Everybody who is anybody in the college football preview business is standing up and taking accountability for their predictions of mass hysteria and nuclear meltdown when it comes to Herm Edwards and their ASU previews from 2018. I suppose that I ought to do the same. Though my own preview of the Sun Devils was not very scathing in terms of criticizing the hire, I can’t deny the fact that I projected just five wins despite acknowledging both the awesomeness that was N’Keal Harry and the breakout to come of one Eno Benjamin.
So, Herm, if you are reading this, mea culpa.
Arizona State’s 7-6 record from a year ago, and the surprising manner in which they mounted that competitiveness, certainly create a set of questions that most PAC 12 pundits didn’t think they’d be asking themselves going into this season.
—Are the Sun Devils on the verge of pushing for a PAC 12 South title?
—Can ASU reload with the likes of Harry, Manny Wilkins and Renell Wren off to the NFL?
—Does this whole “CEO coach” thing have legs?
—Should Husky fans be grateful that the Sun Devils aren’t on the schedule?
2019 was supposed to be a rebuilding year that saw Herm Edwards just now starting to get the talent in place to run the kind of system that he clearly prefers; one built on ball control, aggressive defense, and fewer unforced errors than the opponent. Instead, ASU’s success from a year ago effectively turns 2019 into a “prove it” kind of year where Edwards and Co. will attempt to keep building the train as it continues barreling down the tracks.
There is much to discuss. Let’s get into the Gekko Files.
While not nearly as explosive as you would hope given the presence of a game-breaking talent like N’Keal Harry on your roster, the Sun Devils put up the kind of offensive performance in 2018 that surprised in both form and effectiveness. But it wasn’t without controversy.
OC Rob Likens opened up the season calling plays and running an offense that clearly was meant to play to the strengths of Harry and a deep, fast receiving corps. Most of those players return in 2019. Slot guy Kyle Williams is back for his senior year and will probably be the main playmaker. He’s lightning quick, though he lacks the reach to win many jump balls. His partners on the outside will be junior Frank Darby and senior Brandon Aiyuk. Together these starting three recorded 253 targets and nearly 1400 receiving yards last season.
Likens didn’t use his tight ends much last year, presumably because he had such good WR depth. It will be interesting to see if that changes this year. The Sun Devils bring back two incumbents in Tommy Hudson and Curtis Hodges, both of whom fit the mold of the tall, pass-catching TE. In addition, two transfers and one true freshman arrive as reinforcements at the position this fall. Thus, I strongly suspect that the replacement for Harry as the big third-down target may emerge from this group of tight ends.
I noted above that Likens started out the season calling plays. Herm Edwards, a coach who once gave RB Larry Johnson 416 carries in one season while coaching the Kansas City Chiefs, stripped Likens of his play-calling duties midway through the season with the sole purpose of establishing his rushing attack. And, man, did he ever.
Before Edwards took over the playbook, the Devils ran the ball a healthy 34 times per game. After he started calling plays, that number skyrocketed to 44 times per game. The primary beneficiary of that was workhorse Eno Benjamin, who would go on to lead the PAC in carries (300), yards (1642), and TDs (16). His 23.4 carries per game is the highest total the league has seen since Christian McCaffrey recorded 24 per game in 2015. To put that workload into perspective, consider that UW’s Myles Gaskin was second in the PAC in carries per game with 21.5.
The problem with ASU’s run game isn’t Benjamin; he’s a stud. However, he doesn’t get much help from the rotation. In an ideal world, big A.J. Carter, a 235-lb sophomore, would be the main backup. But Carter has yet to show that he can do basic things like hold the ball or break a tackle. Until he can, third-down specialist Isaiah Floyd will have to serve as the primary backup. There are a couple of true freshman coming, but they seem far away. The Sun Devils go into 2019 with no real backup plan if Eno Benjamin (who opened fall camp last year on a cane!) can’t play at any point in the year.
