needed, even if the unit struggles during the early stages of the game. A more complete game from start to finish has been prioritized, especially against a talented offense such as Cal’s.
“Guys are getting settled in,” Rushing said. “Guys start trusting their training and playing hard. They know the game is on the line, they bring it up to another level, so that’s something we have to do from the get-go.”
As is usually the case, the Pac-12 offenses will be a much more difficult task to shut down than non-conference opponents, meaning the defense will have to step up its game even more.
“The good thing about playing out west is that every weekend you are facing a prolific offense,” Rushing said. “It will just get us ready, get us tuned up. Every week is going to be a good challenge defensively.”