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Duck Dive: Arizona State Football 2020 Preview

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Going deep with the Sun Devils’ scheme, returning personnel, and unknowns

Oregon v Arizona State Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Special thanks to Hod Rabino of @DevilsDigest for chatting Sun Devil football with me on the Quack 12 Podcast. You can check out the episode HERE!


Arizona St went 8-5 last season, 4-5 in conference with a weird bowl win over Florida St. I’ve seen a pretty wide range of opinions on ASU in head coach Edwards’ third season in Tempe, all the way from dark horse playoff team, to a mediocre squad that’s benefited from a fluky win here or there. I think the reality will be somewhere in between: it’s clear that the improved recruiting and staff changes are building up the program with a couple encouraging milestones so far, but given how flawed this team was last year and the huge amount of turnover and inexperience here, I believe they’re still a year or two away from really contending.

It is, of course, still up in the air what slate of opponents ASU will actually play, but currently they’re scheduled for their original conference games and locations, and assuming that happens I would predict they go 5-4 or 4-5. Their two toughest games are on the road (USC and Oregon), and their three easiest opponents (Colorado, Oregon St, and UCLA) beat them last year. On paper, the Sun Devils should be better than most Pac-12 teams they’ll play due to talent they’ve brought in, but there too many question marks to think they’ll run the table against all such opponents. Doing so would be wildly out of step with what Edwards has done over the last two years; almost every single matchup is a very close game that could go either way - in 26 games he’s coached at ASU, 21 have been decided by 12 points or fewer with an 11-10 record, of which 17 (a 9-8 record) were one-score games.

Arizona v Arizona State Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Offense

ASU’s offense ranked #72 in SP+ last year; it simply wasn’t very efficient and repeatedly relied on 3rd & long conversions to stay on the field. I spent four consecutive articles for this site questioning former coordinator Rob Likens’ playcalling and speculating about when he would be let go, before it finally happened this offseason. 2020’s offense will be very new to Tempe - three new offensive coaches including OC Hill, who ran a very different scheme at Boise St, and as I figure it the depth chart will feature six true freshman, three true sophomores, and several transfers.

The veteran leadership will have to come from true sophomore #5 QB Daniels, an exciting former 4-star with a big arm, fast feet, and a cool demeanor.

Daniels’ completion percentage on the season was a respectable 60.7%, but that belies some flaws in his game that he needs to fix to become an elite QB. His passer rating of 149.2 is fairly mediocre; it ranked 7th out of 14 Pac-12 QBs with 150+ attempts. That completion percentage is boosted by taking so many short passes: 54.5% of throws I charted Daniels attempt were near or behind the line of scrimmage (32.3% were 5 yards downfield or fewer, 22.2% were screen passes). For comparison, most Pac-12 QBs in 2019 were in the high 30s or low 40s; Justin Herbert’s number was 40.8%. I also spotted in film study a pretty high number of errors in making his reads in dropback passing and the RPO game.

But the biggest issue with Daniels is also the thing that got him the most praise: his ability to scramble. He’s had several dramatic improvised runs, including two different game-winners. However, he broke the pocket on over a quarter of all dropbacks I charted, and such plays resulted in a sack or minimal gain about 63% of the time … his rival true freshman, Arizona’s Grant Gunnell, had only 41% unsuccessful broken-pocket plays.

All of ASU’s backup quarterbacks transferred out or switched to other positions, leaving only one other scholarship player on the roster: #15 QB McLemore, a mid 3-star true freshman they took in the 2020 class. Between precarious depth and the fact that Daniels already missed a game to injury, I would be very concerned about him getting hurt again, and I imagine that ASU’s staff will spend all their time trying to turn Daniels into a patient and accurate pocket passer.

Keeping Daniels in a clean pocket won’t be easy given ASU’s prospects at offensive line. This just wasn’t a very good unit in 2019: they gave up a sack every 25.5 snaps (#110 in FBS), were only 38.5% on 3rd downs (#83) and 44.4% in the red zone (#126), and in opening holes for the running backs they got only 3.49 yards per carry (#119). ASU was in the bottom three of the Pac-12 in all those stats. Hod repeatedly stressed during the podcast that the o-line has to significantly improve for the Sun Devils to have a successful season.

I’m not optimistic that’ll happen. They lose four guys off the six-man rotation, plus the only 4-star on the roster who didn’t play last year and transferred out. They return the two true freshmen who graded out the best on my tally sheet, #77 LT Henderson and #61 RG West, and they got a 6th year for #72 OG Cote who missed last year with a broken foot. To complete the starting lineup, they got two Power-5 grad transfers: #70 LG Hattis from Stanford (I got a good deal of film on him prior to his injury last year, wasn’t crazy about him) and #74 LT Diesch from Texas A&M (a former 4-star but never broke into the starters in College Station).

It looks like Diesch will take over left tackle, with Hattis, Cote, and West filling out the interior left to right. I think Henderson will switch to right tackle, but Hod suggested that high 3-star redshirt sophomore #50 OL Bell might get it instead and allow Henderson to redshirt.

