The Pac 12 Preview rolls on into Tempe as I preview Herm Edwards’ Arizona State Sun Devils.
Arizona State Sun Devils
Head Coach: Herm Edwards (2nd Season)
OC: Rob Likens (2nd Season, 3rd Overall on Staff)
DC: Danny Gonzales (2nd Season)
Regular Season: 7-5 (5-4)
ESPN Football Power Index: 41
Offensive Efficiency Rank: 17
Defensive Efficiency Rank: 74
Special Teams Efficiency Rank: 83
Solid Foundation around New Quarterback
It was a fascinating, yet positive, first season for Herm Edwards at Arizona State. When ASU initially elected to conduct “The Herm Edwards Experiment”, many were critical given Edwards had not coached collegiate football since 1989. It was not long after when people realized the man knew what he was doing. The Sun Devils returned considerable production on offense but trotted out a very young defense featuring numerous true freshman starters. It was somewhat of an up-and-down season for the offense despite its impressive efficiency rank. After their disappointing loss in week three at San Diego State, Edwards made an executive decision to become a run-first offense despite OC Rob Likens’ pass-first tendencies. They utilized more power sets and prioritized shortening the game to protect their young defense. The changes yielded miraculous results keeping the Sun Devils in just about every game with nine contests decided by seven points or fewer. The offense was better from that point with Eno Benjamin emerging as a bonafide premier running back. The OL was strong and the run game enabled them to take better advantage of QB Manny Wilkins’ downfield connections with NFL 1st Round WR N’keal Harry.
Expect a similar approach with the 2019 Sun Devils as they break in a new quarterback to replace Wilkins. The battle includes four players vying for the starting nod, but the best bet is either rJR Dillon Sterling-Cole or true freshman spring enrollee Jayden Daniels. This may be the most intriguing quarterback battle in the conference and Edwards will always air on the side of youth if two players are even. Regardless who starts at quarterback, the Sun Devils have a foundation around him that can ease the burden. Benjamin returns after a sensational sophomore season and there is improved depth to lighten his workload. The OL loses both tackles earning All Conference Honors last season but returns five starters all with starting experience headlined by All Conference Center Cohl Cabral. Quality depth is thin, but there are six seniors with the versatility to shuffle spots if injuries occur. Steven Miller and Zach Robertson are locks at tackle while Alex Losoya returns at guard. The other spot at guard is competitive between Roy Hemsley and Cade Cote rounding out a unit that should be among the conference’s best. Game-breaking talent N’keal Harry will be playing on Sundays now, but dependable production coming back at WR with Brandon Aiyuk, Kyle Williams, and Frank Darby along with their top two TE’s from 2018. Aiyuk is poised for a big season and there are some intriguing talents in back of the starters. Overall, there is plenty to feel good about on offense but so much of it will depend on how the quarterback ties it together. The hope is that Daniels can emerge as the starter in the Fall but that is always a tall task for a true freshman.
Young Defense Blooming under Danny Gonzalez
Rocky Long disciple Danny Gonzalez brought the 3-3-5 stack from San Diego State to Tempe and manifested encouraging results with a very young cast of players. The art of deception is heavily employed in Gonzales’ aggressive scheme. The defense was not immensely efficient in 2018, but still held nine of its thirteen opponents under 30 points. The defense will be better in 2019, but the play of the Defensive Line will likely dictate how much. The Sun Devils lose All Conference honors candidate NT Renell Wren and depth was marginal in the spring. It should be less of a concern in the fall for a group that returns four of its top six contributors headlined by rising sophomore Jermaine Lole. This group needs to be stronger against the run and add a better pass rush to augment their blitzing OLBs. It is not a weak unit, but much of this defense’s ceiling will depend on the play from their men up front. The most exciting element of Arizona State’s defense in 2019 is the growth of their auspicious young linebacking group. Reigning Pac 12 Defensive Freshman of the Year Merlin Robertson was sensational while fellow true freshman MLB Darien Butler surprised folks with his own steady play. OLB Tyler Johnson came into his own in the latter-half of 2018 and there is some quality depth in the mix. ASU’s 3-3-5 scheme uses five defensive backs with one player occupying the Tillman position which is sort of a roaming hybrid-safety role. The Sun Devils are excited Tyler Whiley was granted a sixth year extending an injury plagued career and the staff thinks he is the man for the job. Meanwhile, the secondary returns both starting, experienced CB’s Chase Lucas and Kobe Williams. Williams was consistent last season and there are high expectations for the very talented Lucas. Depth is still in flux at CB, but there is some excitement at safety with Aashari Crosswell who thrived after early struggles as a true freshman starter in 2018. There is some competition for the other safety spot finalizing a young, but exciting defense in 2019.
It is difficult to decide what to make of the Sun Devils in 2019. The defense should be in the top-half of the Pac 12 and the offense has enough around the quarterback to prevent ASU from falling to deep. That said, quarterback play will certainly be critical to this team’s success and decent play should at least get them back in a bowl game with some wild card Pac 12 South aspirations.