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the Gekko Files: Previewing Arizona State Sun Devils Football in 2018

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NCAA Football: Arizona State Spring Game Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

You know, I didn’t like him much either.

Long-time readers around here know that my second-favorite team in the PAC is and has for a long time been the Arizona State Sun Devils. Why?

First, I love the desert. The sun, the outdoors, the golf and the easy access to the rest of the Southwest is a huge plus for me.

Second, there is so much to enjoy about ASU. Downtown Tempe, the campus, Mill Ave, and its status as a top 10 Playboy Party School every year makes it seem so obvious. True, the traffic can get a little gnarly. And I can’t say that I’m thrilled about the cancellation of the annual Undie Run (how will all those poor charities who benefited from the proceeds survive?)

Think of all of those opportunities to do good in the world now lost thanks to the Undie Run cancellation at ASU.

Nevertheless, my love affair carried on. But Todd Graham certainly challenged that notion.

At first, it wasn’t so bad. A bowl win in his first year followed by two straight 10 win seasons had the locals optimistic. But there were signs.

And I’m not just talking about the Madonna-esque pop singer headset. There were signs of “turbulent” if not “crazy emanating from Tempe starting day 1 of the Graham regime. Whether it was the blitz-happy defensive strategy, the excessive recruiting of juco players, the weird nepotism deal that resulted in the hiring and then resignation of his son as the RB coach, the sign stealing, or just the weird “I’m praising Jesus while ripping you a new asshole” routine that used in addressing his players, all of it seemed off.

Graham did not score well on the likability scale.

But now he is gone. His replacement, Herm Edwards, scores very well on the likability scale. That said, I’m not sure that he is much of an improvement on the “crazy scale” (there has been a Dan Cozetto sighting, people). Much has been written about Edwards, his penchant for motivational speaking, his unique “CEO-style” approach to building a staff and his lack of college coaching experience. His hiring seems like a shot in the dark for a program that still has the talent to compete in the South.

Will it work out in year one of the Herm regime? Let’s open the Gekko Files and find out.

ASU Offense

ASU Offensive Highlights

Strengths Weaknesses Key Players Newcomers
Strengths Weaknesses Key Players Newcomers
receiver depth pass blocking WR N'Keal Harry OL Casey Tucker (Stanford)
passing explosivness RB depth QB Manny Wilkins OL Roy Hemsley (USC)
TE blocking RB Eno Benjamin

Part of the deal in hiring Edwards was the desire to keep ASU’s top two coordinators - OC Billy Napier and DC Phil Bennett. That didn’t work out very well as both coordinators left within the first week of Edwards hiring.

Staff discontinuity can often have a more significant impact on offense than defense. Fortunately, ASU was able to retain receivers coach (and “co-offensive coordinator”) Rob Likens. Likens has been tasked by Edwards to emphasize the running game (not surprising coming from an NFL coach) but will otherwise keep the offense looking much the same as it was under Graham.

NCAA Football: Arizona at Arizona State
N’Keal Harry is the best receiver in the PAC.
Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

QB Manny Wilkins is the key to the engine. Aside from being just a stud of a human being, Wilkins has grown into his own as a multi-dimensional QB. While mobility has always been part of his game, he has developed into a strong-armed and accurate passer. Last season he posted an 8 yards per attempt average with a 64% completion rate and just 8 interceptions - second fewest to only Jake Browning among QBs who started all their games in the PAC. In fact, he set an ASU record with a stretch of 192 straight attempts without an INT last year. ASU can win with Wilkins.

Behind Wilkins, the picture at QB gets muddled. Former Alabama transfer Blake Barnett transferred again leaving ASU with no experienced backups. Junior Dillon Sterling-Cole - a once highly sought after recruit - is the clear backup but has never thrown a pass at the college level. The only other scholarship QB available is redshirt freshman Ryan Kelley. ASU did not sign any incoming QBs with this recruiting cycle. The cupboards are thin.

The offensive line, therefore, will play a huge role in keeping Wilkins standing upright. However, that was not a strong point of this unit last season. Wilkins was sacked 41 times (!) last year, second only to WSU’s QBs (44). That’s not going to get it done.

