House of Sparky answers our questions!
Which player on offense should Cal fans know about?
On offense, one of the standouts is senior wide receiver Brandon Aiyuk. He had a 53-yard touchdown catch last week against Colorado, and he is really ASU’s No. 1 receiving option this season. He’s a junior college transfer from Sierra College up in the Sacramento area, and he has really become a well-rounded receiver. After N’Keal Harry was drafted by the New England Patriots, Aiyuk was kind of the wide receiver that everyone looked toward to be ‘the guy.’ He had a breakout game against Arizona last year, and he’s really coming into form this year and building upon the success he had last season.
Which player on defense should Cal fans know about?
Darien Butler and Merlin Robertson, who both made All Pac-12 teams last year, are easy answers at linebacker, but I’ll give you one that not too many Pac-12 fans probably know about. Evan Fields plays the Tillman safety position in ASU’s 3-3-5 scheme, and he is off to a great start. He had 13 tackles against Michigan State and at that position, he will move all over the field. He could drop down in the box, drop in coverage, or come in on a blitz. That position holds a lot of responsibility, and Fields has been up to the task. I can’t remember him missing a tackle in recent weeks, and he just looks comfortable grabbing that role.
Who’s one under-the-radar or X-factor player who could swing this game for you?
Being that the game is in the East Bay and he’s originally from nearby Pittsburg, I’m going to go with a wild card and choose freshman safety Willie Harts. Safety Cam Phillips got hurt against Colorado last week, and Harts is going to be called upon to fill the void. He’s appeared in games this season and looked good, but this is his first real opportunity to get consistent, starting reps. I expect him to be excited to play near home. I think alongside Fields, he could have a breakout game.
What does ASU need to do to win the game?
I think stopping the run and getting pressure on the quarterback is going to be huge. ASU had trouble getting to Steven Montez last week, and his jersey was clean all night. I think if they can dial up more pressure and find a way to get to the quarterback, they’ll be fine. Additionally, it’s a first conference road game with a freshman quarterback. Sounds cliche, but playing clean football will be big. No turnovers and controlling time of possession can probably help ASU win half the battle.
What does Cal need to do to win the game?
For Cal, I think the biggest thing is finding a way to exploit ASU’s offensive line. The o-line has been a carousel all year, and if they can stop the run and then set up long passing downs, it makes it that much more difficult for ASU’s offense.
How do you see the game going?
I think this game is all about two good defenses and it’s going to be a dog fight. Probably low-scoring, and it will be close throughout. You never know, though. Friday night Pac-12 games have a history of turning into something crazy. Although, by no means do I expect this game to be a UCLA-Washington State game.
Whom do you most want to punch in the face?
On the field, there’s nobody. Off the field however, I wouldn’t mind punching my co-editor Brady Vernon and our photographer Andrew Palla (sarcasm, but slightly true).
How do you feel about Jayden Daniels’ development? Is he the quarterback you expected him to be? How hopeful are you for the future?
People are entitled to their critiques as they see it, but from what I’ve seen, Jayden Daniels is the real deal. I think the best evidence of that is ASU’s final fourth quarter game-winning touchdown drive at Michigan State. He had two freshmen offensive linemen and was going up against a really good Spartan front seven, and the offense hadn’t done anything all day to that point. He had his back against the wall on 4th and 13 in front of 70,000 people on the final drive, and still found a way to scramble for a first down and find a way to get his team down the field. Before that, he had a 40-yard completion to Aiyuk. Coaches and teammates have been saying it all year, but he really is poised beyond his years. The offense isn’t always pretty, and it’s really young, but he never flinches. Yes, he had his first interception during a crucial part of the game against Colorado last week, but from how I see it, it’s a part of the learning curve. He also threw for 345 yards in that game, and I think he’s getting better every week. True freshman quarterbacks in college football don’t just develop overnight, although a lot of people like to think they do.
ASU seems to be playing to the level of their opponents: they struggled against FCS Sacramento State, and followed that up with a win over a tough Michigan State squad. Why do you think that is?
