The media had Herm Edwards wrong coming and going. When he was hired at Arizona St, he was portrayed as an out-of-touch Nero who would destroy the program. Now that he’s turned in a 7-6 season, the same basic record that every single ASU coach has reached since John Cooper left for Ohio St three decades ago, those low expectations worked in his favor and he’s been cast as a modern-day Cincinnatus.
The truth is he’s neither, and while his team returns a number of promising players, I’m skeptical of claims they’re a dark horse for the South division. For one thing that almost certainly requires beating Utah in Salt Lake (and in October, prior to the Utes’ traditional November slide). For another they’ll be breaking in a new quarterback, searching for a backup running back to take the load off a phenomenal but possibly overworked ballcarrier, and trying to plug in a lot of new faces at the defensive line that was probably their Achilles’ heel last season.
But I do think the schedule looks good for another bowl season. I’ve got ASU penciled in with at least five wins against some inferior competition and two tough road losses against teams with stellar run defense. They miss the Huskies and the Cardinal out of the North, and of the remaining five competitive games, they get four at home - two of which are against Pacific Northwest teams who for some reason play terribly in the desert. That should add up to at least seven or eight wins and continued credibility for the new staff going into the next recruiting cycle.
Thanks to Hod Rabino of Devils’ Digest for his insights into the team. Check out the podcast for the full interview, including some great stories about Spring practices.
Offense - #35 in S&P+
This was a pretty good squad in 2018, and since they return most of the personnel and it’s the second year under a new coaching staff I’d normally expect them to take another step forward. But there are a few factors that give me some doubts that’ll happen - a brand new QB, the loss of a game-changing receiver, and problems I observed in film study with the staff’s playcalling.
Hod tells us that the competition to replace senior #5 QB Wilkins has narrowed to two choices: redshirt junior #15 QB Sterling-Cole and true freshman #5 QB Daniels. We’ll know soon enough who gets the nod as OC Likens has said they’ll name a starter a few weeks into Fall camp, but either way it’s an unproven signal-caller: Daniels has obviously never started a game and Sterling-Cole only one, a 54-35 loss to Oregon in 2016 (302 yds, 1 TD, 3 INTs) when he was a true freshman.
The new QB will have a deep and experienced corps of quality wideouts to throw to: #2 WR Aiyuk, #10 WR Ky. Williams, and #84 WR Darby, all of whom are upperclassmen and had over 400 receiving yards last year. They also return backups #17 WR Newsome, #86 WR Hodges, and #12 WR Humphrey (the last had a promising 2017 but sat out 2018 with injury).
But they lose, of course, the NFL first-rounder #1 WR Harry, who fundamentally altered how defenses had to play ASU. He doesn’t just represent over a thousand yards of offense; his mere presence played a significant part in the rest of the Devils’ 4,000 yards by commanding bracket coverage and preventing safeties from loading the box. Having such a tall, almost undefendable outlet would have been a big help to the new QB.
Another big help might be a quality tight end, usually a young QB’s best friend. However, one of the puzzling coaching decisions I noticed is the real absence of TE play in last year’s offense. The entire unit only had 14 receptions on the year, and in my opinion two of these guys have been chased out of the program: #88 TE French-Love and #9 TE Wilson (who was later converted to a linebacker, and is now transferring to Auburn to become a fullback, interestingly enough a position they really need). They’re also losing #43 DB Harvey, who played a lot like a TE in the 2017 offense but was converted to a safety in 2018. Hod tells us to watch for true freshman #88 TE N. Matthews to potentially jump returning #87 TE Hudson in Fall camp, and that the staff has been promising local media for more than a year that they plan to incorporate more TE passing. It remains to be seen if either will materialize.