It goes without saying that the offensive line could be a factor in helping establish more depth among the RB candidates. This unit’s run blocking surprised everyone last year. Senior C Cohl Cabral is the star of the unit after being recognized as All-PAC 2nd Team a year ago. Along with seniors LT Zach Robertson (another All-PAC watchlist guy) and LG Steven Miller, the Devils boast significant returning starter experience. Adding to that depth are fellow seniors Alex Losoya, Roy Hemsley, and Corey Stephens. And if any of those guys can’t go, Oregon transfer Cody Shear plus five incoming true freshman are waiting in the wings. This should be a strength.
Finally, we get to the QB position. With Wilkins now graduated, a new player will be calling signals this year. Last year’s backup Dillon Sterling-Cole is the favorite to win the job. We don’t know much about the junior QB as he took just four snaps last year (thumbs up to Herm Edwards for developing his QB depth!). In fact, we really haven’t seen much of him since his freshman year. In a different scheme that season, DSC failed to impress, passing at a 50% clip on 56 attempts with 1 TD, 4 INTs and 7.1 yards per attempt. Whether he has developed enough to take over full time remains to be seen. He certainly has the measurables at 6’3” and 215 lbs.
His primary competition will come from true freshman Jayden Daniels who last summer was ranked the #2 dual-threat QB in the nation. Daniels looks like an electric playmaker who might really be able to supercharge the ASU rushing attack. That said, there are only so many carries to go around after Benjamin gets his. Thus, I have to assume that unless Daniels is able to show that he’s the best third-down passer on the roster, his odds of beating out DSC are south of 50%.
I like what ASU is doing on offense and feel that they can improve on their 30 points-per-game performance from last year (fourth in the PAC). That experienced, steady offensive line is key. Having Eno Benjamin there will go a long way toward establishing a new QB. I also think that the Devils have more than enough candidates for a legit TE option to emerge. The big caveat here is the assumption that ASU doesn’t have their lack of depth at RB, WR, or QB exposed during the year.
The Danny Gonzales-led defense was a Tale of Two Tempes last season. In the first act, the Sun Devils were a defensive revelation. The Rocky Long-inspired 3-3-5 confused opponents, prevented big plays, and kept points off of the scoreboard. Through Week 7, the most points surrendered by the Sun Devils was 28.
Then there was Act 2.
In the second half of the season, ASU’s defense went into the very meltdown mode that I had originally projected for the entire season. Their problems stopping the run and keeping opponents from getting ahead of the sticks came to a head. They surrendered 30 points or more in each of their final six games and finished, per Bill Connelly, ranked 86th in Defensive S&P for the year. That’s not good.
2019 probably won’t be quite as bad. Much of the youth that was exploited late last year returns this season with much more experience. The best of those units is probably the defensive secondary. With CB Chase Lucas on one side and senior Kobe Williams on the other, Sun Devils fans believe that they have the best CB tandem in the league. They might be on to something. The pair combined for 89 tackles, 13 PBUs, and 4 INTs a year ago, numbers that I believe will only get better this year.
The key to ASU’s strength in shutting down big plays last year was the emergence of Jalen Harvey as a do-everything safety. The converted WR has moved on, and now cedes the reigns to emerging star Aashari Crosswell. The sophomore was a breakout as a true freshman last year, recording 4 INTs and 9 PBUs. He’ll partner with junior Evan Fields and redshirt freshman Cam Phillips to form one of the more intriguing safety rotations in the league.
As exciting as the secondary is for ASU, I’m even more enamored with the potential of their very young linebacking corps. If you read my weekly rankings pieces from a year ago, you may have noticed my seemingly weekly gushing about ASU’s then-freshman linebacker Merlin Robertson. Paired with fellow sophomore OLB Tyler Johnson, they form one of the most disruptive pairs of outside backers not just in the PAC, but possibly in the nation. Defending the run is something that both need to work on, but the upside here is undeniable.
