Special thanks to Hod Rabino of Devils Digest for joining me on the Quack 12 Podcast to discuss Arizona State’s roster. LISTEN HERE
Nota bene: The jersey numbers from the official roster frequently mismatched what players were wearing in the Spring game and what they’re photographed in for their bios, something that created a lot of confusion which Hod and I tried to clear up on the podcast. For the benefit of anyone who watched that game, the numbers which appear in this article will reflect Spring practice jerseys, as I suspect the website simply has some clerical errors that will be fixed later.
Arizona State has used the transfer portal and the NCAA’s suspension of the initial counter rule to rapidly restock its roster after the massive wave of departures in the wake of the scandal-plagued previous staff, and new head coach Dillingham has been admirably frank and unsentimental about his approach to doing so. The overall talent level is about the same as it has been in recent seasons (although surges by Utah and Colorado have pushed them down the relative rankings), with a handful of headline-making top talents counterweighed by a roster otherwise filled by low-to-mid 3-stars. But the experience drain and a roster still in flux and looking for more portal help after Spring (particularly on the lines) may make it difficult to quickly recover from last year’s 3-9 season.
Hod tells us that the clubhouse leader to keep the starting job as signal caller is #16 QB Bourguet, and it’s not difficult to understand why – the former walk-on took over in the middle of the game against the Huskies and led the Sun Devils to an upset win, to the delight of all observers, and it was his team for the rest of the season. It’s a compelling story, and Hod said that the Spring practice numbers indicate he had more than ten percentage points better completion percentage than anyone else adjusting for receiver drops, but diving deeper into last season I think there’s reason for some skepticism here. Bourguet’s NCAA passer rating in those six games, the final four of which were losses, was a modest 146.0, and he was benched during a miserable loss to Wazzu after going 3 for 10 and throwing a bad pick.
By contrast, the primary competition for the job, Notre Dame transfer #10 QB Pyne, has a less happy narrative but much better stats. He’s probably best known for getting screamed at on national television and displaying the exact expression of a puppy who’s knocked over the kitchen garbage, with Hod relaying that Irish fans filled his inbox with claims that he’s the worst quarterback in program history (my money’d be on George Haffner). But Pyne threw 50 more passes than Bourguet, over an 8-3 record against better defenses with a significantly better 155.3 passer rating. If Dillingham is as analytically driven as his time at Oregon and the extensive film study I did on him before that has led me to believe, I should think he’ll let the competition run through Fall camp.
At any rate, those two constitute a good battle to have for the starter, and there are also two very talented former 4-star backups waiting in the wings in true freshman #5 QB Rashada and BYU transfer #15 QB Conover. I saw both in the Spring game and neither looked ready to play right away – Rashada was making some painful freshman mistakes and Conover’s accuracy was eluding him – but both of them have the obvious build and talent for the job when they mature into it. Those four are the only scholarship QBs remaining, as everyone else has left: last year’s initial starter Emory Jones, Paul Tyson, Finn Collins, Bennett Meredith (who played in the Spring game), and Daylin McLemore. But three bluechips and a battle between two experienced starters, with the least talented guy setting the floor, is a nice position to be in for a very solid looking room.
The Sun Devils lose a 1,200-yd rusher and one of the best backs in the country last year, X Valladay (that he was overlooked by the NFL for so long was criminal in my opinion; reports are the Texans finally signed him this week for a paltry amount), as well as his primary backup Daniel Ngata.
As Hod and I discussed on the podcast, there are some good-looking options here but everyone is in some kind of transition and it’s unlikely they find the single workhorse back that ASU has had for years. The only scholarship returner to this room is #28 RB T. White, a low 4-star true sophomore, but he got just 14 carries in five games last year, was hurt in practices and held out of the Spring game, and hasn’t yet shown he’s ready to carry the load. It’s interesting that he was in real competition with a walk-on, #39 RB Hart, who played in twice as many games last year, though he was also held out of the Spring game with an injury. The final returner, of a sort, is #8 WR Jacobs, a backup slot receiver who played RB in high school and was pressed into service in the Spring game due to all the injuries (and actually got the most carries by my count); I asked Hod if Jacobs might permanently be moved into the RB room because of its small size and he replied that it’s a possibility since the slot receiver room could squeeze him out.