The other coaching issue I have is that I don’t think the run-pass balance is properly optimized. I had enough data to run a regression analysis (due to a peculiar twist of the schedule, I wound up charting six of their games including vs Michigan St for bowl prep), and they were way off in terms of effectiveness vs frequency, particularly on 1st downs and 3rd & medium. By the end of the year they were running the ball vs downfield passing at about a 2:1 ratio, which was pretty suboptimal even with an excellent running back - those carries came at the expense of throwing to the equally (if not more so) game-changing Harry and the poorly utilized Williams, and wasted a third-year starting QB and an offensive line that was better in pass-pro than run blocking. I trace this issue to Likens, an air raid disciple from Sonny Dykes’ coaching tree, being pretty young and only on his second OC gig (the first being at Kansas), and losing control of the playcalling. As Hod put it, “Rob Likens learned the hard way that this is a Herm Edwards offense.”
The most important player for ASU next season will almost certainly be #3 RB Benjamin, who led the league in both carries (300) and rushing yards (1,642) … plus he added 35 catches out of the backfield. That’s 55 more touches than the Pac-12’s next back, the Huskies’ Gaskin with 280 combined, and the highest in the nation. He’s one of a handful of backs in the conference who gets a lot of his yards after contact and not exclusively through offensive line blocking (which I thought was inconsistent in my film study last year), although unlike the rest he does so by dodging, juking, and spinning out of tackles to stay on his feet and get even more.
I don’t know much about his backup, #31 RB Floyd; the only game I saw him get more than a few carries was against Utah and he got stuffed a lot.
Hod is a bit higher on ASU’s offensive line than I am, although we talked it through on the podcast and concluded that they’ll probably be in the top half of the conference (although I’m not sure that’s saying much; I don’t think many Pac-12 teams will have great o-lines in 2019). They’re losing both starting tackles, #55 LT Tucker and #59 RT Bailey, but bringing back six others who played fairly extensively: the starters #56 LG Losoya, #71 RG Miller, and #73 C Cabral (who has a case for being the best center in the conference), as well as backups who got a lot of time in #51 LT Z. Robertson, #72 OL Cote, and #63 OL Hemsley. Hod and I have Robertson taking the starting LT spot cleanly, but the RT situation is more complicated - Miller may slide over and then Cote and Hemsley battle it out for RG.
That situation reflects a weird quirk of ASU’s line, which is that they seem to have recruited few if any specialists who are clearly guards or tackles, but rather guys who can play both but excel at neither, in my opinion. That’s probably a net positive in case the injury bug strikes (which fortunately they avoided for the most part last season), because the depth beyond those six isn’t great: Hod mentioned two redshirt freshmen, #76 OL Lovell and #79 OL Frias, to watch for in Fall camp, and we’re still not sure if Cody Shear, the transfer from Oregon, will get his waiver.
My primary concern for ASU’s run game, and really the offense as a whole, is if the unthinkable happens and Benjamin is unavailable. So much of the offense goes through him, and there are so many question marks in the rest of the squad, that I’m not sure they could recover if so. Indeed, I’m already worried the simple wear and tear of as many carries as he gets will start to catch up to him, and if anything given the issues discussed above there’s reason to believe he’ll get even more touches in 2019. A lesson from history:
In 2005, Dick Vermeil was coaching his final season for the Kansas City Chiefs. Facing some quarterback troubles, he had his running back, Larry Johnson, carry the ball 336 times. The next year, the new coach had even worse QB problems, and, unconcerned with the strain on Johnson, gave him an astonishing 416 carries - an NFL record that stands to this day and may never fall.
That coach’s name? Herm Edwards.
Defense - #86 in S&P+
It’s a bit puzzling why this defense wasn’t better in 2018. I like their DC Gonzales, a transplant from Rocky Long’s great teams at San Diego St, quite a bit, and while the strategic points of emphasis for his defense are fairly different from Todd Graham’s, I don’t think there are too many personnel mismatches or overly difficult assignment transitions. It’s a base 3-3-5, and I rather like their back eight … I suspect the key to improvement is going to be getting a lot better line play.
If this wasn’t the top secondary in the Pac-12 last year, it was probably the most underrated. While ASU’s advanced defensive stats are pretty poor across the board and overall they were the third worst in the conference, their IsoPPP (a measure of explosive-play defense) was the third best. In film study, I didn’t see a lot of teams even taking deep shots against them - while that could be read as opposing offenses knowing that they didn’t need to take the risk when they were successful just running the ball, I suspect it has more to do with both quality pass coverage and great tackling out of the secondary shutting plays down if they got past the second level.
