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Arizona State Offensive Preview

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The wunderkind comes to town.

NCAA Football: Sacramento State at Arizona State Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

The Arizona State offense is led by the highly touted true freshman quarterback Jayden Daniels, and returns the Pac-12’s leading rusher from last year, RB Eno Benjamin.


Introduction

With the departure of 4-year starter QB Manny Wilkins, the ASU offense had big shoes to fill at the quarterback position. True freshman Jayden Daniels beat out the presumed incumbent, QB Dillon Sterling-Cole, for the starting job. ASU is a team that likes to run the ball, run the ball, run the ball, and when they see the safeties cheating up too much, run go routes and launch the ball deep to a wide receiver that has found his way behind the defense. ASU has kept the offense relatively simple for its young quarterback, but they have been slowly developing more plays that rely on Daniels’ arm. Luckily for Daniels, he has the Pac-12’s leading rusher in RB Eno Benjamin to command most of the attention from opposing defenses.

Let’s start with Eno Benjamin, since he’s a known quantity for this ASU offense.

Running back

Eno Benjamin had a breakout season last year, rushing for 1,642 yards and 16 touchdowns in 2018, while averaging 5.5 yards per carry. Benjamin figures to be a mid-round NFL Draft pick after this season. He’s not the fastest, but he’s a strong, powerful runner with a knack for breaking tackles— he finished second in the FBS last year with 83 missed tackles. He has great balance and body control, and always finds a way to fall forward, which helps to consistently pick up yards.

A standard RB Eno Benjamin run.
A standard RB Eno Benjamin run.
RB Eno Benjamin is a tough man to bring down.
RB Eno Benjamin is a tough man to bring down.

And of course, since I usually like to post highlights in these articles, here’s one of my favorite Eno Benjamin runs:

RB Eno Benjamin trucks the 205 lb. safety Troy Young for the touchdown.
RB Eno Benjamin trucks the 205 lb. safety Troy Young for the touchdown.

That’s a 205 lb. defender he’s rag-dolling. Benjamin has had a relatively quiet season so far, mainly due to the departure of two of the starting offensive linemen from last year. ASU is starting two true freshmen on the offensive line this year— Dohnovan West and LaDarius Henderson — and so the run blocking has taken a step down from last year. Additionally, teams last year typically keyed-in on NFL 1st round WR N’Keal Harry, which means that Benjamin is facing a lot more stacked boxes this year. Still, when defenders aren’t meeting him in the backfield, he’s able to reliably pick up chunks of yards, and he remains a dangerous goal-line threat.

ASU also has another dangerous runner in the backfield.

Quarterback

Jayden Daniels, like Manny Wilkins before him, is a dual-threat QB, whose running ability will be sure to keep defenses on their toes. Daniels is still a bit undersized at 6’3” 180 lbs., so he’s clearly been coached to avoid hits when possible.

Probably not surprisingly, ASU has been keeping the offensive gameplan relatively simple for their true freshman quarterback. Daniels hasn’t been asked to make many difficult throws. Instead, he’s either handing the ball off for a couple of yards, or throwing some variant of a screen pass. He’s not being asked to read more than half of the field. Here, he spends a split second trying to look off defenders before flipping back around to a screen pass developing on the other side of the field:

QB Jayden Daniels throws an obvious screen pass to WR Brandon Aiyuk.
QB Jayden Daniels throws an obvious screen pass to WR Brandon Aiyuk.

Let’s start off with some positives. Daniels has good pocket awareness, and is difficult to sack:

QB Jayden Daniels survives the pocket.
QB Jayden Daniels survives the pocket.

He can obviously run the football when plays break down:

QB Jayden Daniels scrambles for a first down.
QB Jayden Daniels scrambles for a first down.

Further, Daniels has the ability to hurt teams that forget that he can run the ball. Here, Michigan State was so worried about preventing a late touchdown on 4th and 13 that they played way too deep, giving Daniels more than enough space to run (and ultimately win the game). This is the play that caused Colorado to devote a QB spy to Daniels last week:

QB Jayden Daniels with the clutch 4th down run to stay alive against MSU.
QB Jayden Daniels with the clutch 4th down run to stay alive against MSU.