ASU took a couple of transfer backs: #25 RB Brooks from Cal and #4 RB Skattebo from FCS Sacramento St. I’ve liked Brooks for a while as a power back but his numbers have never been impressive in Bill Musgrave’s anemic offense and I’m not sure how he’ll fit into Dillingham’s, and while Skattebo was the Big Sky Offensive Player of the Year it remains to be seen what he can do against Power-5 defenses (Brooks was also held out of the Spring game; Skattebo played but ASU’s defense against the run, as will be discussed below, didn’t exactly meet that standard). They’ve also taken a mid 3-star true freshman who arrives in the Fall.
Altogether I think these are a decent set of options to carry the ball so I doubt this room will be a liability, but given that every one of them has some major adjustment to do for this offense and none is a proven asset in it, I have a hard time predicting anything other than a step back from Valladay and Ngata’s production.
The Sun Devils return both of their very productive receiving tight ends, who had earlier transferred in from Power-5 schools: #12 TE Conyers from Oklahoma and #80 TE Swinson from Missouri. They also return a former Juco, #13 TE Pierre, who didn’t get any receptions last year but was used quite a bit in the Spring game; given how much Dillingham likes to use multiple tight end sets he may see the field a lot more in 2023. Hod raved about this unit and said he and the coaches he’s talked to would be willing to put it up against the best TE groups in the league; I haven’t formed firm conclusions on that question since Oregon hasn’t played ASU in the last three years so I haven’t had to, but the talent and production speak for themselves and I know that Dillingham incorporates them well in his scheme.
They lose the longtime blocker Case Hatch, and as Hod indicated on the podcast Jacob Newell left the team right after we spoke, but if they need a dedicated blocker they should be fine with #85 TE Morgan and possibly #87 TE Garvin as well.
The wide receivers return their top two producers in #2 WR Badger, a big outside receiver and the only one of the cluster of 2020 4-stars remaining, and #20 WR Sanders, an unrated Juco who had a real connection with Bourguet and got some big numbers out of the slot when he took over midseason. They also return #82 WR A. Johnson, another tall outside receiver but who only got 15 catches last year and I didn’t see in the Spring game.
There are quite a few departures here: former Utah transfer Bryan Thompson who was the third-leading wideout, plus Charles Hall and Cam Johnson who had about 20 catches between them. On the podcast, Hod and I talked about whether Chad Johnson Jr, who’d been on the team for three years but only gotten one catch, would put it together this year; afterwards his name disappeared from the official roster and Hod let me know that he won’t be playing in 2023 but may stick around in a coaching or administrative role.
ASU has taken four transfer additions here, and I got to see all of them play in the Spring game: #22 WR Stovall from Colorado St and Nevada before that, #9 WR Omeire from Texas, #3 WR J. Smith from USC and Texas before that, and #1 WR Guillory from FCS Idaho St.
Stovall’s a shorter player who’s coming off an injury and missing most of last year; I think he’ll wind up backing up Sanders in the slot (given Sanders’ connection with Bourguet I doubt they’ll mess with the chemistry if he’s the starting QB, but Hod thinks it’s a real fight otherwise). Omeire’s a former 4-star and a big, physical receiver; I think he’s a good complement to Badger as the other starting outside guy, though he’s played very little college ball so far. Guillory’s a tall receiver too though not as heavily built; Hod likes him a lot but I suspect he falls into a backup role given Badger and Omeire’s pedigrees. Smith is difficult to pin down, as Hod reminded me on the podcast he had a promising true freshman season as a 4-star at Texas in 2019 but injuries and getting squeezed out at USC caused his production to completely vanish in recent years.
There are a couple of 3-star true freshmen who enrolled early, #2 WR Black and #11 WR Hendrix, though I don’t believe I saw them in the Spring game. Setting them aside, I like how veteran this unit is, with four from the 2019 class and three more from 2020, and there’s some bluechip talent with three former 4-stars.
Badger and Sanders are proven commodities, but there are some real questions about getting into form given Guillory moving up from FCS, how much time Stovall and Smith have missed, and how little Johnson, Omeire, Black, and Hendrix have played. One way this could go is a very productive wide receiver unit that OC Baldwin has in the past shown real aptitude at using. But it’s a small enough room at this point that it would only take a couple things things not working out for ASU to face some serious depth concerns, so I wouldn’t be surprised if they add one or two wideouts as insurance by Fall camp.
