Mid-Season in Review Roundtable Discussion

Hod Rabino, Publisher
ASU Devils
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Arizona State enters its bye week nearing the halfway mark of the 2017 season. Therefore, this is as good an opportunity as any to invite our staff members to render their opinion on what has transpired to date and project how the Sun Devils will fare the rest of the season.

Has ASU’s current 2-3 mark surprised you at all or has it met your expectations?

Ralph Amsden: It's fair to have assumed Arizona State would be 2-3 through 5 games, but I'd have to admit I'm a little surprised at the way in which they've reached this point. They've been physically dominated by San Diego State and Stanford, and showed a resilience they were missing at the end of 2016 against both Texas Tech and Oregon.

Justin Toscano: The 2-3 record surprised me because I thought ASU would take care of business more in the non-conference schedule. I expected the Sun Devils to beat San Diego State and perhaps even Texas Tech. I didn't see ASU playing that poorly at the beginning of the season.

Jeff Griffith: I’ll be honest, my expectations for this team weren’t very high entering this season, so 2-3 is about where I would’ve had them at this point. That said, the route they took to 2-3 wasn’t what I would have expected, and I think this 2-3 is a much more optimistic one than the one I would have predicted, which wouldn’t have included a win over Oregon. I think the flashes of good play we’ve seen out of ASU could give reason to believe a bowl berth might be achievable, but I still stand by my prediction of a sub-.500 record for the 2017 Sun Devils.

Hod Rabino: I can’t say that it has greatly surprised me as my projection was off by one game. I was expecting a 3-2 record by now with wins over New Mexico State, San Diego State, and Oregon. With ASU’s track record on the road, I wasn’t expecting wins at Texas Tech and Stanford. I’m somewhat surprised that the Sun Devils were able to keep those contests close especially with all their issues on defense.

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What are some of the offensive aspects that have impressed you so far in 2017?

Amsden: The way Arizona State has rotated in its deep, talented receiving corps and managed to get production from so many different players in the receiving game. Sometimes when a team is that deep at a position, attempting to make everyone happy can get in the way of making sure the offense is performing to the best of its capability.

Toscano: I've been impressed with the versatility. Now that ASU has seemingly gotten its running game going, we're seeing the full potential of this group. It's now time for it to put together complete performances. I've been impressed with Billy Napier's ability to diversify the looks in the Sparky formation, and also to set up big plays downfield. N'Keal Harry has also amazed me, but that was probably to be expected.

Griffith: The play of Manny Wilkins — save a lackluster performance in Palo Alto — has definitely stood out most to me over these first five weeks. Especially in the second half against Texas Tech and the ensuing win over Oregon, I think Wilkins’ play and his ability to tap into the abilities of a deep receiving corps has exponentially elevated this offense, especially with a struggling offensive line and a subsequently lackluster run game. Wilkins has hit all five of his top receivers for 100 yards or more this season, with N’Keal Harry, in particular, enjoying a 476-yard outburst through a five-game sample size. With a 153.9 passer rating, eight touchdowns to two interceptions and nearly 300 yards passing per game, Wilkins and the passing game have been considerably impressive.

Rabino: The wide receiver group, in my opinion, came as advertised with its overall depth and talent. Having five different wide receivers each have a 100-yard reception game under their belt prior to the season’s midpoint is not only a school record but an impressive feat that very few schools, if any, can relate to. ASU’s rushing game and run blocking started out very slow out of the gates but showed a lot of progress going into the bye week and should feel more confident in this facet the rest of the season.

What are some of the offensive aspects that have to be thoroughly addressed in this bye week?

Amsden: Situational awareness, contingency plans, and establishing an offensive identity have to be he priorities. If this team has decided it can't be the type of team to run the ball on 2nd and 7 or 3rd and 3, then perhaps they shouldn't be running the ball on 1st and 10. They also need to know what they have in Blake Barnett, because Manny Wilkins' performance when he's dinged up is a liability.

Toscano: This group has the talent, but it needs to put together complete performances. Additionally, ASU needs to make sure its offensive line continues to improve.

Griffith: The ASU offense can only thrive in the back half of this season if the offensive line steps up its game. An inability to protect Manny Wilkins has revealed itself time and time again, and — until a 182-yard combined performance in Palo Alto — the Sun Devils’ backs have struggled to find running room behind this unit. ASU clear has talented enough running backs, namely Kalen Ballage and Demario Richard, and will need maximize their talents, largely by bolstering their run protection, if a bowl berth is going to be in the cards.

