ASU's DC hire as much about special teams

Prior to joining the Arizona State coaching staff last week, Keith Patterson’s credentials included stops at Tulsa, Pitt and West Virginia. He has coached in eight bowl games and, having previously worked with coach Todd Graham, has an intimate knowledge of Graham’s schemes and philosophies.

Those are all great little factoids to include when pumping out a press release. But all you really need to know about Patterson is this: Graham trusts him.

That's saying a lot. Because when it comes to defense, Graham can be a bit of a, well, there’s no right way sugar-coat it. He’s a control freak. The defense is his baby. Defensive meetings wouldn’t start until Graham got into the room. And when the defense falters -- and it did a few times last season -- he sits in front of that microphone and shoulders all of the blame.

But Patterson is a dear friend and Graham’s former college roommate. There is a trust there that goes beyond hours and hours in a film room.

So the fact that Graham is relinquishing even a hummingbird’s beak of control is an intriguing development, because it will allow him to take on more of a CEO role and oversee the entire team. And it allows him to put some focus on one area in particular -- special teams. But we’ll get to that in a minute.

Graham will still be heavily involved in the defensive planning. Which is to say instead of being 100 percent involved like he was before, he’ll be about 98.3 percent involved now. Just so we’re clear, Graham is still going to call the defense. But he wants another set of trusted eyes coaching the linebackers and looking at the bigger picture.

When you look at the makeup of ASU’s defensive staff, it’s hard not to be impressed. Chris Ball will still serve as co-defensive coordinator along with Patterson and the ever-watchful eye of Graham. Paul Randolph, formerly co-defensive coordinator, will still work with the defensive ends. Jackie Shipp’s contributions as defensive line coach have been invaluable. Patterson will work with the linebackers while Graham and Ball will work with the secondary.

That’s three coordinators, a head coach and a longtime NFL player/Oklahoma assistant -- not too shabby.

It makes for a very intriguing defensive year for the Sun Devils, who will experience a massive talent drain on that side of the ball with nine of 11 starters having moved on. With youth and depth issues, it might take a season or two for this new defensive staff to show just how good it really is. Rather than judging progress strictly with Xs and Os in 2014, player development will likely take center stage.

Perhaps the most important element of this hire, however, is the re-shuffling of the special teams coaching staff. Aside from freshman kicker Zane Gonzalez, ASU’s special teams were pretty abysmal in 2013. The Sun Devils were last in the league in punting and middling in the return game. This new coaching hierarchy addresses that, at least that's what Graham hopes.

Patterson will assume the role as defensive special teams coach while Chip Long will handle offensive special teams. Graham is also going to play a “major” role in special teams, which is something he wouldn’t be able to do if he was running the defense all on his own. With the departure of special team’s coordinator Joe Lorig, who moved to Utah State to be the linebackers coach, the Sun Devils have a chance to make major strides in the weakest aspect of their game last season.

Unprompted, Graham made a point to single out poor special teams play in his opening statement after the loss to Texas Tech in the Holiday Bowl.

“We have a lot of things to work on on special teams, that will be dealt with immediately and that will be something I take a personal interest in,” Graham said. “That has killed our team. We've lost three ballgames this year because of that.”

The Patterson hiring allows Graham to do just that -- if Graham is willing to relinquish the defense, even just a little bit.