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Opponent Q&A: Talking Arizona State Sun Devils Football

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Manny Wilkins is playing really well, but is it enough to save Todd Graham’s job?

Northern Arizona v Arizona State Photo by Jennifer Stewart/Getty Images

Earlier this week we had the chance to talk to a couple members of the ASU community House of Sparky regarding this week’s matchup with the Huskies. Josiah Destin (@jdenstinsports) and Max Madden (@Max_Madden) were kind enough to answer our questions.

Here’s what we learned in our Q&A:

UWDP: It’s been quite a season for quarterback Manny Wilkins; from rumors of fans attacking him on social media for his terrible play to leading the Sun Devils to the (statistically) third most potent pass offense in the Pac-12. How would you assess his play this season? Where can he improve?

Josiah Destin: He has been phenomenal thus far for ASU. He went his first four games without throwing an interception and has stayed in the pocket far more than last year. That's why he's on pace for a 3,000-yard season. Now, he threw two picks against Stanford, which was a major hiccup. If anything, I would say he could improve late in the game in close situations. Wilkins failed to score when down late to San Diego State and took a sack instead of throwing it away late in the game when down by a touchdown to Texas Tech.

Oregon v Arizona State
Manny Wilkins threw for 347 yards and had 3 total TDs in the Sun Devils’ win over Oregon.
Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Max Madden: Wilkins has been fantastic for Arizona State. He's efficient, developing a strong deep ball and limiting his turnovers at an astounding rate compared to last season. One thing he can improve upon, however, is his execution on the run pass option. Last year, he often pulled the ball himself and became one of the best rushing threats on the team. This year, however, he seems hesitant to take it for himself.

UWDP: N’Keal Harry is leading the team with his 34 receptions and looks like he is coming into his own this season. Jalen Harvey and Kyle Williams have also been very productive pass catchers. Please describe their rolls in the pass offense. How has the pass protection been?

Josiah: The receivers are half the reason why Wilkins has improved so much this season. Harry is the most talented and is great with jump balls because of his huge frame (6-foot-4, 216 pounds). Williams is great for screens because of his speed. Harvey is nicknamed "Mr. First Down" because he has great hands. The senior hardly misses in the clutch. The pass protection has not been great. ASU is 127th in the nation, allowing 4.4 sacks per game.

Max: On a normal passing play, Harry is always the first read and owns Wilkins' target share in the offense. Harvey is the slot technician and security blanket. Williams has been used all over the offense with sweeps, screens and deep balls. The pass protection has been a nightmare for ASU this season. It's looked passable at times but is often the worst aspect of the offense.

UWDP: ASU still boasts a potent 1-2 punch in the running game with Kalen Ballage and Demario Richard. Who is likely to get the bulk of the carries? Should we expect to see a fair amount the “Sparky” package? How has the offensive line performed in the running game?

Josiah: Expect the Sparky formation a ton when Wilkins struggles (like he did against Stanford). Ballage has gotten more carries, but Richard is starting to look like himself after an injury in week one that sidelined him for a few weeks. The running game should be great, but the offensive line hasn't allowed it to be. Then again, ASU ran for a season-high 214 yards against Stanford and may be able to keep things rolling on Saturday.

Max: I honestly don't believe the coaching staff truly understands how to properly utilize both of their backs to their full potential. It's often extremely unpredictable in terms of who gets carries. Sometimes Ballage will open the first half and we won't see Richard until the third quarter, or Richard will have 15 carries and Ballage gets a few from the sparky formation. An extremely poor offensive line is likely to blame for most of this, and the lack of identity in terms of a gameplan has really hurt the Sun Devils.

UWDP: Zane Gonzelez is gone and the placekicking duties have fallen on freshman Brandon Ruiz. How has the youngster looked? Who are the top kick returners? How has the kick coverage and the rest of the special teams performed for the Sun Devils?

Josiah: Ruiz is six for nine on the season and has been somewhat inconsistent, but made a game winning field goal to beat then-No. 24 Oregon and hit from 52 yards out in his first career kick, so he has shown tons of potential. He'll be as good if not better than Gonzalez. Ballage has returned kicks and Ryan Newsome has returned punts. Neither of them have looked great. Ballage is average, returning kicks for about 20 yards each return. On the other hand, ASU is returning punts for a two-yard average.

Max: Ruiz has been delivered a mixed bag type of performance so far this season, converting just six of his first nine field goal attempts. He did take a step in the right direction against Oregon a couple weeks ago as he went 3/3 and nailed a game-winner, though. Graham has expressed extreme confidence in the freshman and he should just get better and better.

UWDP: The ASU defense has allowed over 36 points and nearly 500 yards per game. Is it better than the numbers indicate? Should we expect to see the signature Todd Graham blitzes Saturday? Who are some key defenders to watch?

Josiah: I would say it is better than the numbers say. The thing is, ASU usually runs more plays than its opponent, but has had trouble giving up big plays to big running backs (Bryce Love and Rashaad Penny.) You'll see some blitzes, but don't expect too many sacks. Linebacker and sack specialist Koron Crump is out for the season and ASU didn't compile a single sack against Stanford. Watch cornerback Kobe Williams and linebacker DJ Calhoun though. Calhoun hasn't missed a tackle this season for ASU and leads the Sun Devils with 48 tackles. Williams is just a speedy, but short corner. He's had ASU's only defensive score this season with a 49-yard pick six in week one.

NCAA Football: Arizona State at Stanford
Senior linebacker DJ Calhoun had 2.5 tackles for loss against Stanford.
Stan Szeto-USA TODAY Sports

Max: It's exactly as bad as the numbers indicate. The big play, inconsistent tackling and huge 200+ rushing yard games issues still linger with the Sun Devils. Graham seems to have handed the reigns to his defense almost entirely to Phil Bennett, but yes, Bennett loves to execute zone blitzes. Getting to Browning and co. may be the only way ASU has a shot at the upset.

UWDP: Speaking of Graham, is the fanbase still behind him? What does this team need to do to keep Graham at ASU?

Josiah: Not really. If he does any worse than 6-6, the majority of ASU fans will demand he leaves, but I don't think he gets fired unless he finishes the season 4-8 or worse.

Max: There was a lot of confidence restored after the victory against Oregon, but in light of recent Ducks results, the significance of that win should be brought into question. I would definitely say that the majority of the fanbase is not behind Graham. He needs a bowl berth at the very least to keep his job.

UWDP: The Huskies haven’t won in Tempe since 2001. What is your prediction for this game?

Josiah: 31-14, U Dub.

Max: Time to buck some trends! Washington's strengths play straight into the Devils' weaknesses, this one should get ugly. Let's go UW 40-13.

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Thanks guys. Be sure to check out House of Sparky for more on the Sun Devils.

To read my answers to questions from House of Sparky, Click Here.