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Duck Dive: Arizona State Football 2022 Preview

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

SRS Distribution Las Vegas Bowl - Wisconsin v Arizona State Photo by David Becker/Getty Images

Special thanks to Hod Rabino of Devils Digest for joining me on the Quack 12 Podcast to discuss Arizona State’s roster. LISTEN HERE


Offense

Arizona St won eight games last year, and given the talent they had on hand and a relatively light schedule (no Power-5 in the non-con, a favorable draw from the North, and only one serious divisional opponent) that should probably count as something of a disappointment. After a halftime collapse against Utah in the middle of the season which effectively ended their Pac-12 title shot, they looked like they packed it in to me, limping to a 3-3 finish with their only wins against a couple of coachless 4-8 teams and a supine Wildcats squad. The offseason has brought worse news as the NCAA investigation into alleged covid-era recruiting violations heated up, and several assistant coaches resigned and a raft of likely starters transferred out.

HC Edwards has already replaced his offensive coordinator and two offensive position coaches. The latter were internal promotions of analysts, but the former was an outside hire of OC Thomas, previously at UNLV and Baylor before that. I had a hard time parsing what the offensive scheme was supposed to be in the Spring game, but Hod tells us that Thomas is likely to try and replicate the previous offensive system, which was dominated by two-TE sets and a methodical run game.

I thought that system was a bad fit for their three-year starting quarterback Jayden Daniels, but he’s the most prominent of ASU’s departing transfers so they’re starting with a clean slate. It’s a pretty safe bet that Emory Jones, the former 4-star who transferred in from Florida last week, will win the job. He spent three years as a backup for the Gators beginning with his true freshman season in 2018, then was the starter for all of last year when he posted a decent 141.7 NCAA passer rating. I wouldn’t describe Dan Mullen’s offense at Florida as looking much at all like what Hill has run the last several years, so we’ll have to wait for Fall camp to see if Thomas sticks with it or writes up a different playbook to fit Jones.

The rest of the QB options are very underwhelming and ASU looked to be in real trouble for most of Spring before Jones transferred, with Edwards suggesting at the beginning of Spring practices that this Fall’s starting QB wasn’t on campus yet. In the Spring game it seemed like a two-man race between unimpressive options: #16 QB Bourget, a walk-on, and #9 QB Tyson, an Alabama transfer who’s a former 4-star but has never played like it. The rest of the scholarship QBs are mid 3-stars without playing time: #10 QB Collins, #15 QB McLemore (who has been fighting an injury), and 2022 recruit #7 QB Meredith. I saw very little from any of them in the Spring game. Hod also mentioned Thomas had previously worked with Baylor’s starting QB Gerry Bohanon who was in the portal when we recorded, but he’s since committed to USF.

It’s tough to guess who the backup would be among that crowd. Hod thinks Tyson is probably the best option simply because of his size and some previous playing time and I suppose I agree. But if Jones becomes unavailable for whatever reason I think ASU is right back in the same trouble.

The running back room suffered the departures of probably their best weapons last year in thousand-yard rusher Rachaad White and former 4-star DeaMonte “Chip” Trayanum. They have a couple of good-looking options though: returning 4-star #4 RB Ngata and the transfer of #1 RB Valladay, who also racked up over a thousand yards last year at Wyoming.

Beyond that, the depth is pretty dicey however. Ngata is the only returning scholarship back in the room, indeed the only other returners at all are walk-ons #23 RB Elliott and #39 RB Hart, both of whom got a handful of carries last year. They brought in a low 4-star #28 RB T. White in the 2022 class who was on campus for Spring, but Hod tells us that Hart has been ahead of him in practices. Hod says he thinks they’ll stick with this group (barring a truly elite prospect becoming unexpectedly available), but I’m not sure about that. To me this unit looks like it’s one tweaked ankle away from from a serious loss of production and I wouldn’t be surprised if the Sun Devils hit up the portal for an addition or two here as well.