Even though that’s a pretty cobbled-together lineup, I think it could do fairly well if they avoid injuries. But depth is a major concern here - it’s surprising how poorly ASU has recruited this position, as the rest of roster is two walk-ons, a 2-star, and nine low 3-stars (including Oregon’s #56 OL Shear, plus two Hod mentioned as maybe ready to play: #66 OL Scott and #76 OL Lovell). I think it’s puzzling that, despite firing the OC and turning over most of the offensive staff, Edwards chose to retain OL coach Christensen, since he doesn’t have an encouraging track record: he was forced out of three consecutive jobs from 2013 to 2015 (Wyoming HC, Utah OC, Texas A&M OL) and spent the last three years at ASU failing to produce great lines.

Those line problems contributed to the biggest surprise for the Sun Devils in 2019: that arguably the Pac-12’s best running back in 2018, Eno Benjamin (now with the Cardinals), was so effectively bottled up. His rushing average fell from 5.5 YPC to 4.3, and ASU went from #39 nationally in 10+ yd runs per game in 2018 to #94 in 2019.

Both of Benjamin’s best backups, AJ Carter and Isaiah Floyd, entered the transfer portal and neither is listed on the current roster, leaving only three guys on it: returner #9 RB Flowers (11 carries for 31 yds last year), and a pair of 2020 4-stars in #1 RB Trayanum and #4 RB Ngata. Hod tells us they also plan to add Juco mid 3-star Rachaad White, who’s not on the roster yet, as a late commitment from May of this year. I would guess that Trayanum gets the starting job as he’s the bigger of the two 4-stars while Ngata seems like the change-of-pace back, with White as depth and Flowers pushed off the depth chart. It’s a very unproven group and we’ll just have to wait and see how they do.

Oregon v Arizona State Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

The most intriguing unit for ASU is their receivers. They lose two of their three stars from 2019 in Brandon Aiyuk and Frank Williams (Aiyuk was also a returner on special teams and contributed to their 7th best average starting field position nationally, something that in my opinion made the offense look better than it was). They return #84 WR Darby, who had 616 yds on 31 catches last year and I thought was under-utilized, and three mid 3-star freshmen backups who combined for 21 catches last year.

ASU’s 2020 recruiting cycle had a bumper crop of 4-star receivers: #2 WR Badger, #3 WR Bunkley-Shelton, #14 WR Wilson, and #85 WR C. Johnson (son of NFL great and former Beaver Chad Johnson, so naturally he got that jersey number). They also got a Juco in Brandon Pierce who Hod says looked good in their seven Spring practices before cancellation. Hod believes all of them will play next season and I agree; the dropoff between their talent level and the returning backups’ is dramatic. Those nine should be enough to fill out the two-deep at the position assuming they’re not moving to a 4-wide offense, though we’ll have to see how new WR coach Gill turns out to be as a developer as he’s never been an on-field coach before and was primarily brought to Tempe as a recruiter.

The dilemma in the passing game comes down to the tight ends. New OC Hill extensively used 12-personnel at Boise St, and gave BSU TEs three times the touches and yards in 2019 as ASU’s had. The Sun Devils lose their top TE in Tommy Hudson but return #86 TE Hodges and #88 TE Matthews. I wasn’t really impressed with this group’s talent level in either blocking or receiving, and Hod pointed out some painful drops. One possibility Hod suggested is converting Wilson to a TE, since he’s certainly big enough for it (6’6”, 230 lbs), though that would stress a WR corps that needs all the talent it can get.


Arizona State v California Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

Defense

This side of the ball will also likely see a schematic change, as former coordinator Danny Gonzales took the head coach position at New Mexico. Gonzales deployed Rocky Long’s well known 3-3-5 structure, but ASU has been in one form of a 3-down front or another for most of the last decade (excepting a peculiar dalliance with a 4-down front in 2016, Keith Patterson’s last year). Edwards made two promotions here: new co-DC Lewis was the head coach of the Bengals for 16 years and most recently a “special advisor” to Edwards in Tempe, and new co-DC Pierce played middle linebacker (and briefly hospital driver) in the NFL for nine years before becoming head coach at Long Beach Poly then LB coach at ASU.

I’m interested to see how this odd couple plays out. Hod tells us that they’ll be switching to a 4-3 defense, which would make sense given the DCs’ careers, though I think this could create a strain on all three levels of the defense given their personnel. On the podcast, Hod and I agreed that this defense has a lot of potential but also some questions to answer, though we substantially disagreed about where the strengths of the roster were in 2019 and will be going forward.

What I liked most of the Sun Devils’ defense last year was their defensive linemen. They lose the two who I thought were the most effective, George Lea and Roe Wilkins. They return the two other defensive tackles who rounded out the rotation at 300+ lbs each, #98 DT Davidson and #44 DT Pesefea, who both graded out positively on my tally sheet, and will add a highly recruited freshman in #55 DT Norman-Lott.