Rabino: I know I’ve said it a thousand times already, but for me, it all starts on the offensive line. A stout and more importantly stable and cohesive unit will give the appropriate run support Manny Wilkins needs to succeed, and will instill more confidence in the quarterback that he can stay in the pocket a few extra seconds and not need to take off to force a play with his feet and/or be further exposed to injuries.

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What are some of the defensive aspects that have impressed you so far in 2017?

Amsden: Kobe Williams and Chase Lucas are better in coverage than any ASU fan could have ever hoped for. While they're still young and will undoubtedly face growing pains while learning on the job, imagining three years of Williams on one side and three to four years of Chase Lucas on the other side is something that's much easier to swallow now than it was five weeks ago.

Toscano: I've been impressed with the front seven, specifically the defensive line. Alani Latu has been very good, as have Tashon Smallwood and JoJo Wicker. I felt this group took a step back in 2016, but it seems to be progressing nicely this year. I've also been really impressed with Spur linebacker J'Marcus Rhodes' play. He's a guy who came in as a corner, was dual-trained there and at safety and has now found a home at spur.

Griffith: I don’t think there’s been one specific aspect of the defense that has particularly floored me so far, but I will say the secondary has been substantially better than they were last season. Granted, that’s not a very high bar to meet, but the fact that the secondary has only allowed 293 passing yards per game after averaging a nation’s-worst 357.4 a year ago is cause for relief. The ASU defensive backfield still ranks in the bottom 10 nationally, but having at least softened the blows from quality quarterbacks like Justin Herbert and Nic Shimonek. Differently, from last year, the explosive plays we’re seeing in 2017 often come as a result of nationally-regarded running backs rather than defensive lapses in the passing game.

Rabino: Koron Crump before he got injured may have been the best looking Devilbacker since Carl Bradford and his loss could end up being detrimental to ASU’s pass rushing abilities. The play of inside linebackers Christian Sam and D.J. Calhoun has generally been solid, as is the play of Spur linebacker J’Marcus Rhodes. I know the passing yards allowed number is only slightly better than last year but the secondary does look better in some respects and really taking to new defensive coordinator Phil Bennett.

What are some of the defensive aspects that have to be thoroughly addressed in this bye week?

Amsden: I'm not sure there's anything Arizona State can address, given the personnel and depth issues. We have enough of a sample size from JoJo Wicker and Tashon Smallwood to know that expecting anything above average production is unreasonable. You can't will a defense into creating turnovers, and that's what the defense needs to be doing in order to become an upper-echelon unit within the Pac-12.

Toscano: Tackling has to be up there. ASU has played some good backs, but the tackling needs to improve. Also, giving up big plays. ASU has given up too many this year, which will only continue to hurt it down the stretch. And another important area it will need to work on is takeaways. The Sun Devils haven't done a good job of forcing those this year.

Griffith: It seems ASU simply can’t stop big plays, and that’s something that will easily take them out of games against the likes of Washington and USC, teams who have several explosive athletes. Several members of the defense have pointed to issues like missed assignments and open-field tackling struggles that have allowed SDSU’s Rashaad Penny and Stanford’s Bryce Love to run wild against the Sun Devils. If ASU wants to compete down the road it’s broken plays like these that will hurt their chances to compete for a full 60 minutes with the class of the Pac-12.

Rabino: Still very disappointed in their run defense capabilities which allows opponents to have effective and balanced offensive when facing ASU. Giving up big plays and executing sure tackling, remain carry-over issues from last year. Much like the offensive line, the defensive line has issues with its physicality component and doesn’t win most of its battles in the trenches.

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Most surprising player in the first five games?

Amsden: I've been absolutely floored by Kobe Williams. While his shortcoming is a literal shortcoming, he's probably the most reliable defensive back Arizona State has put on the field since Lloyd Carrington. He's not a star, but he's rarely out of position and has shown an ability to tackle.

Toscano: I'll pick two — Alani Latu and Kyle Williams. Latu has perhaps been the best player on defense through five games and his improvement has helped ASU. We knew what ASU had on offense, but Williams has been the group's delightful surprise this fall.

Griffith: There are a few candidates I could pick for this one, but I’ve been very impressed with Kyle Williams. The sophomore had just six receptions last year for 56 yards in 11 appearances and has already eclipsed those numbers by a mile this season, with 255 yards on 20 catches. With two touchdowns, he joins N’Keal Harry as the two receivers with more than one score this season. On top of his strong start as a receiver, Williams’ talents were put on display in the ground game against Stanford, where he finished as ASU’s second-leading rusher with 65 yards on two explosive carries. With Harry as the clear WR1 for Manny Wilkins, Williams poses quite the threat in both facets of the offense going forward.

