It is approximately 45 days until the Arizona State Sun Devils kick off their season, against the Northern Arizona Lumberjacks on September 1, 2022.
Conference Pre-Season Polls
The Sun Devils have largely been picked to finish last or close to last within the South Division of the Pac-12 conference and between 9th to 11th overall – according to multiple writers.
Let us take a look at why that is.
The program has seen its ups-and-downs ever since hiring Herm Edwards, who is 25-18 with a bowl record of 1-2. It is year 5 of this coaching regime, and there are certainly obstacles – a lot of staff changes, player movement (players going into the Transfer Portal), sub-par recruiting class (they are and had to re-tool the team with transfer players), and the dark cloud of an NCAA investigation and its possible program-hurting penalties lurk. Certainly the hype and “honeymoon” phase of the Edwards hire has dissolved, and Arizona State fans (plus the administration) want to see actual on-the field results (possibly improving to 8 or more wins, beating Arizona, and win a bowl game).
Pessimistically, the offense will undoubtedly have to rely on some sort of running game to generate yards and points, as the vertical passing game will also have its fair share of trials and tribulations. Edwards hired Glenn Thomas (who was the Offensive Coordinator at UNLV and in the NFL) as the OC (and QB coach) to inject some energy into its passing game. But losing valuable players at valuable positions such as: three-year starter in QB Jayden Daniels, their two leading Running Backs from last year – DeaMonte Trayanum and Rashaad White, their top Tight End, and three starters on the Offensive Line – Spencer Lovell, Ezra Dotson-Oyetade and Jermayne Lole, really hurts.
The silver-lining is the amount of talent they have currently on the team and some of the transfer players they have acquired from the Transfer Portal – that they can all mesh during Fall practice and perform right out of the gate would be beneficial to them, especially when conference play starts.
X-Factors on Offense
The X-factors on the offensive side of the ball will undoubtedly be QB Emory Jones (Florida transfer) and RB Xazavian Valladay (Wyoming transfer).
Emory has SEC experience (37 career games played at Florida), which should help him gain a huge edge in being named the starter. Jones is a true dual-threat under center, as evident with his 5.3 yards per-carry average and four rushing touchdowns in the 2021 season, and his play style will likely be reminiscence of former Sun Devil Jayden Daniels, who had a 5.1 yards per-carry average and five rushing touchdowns in 2021. With rumors that this offensive scheme will be pass-heavy, the inquiry will be: does he have the arm strength and arm conditioning to succeed with the scheme, will there be a balance of run and pass? Answers to these will come when the ball is kicked off.
Valladay certainly has the accolades – a thousand yard rushing season with 6 touchdowns in 2021, and being the most productive rusher in the Mountain West conference over the previous three seasons, which does make for a great possibly of him being one of the Pac-12’s premier backs when the season starts. Even if the passing game has trouble generating some offense, Valladay and Jones can provide some spark and yardage with some possible straight option or RPO plays.
But if the offense wants to truly be the calling card of the team, these two position groups also need to rise up and perform: the entire Wide Receiver room and the entire Offensive Line. Without these two groups, the offense will be stagnant and fall apart during crucial times in the game, and the Defense will have to shoulder the team (which doesn’t bode well sometimes for some teams).
WR – Andre Johnson, Bryan Thompson, Elijah Badger, Cam Johnson, Giovanni Sanders, Chad Johnson Jr.
These spectacular, talented athletics indeed fit the part of Wide Receiver, the negative to this group is: they have not separated themselves from the pack to be WR1, WR2, etc. in order to be the vertical targets for this offense to generate yards and points. The team (and coaches) are waiting for their potential to be realized and be incorporated into the scheme. Wide Receivers coach Bobby Wade certainly will have his hands full – to coach and develop this group to perform and battle against the conference’s defensive backs (as the Pac-12 is certainly one of the conferences that throws the ball quite often).
OL – LaDarius Henderson, Ben Scott, Chris Martinez, Kolbe Stuckwisch, Des Holmes, Isaia Glass, Emmit Bohle, Joey Ramos, Austin Barry.
