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Duck Dive: Arizona State Football 2021 Preview

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

Syndication: Arizona Republic Michael Chow via Imagn Content Services, LLC

Special thanks to Hod Rabino of Devils Digest for speaking with me on the Quack 12 Podcast during our deep dive into the Sun Devils roster. Listen HERE.


Arizona State v Arizona Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Offense

Arizona St’s offense was at least as frustrating to watch as it was entertaining last season. It was one of the most boom-or-bust teams I’ve charted in years, with a poor overall play efficiency rate but with some of the biggest explosion plays, and explosion-play dependency, in the conference. Furthermore there was an enormous split between the pass and rush game effectiveness which I wouldn’t have guessed from their 2019 record and the personnel they were returning and adding.

New OC Hill, formerly of Boise St, had seven Spring practices in 2020 to install his tight end-heavy, pro-style offense before it was shut down due to covid. It was quite a change in direction compared to the previous two years under Air Raid disciple Rob Likens who’d been let go after the 2019 season. It’s tough to give a good assessment of how well it went since the Sun Devils only played four games (one of which was a laugher, a 70-7 blowout of an Arizona team that had clearly quit), but it did seem like they’ve had a rough time implementing it.

The passing offense simply wasn’t as effective as in 2019 by any metric - I charted dropbacks as only 38% effective on a per-play basis, given the down & distance. There are a number of potential explanations; one is that this scheme was never really installed properly, or it could be that it’s a poor fit for the personnel. A number of veteran receivers didn’t play and have left the program, and Hod suggested at least one wasn’t on the same page with Hill, leaving a very green group of wideouts and there were certainly several miscommunications on routes. The offensive line was also clearly much more comfortable run blocking than in pass protection.

That makes it tough to parse what appears to be a statistical regression in #5 QB Daniels’ passing numbers. I think some dip in his completion percentage was inevitable due to the scheme change, since his 2019 numbers were artificially inflated somewhat by an offense dominated by short passes. But I also think he was just more inaccurate, with several unexplained wobbly throws or passes that were inexplicably short-hopped. I asked Hod if there was some injury to Daniels that ASU was keeping under wraps, but he didn’t think so.

An injury to Daniels looks like it would be pretty significant to ASU, as transfers have left this room fairly empty. There are only two other scholarship QBs on the roster, both low 3-star freshmen: #10 QB Collins from the 2021 class and #15 QB McLemore from 2020. Hod tells us that in Spring #16 QB Bourget, a walk-on redshirt freshman who recently got a scholarship, had the best grasp of the offense and was probably second on the depth chart. Bourget has some real physical limitations, however - I didn’t see a lot of arm strength and I don’t think he’s even the 5’11” he’s listed as - several of his passes were batted down in Spring practice.

The Sun Devils’ 2020 recruiting class had four blue-chip receivers in it; we got to see two of them play extensively as true freshmen: #2 WR Bunkley-Shelton and #14 WR Wilson, though that still only constituted 17 catches between them due to the shortened season and a 35/65 pass-to-run ratio. Wilson was used frequently as a downfield blocker since he’s such a big receiver (there was some pre-season talk about converting him to a tight end); I thought that a lot of these risked holding penalties due to his very raw technique, but he didn’t get flagged for them often. The veteran receivers #19 WR Pearsall and #6 WR Porter also return; they’ve got lower ceilings but seemed to take up the playbook a bit better and had a comparable number of targets as the freshmen.

ASU should be adding four more receivers to the rotation in 2021: the other two 2020 blue chips, #21 WR Badger and #17 WR C. Johnson, true-freshman 4-star #2 WR Alexander, and Utah transfer Bryan Thompson who has 33 catches for 756 yards in his career. Badger had to redshirt due to his grades, and Johnson is more of a project (he got turf toe this Spring, we’ll have to see if he’s ready to play in the Fall). ASU is clearly not hesitant to play true freshmen at the position so I expect to see Alexander get some time barring any misfortunes, and Thompson is a veteran (though he’s not listed on the roster yet, Hod doesn’t think there are any problems with his transfer).

The most significant part of the offensive scheme change to the personnel is the much greater use of tight ends, a pretty desultory position in Likens’ offense. As such Hill has taken in three transfer TEs so far, and Hod speculates he might take a fourth. One of those has left the program but the new transfer from Oklahoma, #12 TE Conyers, looked pretty good in the Spring game. He’ll be joined by longtime veteran #86 TE Hodges, though I’ve never been wild about his skill level, and I think those two will be in on most snaps in this 12-personnel offense. The backups look to be the other remaining transfer, #87 TE Stivers (from Harvard … what a long journey to ASU, literally and figuratively), and #29 TE Hatch who’s been used as a fullback quite a bit.