The Sun Devils are looking to replace all three of their interior guard positions on the offensive line from last year due to departures: left guard Chris Martinez, center Ben Scott, and right guard Des Holmes. They’ve also lost a significant number of o-linemen I didn’t see on the field in 2022: LaDarius Henderson, Armon Bethea, Austin Barry (same deal as Chad Johnson), Ralph Frias (whose absence from the roster, presence in the Spring game, then transfer out afterwards provoked some amusement on the podcast), and Danny Valenzuela (another Spring game participant who left afterwards).
While they return the starters at both tackle spots, #73 LT Glass and #70 RT Bohle, Hod tells me they may be trying to replace them as well … and after I finished charting ASU’s season I can understand why, I think they’re undersized for the position and let a significant amount of pass pressure through, especially Bohle who’s an unrated Div-II transfer.
ASU returns only two other scholarship linemen from last year, #64 OL Bray and #69 OL Ramos (he’d missed all of last year with an ACL injury but was playing in the Spring game and looked healthy). Both are interior guards, as is the walk-on I saw in the Spring game, redshirt freshman #61 OL Katergaris. Hod thinks Ramos, a former high 3-star who’d previously transferred in from Iowa St, will probably get the starting RG spot.
There are nine additions to the offensive line room so far, however there have been extensive injury problems during Spring practices and I believe only one of them is a tackle, so Hod thinks that ASU is going to continue to scour the portal for help here and I can see why. Assuming he gets healthy, Nevada transfer #57 OL Frost has been penciled in to replace Bohle at RT, though Frost was held out of Spring. Purdue grad transfer Sione Finau wasn’t on campus for Spring but a spot is being held for him at LG. UNLV transfer #79 OL Fautanu was snapping the ball during the Spring game and Hod expects him to be the starter in the Fall. Those three range between a 2-star (Fautanu) and a couple of low 3-stars.
The two higher rated transfers have been injured for so long that they may not make any impact. Those are high 3-star #62 OL Coleman from Cal, who’s apparently been injured badly enough he’ll be out for most of the season and may take a medical redshirt, and mid 4-star #75 OL Walden from Oregon, who’s been unavailable with injury his entire career and I didn’t see in the Spring game. I saw one Juco, #58 OL Iheanachor, playing LG in Spring, so that’s probably a backup guard along with Bray, but I didn’t see the other Juco, #57 OL K. Scott, nor did I see either of the true freshmen, #73 OL Kandiyeli or #74 OL Na’a (both of whom are underweight at this point anyway, which is normal for their age), so I don’t expect them to contribute in 2023.
The injury situation, combined with the guard-tackle imbalance, was so out-of-whack in the Spring game that they were using one guy who wasn’t really on the roster (Frias) and another who was a 250 lbs walk-on TE stuffed into a #50 jersey (Garvin) as offensive tackles. Even if ASU really believed in Glass – and they may have to, he’s currently their only playable option at LT – it would still make sense for them to look hard for at least one, probably two more tackles simply for appropriate depth at the position.
I’m not optimistic about any of this. The data on o-linemen so far do not bode well for taking multiple transfers just to get up to five starters, much less getting them so late in the offseason with a new staff installing a new offense. Even if all of the projected starters work out, it’s a tiny pool of backups who have effectively played no D1 football, and the talent ratings of the healthy (I think) players average out to a low 3-star.
The total collapse in ASU’s defensive performance from 2021 to 2022 massively eclipsed their somewhat expected offensive falloff – they fell from the 26th ranked team in defensive F+ advanced statistics the year before last to the 114th ranked team last year. There are two likely candidates for this – the coaching upheaval, and the loss of almost all their secondary starters and half their defensive line from 2021. I’m inclined to buy the latter explanation more, since the former explanation should have tanked the offense just as much and yet that side of the ball only fell off from 41st to 53rd. Unfortunately for the Sun Devils, it looks like the same thing that happened to the defensive backfield last offseason may accelerate with the front this offseason.
