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the Gekko Files: previewing ASU football in 2017

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Todd Graham might have just one more try to get this thing right.

NCAA Football: Arizona State at Washington Jennifer Buchanan-USA TODAY Sports

I have to admit it, I used to love doing the Arizona State previews. There was something for everybody.

A diva coach with a Madonna ear-piece and Wonder Woman bracelets? Check.

A thriving campus that features beach volleyball and year-round golf? Check.

Something magical called the Bras and Boxers run...for charity? Uhhh, hell yeah.

A exciting brand of football featuring an aggressive spread offense and a daring blitz defense? Boom.

Mediocrity in any form has a way of taking the zing out of your bling. Such is the case with Todd Graham and his Arizona State Sun Devils. Graham has presided over two lackluster, losing seasons in a row and has stepped further and further away from general competitiveness with every passing week. The Sun Devils finished 2016 dropping seven of their last eight and six in a row setting up what looks to be a critical and definitive season in the tenure of Todd Graham.

Can Graham restore respectability or is the curse of the hot seat sure to burn his team down to the cinders? The Gekko is on fire and he’s got your answers right here.

ASU’s Offense

Sun Devil Offensive Breakdown

Strengths Weaknesses Key Players Newcomers
Strengths Weaknesses Key Players Newcomers
receiver depth pass blocking WR N'Keal Harry WR John Humphrey Jr (Tx)
RB diversity & depth QB play RB Demario Richard WR Ryan Newsome (Tx)
RB Kalen Ballage QB Blake Barnett (Tx)
ASU Offensive Breakdown

Last year we bemoaned the sad state of the ASU offensive line given the turnover of four positions with players that, by and large, did not seem ready to compete with PAC 12 defenses. This prognostication, above all the others, proved to be the most prescient as ASU struggled all season with their big uglies. Simply put, ASU QBs were destroyed and RBs obliterated behind that heaping mess of an O-Line. The stats back it up: ASU surrendered 41 sacks over the season, last in the PAC 12 by nearly one full sack per game (you’ll never guess who was second to last) and 121st in the nation. Rushing-wise, they were second only to UCLA’s horrid rushing attack in average yards per rush. It was so bad for ASU that they they had no choice but to convert their offense to more of a Wildcat philosophy (something they called the “Sparky offense”) for large chunks of the season.

Arizona State v Arizona
N’Keal Harry is a star.
Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

It was hard to watch.

The good news is that this offensive line is still mostly intact and enters 2017 with much more experience under its belt. We all know that offensive lines almost always get better with experience and this bodes well for the Sun Devils.

Beyond that, there are definitely some playmakers. The rushing attack returns both Kalen Ballage (a dangerous swing player) and Demario Richard as a dynamic duo that has been together so long that Batman and Robin are jealous. Neither is going to blow you away as an individual rusher, but together they have enough diversity, experience and skill to take advantage of sound blocking and to make a difference in the passing game.

The receiving corps is what I’m really intrigued by. Freshman N’Keal Harry - who I pegged as the “one breakout star” in last year’s preview - lived up to the hype and enters 2017 as a candidate to be the breakout player in all of the PAC 12. He is a physical specimen who shows great strength and outstanding ball skills. His complements are comprised of several names you may not have heard of but who all have tantalizing potential. Ryan Newsome (a transfer from Texas), senior Cameron Smith, and John Humphrey, Jr. (transfer from Oklahoma) all enjoyed tremendous springs and will make an impact.

Who delivers the ball to those weapons remains an open question. Junior Manny Wilkins is the incumbent and, believe it or not, was actually fairly serviceable in those rare instances where he had a pocket to work with. He’s a mobile guy with an accurate arm. However, he has a funky motion that seems to take extra time to execute and he’s had a difficult time staying healthy.

Competition is coming from all sides. Both blue-chipper Brady White and sophomore Dillon Sterling-Cole are back. In addition, former Alabama starter Blake Barnett is available and making noise.

It’s high drama in Tempe. I don’t have a good sense of how this will ultimately go down, but I’d have to think that Barnett will have the best opportunity to execute the kind of spread passing attack new OC Billy Napier wants to run and to take advantage of the exceptional talent that ASU seems to boast at receiver. Either way, I think we should all expect a sharp uptick in ASU’s offensive production in 2017. There are too many good things happening there.