The middle of the defense is a little more questionable. Keep in mind that the Devils run a 3-3-5 which, by definition, puts a lot of pressure on your three down lineman and your MLB at the point of attack. Darien Butler (5’11”, 230) is an undersized but fast player who will probably start at the MIKE after making some noise as a freshman. He’ll compete with senior Khaylan Kearse-Thomas in a rotation that quite literally has no depth beyond those two guys.
The defensive line is a serious concern. The graduation of Wren and the transfer (one of nine players from this defense) of Jalen Bates leaves this group without much experience to draw upon as it tries to improve its overall defensive efficiency which, as I noted above, was abysmal last year. It’s so serious, in fact, that the Sun Devils may have to play without a true NT. The only one on the roster is Rice transfer Roe Wilkins and... well, Rice.
The defensive end rotation is made up of larger players, as one might expect given the scheme. George Lea (275 lbs), Shannon Forman (304 lbs), and Jermayne Lole (270 lbs) make up a serviceable rotation of bodies, but there are no stars here. Waiting in the wings is true freshman Amiri Johnson, a player Gonzales surely hopes can earn snaps from Week 1.
When you look at it together, you see a unit that still lacks all of the pieces it needs to effectively run the 3-3 front. While I think that the Devils look terrific on the back and have clear upside potential with their OLBs, they remain as soft and as undermanned up the middle as they were last season—only now it could be worse because there are fewer able bodies to throw at the problem. Thus, I think many of the struggles that we saw out of ASU’s D at the end of last year will persist into this year.
One Breakout Player
TE Curtis Hodges
I’ve already taken credit in this preview for not jumping on the whole “the desert sky is falling” craze that overwhelmed Tempe last year upon the hiring of Herm Edwards. But that doesn’t mean I didn’t screw anything up in said article. My breakout player choice from last year was WR Terrell Chatman, a 6’3” spring star I thought had a great opportunity to benefit from all of the attention that would be paid to N’Keal Harry. All Chatman did was play in six games and catch two passes. He has now transferred to Virginia.
My pick for a breakout this year is 6’8” Curtis Hodges. A former wide receiver, the junior is a classic late bloomer who is just now growing into his frame. The Sun Devils didn’t make a ton of use of the TE position last year (just 14 receptions) probably due to two factors: 1) the presence of N’Keal Harry as the “big receiver” and 2) Air Raid disciple Rob Likens calling plays for much of the year.
But Herm Edwards has talked openly about developing the TE position. He values the dirty work that tight ends do in the run game and he obviously values big targets for his quarterbacks. Hodges fits the mold, as he has demonstrated a willingness to block while still having some of the ball skills he originally developed as a receiver. If he can add 20 receptions and four touchdowns to the ledger, it will be a great year for him and a sign that tight ends are back in Tempe.
Projecting the Sun Devils
The Devils are clearly a team on the rise. Their seven wins from last year are a stepping stone on the way to something that feels like it can be bigger, but whether or not 2019 is that year remains to be seen. While I’m excited about many of their young players, it’s hard to lose both a multi-year starter at QB and an elite playmaker at WR in the same year and still add wins.
Regardless, Herm Edwards has to be pretty happy with his schedule. The OOC features two layups to go with his return trip to Michigan State. His in-conference schedule features five home games while at the same time he gets to miss both Washington AND Stanford.
But wait, there is more! His two most difficult in-conference games are against Oregon and USC, and he gets both of those in Tempe. In fact, the only real sure loss among the conference games, at this point, looks to be his road trip to Utah midway through the season.
On talent alone, I think ASU is a six- or seven-win team. With this schedule filling the sails, I can see one or two more wins in addition. When you add that all together, it starts to look like a pretty good season for the Sun Devils even if one assumes, as do I, that the issues ASU has in the middle of their defense will keep them from seriously contending for a conference championship.