Preview 2017: Arizona State Sun Devils
Previewing and looking ahead at the Arizona State Sun Devils season – and what you need to know.
What You Need To Know About The Arizona State Offense
The O didn’t have its normal Arizona State pop, averaging just 391 yards per game with no consistency whatsoever. This year there should be more options and enough experience to hope for a whole lot more.
The quarterback situation will be up in the air until late August, with incumbent Manny Wilkins having to hold off Alabama transfer Blake Barnett. Wilkins can move and Barnett can bomb, but again, it’ll be figured out later.
All of the top runners return, with TD machine – at least against Texas Tech, scoring seven times – Kalen Ballage and Demario Richard back, but can the line be a whole lot better? The front five was a nightmare in pass protection and only paved the way for 3.3 yards per carry.
Tim White is gone from the receiving corps, but the electrifying N’Keal Harry is back after a fantastic freshman season. Ballage can catch the ball, too, for a passing attack that’ll spread it around to a veteran crew.
Biggest Key To The Arizona State Offense
The line has to block someone … maybe. Just two starters return to a line that allowed 41 sacks and couldn’t generate enough of a push on a consistent basis. – but that’s been the norm.
ASU has allowed 38 sacks or more in each of the last five seasons – pass protection hasn’t been at a premium under head coach Todd Graham. This year’s line isn’t massive, but it can move. Never, ever healthy last year, it was hard to find any sort of a groove. The potential is there with this group if it can stay in one piece.
What You Need To Know About The Arizona State Defense
It was a rough run. With the worst pass defense in college football, ASU was in shootout after shootout, allowing 357 yards per game and 33 scores – and that’s even factoring in the Arizona game, when the Wildcats threw the ball just eight times.
New defensive coordinator Phil Bennett has plenty of work to do, but he’s known for turning bad defenses around in a hurry.
For good and bad, just about everyone is back in the secondary, along with a few options to play around with to change things up if there’s a problem early on. Safety Armand Perry is a good place to start, with a slew of young prospects getting their shot. ASU went heavy on defensive back over the last few recruiting classes – everything is on the table.
The top two tacklers – D.J. Calhoun and Marcus Ball, respectively – are back, but can there be more of a pass rush and even more big plays behind the line?
JoJo Wicker and Tashon Smallwood are solid veterans up front who should be fine against the run, while Calhoun and Christian Sam are good-looking linebackers who’ll make plenty of big plays.
Biggest Key To The Arizona State Defense
Stop giving up so many big plays. To be fair to ASU secondary, it had to deal with Texas Tech’s Patrick Mahomes, Cal’s Davis Webb USC’s Sam Darnold, UCLA’s Josh Rosen, Washington’s Jake Browner and Washington State’s Luke Falk.
The secondary got ripped to shreds by NFL-caliber quarterbacks all year long, and there will always be big bombs coming in the Pac-12, but keeping the deep balls to a minimum would be nice.
ASU allowed 33 touchdown passes and came up with just nine picks, allowing a whopping 13.84 yards per catch. A problem for the last few years, finally, the Sun Devils need better secondary play.
Arizona State Will Be Far Better If …
The ground game starts to produce again. Not awful in 2015, the Sun Devils ran for over 2,300 yards and averaged over four yards per pop – it was solid for several years, and then came last season.
ASU went 4-0 to start the season, running for 946 yards and 16 scores over those first four games, and went 1-7 over the final eight games running for 632 yards and 11 touchdowns. The passing game should be able to carry the load, but the backs are too good to ignore.
Best Arizona State Offensive Player
WR N’Keal Harry, Soph. – Big, fast and dangerous, the 6-4, 220-pounder showed why he was a superstar recruit, coming up with a team-leading 58 catches for 659 yards and five scores, to go along with two rushing scores on his three carries. A steady target with great deep speed, he’s a No. 1 target with the upside to be even more of a matchup nightmare now that he’s got a year under his belt.
2. RB Demario Richard, Sr.
3. RB Kalen Ballage, Sr.
4. QB Manny Wilkins, Jr.
5. QB Blake Barnett, Soph.
Best Arizona State Defensive Player
LB DJ Calhoun, Sr. – The 6-0, 228-pounder might not be all that big for a middle linebacker, but he held up fine coming up with a team-leading 77 tackles with 4.5 sack and 11.5 tackles for loss. He even returned a kickoff for a score. With his range, experience, and burst into the backfield, he should be a statistical star – he’ll be an All-Pac-12 performer.
2. DT JoJo Wicker, Jr.
3. S Armand Perry, Jr.
4. LB Koron Crump, Sr.
5. DT Tashon Smallwood, Sr.
Key Player To A Successful Season
PK John O’Brien, Sr. or PK Brandon Ruiz, Fr. And punter Michael Sleep-Dalton, too. Of course, the quarterback situation has to be settled, and of course the secondary has to be better, and of course there has to be a better pass rush and better play from the offensive front. But the kicking game suffers the biggest loss with two stars gone.
Punter Matt Haack averaged close to 44 yards per kick, while Zane Gonzalez nailed 23-of-25 field goals, winning the Lou Groza as the nation’s best kicker – and now they have to be replaced.
Sleep-Dalton will be terrific. The Australian has the leg to bomb away and be at least as strong as Haack, but he has to be as consistent. O’Brien will battle with Ruiz to replace Gonzalez – again, consistency will be the key. Being able to bang away from deep like Gonzalez would be nice, too.
The Arizona State Season Will Be A Success If …
The Sun Devils win eight games. The Sun Devils aren’t that far removed back-to-back ten-win seasons in 2013 and 2014, and they have the athleticism and firepower to get back to that level – almost.
There’s still a ton of fixing to do in the secondary and the O line, and the schedule isn’t easy, but ASU has to once again be the type of team that can beat the big boys once in awhile. Having to deal with Stanford, Washington and Oregon from the North doesn’t help, but USC and Colorado have to come to Tempe.
Key Game To The Arizona State Season
Sept. 23 vs. Oregon – The Ducks couldn’t beat anyone last season. They might have snuck past Utah, but they lost to California, Washington State, and even Oregon State. But they managed to beat ASU 54-35, as the lone oasis of a win in an eight-game stretch.
Oregon should be far better and far more dangerous this season with Willie Taggart taking over a veteran team with plenty of terrific pieces in place – but it has to go to Tempe. With at Stanford, Washington, at Utah and USC to follow, lose to the Ducks in the Pac-12 opener, and ASU will be in big, big trouble if it doesn’t win the conference opener.
2016 Arizona State Fun Stats
– Sacks: Opponents 41 for 260 yards – Arizona State 28 for 183 yards
– Penalties: Opponents 82 for 723 yards – Arizona State 55 for 624 yards
– Average Yards Per Play: Opponents 7.1 – Arizona State 5.2