The building blocks are there. ASU returns two starters plus two grad transfers. Senior Cohl Cabral will shift from LT to center where his athleticism should help in establishing a running game. His LT role should be handled by Stanford transfer Casey Tucker - a 6’6”, 310 lb tackle who is technically astute if not overly athletic. Steven Miller and Quinn Bailey round out an experienced foundation, even if they were collectively on the hook for all those sacks a year ago. USC transfer Roy Hemsley figures to be the fifth starter.

If things go well, pass blocking may not be that big of an issue. It is the run blocking that will really matter. Edwards wants to run the ball and will have to work on replacing both Kalen Ballage and Demario Richard in doing so.

Again, depth is a challenge. Sophomore Eno Benjamin is the clear starter. Though he lacks experience, Benjamin is viewed as a strong runner able to take on contact and break tackles in a manner. He will have to play a big part in carrying the rushing load (assuming he is healthy ... what’s with the cane?) given that the rest of ASU’s corps is comprised of a couple of smaller, scat back style sophomores (Trelon Smith will probably get a rotational opportunity) and true freshmen. There aren’t many options here.

The receiving corps, however, has an abundant number of options. You all know about N’Keal Harry by now. I think he is far and away the best receiver in the conference. He can do everything on the field and will be a big point of emphasis, particularly in the play action game that Edwards wants to establish.

But wait, there’s more.

Even with the loss to John Humphrey to an Achilles injury, ASU has a couple of other emerging stars that are strong complements to Harry. Kyle Williams is the other outside receiver - he has hands of glue and catches anything that his 5’11” frame can reach. Frank Darby, Terrell Chatwell and Ryan Newsome are all quality players with unique physical attributes that will challenge opposing defenses.

It’ll be interesting to see how Edwards and Likens want to play the tight end position. It wasn’t a big emphasis under Napier. In fact, they switched their top TE Jay Jay Wilson to defense last season. If Edwards wants to use the position more, depth is thin. Ceejay French-Love, a senior, is the clear starter. He’s not much of a blocker, though. In fact, there really aren’t any classic blocking-style TEs on this roster until you get to a couple of inexperienced freshmen. Something to watch.

ASU Defense

ASU Defensive Highlights

Strengths Weaknesses Key Players Newcomers
Strengths Weaknesses Key Players Newcomers
cornerback depth turnover generation CB Chase Lucas DE Darius Slade (Ohio St)
big play prevention pass rush S Demonte King S Aasahari Crosswell (TFr)
run defense DL Renell Wren CB Dominique Harrison (Juco)

ASU will look like a very different defense than what we grew accustomed to under Todd Graham. Former SDSU defensive coordinator Danny Gonzales is coming to Tempe and he’s bringing Rocky Long’s 3-3-5 with him.

He has some work to do in building up this D (the UW game notwithstanding). The Sun Devils with 8th in the PAC in total D (450 yds / game) and 9th in scoring D (33 pts / game). They were particularly challenged in generating turnovers (just 17) and preventing big plays. Their 78 plays of 20 yards or more surrendered was tied with Arizona for last place. They surrendered 13 plays of 50 yards or longer - worst in the PAC.

NCAA Football: Southern California at Arizona State
Much will be riding on the shoulders of Chase Lucas in stabilizing the ASU defense.
Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

The overhaul begins with the line. Let’s not sugar coat this - this unit is a mess. The only name a Husky fan might recognize is 6’6” DT Renell Wren, and that’s only because he made his name in that painful win over the Huskies (3 tckls, 1 sack, 1 TFL). Wren is a stable piece who can take reps. He probably rates as an NFL prospect, but hasn’t been a huge playmaker to date. Beyond him, ASU will be filling in their entire depth chart with newcomers and inexperienced veterans. Shannon Forman and George Lea will fill out the inside rotations. What happens among the ends remains to be seen. One name to watch is Darius Slade - a transfer DE from Ohio State who looks like the most athletic guy on the front line.

