December 17, 2008

Season review: Secondary

The Arizona State secondary was a mixed bag in 2008.

It showed flashes of brilliance at times but left fans upset and frustrated at others.

Several times a member of the secondary made a play that sparked the rest of the team, but there were also times when it let up a play that really deflated ASU.

The secondary accounted for seven interceptions, four forced fumbles and 18 points, however, opposing receivers were occasionally left wide open for a big gain.

It was either hit or miss with this group.

ASU gave up 208.7 yard per game this year, ranking it seventh in the conference, and opponents passed for 16 touchdowns against the Sun Devils.

Overall, the safeties had a better year than the cornerbacks, and perhaps nobody on the entire defense had a better season than Troy Nolan.

The senior safety started all 12 games in 2008 and he finished the season with four interceptions, a forced fumble, a fumble recovery and three touchdowns. His final score of the year came on a 100-yard pick six against UCLA in his final game at Sun Devil Stadium.

Perhaps Nolan's best attribute on the field is his ability to sit back in coverage and read the quarterback, which was evidenced by all of his interceptions.

However, Nolan struggled when he was forced to play man coverage against a wide receiver and he found himself in that situation a lot this year.

But one thing Nolan brought to the defense that cannot be measured by stats was his leadership.

Many of the younger safeties on the team said Nolan and fellow senior safety Rodney Cox would spend hours with them in the film room helping them with their game.

Cox's stats weren't nearly as good as Nolan's, but his impact on the team was nearly just as important.

Cox isn't the biggest, fastest or most athletic safety by and means, but he works as hard as anyone on the team and always had a smile on his face.

Safeties' coach Matt Lubick said Cox was last on the depth chart before the 2007 season, but that his work ethic is what elevated him into a starting role.

Cox started the first four games of the season, but then he was replaced by the more athletic true freshman Clint Floyd. However, Floyd suffered a lacerated kidney against USC on Oct. 11, and Cox started the rest of the season.

When Floyd played, he looked really good. He had four tackles in his season debut as a starter and showed a lot of promise for the future.

The lacerated kidney kept Floyd out of practice for a month and a half, but he returned in late November and said the injury would not affect him long term.

At 5-foot-10, 180 pounds, Floyd is slightly undersized for a safety but he can flat out hit and makes up for his lack of size with speed and a nose for the football.

Floyd will most likely be the Sun Devils' starting strong safety next season and the guy who could be lining up next to him is Max Tabach.

At 6-foot-2, 205 pounds, the sophomore from Glendale Community College looks very physically impressive.

Tabach was ASU's No. 2 free safety behind Nolan before tearing the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee against Cal on Oct. 4, ending his season.

Tabach should be cleared to practice when ASU begins spring workouts.

If Tabach isn't in the starting lineup next season, there is a good chance Keelan Johnson will be there instead.

Johnson, a true freshman and perhaps the most athletic player on the team, came to ASU not knowing exactly where he would play. The coaches let him choose between wide receiver and safety and he decided to play offense.

Johnson was playing wide receiver on the scout team, but when Floyd and Tabach were sidelined with injuries he began practicing with the safeties.

In his first day on defense, Johnson played both safety positions and even took several reps with the first unit. At the time, Coach Dennis Erickson said he planned on keeping Johnson on the redshirt list and he did just that. Johnson did not see any game action in 2008.

However, Johnson was very impressive in practice and it became clear that he will be a very good Pac-10 safety.

Johnson wasn't the only player who switched positions mid-season to become a safety.

On the same day Johnson moved to defense, Ryan McFoy moved into the defensive backfield as well.

McFoy played safety as a freshman in 2006, but has been a weak-side linebacker since Erickson took over the program two years ago.

McFoy saw very limited action after switching positions and it is not clear whether he will stay at safety or move back to linebacker next season.

Senior Jarrell Holman was the only other safety to receive any significant playing time this season.

After Floyd went down with his injury, Holman became a staple of the second team at the strong safety slot.

Other reserve safeties on the ASU roster included Angelo Fobbs-Valentino and Jonathan Clark.

Fobbs, a senior, was primarily used on special teams and missed about a month of the season after tearing his medial collateral ligament against NAU in the season opener.

Clark also missed part of the year with a knee injury. He tore the meniscus in his right knee and had surgery to repair it in late September.

The other half of the secondary, the cornerbacks, had some growing pains early on as they were adjusting to a new coach, Greg Burns, who brought in a new technique.

Perhaps the player who took the longest to adjust to Burns' technique was Omar Bolden.

Bolden had a phenomenal season as a true freshman in 2007 and it appeared he would be a shutdown corner in 2008.

But that was not the case.

Bolden excelled as a physical cornerback who jammed wide receivers at the line in 2007, but that wasn't his role in the new system. Bolden was often lining up nearly 10 yards from the line of scrimmage and was occasionally getting burned by his man.

Bolden's struggles reached their peak when ASU faced Georgia on Sept. 20. Bolden was given the task of guarding true freshman A.J. Green, and Green had a field day totaling 159 yards and one touchdown.

Throughout the season, and several times against Green, the man Bolden was to be guarding would catch the ball with Bolden 10 yards away from him.

Bolden owned up to his mistakes, admitted he was struggling with the new technique and promised to work harder to improve.

He did just that and played fairly well at the end of ASU's season. He finished the year with two interceptions.

Bolden started all 12 games for ASU, but on the other side of the field there was some shuffling in the starting lineup.

Walk on Pierre Singfield started the first three games of the year before Terell Carr took the starting spot.

Carr saw very limited playing time early on, then him and Singfield both spent a lot of time on the field after Carr took over the starting spot, but then Singfield's playing time dwindled as the season progressed - not because he wasn't playing well, but because Carr seemingly got better every week.

Carr finished the season with one interception and appears to have secured the starting spot.

The only other cornerback to see much playing time in 2008 was true freshman Josh Jordan.

Jordan was a staple of the second unit and was used on the nickel package, but ASU stayed in its base defense for most of the season.

Junior Travis Smith was in the mix early on, but his only meaningful game action came on special teams.

Grade: B- This group was either hit or miss all year long. It made a ton of big, critical plays throughout the season, but it gave up a lot too. Bolden's adjustment period to the new technique took way too long and that really hurt ASU early on. Also, none of the safeties who saw significant playing time were very good in man-to-man coverage and that hurt the team too. There is no doubt ASU will miss Nolan and his play making abilities next season, but it has some really good safeties on the roster and some good ones who have verbally committed to the program. The cornerback position should improve next season as the Sun Devils will keep all of their top players there.

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