I don’t necessarily know if it’s playing to the level of their opponents or just some outlying factors. One of the biggest reasons for the Sac State score and the early offensive struggles was the offensive line. Zach Robertson has been out all season due to a personal matter, and Cade Cote broke his foot on the week of the Kent State game. The first two games, freshman Dohnovan West was playing center and Cohl Cabral (who is being looked at by NFL scouts at center) had to be moved over to left tackle. The week of the MSU game, Herm Edwards and the staff moved Cabral back to center, West to right guard, and 17-year-old LaDarius Henderson played left tackle. There was a funny story this week about how the team went on a paintball trip recently, and Henderson needed to get a permission slip because he’s not 18. I’d attribute those early-season challenges a lot to the shuffling on the line and trying to find something that works. It was tough sledding trying to protect Daniels, and it led to a lot of faltered drives. Plays just couldn’t develop. However, for the time being, I think the shift of Cabral back to center has somewhat stabilized that group and it’s allowed the offense to perform better, as evident by the CU game last week. West and Henderson are only going to grow and get better, too.
What are your expectations for this season? Do you think ASU can improve upon last year’s 2nd place finish in the Pac-12 South?
I definitely think they can improve. Call me crazy or a homer, but I think Edwards has the program trending in the right direction. They are one of the youngest teams in college football. 28 freshmen played in the MSU game, and you can definitely see the talent that’s in place and what they are trying to build. I think it’s realistic to see ASU go 8-4 or 9-3. I think every game in the Pac-12 is so tightly contested, though, and it should be a fun season throughout. No game in conference play is a walkthrough.
The ASU defense was great in the first 3 games before struggling vs Colorado. What changed vs Colorado, and do you think ASU’s defense will rebound vs Cal?
I think Steven Montez and Colorado’s offense is very talented and they can sling the rock. They deserve credit for the way they picked apart ASU last week, but I think the biggest thing that hindered the team was its lack of pressure. They got beat up front, and Montez had all day to throw. I actually don’t think the secondary did a bad job, it was just that when you give a guy seven to eight seconds to throw and move around, someone is bound to get open. Defensive coordinator Danny Gonzales took full accountability for the loss, saying it was his fault for having a poor gameplan, and Edwards said they got a piece of “humble pie.” Regardless, I fully expect that group to rebound this week and Gonzales will have his guys’ ready.
ASU’s run game has not broken out this year, with Eno Benjamin averaging less than 4 YPC. Why is the run game struggling?
I mentioned the o-line struggles earlier, and I’d pinpoint it to that. Also, I think opposing defenses see a freshman quarterback and want to see what he is made of, so they load the box and try to stop the run first and foremost. Benjamin has had trouble finding daylight, and I think that’s why you see some of the low rushing totals. That’s not to say he hasn’t had an impact, though. He had the game-winning touchdown against MSU, and had two rushing touchdowns against Colorado. He’s not gashing defenses, but I think if you are an ASU coach, you still want the ball in his hands every time the game is on the line. I wouldn’t be surprised to see him come on strong at the end of the season just like he did last year.
Which impact players should we know about on offense? On defense?
Herm Edwards has a Captain America nickname for two football players. One is Tom Brady, the other is freshman quarterback Ethan Long. Long was named captain as a freshman, something that’s unheard of. He was originally recruited as a quarterback, but he’s kind of a Swiss Army Knife now. He has primarily been used in the Sparky formation (most commonly known as the Wildcat but that animal is frowned upon in Tempe) with Benjamin. Expect him to come in during red zone situations, and think of him as similar to Taysom Hill on the New Orleans Saints. On defense, a guy to look out for is linebacker Khaylan Kearse-Thomas. He has come into his own this year, and really made an impact as a starter alongside Robertson and Butler.
Which under the radar players do you think can make a big impact?
If you want to go as far under the radar as possible, it’s the special teams’ guys. Kicker Christian Zendejas and punter Michael Turk. Zendejas is a great story. He’s the son of former NFL and ASU kicker Luis Zendejas, and he started the year as a backup. The normal starter Brandon Ruiz got injured just prior to the first game, and Zendejas didn’t blink. He started the year going 8-8 on kicks, and earned a scholarship just last week. As for Turk, I see him going to the NFL one day. He’s got a booming leg, and had a 75-yard punt against Kent State in week one. He can swing the field and pin teams deep, which plays right into ASU’s defense and style of play. Both of those guys have been big.
What improvements have you seen from Brandon Aiyuk compared to his junior season?
I think when Aiyuk first got to Tempe last year, he had a lot of raw talent that coaches’ and teammates saw right away. As last year went on, and into this year, you are just seeing the little, intricate details in his game turn into something big. I actually got a chance to ask him about that at the beginning of the year, and he said he spent a lot of time this offseason watching film with former NFL wideout Derek Hagan, who is now an offensive analyst at ASU. They went over his route-running, and how to not tip his routes when he’s coming out of breaks. They spent a lot of time together, and I think those talks and film reviews have really enhanced his game this year in addition to the talent that he already possessed.