UNLV v Arizona State Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

The tight end room also loses its most productive player, longtime starter Curtis Hodges, as well as a couple of depth options who didn’t have any catches last year. They return #12 TE Conyers, who saw the field last year when they put two receiving tight ends on the field, but Hodges had six times the receiving yardage as Conyers did and I can’t say I was thrilled with him as a pass-catcher. Also returning is #44 TE Hatch, though he’s probably best understood as a fullback or blocking H-back rather than a real pass-catching option. The last two returners, #85 TE Morgan and #18 TE Ray, were low 3-stars from the 2020 class who I don’t believe have seen the field.

The most significant addition is probably #80 TE Swinson, a transfer from Mizzou who Hod tells us was turning heads in Spring. He was a mid 3-star in the 2018 class who’s only gotten seven catches in two seasons with the Tigers, so this would need to be a real late-career surge for him if he’s going to be the guy through whom much of the offense runs in a purportedly TE-heavy system. The other three additions are mid 3-star true freshmen Jacob Newell (from Thurston HS in Springfield) who’s not on campus yet, low 3-star Juco #84 TE Pierre, and unrated Juco #87 TE Roehl. Having eight tight ends in the unit supports the idea that ASU wants to use them extensively, but I have a hard time predicting explosive production from these pieces. We had a long discussion on the podcast about whom the next guy up would be if Conyers or Swinson were unavailable, and I’m not sure we came to a clear conclusion.

The wide receiver room has been almost entirely cleared out by departures. There were three transfers out prior to the Spring game — the 4-stars Johnny Wilson and Lonyatta “Junior” Alexander, plus three-year backup Geordon Porter – then leading returner Ricky Pearsall announced his transfer and he was followed into the portal by second-leading returner LV Bunkley-Shelton right after we recorded with Hod. They’ve also lost four walk-ons.

I believe there are only four scholarship receivers remaining with just 32 catches between them in 2021, of whom the leading receiver with 186 yards is #82 WR A. Johnson. That’s something of a surprise, because he was a low 3-star and the other three were far more heralded when they arrived in Tempe: #21 WR Badger and #17 WR C. Johnson were a couple of those 2020 4-stars but have never really worked out, and #22 WR Thompson was a relatively productive receiver before he transferred from Utah.

There are six other receivers currently in the room, all of whom are walk-ons (though one, Juco #20 WR Sanders, recently got a scholarship) and have not yet caught a ball for the Sun Devils. That’s simply way too little talent and production for a Power-5 receiving corps, even if ASU implements a TE-heavy passing system and overcomes my skepticism for the TE unit. On the podcast, Hod said that he was expecting the Sun Devils to take two more transfers after Spring ball and he’d then bump that to three after Pearsall left, and with Bunkley-Shelton’s departure I would guess that they’re now looking to take maybe four additions before Fall camp. They got one transfer commitment this past weekend in Cam Johnson, a former low 4-star from Vanderbilt who played the past four seasons and got 34 catches for 327 yards last year. If ASU doesn’t secure a sufficient number of additional talented wideouts over the Summer, I think they’re looking at an impending disaster in the passing game.

Hard as it is to believe, we haven’t gotten to the most devastated offensive unit yet. That’s the offensive line, where four of the six guys who started last season plus their three most talented backups have all departed. There are only a dozen o-linemen left in the unit, of whom four are new transfers in, one is a walk-on, and none are 2022 prep recruits.

For the 2021 season, ASU took two transfer o-linemen just to get up to five starters, something I thought was a bad sign for their recruiting and development. Those were Texas A&M’s Kellen Diesch who played LT and Stanford’s Henry Hattis who played RG; both have now run out of eligibility. Hattis was injured midseason and replaced by Spencer Lovell. I figured he was safe to pencil in as a 2022 starter despite being a low 3-star, but on the podcast Hod said that he had some “heat to shake off his back” which proved to be prescient as Lovell transferred out after our interview. They’ve also lost the starting center, Dohnovan West, to graduation (Diesch and West signed as undrafted free agents with the Dolphins and 49ers, respectively).