Rabino: Alani (A.J.) Latu. No one expected after five games to see this converted linebacker record 3.5 sacks and 5.5 tackles for loss while playing defensive end. His play there has allowed lineman JoJo Wicker to fulfill the wishes of many fans and his coaches to move him inside. Yet, as the coaches try to figure out the best alignment post-Crump’s injury there is a chance that Latu may be back to his old stomping grounds and I have no doubt he can continue his momentum at Devilbacker as well.

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Who is the biggest key player on each side of the ball for the second half of the season?

Amsden: Everything begins and ends with the quarterback. If Manny Wilkins is kept healthy, this team has a shot at a bowl game. Defensively, DJ Calhoun's dependability needs to turn into playmaking ability. Forced fumbles, tackles for a loss, interceptions- whatever it might be, it needs to be more than a guy who plays sideline to sideline and doesn't miss tackles.

Toscano: On offense, I'll go basic and say, Manny Wilkins. He's been so good this year and when he wasn't against Stanford, the offense really stalled. I think that group will only go as far as he takes it. On defense, I think getting Christian Sam going is key. He has the potential and talent to wreak havoc in opposing backfields, but we haven't yet seen it. Especially with Koron Crump out for the year, ASU needs Sam to step up big time.

Griffith: Offensively, ASU needs to start getting the most it can out of Kalen Ballage and Demario Richard before they wrap up their careers as Sun Devils. I think that all comes back to the offensive line, which has been better the last couple weeks than it was at the beginning of the season, but clearly, something hasn’t fully clicked. For a team whose strength on offense is arguably its two feature backs, the Sun Devils are going to need a continually improved run game in order to succeed. Defensively, the big plays on the ground have obviously been a problem, but with talented quarterbacks still on the schedule, the player or two who most needs to step up is Chase Lucas. As he steps into the opening at corner left by Joey Bryant, Lucas and Kobe Williams will both need to be at the top of their game in order to keep the likes of Jake Browning, Sam Darnold, and Josh Rosen in check as the season progresses.

Rabino: I’ll take a different route here and say, Jalen Harvey. It’s a given that opposing defenses will only key more on N’Keal Harry, and then some, in the upcoming weeks. Thus, his teammates have to step up their play. As we know Harvey is a literal first-down machine and the proverbial “glue guy” of this wide receivers’ group. It’s rare for this unit to have a solid day at the office without major contributions from Harvey.

On defense, my vote goes to JoJo Wicker. If he does end up playing the last seven games of the year at defensive end, he will have to pick up the pass rushing slack Crump left behind. If he does stay inside, he has to become a bigger force versus the run. Either way, his impact has to be felt stronger than it has the first five games of the year.

What was your preseason prediction and do you feel that ASU could accomplish it?

Amsden: I said Arizona State would be 7-5, and that they had a legitimate shot at beating Oregon, Washington, Colorado, and Utah. Now, in order to reach 7-5, they probably have to run the table in the three of those games they have left. Much will depend on the home crowds refusing to give up on the season and showing up with the same fervor that they did against Oregon.

Toscano: My preseason prediction was 6-6. It's not looking great right now, but if ASU were to accomplish that, it would need to win one of the next three games (vs. Washington, @ Utah, vs. USC). After that, it would need to win three more. The two most likely wins I see are at Oregon State and at home against Arizona. If the Sun Devils could steal one at UCLA or against Colorado too, that would put them at six wins.

Griffith: Like I’ve said, my preseason pick was low, and after the first three games, I found it very likely that ASU could still end up proving me right with 3 or 4 wins by season’s end. A win over Oregon and a respectable performance at Stanford have me thinking there may be a chance for as many as six victories with winnable games against the likes of UCLA, Colorado, Oregon State, and Arizona, I still think there’s just as much chance that ASU finds itself below .500 when all is said and done. Either way, we’ll know a lot more in a few weeks, based on how the Sun Devils fare in this brutal upcoming stretch against Washington, Utah, and USC.

Rabino: My preseason prediction was 7-5 but now I can’t see the team finishing better than 6-6. I know many called October a “murder’s row” type of schedule, but I don’t think Washington/Utah/USC has been impressive that much in September to be labeled as a Pac-12 juggernaut that ASU absolutely cannot overcome. And as much as you can project winnable games, I see a lot of those in the month of November. Nonetheless, I’m not suggesting that ASU will lose just one or two games the rest of the way, especially if they cannot reverse their fortunes when they away from Tempe. A lot of things will have to break their way to achieve a .500 record at year’s end and while it may not be probable, it’s certainly possible.

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