For years since former DC Antonio Pierce installed this 4-down front I’ve appreciated how much ASU has stacked up heavyweight defensive linemen to stop the run, and in 2021 (Pierce’s last year with the team) they peaked with that strategy, achieving the 28th ranked rush defense in FBS. But they fell off badly last year, down to 123rd, and on my tally sheet they tumbled to only a 40.5% per-play rush defense success rate (124 successes vs 181 failures given the down & distance, excluding garbage time), surrendering 6.1 adjusted YPC and allowing 19.5% of opponents’ runs to gain 10+ yards.
New DC Ward from Wazzu looks to be continuing the same 4-2-5 structure that this defense evolved into last year (Pierce initially installed a 4-3 but they deployed more and more nickel looks as time went on, and in 2022 they switched to a 4-2-5 by default unless the opposing offense lined up with two or more TEs). Last year Ward was running the 4-2-5 that Wazzu head coach Dickert had brought in from Wyoming, and I believe Ward is also familiar with this structure from his time at Nevada, so none of this should be a problem from a coaching or installation standpoint. I just don’t know where they’re going to find the bodies to populate the front.
The losses on the defensive line have gotten even worse for the 2023 season, both in the number and in the size of the bodies that were so essential to Pierce’s strategy. Prior to the Spring game they were facing the departures of 2022 starting tackles Nesta Jade Silvera (their only draft pick) and TJ Pesefea, starting ends Joe Moore and Travez Moore, and backup tackles Omarr Norman-Lott and B’Ahmad Miller. Then after the Spring game, multiple linemen who played got in the portal or otherwise disappeared from the roster, including Dylan Hall, Robby Harrison, Brandon McElroy, Matthew Pola-Mao, and Jalil Rivera-Harvey. The average weight of the eight DTs that they’re losing is 308 lbs.
At this point ASU has no defensive tackles returning who played the position last year. They’ve converted two returning ends to the position, senior #96 DT Cooper who was high in the rotation at end last year and I’ve always liked there but I’m not sure can play tackle, and redshirt freshman #97 DT Lono-Wong.
They’ve taken three transfer defensive linemen who are putatively tackles: #92 DT Benjamin from FCS Idaho St, #93 DT Monday from Wisconsin, and Dashaun Mallory from Michigan St. Benjamin is 6’5” and 255 lbs and is clearly supposed to be an end, but they had him playing tackle in the Spring game for some reason and Hod said he’s unlikely to switch back to end. Monday is a redshirt freshman and I don’t think he played in Spring. Mallory is a multi-year letter winner with the Spartans who switched from tackle to end at MSU last season but could probably switch back and I think would be the most valuable guy they could get by far, but apparently there’s some holdup in transferring to ASU and Hod said whether he ever makes it is “TBD” (another ASU journalist flatly stated it’s not going to happen).
There were two d-linemen in the 2023 recruiting cycle I believe will be tackles, though one doesn’t arrive until the Fall so we’ll have to wait and see. The early enrollee is #99 DT Fite, who was playing with the ones in the Spring game at 297 lbs and looked pretty decent for a true freshman. It’s usually hazardous to put such a young player (he doesn’t turn 18 till the end of this month) in the middle of the line, but ASU may be forced to. On the podcast, Hod said DT is “definitely the most dire need in the transfer portal for Arizona State,” and predicted they’ll bring in at least two more, though that hasn’t happened yet. There’s zero college experience for any of the five DTs they have on campus right now, and other than Fite they’re all lighter guys – even with him the average weight here is 275 lbs – which is simply too small in both rotation and heft to stop the run, and this team was terrible at it last year.
The defensive ends return #35 DE Green who’s been pretty productive at havoc plays the last two seasons, #91 DE Matus who had a nice 2021 but missed last year and Spring practices with an ACL injury, and #49 DE Stansbury who hasn’t really seen the field his first two seasons but was playing with the ones in the Spring game.
They’ve taken two former bluechip transfers that they’re clearly pretty happy with, #32 DE Dorbah from Texas and #3 DE C. Smith from Oklahoma, who played with the ones in the Spring game but have combined for only nine solo tackles in their five seasons of football. Both are much lighter, in the 230-240 lbs range, than previous DEs the Sun Devils have used, and I think this represents something of a philosophy change towards shoring up the pass rush, although it may come at the expense of setting the edge against the run.
