UCLA Football Preview: ASU Brings Experience on Defense
The Sun Devils have a lot of upperclassmen (including a few super-duper seniors) on this side of the ball.
The Arizona State defense is a hard thing to get a handle on. They haven’t really played the toughest schedule to this point, which has worked to not only inflate their defensive numbers but make it hard to know if they’re actually good or not. BYU was the one good team they’ve faced this year, and the Cougars were able to put up decent offensive production en route to a victory in that game.
Let’s take a look at the Sun Devil defense.
This is an interesting group because by all rights they should be good but haven’t put up the numbers you would expect. Arizona State’s weakness is their run defense, and while they have solid bodies here, they just aren’t getting a ton of stops. Part of that has to do with some losses the group has suffered - they lost one of their best players Jermayne Lole for the year to a preseason injury, then lost one of their most consistent players for the year in Travez Moore during the BYU game - but even against outmatched opponents this group just isn’t doing much.
DJ Davidson and Shannon Forman will man the interior of the line, and Davidson has been the best player in this unit so far, with 16 tackles and 3.5 tackles for loss. The defensive ends, Michael Matus and Tyler Johnson, have been less effective, especially when it comes to generating a pass rush. That’s an interesting fact in and of itself because it means Arizona State’s success at defending the pass has everything to do with the play of their secondary.
This is a good, experienced unit, with three seniors in Darien Butler, Kyle Soelle, and Merlin Robinson. These are the top three tacklers on the team, and they’ve done a good job covering all three levels of the field, with the group also leading the team in both sacks and interceptions. Butler is the heart of this defense, and Robinson has the most natural talent. I don’t know if this is a group UCLA necessarily has to fear, but they are a group that can have a positive impact on the game.
Here’s the strength of the Arizona State defense, and it makes a ton of sense since they have three sixth-year seniors at different spots. The one UCLA fans will be most familiar with is Jack Jones, the former Southern Cal player who transferred to Arizona State early on and has been a constant presence in this matchup since. Jones has an interception, two passes defended, and 11 tackles on the season so far. Across from him is Chase Lucas, another sixth-year senior who has been nearly as good as Jones.
At safety is a third sixth-year senior in Deandre Pierce, and across from him is the only starter who was not a member of the 2016 recruiting class in Evan Fields. That said, Fields is still plenty experienced, being a senior himself and perhaps the most talented player in this group.
Here’s the thing: Arizona State’s pass defense has been really good despite a lack of pass rush, and the run defense has been their relative weakness. That lines up pretty well with what UCLA wants to do offensively, which is establish the run and use that to pass. I imagine the Sun Devils will try putting more guys into the box to help out their struggling defensive line, and that should be what opens up the passing game, especially over the middle where they have a clear mismatch in Greg Dulcich. I think UCLA will need to be a bit more aggressive in their play-calling, but they should still be able to put up similar numbers to what they have been this season.