They also return #97 DE Foreman and #90 DE Lole (who I thought was one of the most effective in the Pac-12 last year); both are big enough that one or the other might be converted into tackles so this unit has enough depth in a 4-3 front. They’ll convert an outside backer who was used as a pass rusher last year into an end, #41 DE T. Johnson, and add a couple more well regarded freshmen in #58 DE Moore and #9 DE Wright. That should get them to eight men in the two-deep, just enough for a healthy rotation if they avoid injuries and the freshmen all contribute, but those are big ifs.

I thought the d-line was pretty decent at clogging up the run last year; in film study what I was seeing was simply crowding the box so thoroughly that backs couldn’t get through it cleanly for any chunk gains, even while they were giving up modest efficiency runs at will. They were #24 nationally in rushing yards allowed per carry, which was mostly a factor of stopping explosive rushing: #9 in FBS in preventing runs of 20+ yds.

Hod thought the d-line is the question mark for the defense next season, because they weren’t really generating a pass rush last year … and it’s true, the defense only generated a sack once every 35 snaps (#82 in FBS). But in Gonzales’ 3-3-5 scheme I think the blame there should have been traced to the linebackers instead, where I think ASU is in more trouble than Hod does as they switch to a 4-3 with Pierce retaining LB coaching duties.

They lose starting strongside backer Khaylan Kearse-Thomas, as well as the best backup Tyler Whiley. They return #37 LB Butler, who moved to the weakside in 2019 and thrived, and #8 LB Robertson, who moved inside and didn’t. Robertson had a very promising true-freshman season in 2018 but really disappointed in 2019, possibly due to some off-the-field issues Hod mentioned. He thinks that Robertson will be moved back out to the strongside in the 4-3.

The problem is I just don’t know who the new MIKE will be then. It could be Robertson despite his challenges there, or #23 LB Banks who’s a 4-star true freshman but was playing OLB for Narbonne last year, or #30 LB Juarez who previously went from OLB to FB, or #34 LB K. Soelle who played a little in backup time but didn’t impress me athletically. There’s only eight LBs listed on the roster and they’ll probably need six contributing in the rotation … that would be a very high hit rate considering the talent and inexperience here, especially the uncertainty at the QB of the defense.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 01 UTSA at Arizona State Photo by Chris Coduto/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The secondary will have the benefit of returning a lot of experience: they only have one loss, starting corner Kobe Williams, but bring back everybody else. I think the likely starters are #0 CB Jones, #24 CB Lucas, #4 SS Fields, #16 FS Crosswell. They’ll also return experienced backups #15 DB Philips, #3 DB Harts, #6 DB T. Davis, #12 DB Kej. Markham.

This is the unit about which Hod and I disagreed the most. I feel like the stats bear me out here: last year they gave up 3.77 passes of 20+ yards per game (#104 in FBS), and have ranked #75 or worse in yards allowed per pass attempt every year since 2013. And if Hod is right that the origin of this problem is in the lack of a pass rush leaving the secondary in coverage too long, then this problem could get worse moving to a 4-3, where the corners will be left on islands without safety help much more frequently. This was not the most disciplined unit in 2019:

I have the most difficulty in evaluating DBs in pass coverage because I’m usually only working with broadcast angles that cut them off, so I’m sometimes wrong about these guys … but I at least evaluate each unit in all the teams I watch in the same way. And on those metrics ASU’s DBs had some of the poorest ratings on my tally sheet, especially the very hot-and-cold Jones who was great on a lot of plays but wildly out of position almost every other time. We’ll have to wait and see if new DB coach Hawkins can improve their performances; he’s never been an on-field coach before, like Gill he was brought in as a recruiter.


COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 06 Sacramento State at Arizona State Photo by Kevin Abele/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Accountability Corner

That my 2020 team overview for ASU reads very similarly to the one I wrote in my 2019 summer preview is no coincidence, and my prediction that they’d have a standard ASU season (seven or eight wins with a bowl) and lose the South convincingly to Utah was borne out, as well as that playing into an improved recruiting cycle.

On offense, I correctly predicted they’d slide in adv stats for several reasons: problematic playcalling, a new QB, losing a fundamentally game-changing WR, little TE talent, and running Benjamin into the ground. I think that my skepticism about the offensive line was borne out, though I didn’t quite have the starting lineup correct (one miss was an unforeseeable injury, but the other was a 4-star leaving the program). Altogether, this was one of the most accurate set of predictions about a squad I’ve written for this site.

I didn’t do quite as well on the defense. The overall prediction — that they’d improve on their poor 2018 SP+ ranking under Gonzales and his easily adapted 3-3-5 defense — turned out to be correct, and I believe the reasoning, improved defensive line play, was accurate as well. But my thinking has changed quite a bit on the quality of their secondary, in particular how liable they are to give up explosive passing plays. I didn’t see the decline in Robertson’s effectiveness at linebacker coming at all; I thought he’d do pretty well in the middle. I was skeptical about some of the new defensive line players but they turned out to be deeper at DT than I thought they’d be. One pattern I’ve noticed from my 2019 previews applies here: I think I was too quick to discount Juco transfers who didn’t make it to campus right away … such guys have consistently slid into the lineup more smoothly than I thought they would have last summer.


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