Those four or five, depending on Matus’ recovery, probably represent the rotation at end, and it looks much better than the tackle situation in terms of talent and promise, though it’s still fairly inexperienced. I think depth is a concern if they start running into injuries, however, as I only saw one of the two true freshmen in Spring, #17 DE A. Williams, and I didn’t see the incoming Juco #15 DE O’Neal, though Hod said he’s one of the best Jucos at the position. I’m also uncertain of the last possible member of the ends, New Mexico transfer Ian Shewell – he seems to think ASU is home, but he’s not listed on the roster, he didn’t play in the Spring game, and when I asked after him Hod said he’d never heard the name before (which was an entertaining experience for me).
The linebackers are losing all three of their starters: longtime vets Merlin Robertson at SAM and Kyle Soelle at MIKE ran out of eligibility (the former has a minicamp lined up, the latter signed a UDFA contract with the Cardinals), and younger brother Connor Soelle at WILL transferred to Oregon. When charting ASU last year I didn’t see much rotation at all here and these three got virtually every snap at their respective positions.
The most experienced player here is a portal addition, #82 LB T. Brown from Wazzu. I’ve been watching his somewhat modest grades on my tally sheet every year since he arrived on the Palouse in 2019 and always wondered if he could break out from the starters who were playing over him, and it looks like he finally escaped laterally with DC Ward and LB coach Cooper who also came over from Pullman. Hod thinks Brown has a starting spot locked up and that’s easy to agree with by default given how completely green the rest of the room is; Hod’s other pick for starter is one of the barely used returners, #8 LB Shaffer who I’ve only seen a handful of times in three years for ASU.
The rest of the room are returners #66 LB Djonkam, an unrated Juco and former d-lineman who’s pretty thickly built, and #22 LB McCullough, who had some highlight reel plays in the Spring game but Hod thinks will just be a backup, plus transfers #43 LB K. Jackson from Kansas St who’s unusually tall and thin for a backer, and #44 LB Romney from BYU whom I didn’t see in the Spring game. There’s also a mid 3-star true freshman joining in the Fall and I think a couple of walk-ons for depth.
Hod thinks that the staff is happy with Brown and Shaffer as starters, Djonkam and McCullough as the primary backups, and everyone else as depth, meaning they’ll conserve any portal additions for more pressing areas like the lines and just go with this group as-is. If I were coaching this unit I’m not sure I’d be thrilled with the prospects for improving on last year’s group or even just replicating its performance – those were some very experienced players anchored by a bluechip and these are all mid 3-stars and basically rookies outside of Brown.
ASU lost every one of the longtime secondary starters in their base defense at the end of 2021, a group that had finally matured into a strong backfield of seniors after playing since 2017, particularly corners Jack Jones and Chase Lucas who were then drafted. I thought the Sun Devils would face some challenges replacing them and predicted a dropoff in performance for 2022, but I was still taken aback by how big of a spill it was. On my tally sheet they tumbled a staggering 13 percentage points in pass defense efficiency, underwater last year at 48% per-play success against opponents’ designed passing plays (193 defensive successes vs 208 failures), with more than 16% of passes gaining more than 15+ yards.
Last year ASU replaced Jones and Lucas with Auburn transfer #9 CB Torrence at one spot and Baylor transfer Timarcus Davis at the other, though Davis lost his job to #10 CB Woods midway through the season and has now graduated. Another one of the backup corners, Tarik Luckett, transferred out right after we finished recording and Hod presciently commented that he “didn’t start Spring on a great note,” though interestingly fellow backup #0 CB I. Johnson is still on the roster despite Hod suggesting he might leave the team, the only ASU player of nearly a dozen we talked about who’s survived Hod’s skepticism. During the Spring game I saw reserves #31 CB Boyd and #6 CB M. Williams playing with the ones since Woods was being held out; Hod thinks Williams may compete with Woods for the other starting job next to Torrence.