I would expect that between Daniels maturing, the roster of pass-catchers getting deeper, and in general the entire team having a proper Spring to install the offense, the passing offense should at least incrementally improve. Hod agreed, though he noted that it hasn’t been evident so far in 2021: “I didn’t see this passing game in Spring practice taking a big leap that can show me that they put all the troubles of 2020 behind them … there’s nobody looking at this passing game in Spring practice and saying, ‘Well now there’s a chance it might be 55/45 passing in the allocation of snaps.’”

UCLA v Arizona State Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Fortunately for ASU, their playcalling balance matched up with their effectiveness - running 65% of the time and with a 60% success rate on my tally sheet. That’s largely due to a truly excellent trio of new backs, the true freshmen 4-stars #1 RB Trayanum and #4 RB Ngata and Juco transfer #3 RB White. They combined for 117 carries and 818 yards, an impressive 7.0 ypc, though it should probably be noted that they played a pretty weak slate of defenses in terms of talent and/or discipline. Still, the film showed clearly that these guys were routinely breaking tackles and getting a lot of extra yards, with the highest YAC percentage on my tally sheet of any running back room in the Pac-12 last year.

The biggest surprise to me from ASU’s 2020 season is that their offensive line wasn’t the disaster I was expecting it to be. They had to take two transfers just to get up to five playable linemen, #74 LT Diesch from Texas A&M and #70 RG Hattis from Stanford, and they had to get a sixth year from the NCAA for #72 C Cote back after missing an entire year to injury. While #61 LG West returned, they had benched former 2019 starter #77 OL Henderson in favor of untested redshirt freshman #66 RT Scott, a very young low 3-star with an inclination to jump the snap slightly and risk false starts, though he’s got room to improve. That didn’t seem like a recipe for success, and to be sure there were some significant problems in pass pro. But they did have the good fortune of those five guys playing every snap at their same positions in 2020, and that stability clearly did them a world of good.

In 2021, they return all of the above mentioned except Cote. New OL coach Cavanaugh, who was with the Beavers for a long stretch during some of their best teams, is expected to slide West over to center and will probably bring Henderson off the bench to take over at left guard. Given the experience and stability, simple incremental improvement could put this line in the top half of the league - if they can stay healthy again over a full season.

However, I’m not sure this team could afford a single injury, because the depth is precarious. There are 14 other scholarship linemen (eight returners, five true freshmen, and a transfer), none of whom have played a snap for ASU. The highest rated of the returners is #50 OL Bell, a high 3-star; everybody else in the room is a low-to-mid 3-star. The transfer from UNC is #51 OL Miller, but unfortunately he suffered a concussion right after getting to Tempe and hasn’t been available. Hod brought up the possibility, apparently a strong one according to his sources inside the program, that one or more of three true freshmen — #57 OL Bethea, #52 OL Dotson-Oyetade, or #73 OL Glass — might get significant reps this year if they need to put in backups.


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

Defense

The most salient thing to know about ASU’s defense is that they’re bringing back everybody and are deep with bodies at every position. There were no meaningful departures of the guys who played in 2020 and even then they only had one opt-out. There are some questions about who the backups will be at linebacker and defensive back because the eligibility holiday has created a big division at those positions between longtime upperclassmen starters and untested freshmen reserves, but the starting 11 and the defensive line rotation are well established.

At the end of 2019, former ASU DC Danny Gonzales left for the head coaching job at New Mexico, and HC Edwards decided to promote LB coach Pierce to Co-DC alongside with his “special advisor” Marvin Lewis for 2020. Now Lewis is back to being an advisor and Pierce is the fulltime DC in 2021, and in watching last year’s games I suspect Pierce was really the one in charge then as well, with Lewis just offering advice. The primary evidence here is the 4-3 scheme they switched to (although they spent a lot of time as a 4-2-5 because they played some pass-happy teams), which is virtually identical to the one Pierce played in as a linebacker for the NY Giants.

Last offseason I predicted the scheme change would put some pressure on the linebackers but the defensive line would shine, because I liked the size and talent up front and thought they were the strength of the defense in 2019. Apparently that was a very unpopular opinion among the ASU fanbase, but your fearless film reviewer seems to have been vindicated.