The 4-star transfer from North Carolina, Triston Miller, was injured last year and has now left the team, as has the high 3-star Jarrett Bell who appears to have given up football to help run his family’s trucking business. Hod and I talked about Ezra Dotson-Oyetade on the podcast since he was snapping the ball some during the Spring game and was the only remaining o-linemen rated higher than a mid 3-star out of high school, but he also transferred out after our interview.

That leaves just two relatively sure things for 2022: #77 LG Henderson will be returning for his senior season, and #66 OL Scott who was last year’s starting RT (in a bit of a surprise, he hadn’t played before) will be switching to center.

Beyond those two I’m genuinely at a loss as to who the rest of the starters and playable backups will be. Hod suggested that true sophomore #73 OL Glass and Penn St transfer #75 OL Holmes, both mid 3-stars, will be the new tackles, with Division-II transfer #70 OL Bohle possibly backing them up. I’d guess that San Diego St transfer #53 OL Martinez, who was apparently battling Lovell for a guard spot, will probably move up, though he couldn’t crack the lineup with the Aztecs. They’ve also recently taken the “versatile” Joey Ramos from Iowa St, but he doesn’t appear to be on campus yet. There are only five other guys in the rest of the OL room - those I did see play in the Spring game didn’t impress me much, and at any rate none have any playing time or were highly recruited. The concerns I had last year about depth, experience, and reliance on transfers on the o-line have only seemed to accelerate for this year.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 25 Colorado at Arizona State Photo by Christopher Hook/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Defense

Former coordinator Antonio Pierce has been hired by the Raiders to coach their linebackers, and Edwards has turned to another longtime veteran in DC Henderson to replace him. He’d coached in college from the mid 1980s to late 1990s, spent the next decade in the NFL, then over the last decade bounced between college, the AAF, and a few years off. He became ASU’s interim DB coach when Chris Hawkins was suspended last year, and now has the DC-only role while DB coach Fletcher, previously at Mizzou and Tulsa, got that fulltime job. DL coach Rodriguez and LB coach Claiborne return.

Pierce had switched the defensive structure to a 4-3 starting in the 2020 season, and after some adjustment the roster is set up properly for it. When Hod interviewed Henderson earlier this year he said he doesn’t plan to make any schematic changes at all.

My opinion about that scheme change when it happened was an unpopular one at the time, namely that I thought it would highlight ASU’s best defensive unit which was the defensive tackles (most in the media thought it was the secondary). My take on ASU’s defense has been pretty consistent for years – they’re one of the only teams in the Pac-12 which actually gets multiple 300+ lbs d-linemen and puts lots of them up front, and they beat the run not through any particular technical acumen or schematic advantage, but simply forcing offenses to try and run through a wall of beef.

The defensive tackles have taken some tough losses – DJ Davidson was drafted by the Giants, Shannon Forman ran out of eligibility (and is now coaching the team), and after we interviewed Hod, Jermayne Lole and Omarr Norman-Lott entered the transfer portal.

However, I think the DTs should be okay barring any further losses or injuries. Lole sat out last year with a triceps injury and they were fine without him. They return starter #44 DT Pesefea at 305 lbs, as well as backup #92 DT Miller, a low 3-star transfer from Maryland who was playing well in Spring and earned a scholarship. They’ve taken the Miami transfer #4 DT Silvera at 306 lbs who was a high 4-star in the 2018 class and had 38 tackles for the Hurricanes last year, which is a lot for a nose tackle and an indicator he probably won’t have any troubles switching to a 3-tech. In the 2022 class they added a big true freshman in #93 DT Harrison at 285 lbs, and an even bigger Juco in Jalil Rivera-Harvey at 295, though he’s not on campus yet.

That sets up for a good-looking pair of starters in Pesefea and Silvera, with three backups who won’t have a ton of experience but will have the right size for the job, and per my above opinion size is really all that matters here. There’s also the possibility that Lole returns, since he held that out as a possibility when he announced his departure and ASU boosters have recently formed an NIL group. If Lole and Norman-Lott are gone for good then the depth here isn’t great, so they’d be vulnerable to some injuries, but it should be enough for their usual rotation schedule if they’re willing to put young players in early.