Most of the damage from Daniels is going to come on his feet, but Daniels has occasionally shown flashes of what he’s capable of through the air. This sort of pass play has been few and far between, but I have to include it just to show that Daniels does have potential throwing the ball. Here is one of the few times he threw into tight coverage, and likely should have been caught:

QB Jayden Daniels throws a dime, but it’s dropped by WR Frank Darby.
QB Jayden Daniels throws a dime, but it’s dropped by WR Frank Darby.

It’s clear that the potential is there, but he isn’t quite there yet. Despite the fact he’s not being asked to make a lot of tough throws, he’s still struggled throwing the ball. A lot of these issues are mechanical, and will likely be cleaned up with experience, but here’s a few pass plays to demonstrate what I mean.

Here, Daniels misfires when he forgets to set his feet:

QB Jayden Daniels throws it into the dirt in front of his intended target.
QB Jayden Daniels throws it into the dirt in front of his intended target.

And here, Daniels misfires when his internal clock starts ticking too fast under pressure:

QB Jayden Daniels misses HB Elijah Juarez on the outlet pass.
QB Jayden Daniels misses HB Elijah Juarez on the outlet pass.
QB Jayden Daniels misses another easy throw.
QB Jayden Daniels misses another easy throw.

Michigan State has a dominant run defense, and their defensive line was getting to Daniels, so it’s not a surprise he started to get a little skittish when he felt pressure.

Again unsurprising for a true freshman, Daniels has struggled to read coverages at times. Here he is trying to force a throw he should not be making, which is predictably picked off:

QB Jayden Daniels makes a bad read and throws an INT into tight coverage.
QB Jayden Daniels makes a bad read and throws an INT into tight coverage.

Daniels has also had plays where he simply didn’t see a linebacker and similarly made unnecessarily dangerous throws.

Well, besides the screen passes, where are all of Daniels’ passing yards coming from? ASU has run a pretty vanilla offense so far, where they’re content to pick up a couple yards at a time through a mixture of short screen passes, hand-offs, and the occasional QB draw. In fact, it wasn’t until the 3rd quarter of their second game that they debuted this play, and it caught me completely by surprise. Just when everyone is getting comfortable defending the line of scrimmage, WR Brandon Aiyuk slips by the defense, and Daniels finally unleashes a Khalil Tate-esque bomb:

QB Jayden Daniels hits WR Brandon Aiyuk deep.
QB Jayden Daniels hits WR Brandon Aiyuk deep.

As impressive as the play was, I have to point out here that they still had to settle for their fourth redzone field goal against FCS Sacramento State (similar to Cal’s North Texas game, they likely weren’t ready to crack open the playbook so early in the season). But this was the first time ASU showed that they could make a big play, and that they’d do it when the defense started sleeping on them.

As the season has progressed, ASU has opened up the playbook a bit more, and they’ve shown that they like to run verticals with their speedy receivers and take shots down the field when they get man coverage to the outside:

QB Jayden Daniels hits WR Frank Darby deep.
QB Jayden Daniels hits WR Frank Darby deep.

And since we’re still in the quarterback section, there’s one other play I wanted to cover: the “Sparky.” It’s like the wildcat (with a direct snap to a running back), except those blasted Arizona Wildcats use that name, so we have to call it the “Sparky” instead:

QB Ethan Long runs the “Sparky.” It’s like the wildcat, except those blasted Arizona Wildcats use that name, so we have to call it the “Sparky” instead.
QB Ethan Long runs the “Sparky.”

The “Sparky” is nothing new to ASU. Last year, they typically ran the play with either RB Eno Benjamin or WR N’Keal Harry taking the direct snap. As the year went on, each time they ran the Sparky, they’d add a new wrinkle to it (maybe Harry hands it off to Benjamin, maybe they add a jet motion sweep to it, etc). It seems pretty obvious now, but with a player who originally enrolled at ASU as a quarterback running the play, they’re going to throw it out of this formation at some point, right?

