Spring football was one of the best I have seen and the on the field coaching that has been done to this point is how the college system sees its success. We all know about the off the field progression but the season is here now and in the end it is the games' outcomes that matter the most.
Coming in to the 2012 season the Arizona State Sun Devils had more question marks than just about any other Pac-12 team. Position battles at key positions, depth chart issues, new playbooks, and of course the critical X factor; is the "new regime" going to be bought into by all or will there be a fall out. The ins and outs that make up the character and face of a program can go unseen... Until game night.
So far, the Sun Devils have not let down and in their first two games the results have spoken loudly. The Sun Devils are a new team and one that knows how to play good football.
Illinois coming into the game knew it was going to have its share of ups and downs sitting starting quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase due to injury. In the end, the Sun Devils would take advantage of the young quarterbacks and the defense came up with big plays to allow the offense to operate several times in short fields.
The overall feel of the game was everything we wanted to see from the Devils. Disciplined football played the way the game is supposed to be played. The only thing that would have made it better would be a larger crowd in the stands.
The product is there. The players have bought in. Now the fans need to!
Two weeks in a row we have seen one of the most efficient, well put together offensive efforts to start a season that I can personally recall. The playbook is rolling and Offensive Coordinator Mike Norvell has the boys in Maroon and Gold red hot right now. His play calling has the opponents on their heels and often times the scheme is so on point there is no way to defend it easily. The run game is setting up so many options in the pass game and the motion pre snap usually creates all the matchup problems you want as an O.C. Huge props to the players and offensive staff for a monster effort against Illinois.
Key stats that ring clear against Illinois:
7.6 Yards per Play. Have this stat over 5 yards per play will always usually equal out success.
510 Yards Total Offense. Illinois had a stout defense last season and gaining that many yards against them is something the Sun Devil offense can be very proud of!
23 of 29 Pass attempts. EFFICIENT!
26 First Downs. Having this stat above 25 always puts you in position to wear down a defense.
Three Punts. Josh Hubner might not like this but I sure do! The Illinois Defense could not find a way to keep the Sun Devils from marching.
Time to grade out the position groups:
Quarterbacks: Grade: A
Taylor Kelly currently ranks 7th nationally in the Quarterback Rating category and that stat can sum up the offensive success so far. He is playing with such poise and doing exactly what the staff is asking him to do. I can say as a fan I always felt like the Devils were going to be fine this season at this position and that a rotation between Michael Eubank and Taylor Kelly could be the perfect fit.
Now seeing it live it is a thing of beauty.
Both of these athletes bring something special to the field and they both have proven to this point that they are leaders taking the fight to the defense. Kelly has the feet in the pocket to run this offense with great success. He has proven that when the play breaks down he can be "snake like" getting the ball where it needs to be. Gaining 82 yards of rushing from the QB position is a very great thing to have and will only strain the defense in the Sun Devils favor each week.
Eubank was perfect in the pass department going 5-5 for 69 yards and 2 scores. The mismatch and effect he has on the red zone defense was very evident as the play action showed the defense was keying him rather than open receivers. This week will be the big test for these two going on the road in a hostile environment. I can't wait to see this group perform against Missouri!
Offensive Line: Grade B+
This position group without a doubt gets most improved thus far since last season.
Coach Bob Connelly has done a terrific job getting the boys up front to really get after it and it shows with great technique. Their footwork in the run game is so much improved it is a blessing to see. Evan Finkenberg has come into form at left tackle and so has Brice Schwab on the opposite side of the line. Both of these bookends have seriously grown up right in front of us in a very short amount of time.
They stoned the Illinois pass rush which last season was nearly impossible to do especially on the edge. I was impressed with the footwork of Finkenberg on all of his pass sets. I think he can play stronger with the hands at times and once he is locked on the defender he needs to set in and anchor the rush but his performances so far are terrific.
The interior line was stellar last night. Kody Koebensky in my opinion has been awesome. He does such a great job at sealing off the defender and getting his hips between the gap and target in front of him. I would like to see better knee bend out of the whole group up front and think that they could all improve on pad level at times but these guys are getting after it and I love it.
Andrew Sampson is playing like a senior and I have to say his energy and effort is way up from last season. The one guy I have been most impressed with is Left Guard Jamil Douglas. After watching his tape closely I think this sophomore is doing one heck of a great job. He uses great feet and can reach a defensive lineman with ease. I see him being one of our stars this season up front. Missouri is going to be a huge test this week and this group will be the determining factor on Offense. Look for them to keep this offense going!
Running Backs: Grade: B -
Don't get me wrong with the grade. They played their tails off. But this stable has to have a high bar and unfortunately some key turnovers out of this group led to points being left off the board.
D.J. Foster has dazzled in his first two games. The burst, vision and boom to the defender are something that was advertised. So far the true freshman has proven that he can get it done both inside and outside of the tackle. The stat that I love is that on Foster's carries he had no tackle for loss with the ball in his hands.
