Last season, Arizona State's defense rated as one of the top units in college football, thanks in large part to a rejuvenated, ball hawking secondary that finished fourth nationally in interceptions. But the losses of cornerback Deveron Carr and free safety Keelan Johnson, who led the Sun Devils with five interceptions in 2012, left a void to be filled. Head Coach Todd Graham and his staff hit the recruiting trail, securing commitments from freshman Marcus Ball and junior college transfer Damarious Randall, providing the team with two talented options at safety that figured to contend for immediate playing time.
Unfortunately for the Sun Devils, both players sustained preseason injuries which limited their availability for the start of the season. While Ball continues to recover from a shoulder injury, Randall made his ASU debut against Wisconsin after recovering from a groin injury that kept him out of fall camp and the team's season opener against Sacramento State. Against the Badgers, Randall recorded two tackles while backing up redshirt freshman Laiu Moeakiola, and saw limited action in the team's following two games before heading to Dallas last weekend to take on the Irish.
In an effort to improve the defense's tackling woes, something that plagued the Sun Devils against some of the bigger, more powerful teams they faced during the first month of the season, Graham inserted Randall into the starting lineup and the Mesa Community College transfer quickly took every advantage of the opportunity. Randall finished with a career and team-high 17 tackles, nine of which were solo. His 17 total tackles were the most by a Sun Devil player since former linebacker Brandon Magee recorded 17 tackles of his own in the team's regular season finale last season against Arizona.
"Basically, yeah," said Randall on Tuesday after practice when asked if he surprised himself with his performance last weekend. "It was a good start for me. I was just, like, see the ball, get the ball. That's just the way I've been playing my whole life.
"When I got (to AT&T Stadium) on Friday, I walked in the stadium and my stomach just flipped. I was kind of sick to my stomach to be walking in that stadium. Ever since that moment, I was just trying to focus and trying to make sure I read my keys. Me and Coach Ball had been talking the entire week about my alignment and about staying focused and reading my keys and stuff like that, so I felt very comfortable about my first start."
Randall's eye-catching starting debut even managed to surprise his head coach, who admitted he wasn't sure what to expect from the defensive playmaker coming off the injury.
"I'm really proud of him," said Graham. "He was a little flustered at times. Our leaders coached him and it was nice how they brought him in. He didn't just play average, he played really good. That is as good as I have ever had a free safety play in the first game for me. He did some great things.
"I really didn't think he was ready. Marcus Ball getting hurt and him getting hurt set us back defensively. He is a long way from arriving but I have great confidence that that position is really going to be elevated as we move forward."
For Randall, who earned NJCAA All-American and Arizona Community College Athletic Conference Defensive Player of the Year honors last year, the break-out performance signaled a welcomed returned to the field following a lengthy rehab process which delayed his much-anticipated Sun Devil debut.
"Honestly, it was just a matter of me getting back to being 100% healthy and just getting back on the field and playing again," he commented. "I've just been battling with my injury the entire camp and it's just been very frustrating. I'm just happy to be back on the field with my team. I'm just very thankful and blessed to have the opportunity just to be on the field with the team."
Despite the numerous big plays he made throughout the game to keep the Sun Devils within striking distance until the very end, one play continues to stand out amongst the others to Randall.
Playing with momentum in their favor during the first half, the Arizona State defense was able to apply pressure on Notre Dame quarterback Tommy Rees, forcing an errant throw to Randall's side of the field that hung just long enough for him to make a break on. Unfortunately, the ball sailed through his hands for an incomplete pass rather than a potential game-changing interception and possible defensive touchdown for the Sun Devils.
For a player who recorded nine interceptions and one defensive score a year ago, it was disheartening moment that slipped away.
"I've actually been thinking about that interception since I dropped it," he remarked. "I knew it would be a key factor in the game. It was like, when I was going at it, I was actually about to hit the (receiver) but then I saw that I got to ball so fast that I was trying to react to it and catch it. It looked bad."
On Tuesday, Arizona State (3-2, 1-1) returned to the Kajikawa practice field looking to shake off the effects of their disappointing loss to Notre Dame and set their sights on the upcoming seven-game slate of conference games that awaits them. After such a strong performance, it was no surprise that Randall was once again with the first-team offense, a move that, at least for now, seems permanent as Randall continues to grow into the role and learn the defense.
"I feel like I'm very comfortable with it and feel like the team is actually starting to feel confidence in me now, so I'm just growing every day," he said.
Randall's instinctive style and big play ability will be relied upon for the remainder of the season as the Sun Devil secondary looks to regain their form from 2012, starting with this weekend's match-up with Pac-12 South foe Colorado (2-2, 0-2).
"We've just got to get more comfortable together and we just got to start trusting each other more. And trusting the coaches' calls and coverages," he said. "We just got to make sure we read our keys and make sure we take the correct steps. We just need to focus on being one unit.
"Now it's just time to win the South."