The O-Line is certainly a group that needs to mesh well in order to perform both aspects of the offense (creating running lanes and pass protect). While some players have either transferred or have gone to the NFL, it is hard to disqualify what this O-Line has done – being a part of a unit that generated a 193-yard-per-game rushing average overall for this team in 2021. We can only hope that the scheme and coaching creates that same magic for this group. Versatility has become a hallmark for big guys on the line throughout college and the pros, so it helps that some of these athletes have played different positions on the line.
Competition in the fall will dictate who the starting five are for the team, which will be crucial to the success of the offensive scheme.
Defense is the supposed calling card of Herm Edwards and his Assistant Marvin Lewis, former coach of the Cincinnati Bengals. That supposed calling card has both been a success and a fail at times during their tenure. Last season was also suppose to be the year of the Defense, while it performed and generate good numbers – giving up only 20.8 points per game and 4.97 yards per snap, it quite was not enough to avoid a five loss season (four regular games plus one bowl game).
Similar to the Offense, the Defense has suffered its fair share of star players at crucial positions going to the Transfer Portal – notably LB Eric Gentry and DL Jermayne Lole. There was also the departures to the 2022 NFL Draft: Defensive back Jack Jones – 16th pick in the fourth round (121st overall) by New England Patriots, defensive lineman D.J. Davidson – fourth pick of the fifth round (147th overall) by New York Giants, and defensive back Chase Lucas – 16th pick in the seventh round (237th overall) by the Detroit Lions.
The defense has a new coordinator, only three starters from last year’s team, and an entirely new secondary group – circumstances that are not ideal, but it can (figuratively) work.
The strength of the defense will be its front seven [defensive line and linebackers], as the entire defensive will have to learn Donnie Henderson’s scheme and follow the coaching from the position coaches, in order to impact the conference’s various offenses. The Defensive Line and Linebacker groups are talented and have some depth, which can provide plenty of rotations and substitutes for various formations (base, Nickel, Dime, Prevent, etc.).
X-Factors on Defense
Similar to the offensive side of the ball, there are two X-factors on the defensive side: LB Merlin Robertson and LB Kyle Soelle.
Robertson has quite the accumulation of stats during his time in Tempe, in 40 games he has 125 solo tackles, 235 total tackles, 15.5 TFLs, seven sacks, and three interceptions. He is undoubtedly the captain of the defense and will be looked upon by the other ten players on the field – to make plays and lead them.
Only one thing can potentially put the defense in a bind: injury, especially to the Linebacker position – while they are talented and have some depth, there is the reliance on the talent of the upperclassman. The newcomers may have to be put in not-ideal situations and be able to perform, if they wish to contribute and get better.
Soelle, in 34 games, has accumulated 83 solo tackles, 147 total tackles, 13 TFLs, four sacks, two interceptions, and two forced fumbles. While statistically behind Robertson, coaches and teammates seem to gravitate towards him and he looks to perform for a line-backing group that needs every player to contribute. Soelle being set scheme-wise next to Robertson will contend with whatever offense is on the field and will most likely win the chess match.
The liability of the defense is the secondary – attempting to replace four starters will not be easy. Yet, Coach Edwards went to the transfer portal to try to address the need and will have to make the decision on whether to send out a secondary based off talent or experience.
While the game vs. NAU is a good test of who should be the actual starters based off their contributions, there will still be room for improvement. Whomever starts in the secondary in the 1st game, will probably be vastly different to the group that will start at the end of the regular season.
vs. NAU on 9/1
@ Oklahoma St. on 9/10
vs. Eastern Michigan on 9/17
vs. Utah on 9/24
@ USC on 10/1
vs. Washington on 10/8
@ Stanford on 10/22
@ Colorado on 10/29
vs. UCLA on 11/5
@ Washington St. on 11/12
vs. Oregon St. on 11/19
@ Arizona (Duel in the Desert) on 11/25