(Photo: Ryan Clarke/WCSN)
Nestled in a forest just to the east of Payson, Camp Tontozona serves as a serene escape for ASU football at the end of every summer. Relaxing hikes and quiet nights spent without technology highlight a week of bonding.
But when the Saturday scrimmage rolls around, all that silence is replaced with pads crunching, coaches yelling and fans cheering. The loudest voice of all on Saturday was senior linebacker Koron Crump, though, who let out an emphatic scream every time the first team defense took the field.
Running off the sideline, Crump yells: “DOGS! DOGS!”
The words cut through any silence the campground might have had left. Crump said the yell represents his nickname for the 2017 ASU defense: Desert Dogs.
“The defense is showing up this year,” Crump said. “Coach (Phil) Bennett got us right.”
The Sun Devil front seven was excellent in an otherwise sloppy scrimmage, bursting into the backfield with regularity and bringing constant pressure. This alleviated whatever shortcomings may exist in a thin secondary.
Kareem Orr and Armand Perry’s departure from the ASU program creates plenty of opportunity for young players to make a difference. They’ll need to adjust quickly if the Sun Devils want to improve on a season where they finished dead last in the country in passing yards allowed.
A tenacious front seven will be helpful during that adjustment period. Bennett, in his first season as defensive coordinator, said ASU’s scheme has been adjusted as well to fit their personnel.
“In coverage, we’re getting some help underneath,” Bennett said. “It’s not just locked up man on man. We’re trying to break down protections on how many people they’ve got.”
In order to succeed in that strategy, the Sun Devils need to bring pressure and versatility to the table. Players like Crump and senior linebacker DJ Calhoun possess the necessary skills, and both recognize that it’s a common trend for their unit in the trenches.
“Everybody’s fast,” Calhoun said. “It’s not just about having the body weight, everybody is fast and can do what they do.”
Having the right guys to play in the tweaked system is important, but maintaining the right attitude is the other part of the equation. The Desert Dogs can’t live up to their name if they aren’t locked in every single play.
Bennett’s coaching style reinforces that mindset regularly. Players describe him as a motivator that isn’t afraid to light a fire under their feet.
“He’s real,” Crump said. “He’s real real. If you ain’t get it right he’ll tell you about it, so I appreciate that he don’t sugar coat nothing.”
No time to be sweet when you’re tasked with overhauling a defense that built an adverse reputation last season. Whether he’s in a player’s face or screaming instructions across the field, Bennett is a constant communicator.
If his players reflect that when the season starts, they have a chance to live up to their ear-splitting nickname. Bennett refuses to be a “predictor”, however, quoting Clint Eastwood while providing a measured approach to the defense he inherited:
“Sometimes a man’s got to know his limitations.”