The first string in 2019 is fairly easy to identify: third-year starters #24 CB Lucas and #5 CB Ko. Williams, #16 S Crosswell who was a blast to watch as a true freshman and hauled in a lot of INTs, and the experienced backups #6 DB Fields and #15 S Phillips. They’re also getting back from injury the Lott Impact candidate #23 S Whiley in the Tillman safety position, which is a hybrid LB/S spot.
Depth, on the other hand, is going to be harder: they were already losing four DBs who were in the rotation last year to graduation (the aforementioned Harvey being the most impactful and the team’s second-leading tackler), and now three more are transferring out since, as Hod tells us, they felt they should have been starters instead.
That ASU was playing a dozen guys in the secondary is pretty telling of the defensive staff’s preference “not to bleed to death,” as Hod put it, from overusing the first string. It will probably mean relying on several true freshmen whom the staff apparently prefers to be part of the rotation: twin brothers #12 S Kej. Markham and #13 CB Keo. Markham, #1 CB Clark, #3 S Harts, and Connor Soelle (brother of #34 LB K. Soelle) who hasn’t gotten a jersey number yet but is slated to be the backup Tillman safety. We’ll have to see in Fall camp if this unit will be as deep as it was last year.
I like the returning LBs quite a bit. The most pleasant surprise last year were the true freshmen duo #8 LB M. Robertson and #37 LB Butler. They’re also returning redshirt senior #20 LB Kearse-Thomas, and a convert from defensive end in #41 OLB T. Johnson. They’re losing three guys with playing time last year for a variety of reasons but which essentially come down to the new staff liking the freshmen more: Wilson to Auburn as mentioned earlier, #39 LB Lawal who’s now pursuing a medical career, and #4 LB Crump who I liked a lot in 2016 but was injured the next year and then the new scheme didn’t agree with him. I agree with Hod that, based on their 2018 performance, the team won’t be hurt much by their absences.
The defensive linemen, however, probably will be hurt by their losses, and it’s a group that can’t really afford it. For one thing, while I like new DL coach Cain from Fresno St, he’ll be this unit’s fifth coach in as many seasons. For another, injuries had gotten so bad earlier this year that for the Spring game they had to convert two offensive players to be temporary d-linemen just so the team had someone to practice against.
But the most important thing is probably the talent. They’ve lost their best player in #95 DT Wren to the Bengals, and even he was inconsistent in this 3-3 front. And I didn’t see much from who I believe is the only tackle they’re returning, #98 DT Davidson, before he suffered a season-ending injury. They’ve brought in two transfers here: Roe Wilkins from Rice, and TJ Pesefea from the Juco market, but I don’t believe they’re on campus yet and neither were highly ranked out of high school. The structure of this odd-front really needs a big tackle anchoring it and earning double-teams, and I’m not sure they’ll have that.
Defensive end has fewer question marks in terms of who they have in the starting lineup: returners #45 DE Lea, #90 DE Lole, and #97 DE Forman, as well as a 4-star true freshman (and former Oregon target) #9 DE Wright. I wasn’t bowled over with the play of the first three last year, but I like the staff here and another year in the system is a positive. Beyond those guys, however, depth looks precarious to me, even in a 3-man front. What remains on the roster are only seven freshmen linemen: three scholarships plus four walk-ons, and only one redshirted last year (#91 DL Matus). I think a full rotation over the course of the season is probably going to require either a lot of 2-man fronts, playing OLBs like Johnson with their fists down, or getting quite a few freshmen significant playing time.
More than even the quarterback competition, what I’ll be watching for in ASU’s Fall camp is the state of the defensive line. As Hod mentioned, the thin ranks and injuries there made it difficult to assess not just that unit but the offensive line and running backs as well. Hopefully they’ll have a full crew next month for us to get a better picture. I think weakness at the line is what ultimately caused an otherwise talented and well coached defense to underperform last year, and we’ll have to look closely to see signs of improvement.