ASU’s Defense

Sun Devil Defensive Breakdown

Strengths Weaknesses Key Players Newcomers
Strengths Weaknesses Key Players Newcomers
LB play big play defense LB DJ Calhoun CB Chase Lucas (RS)
pass rush secondary experience DT Tashon Smallwood DB Alex Perry (Fr)
run defense DE JoJo Wicker DB Ty Thomas (Fr)
ASU’s Defensive Breakdown

Correct me if I’m wrong, but didn’t Todd Graham used to be a defensive coordinator? For a guy that proclaims to put defense first, it is ironic that Graham’s teams - even going back to Tulsa - always seem to be offense first. Maybe it’s luck? Maybe Graham has just had good OC’s? Or maybe, just maybe, advanced stats gurus are right in making the argument that blitzing at a rate that exceeds Donald Trump’s posting on his Twitter feed doesn’t correlate to winning.

Yeah, maybe that’s the ticket.

Who knows if Graham will ever adjust his defensive strategy to one that actually gives his players a chance to win? All I can do is assess the pieces that he has available and render an opinion. Unfortunately, I can’t render such an opinion with much optimism.

This isn’t to say that there are not pieces to work with. ASU’s defense does boast some players with accomplishment and experience. In particular, I like what the Sun Devils have going on in the middle level. Christian Sam and D.J. Calhoun are a nice set of backers that compare to what UW has in Azeem Victor and Keishawn Bierria. Up front, the Devils have some useful, experienced pieces if not a lot of depth. Tashon Smallwood is a quality defensive tackle. Both Koron Crump and JoJo Wicker are able pass rushers from the end or “devil backer” positions.

Northern Arizona v Arizona State
LB DJ Calhoun is critical to ASU’s defensive turnaround
Photo by Jennifer Stewart/Getty Images

The problem is that this team still looks vulnerable in the secondary - a unit that gave up 55 pass plays over 20 yards and a staggering 15 plays of 50 yards or more in the air a year ago. The good news is that all of the key players are upperclassmen returnees; S Marcus Ball, S Chad Adams, and CB Kareem Orr are all key returning players. The concern is that each of these players were part of a spectacular problem a year ago. Fellow SBN blogger Bill Connelly - in his excellent ASU preview - had the homerun observation about the Sun Devil secondary:

Opponents completed 64 percent of their passes and produced a 156.9 passer rating; ASU basically turned every opposing passer into USC’s Sam Darnold (161.1).

It’s not all bad news back there. One player to keep an eye on is RS Freshman CB Chase Lucas. He had a strong spring and looks like he may have a starting shot to open the season.

One Breakout Player

There are several players that I’m going to keep my eyes on in Tempe this spring. The turnover of assistants and the eligibility of a bunch of big-time transfers makes for some interesting drama. It’s hard to pick just one as a “breakout candidate.” Wilkins could certainly be that person. Harry still has a ton of untapped upside. Ryan Newsome is a very tantalizing receiver prospect given his size. Defensively, Lucas looks like the real deal at CB.

However, I’ve got to go with Oklahoma transfer John Humphrey, Jr. as my breakout candidate. Humphrey looks almost certain to get plenty of run as Tim White’s replacement at the the slot. He is an explosive and athletic kind of guy who might get the most benefit out of Napier’s style of offense. If ASU ends up passing as much as I think they will in 2017, 800 yards and 6 or 7 TDs is very realistic an expectation - stats that no ASU receiver achieved in 2016.

Projecting the Sun Devils

Todd Graham is in his 6th season in Tempe. It may very well be his last.

Sun Devil fans, if you pressed them, would probably voice satisfaction with the state of the program since Graham arrived. Keep in mind that this is a school that has just one PAC title to their name. However, the Sun Devils are a hard team to get invested in. They bring in a lot of JUCO and transfer players and they tend to burn through a lot of players. There haven’t been any big time stars that have really captured the imagination of the fans since as far back as Pat Tillman.

That could well change in 2017. With guys like Calhoun, Humphrey, Lucas, Barnett and Harry all looking to make contributions, we could see some stars emerge that would energize the fan base and support what Graham is trying to do.

However, you still have to win. And that is where the equation gets difficult. Offensively, I can see ASU spiking back up into the middle of the PAC. However, I don’t see any real reason to believe that they will be any better at preventing big plays and points in 2017.

In addition, the schedule doesn’t give them a ton of relief. They do get five home games this year - but two of those are against UW and USC. Their misses are Cal and WSU - also not a great turn of fortune. Their OOC includes some real challenges with a visit from San Diego State and road trip to Texas Tech.

My first instinct is to peg ASU in the 5 to 7 win range with their back-to-back games vs Colorado and at UCLA being the key swing games. If Graham can’t get this team bowl eligible, I think he’ll be done. There are a lot of seniors and juniors on this roster and I could easily see administration opting to take advantage of that situation by ripping the Band-Aid off and beginning anew.