It’s unlikely that the tackles will be able to productively borrow from the ends, though, since their big 285-lbs starting end Tyler Johnson has graduated. While there are plenty of DEs with lots of playing time and no other departures, they’re all in the 250 – 265 lbs range and not suited for ASU’s “big beef in the middle” approach.

The two returners with the most experience are #96 DE Cooper and #91 DE Matus. The most intriguing returner to me is #49 DE T. Moore, a transfer from LSU who was a 4-star out of high school and got some playing time with ASU last year but was injured. The Sun Devils also got some reps for returner #35 DE Green who was in on a surprising number of sacks.

There are four other returning defensive ends with few to no reps in the unit. One of them, #14 DE Lambert, was the driver in a fatal collision this weekend and has been arrested on DUI charges and released; his status with the team is uncertain.

The defensive line has added a Juco and a true freshman who both appear to have the body types of DEs, so that’s at least nine ends on scholarship and no risk of running out of bodies if they take some injuries to the starters. Just about everybody here is a mid 3-star, no amazing talents but I think this is a well coached unit and they should be capable of playing their role in this scheme which is mainly about containing outside runs, though I don’t expect a lot of pressure on the quarterback.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: OCT 02 Arizona State at UCLA Photo by Jevone Moore/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

In the linebacking corps, ASU lost starter #20 LB Butler to the NFL (signed as an UDFA with the Raiders) and up-and-coming backup #9 LB Gentry to the transfer portal (flipped to divisional rival USC). Yet another one of the 2020 4-stars, Jordan Banks, also hit the portal after producing one solo tackle in two years.

The Sun Devils return starters #8 LB Robertson and #34 LB K. Soelle. My opinions on these guys are somewhat controversial – I think that Robertson had an excellent true freshman season in 2018 because he was a perfect fit for then-DC Danny Gonzales’ 3-3-5 but his skillset isn’t a great match for this 4-3 and he hasn’t followed up in subsequent years, and I think that Soelle is a sharp player but undersized and I’ve seen him get run over way too often over the last two seasons. They’re certainly very experienced at this point so ASU will be fine, but I don’t think this will be the strength of the defense as some in the media have suggested.

They’ve got quite a few options to replace their departures – #18 LB C. Soelle got the most reps of the returners as a backup last year, though he’s even smaller than his older brother. Mid 3-star #28 LB Shaffer and walk-on #52 LB Jornadal got a couple of reps last year, though the fact they were apparently ahead of high 3-stars #5 LB J. Williams and #22 LB McCullough – who got no playing time in 2021 — makes me wonder about the latter two. They took no prep recruits but got two guys out of the portal: high 3-star #23 LB Groce from Mississippi St and low 3-star #41 LB Bowers from Hawaii, however neither one of them appears to have gotten any college reps before.

Groce has been mentioned as a candidate to get Butler’s job, but I think I’d bet on the younger Soelle based on experience and Hod’s report that Groce didn’t have the Spring practice that he wanted to have. This unit will have plenty of bodies to deal with any potential injuries but the gap between the starters’ experience and the backups’ is pretty severe, and I think this unit will take a small step back in 2022.

ASU loses both its starting cornerbacks to the NFL draft, Jack Jones to the Patriots and Chase Lucas to the Lions. The new starters are pretty easy to pick out since they’re the only two returners in the room, #7 CB Davis and #13 CB Keo. Markham. Davis was the starter in 2021 during the games when Jones was unavailable, and Markham has gotten all the other reps during the Spring.

The Sun Devils didn’t take any prep recruits at all to the secondary in their very small 2022 class (only nine guys, and one’s a kicker). They’ve taken two transfers at corner, but neither was on campus for Spring – Ro Torrence from Auburn and Tarik Luckett who was at Colorado for two years then at a Juco in 2021. Both were mid 3-stars out of high school and have just a handful of tackles in their careers to date.