Cameron Marshall needs to find his legs so it seems. He has not lost any speed since last year but when watching him it just seems that he doesn't have his wind behind him yet. His vision needs to be wider when carrying. There were a lot of opportunities in his 12 carries that I saw where he could have turned a small gain into a big one if he was not so locked straight ahead. Cam has always run this way and he is a beast when he gets going so there is no knock there. I just can't wait for him to get to 100% because I still don't think it is there yet. Marshall needs to end the fumble bug before it starts, especially in the red zone which has been a problem in this offense for the past couple years.
The use of Jamal Miles from the slot will cause so many problems. His speed out into the flat on motions and the ability to stretch the box with him allows this offense to do a lot of what they want from the play book stand point. With the way Marion Grice ran in week one I am surprised he only received two carries especially after fumbles from other backs. Hopefully he can stay in the mix and see some more action in the Missouri game because he brings a lot to the offense in my opinion.
Tight Ends: Grade: A
Well, it is clear we finally have a threat in this position group that is going to do some serious damage this season! Chris Coyle was thought by many before the season started to be the potential receiving leader and he has done just that.
The multiple uses he provides the offense is what has been missing for a long time. He does a great job when lining as an attached tight end and the same goes at the H-position. I love the way he gets after it with his blocking because he is not the biggest guy out there but often wins the battle with great technique and effort. I think the thing I find most impressive about him is that the second he receives the ball he gets vertical up field. There were a couple catches on 3rd down where he caught the ball behind the sticks but quickly turned upfield leaving the defender in space and gained the yards for the 1st down.
Coyle will be our X factor this season and if he can continue to play like this the offense will have success all year. The player I would love to see get more involved here is Darwin Rogers. He had a great spring and is another body that can cause a lot of matchup problems.
Receivers: Grade: C+
I don't think we have seen this group come together as a whole yet. There are a lot of question marks here in terms of who is the go to guy and who can go get the ball when it is for the taking.
The good thing is that the season is young and this week will provide some of those opportunities to be taken. The grade for this group mostly comes from the effort on run blocking. There were too many times that the engaged man won the block and got in on or affected the ball carrier. If we are going to be a run first offense that wants to be established on the ground than we need some more effort in this department.
I thought that Kevin Ozier had some nice hands and came through down there in the red zone with his touch down grab. After a solid start to fall camp I would have thought that J.J. Holliday would have more production after the first two weeks and hopefully he can find a way to get it done this week. I think he has some serious offensive skills when comes to route running and it would be great to see him go off soon!
Jamal Miles did a lot of his receiving damage out in the flat and as I talked about earlier, he can really stretch out the box in both the running and passing game and I would look for him to have some huge games here in the weeks to come. The absence of Alonzo Agwuenu is a bit of a mystery and after a solid fall camp. I thought we were going to see more from him in the last two weeks. He is the big body we needed at this position and hopefully he can find himself in the mix some this upcoming week.
I had a gut feeling that this game was going in involve lots of fireworks and some impressive defensive take always even if Illinois was without starter Nathan Scheelhaase. Sure enough both these predictions came to life and it was such a fun night as a fan.
The defense was active all over the place at every level from the defensive line to the safeties. Any time you can keep an offense under 350 total yards of offense you can pride yourself on a successful outing. The multiple looks the defense gave the Illinois offensive front proved too much as ASU was able to record ten tackles for loss. That was the stat of the night to go along with six sacks and three interceptions. The highs and lows have come a bit in defending the run and it shows in some of the fits at the line of scrimmage which led to some big gains by the Illinois offense. The Illini ran for 274 yards on 43 carries yet averaged under five yards a carry which is a solid stat. A very successful night as a whole and a lot of great things to build on moving forward.
Stats that equal success:
19 First Downs. Holding any offense under 20 is always a major win.
43 yards lost rushing. Pressure and aggressiveness win on defense.
14-24 passing with three interceptions. Enough said.
7-17 on 3rd Down. Big stat halting several drives by Illinois.
Defensive Line: Grade: B
This position group is something fun to watch two games into the season. Coach Randolph has the big boys up front playing with a lot of emotion and energy and it is truly a thing of beauty.
Starting as a true freshman Jaxon Hood had his work cut out for him. Illinois has always had a strong run game and coming into the game without their starting quarterback we knew we were going to see a heavy dose of rushes. Hood played one heck of a game and I have to say that his ability to take on the double teams up front and hold his gap is nothing freshman-like.
The need for Hood to play great this early season is no secret since the injury to Corey Adams and suspension of Mike Pennel hangs over the defensive line. Hood will be asked to grow fast and I know every week we will see him mature in front of us. Truly thankful this local product was recruited to come in and get after it like he is proving he can do.