More impressive is how mobile this group is despite the size: the defensive tackles — #90 DT Lole, #98 DT Davidson, #44 DT Pesefea, and #55 DT Norman-Lott — are all over 300 lbs, and the defensive ends — #41 DE T. Johnson, #91 DE Matus, #97 DE Forman, and #96 DE Cooper — are all above 265 lbs, but I wasn’t seeing slow feet in this group. There was a pretty frequent rotation to keep guys fresh, and I expect that to continue. This unit recorded nine sacks in four games, including three from Matus alone against UCLA’s highly mobile QB.

There are seven more scholarship linemen on the roster whom we didn’t see last year, including 4-star redshirt freshman #9 DL Wright and LSU transfer #49 DL T. Moore, so I doubt depth is a concern here.

USC Trojans defeated the Arizona State Sun Devils 28-27 during a NCAA Football game.

The linebackers continue to puzzle me, and I think my concerns about them fitting the new scheme showed up as well. Hod disagreed, but I think that #8 LB Robertson hasn’t replicated his excellent freshman season and I’m not sure his schematic responsibilities in the middle agree with him. They’ve been playing one of a pair of brothers as the second linebacker inside, #34 LB K. Soelle, and Hod and I agreed here - he’s a smart player who knows his assignments well, but has size and speed limitations that make him less than ideal. #20 LB Butler, a longtime vet at the position, was the backer losing reps when they switched to a nickel, and also it seems most of the experimentation with the other five backers on the roster came at his expense as well, so I didn’t get much of a look at him.

I don’t expect any changes to those three starters for 2021 because I wasn’t wild about any of those five backups, though four of them were true freshman and the fifth was the younger brother from 2019, #18 LB C. Soelle. I think that partly explains why they took a grad transfer from UMass, Xavier Steele (Hod assures us he was practicing with the team in Spring but he’s not officially listed on the roster). Hod also thinks it’s likely that 6’ 6” 220-lbs true freshman Eric Gentry will break into the rotation because he had a great Spring practice. I’m a little skeptical of a mid 3-star playing that early, especially because he really needs to bulk up, but I think this unit could use some playable depth.

It’s a somewhat similar situation at defensive back. There are five returning starters, four of whom are upperclassmen and likely playing their final year: #0 CB Jones, #24 CB Lucas, #2 DB Pierce, and #4 DB Fields. #7 CB Davis got some starts during the year when Jones was suspended (apparently he’s now back in the coaches’ good graces and was practicing with the starters this Spring); Davis is a redshirt junior and may want to try to go pro as well at the end of the year. The only younger returning starter is #1 CB Clark, a high 3-star from the 2019 cycle.

For as long as this group has been in Tempe I’ve thought this is an inconsistent group and have been lower on them than most of the media, and once again they came in fairly poorly ranked statistically: #93 in passing yards allowed per game. I don’t expect any changes here, either in personnel or performance.

To me the most interesting question about the DBs is that since they’ll be losing so many for 2022, there may be some pressure to provide the younger backups some rotational time they might not otherwise get. There’s a lot of bodies here but it’s shockingly young, with seven of the eleven remaining DBs on the roster coming in over the last two cycles. That’s where the talent skews as well, with the only 4-stars here, #3 DB I. Johnson and #6 DB Hill, coming in the 2021 class. It will be interesting to see in Fall camp if the newcomers beat out the slightly more established backups like the Markham twins, #12 & #13, from the 2019 class.


COLLEGE FOOTBALL: AUG 29 Kent State at Arizona State Photo by Kevin Abele/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Accountability Corner

The closest thing to a black eye I took in last summer’s ASU preview is speculating that their poor offensive line depth might get them in trouble. Still, I said that it could be a solid group if they avoided injuries, and that’s exactly what happened - I think that represents good luck rather than good planning. Otherwise I think the offense played out as I wrote - a lot of ups and downs due to not having the right personnel, particularly at tight end, for the scheme change, but buoyed by some very exciting new skill talent. Daniels continues to be the big mystery here; I think between the abbreviated season and not being able to decide if he regressed, was injured, or his numbers were an illusion, I’ll give the both of us incomplete grades.

Reader, if you’ll allow me some crowing, on the current podcast Hod reflected on my 2020 comments about ASU’s defensive line: “You might be the only person on this planet who thought the defensive line was going to be the strength of this team.” Naturally, Hod and I continue to disagree about the linebackers and defensive backs, and with such a short season it’s tough to say who’s right, but I think that if I got the DL right but the team still had such mixed results, there’s got to be a problem somewhere.


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