Slade might be part of the pass rush solution. And that would be a good thing with ASU looking to reload after the departure of 74% of their sack production from a year ago. Koron Crump returns for a sixth year of eligibility and will immediately be relied up on to generate pressure. He’s a supreme athlete and is a Travis Feeney clone - fast but light. True freshman Merlon Robertson also figures to get a chance to see the field as a pass rush specialist. At 6’3” and 235, he might just be ready.

The role of tackling running backs and covering the middle of the field will be manned by a couple of experienced players. Jay Jay Wilson will play both inside and as an occasional down lineman. He’s not especially athletic, but he’s strong and plays with good instincts. His versatility will be especially valued given the lack of experience at any of the other positions.

The secondary is probably a strength for ASU despite its struggles in big play prevention a year ago. Chase Lucas exploded as a true freshman CB a year ago and, assuming he’s healthy, projects as one of the top corners in the PAC this year. Kobe Williams, his partner in crime, is also back and was surprisingly effective despite being a smaller corner. A third corner, Dominque Harrison, is a juco transfer who figures to immediately get into the mix in forming what ought to be a serviceable cornerback rotation. Another juco transfer, Kirkland, WA native Terin Adams, is another guy also starting to get some buzz at CB

Safety is a little thin, but loaded with some talent. Demonte King is back, though injuries have made him a less known commodity among fans. When he’s in there, King is a very disruptive safety who tends to show up wherever the ball is. His support will come from a variety of untested players. Jalen Harvey - you will remember him as a WR last year - is big and has good ball skills. He’ll be a factor as will uber recruit Aasahari Crosswell. The true freshman is probably the best recruit brought in by Edwards and will be a key contributor from day one.

You can tell from this write up that depth is going to be a major issue at every position. The DLine and linebacking units are going to be primarily comprised of players you never heard of while the secondary will be backed up by those players. That’s not to say that some stars won’t emerge ... they always do. But it makes it hard to project this unit as one destined to improve upon last season. It looks like a text book regression situation.

One Breakout Player

WR Terrell Chatman

The abundance of good receiving options in Tempe makes this pick a little difficult. However, Chatman, a junior with one career catch, seems poised to not only seize the second outside starting spot but to also put up some big numbers.

The Louisiana native has all of the physical tools you’d want - 6’4” and 200 lbs. For whatever reason, he didn’t win the favor of Napier and Graham. But under the new regime, he’s been given a real chance and cashed in with a strong spring.

I’m not sure how good his hands are, but his frame and the likelihood of seeing a lot of 1:1 matchups tells me he’ll get his fair share of looks. I’m thinking a 40 catch, 700 yard type of year with 4 or 5 scores is a real possibility.

Projecting the Sun Devils

Even as I typed the header you just read, my inner voice was shouting at me “yeah, good luck with that”. There are so many unknowns with this program: new recruits, new starters, new DC, the Edwards factor. I don’t have a great feel on how to sort it all out.

I do know that Wilkins and Harry are a great starting point. That plus an offensive line that I think has a chance at really improving (thanks to those grad transfers) helps me justify an uptick on offense. I also think Benjamin has a real chance at a breakout as running back - his talent is good enough to be in the all conference discussion if he is healthy.

The defense feels like a train wreck. And I’m talking about the really horrible, crash and burn, third world country kind of train wreck. I might get proven wrong given the credentials of the new DC and the presence of a good nucleus in the secondary. But I can’t at this moment see how the Sun Devil front seven is a) going to stop opposing rushing attacks or b) generate a pass rush.

To throw fuel on the fire, the schedule couldn’t line up worse. ASU has two games in their out of conference - vs Michigan State and at San Diego State (ironic) - that feel like losses. On top of that, their in-conference slate has five road games, misses against two teams they’d likely be favored against (Oregon State and Cal) and two road games to end a season in which they figure to go down to the wire to reach bowl eligibility.


I don’t see a post-season in ASU’s immediate future. Five wins is their base case, and I’m not sure that is even all that realistic given that one should expect some attrition as the season goes on.

I think ASU fans ought to just acclimate to the the idea that the Sun Devils are embarking on what is sure to be a difficult rebuild. If there were a saving grace, it would be all of the meme-worthy pep talks that I’m sure Herm Edwards will be happy to share with us along the way.