Arizona State head coach Todd Graham had a knowing half-smile on his face when asked about the strength of his team's secondary at July's Pac-12 media day.
"Secondary's going to be a lot stronger, more physical," he said.
That was a bold assessment, given the unit was central to Arizona State finishing 2012 ranked No. 3 nationally against the pass. The Sun Devils held opponents to 50.3 percent pass completions and came away with 21 interceptions a season ago, but lost safety Keelan Johnson and cornerback Deveron Carr.
Sure, Alden Darby and Osahon Irabor returned. The two were responsible for four interceptions and 21 defended passes. But leading up to 2013, all the chatter about the Arizona State focused on the front seven—and with good reason.
Backfield terrors Will Sutton, Carl Bradford and Junior Onyeali returned to lead a defense that made 52 sacks in 2012.
Matching last year’s sacks gaudy numbers has been a challenge. Onyeali was lost to a season-ending injury and Sutton is struggling to adapt playing at 305 pounds. Bradford remains a house-of-fire, and defensive end Davon Coleman has stepped up as a leading playmaker. Still, the Sun Devils have just 10 sacks on the year
Arizona State is also allowing 168.8 rushing yards per game at a 4.6 yards per carry clip.
Nevertheless, the pass defense is continuing to produce. Statistically, the Sun Devils are not far off their 2012 mark in categories such as completions and completion percentage, and are on an improved pace for touchdowns and interceptions.
The secondary’s ability to shut down big pass play is this defense's biggest strength, and the individual play of Darby and Irabor is driving that.
Graham raved about Irabor in the preseason, and his confidence has proven to be well-founded. Irabor has taken on the most challenging coverage assignments, such as wide receivers Marqise Lee of USC and Paul Richardson of Colorado. He's stepped up to those challenges admirably.
The Week 5 win over USC perfectly crystallized the importance of the secondary to the Sun Devils’ Pac-12 South aspirations. Irabor and Alden both intercepted Trojans quarterback Cody Kessler to set up scores. The two plays were pivotal to the Sun Devils taking control: Irabor's gave Arizona State a lead before halftime and Darby's put it ahead by two scores for the remainder of the game.
The Trojans were gashing Arizona State's run defense at nearly seven yards per rush attempt, but limiting what they could do with the pass kept USC at bay.
It's not just Darby and Irabor making plays, either. Opposing quarterbacks won't find relief throwing away from Irabor, because cornerback on the other side, Robert Nelson, is proving similarly dangerous. Nelson has four defended passes and two interceptions to match Irabor.
Chris Young has been integral to limiting big plays with his work at the Spur position.
Keeping explosive plays to a minimum is the biggest hurdle for this defense, Graham said Tuesday. Its next opponent is a team capable of making such plays.
Saturday's Pac-12 Conference matchup with Washington promises to test the Sun Devil secondary more than it has been all season, in no small part because the Huskies will also continue the pressure on Arizona State's rush defense.
“The [run defense] problem’s been we played some really, really good people,” Graham said on Tuesday's Pac-12 coaches teleconference.
Those "really, really good" rushers include Stanford's Tyler Gaffney, Wisconsin's Melvin Gordon and USC's Tre Madden.
The trend doesn’t change with Husky running back Bishop Sankey visiting Sun Devil Stadium. He is the nation’s leader in average rushing yards per game.
Washington balances Sankey with senior quarterback Keith Price. Price is completing more than 69 percent of his pass attempts to 12 different receivers.
Washington's depth in the passing game poses a threat to Arizona State's equally deep secondary.
Kyle Kensing is the Pac-12 Lead Writer for B/R. All quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.
Follow Kyle on Twitter: @kensing45.