Arizona State football preview for 2016, including keys to success for the Sun Devils, best players and season prediction.
What You Need To Know About the Arizona State Offense
The Sun Devils will have a new starting quarterback for a second straight year. But this time, there’s no veteran, like Mike Bercovici, waiting in the wings. ASU will choose between three kids, Manny Wilkins, Brady White and Bryce Perkins, who have yet to attempt a college pass.
Todd Graham and first-year coordinator Chip Lindsey don’t expect to make a decision until late August. Lindsey, who excelled at Southern Miss, has a track record with quarterbacks, but he has a lot of work to do with the three contenders.
Plus, last season’s top two receivers and four starting blockers have graduated, so the attack will put its weight on the assertive backfield duo of Demario Richard and Kalen Ballage, a pair of well-sized runners with next-level ability. But can Arizona State balance out the north-south ground game with a competent passing attack?
The receiving corps actually has a decent ceiling now that Cameron Smith has returned from a season-ending ankle injury and blue-chipper N’Keal Harry has been signed.
The front wall is a bigger question mark, though, especially after allowing 39 sacks in 2015. LT Evan Goodman is the known commodity, while there’s hope sophomores Sam Jones and Quinn Bailey can emerge as future stars at left guard and right tackle, respectively.
Biggest Key To The Arizona State Offense
No rush to judgment. The Sun Devils’ leading returning passer? Yeah, that’d be P Matt Haack, who completed a 27-yarder last year. So, it’s no surprise that an ‘OR’ separates sophomore Manny Wilkins and redshirt freshmen Brady White and Bryce Perkins on the post-spring depth chart. The staff will wait on fall camp before deciding on a pecking order, which makes sense since no one pulled away. Wilkins has the experience edge, but the coaches really like the overall makeup of Perkins and White’s smarts and pure passing ability.
What You Need To Know About the Arizona State Defense
The Sun Devil D is rooted in a mindset of attacking. Few schools have been as successful as ASU in recent years at rushing the pocket and harassing opposing quarterbacks. But coordinator Keith Patterson’s approach has come with a cost, namely an inability to defend the pass.
In 2015, the team gave up more passing yards than any team in the country, and now three new secondary starters are being sought. Patterson and his assistants are considering all options to go along with budding star Kareem Orr, including JUCO transfers and imports from offense and the linebacker unit. This silver lining in Tempe?
The unsettled defensive backfield will get plenty of help from the front seven. ASU is very confident about its linemen and linebackers. Up front, Tashon Smallwood, JoJo Wicker and Ami Latu form what ought to be a special trio. Plus, the linebackers will be a nice blend of veterans Salamo Fiso, Christian Sam and DJ Calhoun, and junior college transfer Koron Crump.
Yeah, there’s talent on this side of the ball, but Patterson will have to do a lot of mixing and matching in the summer to get his optimum combination on the field in time for the opener.
Biggest Key To The Arizona State Defense
Rebuilding the secondary. The front seven? No worries. The defensive backfield, though, is a big, big concern entering the summer. The Sun Devils need to replace three starters from a unit that allowed more passing yards than any other FBS team. And the coaches are open to any and all possibilities to get the four best players on the field. Offensive weapons Tim White, De’Chavon Hayes and Eric Lauderdale are auditioning at corner. The star of the unit, Kareem Orr, could play corner or bandit safety, and Texas transfer CB Bryson Echols will be asked to contribute immediately. Veteran LB Laiu Moeakiola might be this year’s free safety unless Armand Perry can make a successful return from an ankle injury. In other words, there’s a ton to sort out this summer.
Arizona State Will Be Far Better If …
the line does a better job of protecting the pocket. The only thing worse than returning no quarterbacks who’ve ever thrown a pass at this level is failing to protect those untested young hurlers. The Sun Devils have struggled badly in pass protection in recent years, yielding 39 sacks a season ago. And with the departures of four starters, including all-star Christian Westerman, there’s legitimate trepidation that the situation could worsen before it gets better. Evan Goodman returns to left tackle and RT Quinn Bailey has had a terrific offseason, but there’s still a lot of work to be done up front.
Best Offensive Player
Junior RB Demario Richard. Clearly, the strength of this ASU offense will be in the backfield. And Richard is the headliner of a deep group that also includes Kalen Ballage, speedy Gump Hayes and powerful rookies Nick Ralston and Jason Lewis. Richard sets the tone for the attack, powering through the opponent’s midsection. However, for a squad that could struggle vertically, No. 4 is also a valuable safety valve in the passing game, catching 31 balls and three touchdowns in 2015.
Best Defensive Player
Senior Salamo Fiso. The Sun Devils are going to be feisty in the front seven this season. The tone-setter of the group will be Fiso, an ultra-steady veteran who embodies the philosophy of a D that wants to attack at all times. The senior has a great feel for the position, SAM, and the defense, allowing him to anticipate the flow of a play before it can actually develop. With an improving D-line in front of him, Fiso could be gearing up for his best season yet in Tempe.
Key Player to a Successful Season
The new starting quarterback. Sure, first-year coordinator Chip Lindsey will slant his attack in the direction of the best weapons, backs Demario Richard and Kalen Ballage. But a team won’t get very far, especially in the Pac-12, without proper support from the quarterback position. Out of underclassmen Manny Wilkins, Brady White and Bryce Perkins, ASU needs someone who can keep defenses from keying on the backs, while maximizing the potential of receivers Tim White, Cameron Smith, Ellis Jefferson and N’Keal Harry, a five-star gem expected to contribute immediately.
The Season Will Be a Success If …
the Sun Devils win eight to erase the memory of last season’s losing year. After unexpectedly going 6-7, it’s crucial for ASU to turn the tide by returning to a winning campaign. And while there are gaping holes at quarterback, the O-line and the secondary, the schedule appears tailored toward a rebound. The program will have a chance to sweep September, only leaving the state to face UTSA in San Antonio. The Pac-12 slate is always demanding, though there’s hope that the young starters won’t be so skittish by the second half of the year.
Nov. 25 at Arizona. While anything is possible in the wild, wild South, it’s unlikely Arizona State will rise up and win the division in 2016. Too many question marks. The Sun Devils will have more modest goals, such as avoiding a second straight losing season … and beating rival Arizona for the fourth time in the last five years. Todd Graham has had the upper hand on Rich Rodriguez, a big deal in recruiting and instate bragging rights. ASU rolled in Tempe a year ago, 52-37, and a similar performance in Tucson would serve a crushing blow to the hated Wildcats.
2015 Fun Stats
– Rushing yards per game: Arizona State 178.8 – Opponents 126.2
– Average yards per catch: Arizona State 12.2 – Opponents 14.9
– Sacks: Arizona State 46 – Opponents 39