Ethan Long reminds me a lot of Taysom Hill of the New Orleans Saints. He’s a quarterback, but he has enough athleticism and versatility that you can expect to see him all over the field. At 6’2” and 215 lbs, he’s a powerful runner, but I remember from the ASU Spring Game that he actually had a ridiculous vertical jump. Although I was less than impressed with his reads, he did have a strong arm and some nice throws, and it’s pretty clear from the clip above that he can run the ball. He’s kind of an under-the-radar X-Factor player I’d recommend keeping an eye on.

Wide receivers

ASU returns a trio of speedy and talented wide receivers in Brandon Aiyuk, Kyle Williams, and Frank Darby. Aiyuk has slowly been emerging as the #1 target to fill the void left by N’Keal Harry, so he’s had a couple of highlight plays from this season that I can show.

First, here’s that “predictable” screen pass from earlier in the article, except here Aiyuk turns it into a 77 yard touchdown run:

WR Brandon Aiyuk runs for a 77 yard TD off the tunnel screen.
WR Brandon Aiyuk runs for a 77 yard TD off the tunnel screen.

The most noticeable feature of the ASU receiving corps is their speed. Here Aiyuk again simply outruns the defense:

WR Brandon Aiyuk outruns the defense and loses a shoe.
WR Brandon Aiyuk outruns the defense and loses a shoe.

And here we have Aiyuk again getting behind the corner for a big gain (on a ball just a bit underthrown):

QB Jayden Daniels hits WR Brandon Aiyuk deep... again.
QB Jayden Daniels hits WR Brandon Aiyuk deep... again.

These clips all happen to feature Aiyuk, but if I had dug through clips from last year, you’d be able to see both Kyle Williams and Frank Darby making the exact same sort of play. There hasn’t been much of an intermediate passing game from ASU; it’s either a screen pass or a long bomb.

Special teams

I don’t usually get to say this about non-Utah teams, but ASU has some pretty good special teams. The punter, Michael Turk is the nephew of former NFL punter Matt Turk (who was coached by Herm Edwards when he was with the Jets). Turk apparently stole the starting job from last year’s punter, Michael Sleep-Dalton, who has since transferred to Iowa. ASU also has the best kicker in the league in Brandon Ruiz (pronounced “Reese”), who can boot it from 50+ yards, but he’s been injured to start the 2019 season. In his place, Christian Zendejas has performed admirably (especially on a team that has really needed field goals to win close games), going 9/10 on FGs, and whose only miss was from 48 yards. They have explosive athletes WR Brandon Aiyuk and former 5-star USC CB Jack Jones returning kicks.

Summary

I’m not sure why Arizona quarterbacks immediately come to mind (maybe because the dual-threat QB thing was typically RichRod’s thing at Arizona), but Jayden Daniels reminds me of a mix between Brandon Dawkins and Khalil Tate. Daniels reminds me of Tate because of his running ability and his ability to launch the deep ball and trust his wide receiver to come down with it. Daniels isn’t a powerful runner like Tate though, and I think that Daniels will ultimately be a better passer than Tate, and hence he reminds me of former Arizona QB Brandon Dawkins in that regard. Still, Jayden Daniels has a long way way to go, but Cal will have to be ready for his ability to run the ball. Additionally, they will have to be disciplined in the secondary, because it only takes a few plays for ASU to push the ball down the field. Cal’s defense struggled against dual-threat quarterbacks last year (Arizona’s Khalil Tate, but mainly UCLA’s Dorian Thompson-Robinson), so ASU will likely prove to be a tough test for this California defense. Under Herm Edwards, ASU is a team that has typically been able to win tight games: after last week’s loss to Colorado, they’re now 5-2 in games decided by 3 points or less. Seeing as how Cal has been fond of taking opponents down to the wire this season, let’s hope Cal can build a more comfortable lead on a team that doesn’t make many mistakes with the game on the line.