It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that this unit will take a big step back in 2022 from replacing a couple of drafted, former bluechip, redshirt seniors with less talented and experienced guys, plus the fact that their backups didn’t take in Spring practice with the Sun Devils. Hod raved about the length in this unit as a deliberate choice, and it’s true that all four guys are over 6’0”, but that’s about all they’ve got going for them. I’d also be really worried about injuries since any unavailability probably means putting a totally inexperienced converted safety (who are all much shorter) into the rotation.

The safeties lose longtime starters Evan Fields and DeAndre Pierce (another UDFA with the Raiders, joining his father in Las Vegas), plus backup and former 4-star Tommi Hill has transferred out after just one season. Three other backups who got few to no reps have also left the team.

Fields seemed to be splitting time in 2021 with returner #12 DB Kej. Markham (not to be confused with his twin brother in the CB room), who’s easy to pencil in as a starting safety in 2022. The other starting spot will probably go to #15 DB Bethley, a grad transfer from Hawaii who had nearly a hundred tackles plus four sacks and nine TFLs with the Bows last season (Todd Graham still seems to be blitzing those DBs). They’ll probably use #1 DB Clark as the nickelback when they go to a 4-2-5 … former DC Pierce wasn’t too shy about doing that against some of the more passing-inclined opponents, but we’ll have to wait and see how the possibly pretty old-school Henderson handles it.

The backups are tougher to pick out, because there are a ton of them but I’m not seeing any obvious standouts. The most tackles among the returners went to walk-on #36 DB Gammage, which isn’t a great sign for the eight remaining scholarship safeties not previously mentioned. The most career tackles of anybody in the room will be by FCS transfer #16 DB Edmonds, who like Gammage was unrated out of high school. We’ll have to see if former 4-star #3 DB I. Johnson or any of the mid 3-stars in the room step up. Clearly depth isn’t a concern but it’s hard not to see performance being something of a dropoff between all that lost production and what appears to be a pretty overstuffed and underwhelming unit.


Accountability Corner

I spent a lot of time in last summer’s preview trying to figure out what the 2020 offense was with the replacement OC Hill, and what the implications were for their QB, WRs, and TEs in the poor passing game performance over the four games they played of that shortened season. I think the conclusions I came to held up – I predicted that the scheme wouldn’t a good fit for the talent, several of their 4-star receivers were unlikely to shine in the system but that 3-star Pearsall should put up bigger numbers, and exactly who the productive tight ends would be. I didn’t expect Alexander to not play at all and then transfer back to Washington, however. I thought they’d increase their passing attempts from 35% of all offensive snaps in 2020 but wouldn’t go over 45% in 2021, and I dropped that one right in the bucket – it was exactly 40% last season. I thought 2020’s rushing performance wasn’t a mirage created by the short season and that paid off as well, with a highly effective rushing attack in 2021 led by the personnel I expected. I predicted the offensive line personnel exactly — though that wasn’t tough since they looked like they only had five playable guys – and thought they’d be a decent line if they avoided injury, which turned out to be the case and their rushing numbers reflected it. But I also said that their overreliance on transfers was going to bite them hard going forward and I think we’re seeing that now.

The defensive line turned out to be as good as I expected, and though I didn’t predict Lole would sit out the season or that the LSU transfer Moore would miss much of it, I think the prediction that their depth could handle some starter injuries held up well. I think I got the linebackers mostly right and certainly had the personnel two-deep correct including Gentry’s emergence, but I was expecting more fussiness both with the scheme change and with Butler’s position to hold over from 2020 and those things didn’t materialize at all in 2021. For the secondary, I predicted a lot of rotation in the safeties and that turned out to be accurate, as well as what the personnel rotation would be. But my long-running skepticism of this passing defense (2020 was the eighth straight year that ASU ranked 71st or worse in passing yards allowed per game) and bafflement at the rest of the media’s praise of Jones and Lucas finally got a comeuppance in 2021. Those two put it together as redshirt seniors and played consistently well for the first time, and ASU ranked in the top 25 in passing defense. I suppose the takeaway is not to bet against bluechips for five years running?

NCAA Basketball: Oregon at Arizona State Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports