clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

the Gekko Files: Previewing Arizona State Sun Devils Football in 2016

New, 52 comments

Arizona State, the most aggressive team in the PAC, is trying to hang on in a division that seems to be passing it by.

Todd Graham shed the Britney Spears look for more traditional headsets in 2015.
Todd Graham shed the Britney Spears look for more traditional headsets in 2015.
James Snook-USA TODAY Sports

It's a veritable tragedy, I tell you.

Any Arizona State fan will tell you the same thing. It wasn't that long ago that this thing was on the rails and threatening to make history. Now it is simply a shadow of its former self and, quite honestly, on the verge of irrelevance.

I suppose I should clarify as you may well be thinking I'm talking about the Arizona State football team. Quite the contrary. I'm talking about Arizona's "Bras and Boxers" annual charitable fundraising event. The event has apparently been cancelled for, get this, a "lack of funding support."

What??? Doth mine ears decieveth me? How is it possible that an event of such cultural and philanthropic significance is not fully funded? For god's sake, we fund Arizona's Ballet, its Museum of Natural History, and its nature preserves. Are you telling me we can't do the same to ensure that the starving students of Arizona State are fed and...errrrr...mollified?

Think about the consequences, people. No more drunk frat boys in their straw hats and Psycho Bunnies. No more scantily clad (or not clad) sorority girls trying to avoid having their images show up on their parents' social media feeds. No more gawkers lining up along Mill Ave to take in the full grandiosity of the sights. No more of this:

Well, I suppose Arizona State fans are going to have to turn their attention back to Todd Graham and his Sun Devils football program. Unfortunately, there aren't a lot of really good vibes emanating from that corner of campus, either.

The Sun Devils are coming off their worst season since Graham took over. Despite returning a roster that many thought would compete for the South title, the Devils couldn't seem to make their formula of ultra-aggressive defensive play complementing stretch-the-field attacks on offense translate into the same kinds of results that they achieved in the two seasons prior.

In fact, ASU barely made bowl eligibility with a 6-7 overall record. In fact, they lost five of their last seven. That streak included their comeback victory over Washington in Tempe which, as many Husky fans will recall, was a game that UW literally handed to the Sun Devils. Had UW won that one, it would have knocked ASU from bowl eligibility and we'd be having a completely different offseason dialogue about the status of Todd Graham.

As it is, ASU remains a team that many are uncertain about. Was 2015 an anomaly or a sign of things to come?

Sounds like a question for the Gekko.

ASU's Offense:

Offensive Coordinator Strengths Weaknesses Key Players Newcomers to Watch
Chip Lindsey Rushing Attack
WR Depth
Offensive Line 
Quarterback
RB Demario Richard
WR Tim White
WR N'Keal Harry (TFr)
OL Zach Robertson (RSFr)

RB Demario Richard is ASU's own "Baby Beast Mode."

It seems like déjà vu all over again when I write about all the pieces that Arizona State has to replace on offense. After losing talents such as QB Taylor Kelly and WR Jaelen Strong, it seems as if I typed these exact words a year ago into the Gekko Files.

But it is indeed a new day, with a new set of stars to replace. Gone now are offensive coordinator Mike Norvell (new head coach at Memphis), QB Mike Bercovici, RB D.J. Foster, and WR Devin Lucien. Also gone are four out of five starting offensive linemen. If you look closely at the program, they may also be missing a trainer, a mascot, and a couple of water boys. In all, no PAC-12 team has to replace as many pieces on offense as does ASU.

So we begin at QB where there is a three-way (at least) race to replace Bercovici. Sophomore Manny Wilkins, a mobile passer whom I thought looked good when I studied his recruiting highlights, should be the heir apparent. That he didn't secure the job outright in spring is a red flag to me. Redshirt Brady White has a little more juice in his arm, even if he is less mobile. Given that White is more of a pure passer and that his new OC, Chip Lindsey, is not shy in airing it out, it may well be his job to lose. He'll need to fend off the additional competition from redshirt frosh Bryce Perkins and true freshman Dillon Sterling-Cole.

Whomever gets the job will take their lumps behind an offensive line that is in total rebuild mode. This isn't really a new thing; ASU was in a bit of a rebuild mode a year ago. They did okay then as OG Christian Westerman, a weight room freak, earned PAC-12 honors and a ticket to the NFL draft. Still, this is a unit with just one returning starter - senior OT Evan Goodman - and one other player with any PAC starts. That's it. Two JUCOs and a bushel of underclassmen is what is left. Hang on tight, laddies. This is going to be a work in progress.

The skill positions are also looking at a talent refresh. Slot back Tim White is the most accomplished returning starter. He was a JUCO transfer from a year ago and had a productive first season in Tempe. He'll be joined in the receiving corps by true freshman N'Keal Harry as one half of the tandem that Lindsey and Co. will be counting on to make plays. There are others who will likely step up here, even if we don't know all of their names. TE Kody Kohl is a capable player. In addition, I expect junior Cameron Smith and 6'5" junior Ellis Jefferson to become more familiar names to the casual PAC-12 fan. There are tools here to work with.

Fortunately, the RB corps is in good shape. Kalen Ballage and Damario Richard form a solid duo who, collectively, cover the entire gamut of skills that you look for from your RB unit. Richard is the star. He racked up 1100 yards and 7 TDs from a year ago. Physically, he looks like Lavon Coleman - a bit short but very solid. He's aggressive to the hole and a good blocker. Ballage is more of your change of pace guy and a player that excels in the passing game. This is the strength of the offense if the line can get any kind of blocking going. It remains to be seen if Lindsey can rebuild his playbook to feature it.

ASU's Defense:

Defensive Coordinator Strengths Weaknesses Key Players Newcomers to Watch
Keith Patterson LB Depth
Team Speed
Pass Rush
Interior Line
DL Depth
LB Salamo Fiso
DB Kareem Orr
DB Chase Lucas (TFr)
DL Renell Wren (JUCO)

DB Kareem Orr led the PAC-12 in INTs as a freshman in 2015.

If there were a side of the ball that really needed some soul-searching this past offseason, it was the defensive side. Under Graham, the Sun Devils have featured college football's most aggressive blitzing scheme. It's not even close; they blitz between 60%-70% of their defensive snaps in any given season. On the plus side, their blitz rate generated 46 sacks, most in the PAC. On the negative side, they also surrendered the most explosive plays among Power 5 teams: 88 plays of 20+ yards.

That's ridiculous.

Whether or not Graham and DC Keith Patterson have learnt their lessons remain to be seen. It isn't so much that aggression is bad. It is more so the case of matching your calls to your talent or, in the case of Arizona State, your available manpower. In 2016, I worry that ASU is even less in a position than they were in 2015 to pull off their aggressive schemes. There just may not be enough mature and experienced bodies to keep up the torrid pace.

The key for me is the secondary. ASU is replacing three starters, including star CB Lloyd Carrington and stud safety Jordan Simone. Sophomore safety Kareem Orr, a 2015 breakout star who led the team with 6 INTs last year, is back and will be the anchor of the unit. There is both depth and talent here. But, besides junior nickel Chad Adams, it is all relatively untested. ASU is bringing in a couple of JUCO transfers to help out. Also, keep your eyes on true freshman Chase Lucas.

The defensive line is also going through a bit of an overhaul. They return just three players with PAC-12 game experience and will be relying on a lot of JUCO transfers and young players to fill out the rest of the rotation in a scheme that is expected to feature a four-man rush most of the time.

What they are starting with is pretty decent. DE JoJo Wicker broke out as a freshman with four sacks in 2015. He and DE Tashaun Smallwood (2 sacks, 8.5 TFLs) will combine to provide a pretty decent pass rush. NT Viliami Fatu is the 290-lb NT who looks smallish for his role, but plays with a huge motor. After those three, it is anybody's guess. I can't really speak to the pecking order of all the new players, but I can tell you that they are all relatively light (nobody over 290 lbs) and that their offseason competition has been that young ASU offensive line. Not exactly iron shaping iron. Overall, I see the line as a huge question mark, particularly when it comes to blunting a strong opposing rushing attack.

The good news for ASU fans is that the linebacking corps looks loaded. Junior D.J. Calhoun (6 sacks), senior Salamo Fiso (20 TFLs), and Christian Sam make up as fine a trio as there is in the PAC. 220-lb Viliami Moeakiola mans the DEVIL backer role. Depth comes in the form of guys like senior Edmond Boateng and breakout candidate sophomore Jay Jay Wilson. ASU is fortunate to have such quality depth and talent in this position. They are going to need it to cover that D-Line and help break in a youthful secondary.

One Breakout Star

WR N'Keal Harry

Husky fans will recognize the name of true freshman N'Keal Harry. He was a top target for Chris Petersen during the last recruiting cycle when UW was desperate to land a true X-style receiver who could fill the role of "big man" in their receiving rotation.

UW took Harry's recruitment down to the wire, but he ultimately decided to go with his hometown school. Now he will spend the next few years tormenting UW as well as the rest of the PAC. Harry is a complete player right now. He has the requisite size and strength to create physical separation with smaller PAC-12 corners and the length to out high-point jump balls in the redzone. His recruiting tape also shows good ball skills. If there were a weakness, it is the same one that most young players struggle with as they adapt to a league where their physical skills, alone, cannot win every ball: route-running.

Regardless, ASU has a desperate need for a big receiver to step up. While Ellis Jefferson will get first shot at that, I do think Harry's escalation is inevitable. Chip Lindsey needs big receivers - think about how he used Mike Thomas in the Heart of Dallas Bowl (9 rec, 190 yards) against UW - and Harry provides him a great option. The opportunity is there. The physical skills are there. I think Harry breaks out big.

Predicting 2016

I'm not as down on ASU as some others might be. As I noted in the preview, I think they have more potential in the offensive skill positions than people may realize. Their RB situation is set and there are so many options at receiver that it almost feels inevitable that it will work out. QB is a mystery, but again, I think that the underlying talent is probably in as good a shape as they've been since Graham arrived. It just needs time to mature.

The presence of Chip Lindsey is a mitigating factor. One might (and should) question whether or not Lindsey has the QB or the offensive line to run his vertical, spread attack. However, it is clear that his style is consistent with what Graham and Norvell were building the past two years. Lindsey might be even more able than his predecessor to finish the job.

Defensively, the back seven projects fairly well, even as they replace some key players in the secondary. There is a quality of riches in the linebacking corps and their overall team speed is Oregon-esque.

The line of scrimmage is going to be a concern on either side of the ball. I'm very bearish on the prospects of that offensive line putting it together this season. There are just too many young, inexperienced pieces to expect much success against PAC-12 opponents. The defensive line just looks small and unable to withstand the kind of in-season attrition that is typical for a team that plays the pace and style that Todd Graham pushes.

The schedule will be a challenge. There are six road games in total for ASU and it is back-loaded in strength. In fact, ASU ends the year @Oregon, vs Utah, @Washington and @Arizona. They do miss Stanford (and Oregon State), so that's a plus. But they only benefit from two straight weeks at home one time this whole season - that would the first two games. It is going to feel to the coaches and the players like they are perpetually on the road, which I think is tough for a youngish team.

This isn't ASU's year. They have the underlying talent to pull off an upset or two, but are just as liable to give one or two of them back. I expect that they are going to struggle to get to bowl eligibility. They have some of the pieces to compete, but challenges on their lines and at QB seem to nullify their strengths at running back and linebacker. We are likely looking at a middle-of-the-division finish. Three or four conference wins is probably their ceiling as they try to build momentum for a more prosperous 2017.