It’s difficult for me to assess the potential of this unit going into year two as starters, as cornerback play is notoriously tough to evaluate from broadcast tape and they were very green replacing longtime veterans in 2022. Hod said that he believes Torrence is one of the best cornerbacks in the conference, and for all I know he’s right about that, though it’s difficult for me to believe about a mid 3-star who’s essentially played one season of meaningful football on a 3-9 team. There’s also a “boy who cried wolf” problem here that I’ve written about for years with ASU’s defensive backfield which I’ll try to illustrate with this chart:
I was curious, now that ASU will be in a 4-2-5, about one of ASU’s nickelbacks from back when they were in a 3-3-5 configuration but I hadn’t seen recently, Willie Harts, and Hod said he’s been struggling with injuries but remembered him being a great player with a lot of speed. It looks like Harts will be stepping away from playing this year, however. The starting nickelback spot will almost certainly go to returner #1 DB J. Clark, a high 3-star who’s virtually tied for leading returning tackler in the secondary, with the backup spot going to #21 DB Regan, who didn’t see the field last year but was playing the position in the Spring game.
The deep safeties return one player, #5 DB Edmonds, who was an unrated FCS transfer and the leading returning tackler in the secondary, though he graded out pretty poorly on my tally sheet last year. They lose the other starter, Khoury Bethley, who had almost twice as many tackles and a lot of times was cleaning up whiffs from other players in the backfield, as well as all the backups who got any meaningful play, DJ Taylor and twins Keon and Kejuan Markham.
Hod and I both think that the two portal additions ASU took before Spring practices begun are going to be named the starters and take Edmonds job away: #2 DB Alford from USC and Texas before that, and #7 DB Simmons from FCS Austin Peay. Alford had a pretty good 2021 season with the Trojans despite that team’s lousy year, then was hurt and didn’t play last season; Simmons was an all-conference selection. He wasn’t available for the Spring game, but ASU also took another DB transfer from Austin Peay, Demetries Ford, who I think will be a backup along with Edmonds, unrated Utah transfer #29 DB Taylor who got a little play last year, and maybe one of the six mid 3-star true freshman (#18 DB Warren was the only one I saw playing in the Spring game, so likely him if anyone).
I think poor performance from the safeties significantly contributed to ASU’s defensive collapse last year, and unlike the corners they’re being replaced with some pretty promising players. A lot is riding on Alford and Simmons being available for every snap, however, since I think the secondary is facing a big falloff if either needs to rotate out or miss some time.
In last year’s preview, it was pretty easy to guess that Jones was going to have the starting QB job but that the rest of the mix of backups was so unappealing that it was anybody’s guess who’d get the job if he went down (I wouldn’t have picked Bourguet, though I did mention him as a possibility). I thought the running back options looked too thin and without a proven workhorse so they’d hit up the portal for a late addition, and that’s just what they did in getting Valladay from Wyoming after publication. I correctly predicted that Swinson would get a lot of the receptions tight end but was more skeptical about Conyers than it turns out I should have been; I think the previous staff’s fidelity to longtime starter Curtis Hodges had kept Conyers from getting many targets before then and I just hadn’t gotten enough eyes on him to make a good prediction. For the wideouts, Thompson, Hall, and all three guys named Johnson were exactly as productive as I thought they would be, but I thought they were going to face a real productivity problem because the receiver room was just too small and didn’t have any proven producers. The two big surprises were that Badger literally caught ten times as many passes in 2022 as he had in his entire career to date, and Sanders came out of nowhere as an unrated player whom ASU fans didn’t even have on their radar. I’ll chalk this up to the re-evaluation of receivers that naturally happens with a different QB and the coaching staff all getting fired after three games, I’m not sure how anybody was supposed to see this stuff coming. I got all five eventual starters at offensive line correct, though in a roundabout way – I didn’t know Henderson would suddenly leave the team or Ramos would have an ACL problem, and that prompted guys I mentioned as backups to become starters and others swap starting positions. But ultimately these weren’t tough predictions because the room was so small, and my closing concerns about the unit’s depth and reliance on transfers continue.
I accurately sketched out the starting and backup defensive linemen, and thought after taking some personnel losses the line would still be okay if they didn’t suffer any more problems, but they did with a couple key players missing the whole year and several more backups missing multiple games. That forced the two starting DTs to play almost every meaningful snap, which is unsustainable for any team, though the DEs got through okay albeit without Matus. Getting the starting SAM and MIKE correct was easy, and the backups basically sorted themselves, but I take some satisfaction in going against widespread ASU media speculation and penciling in Connor Soelle at WILL, who indeed got the job and then bounced for greener fields. My guesses for which players would get starting jobs in the entirely rebuilt secondary were all correct; commentary on my predictions for how it would actually perform are in the article itself.