Will Sutton was a beast wreaking all kinds of havoc inside and getting some great pressure on Reilly O'Toole and Miles Osei. Sutton uses an array of moves to get pressure but he really does a great job of getting on the edge of the blocker and getting his hips to his target. A lot of guys will use the burst to get by the blocker but then can't get their hips back in line to get you moving towards the ball carrier/target but Sutton is able to get this done. He takes his counters moves at the right time and played very stout in the run game.
The guy that I am still waiting to see hit it in full stride is Junior Onyeali. He has such a great get off and his leverage is often his advantage but more often than not last night in his pass rush he was missing very deep on the target in the backfield because he was not using any counters and simply running by the ball. If J.O. can use that awesome speed rush to get the tackles hips turned and on skates than he should have just about any counter move in the book. I know he has a great spin move and it would be nice to see him use it a bunch. He just needs to motor down once he is deeper in the backfield than the target and turn some of those speed rushes into power moves.
There were also a lot of squeeze plays in the run game that as a defensive end you are required to get great points of contact on the O-Lineman and constrict the inside gap that did not happen. Because of this some of the pulling kick out blocks were very successful from Illinois because of the lack of the squeeze and the end gaining too much depth into the backfield at times on run plays.
Davon Coleman I thought played one of his best games as a Sun Devil to date. He has some very nice footwork up front and can really use that spin move well. I saw him set that up a couple times early in the game and it worked with great success but then he got away from it a bit. With a spin like that and how quick and low he does it I would make that move my go-to more often than not in the pass rush. I really hope that he can keep playing like he did Saturday because it was awesome to see.
Toa Tuitea, Gannon Conway and Jake Sheffield provide a good rotation and with Pennel back in the picture this upcoming week the defensive line could see even more success. Missouri is going to provide the front four a chance to have a huge day as they often throw the ball and their quarterback is their best runner.
Linebackers: Grade: B
Mendoza played with a ton of energy out for a freshman and came away with two nice take always for the defense. It was very sad to see him go down with a shoulder injury and hopefully it is not something that requires any season ending surgery to repair because he brings a lot of athletic potential to this group.
Chris Young has been the man so far. Bottom line is this guy can play football. He has wide vision on the field as a dropper and when he is asked to bring it he brings it! There are some plays were he comes off the edge and engages the offensive tackles literally hitting it with such power you would think he weighed over 260lbs. Four tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss and a half sack to go with a ton of quarterback pressure and edge contain. He the perfect fit in this defense right now. Look for Young to have a lot of work helping contain Franklin this upcoming week.
Carl Bradford playing the Devil Backer position off the edge really got after it and collapsed the edge big time in his pass rush. He knows how to set the blocker up with different types of moves that usually end up turning into a power rush at the end and this creates a much smaller pocket than the offense is trying to establish. He did at times shoot too far up field on some run plays which led to long B and C gap runs. Yet, sometimes you have to live and die by the aggressiveness off the edge in a defense like this Bradford brought it all night out there and we should look for him to make a lot of plays this season.
Steffon Martin seemed to not be fully settled on his run reads. The progression should be through the offensive line and the reads at that level into the backfield. These keys don't lie and if you do what you are coached to do it will take you to the ball carrier. After watching his film I think he left a lot of opportunities on the field Saturday night. His scrape reads were there and if he followed the blocking in front of him they would have taken him to the ball with great ease. Just have to trust what you are coached to do at times and I am sure he will continue to get better at this as the season moves forward.
Anthony Jones played very solid and it was good to see this group perform this well without their leader Magee out there on the field. Grandville Taylor had also had a good production night on both special teams and defense. The one thing that would be great to see this group get better at is re-routing the receivers. There were too many free releases and the too many receivers running routes without interruption.
Secondary: Grade: A-
Honestly the only reason this group did not receive a solid A grade was because of how easily Illinois scored in the red zone on the pass to the tight end. Overall though this group played awesome.
Alden Darby, Osahon Irabor, Deveron Carr, and Robert Nelson played with so much energy and the technique out of this group compared to years past is so improved. I saw a level of physicality that has been the missing link with this group but not only that, it seems they all have a level of confidence that has been established.
Both Irabor and Carr really have improved in their ability to keep the spacing with the receivers compared to last season. Their trail techniques and zone pass reads are what I am most impressed with. They really should be proud as a group and I hope they keep playing this way because if they do this defense is going to rock all season long!
Special Teams' Grades:
Alex Garoutte has really improved since last season. Coach Graham has done a great job to improve in this area really focusing on situational plays in practice which allow the kickers to have a much more game like feel to the way they prepare. It is an understatement to say that this position needs a lot of attention if you want on the field success. The staff has done a great job of this. I know Alex and crew are going to get it done this season! Eight kickoffs with three touch backs. 6-6 on PATs and 1-1 with a 35 yard field goal.
Josh Hubner has the leg to boot and we all know it. Three punts for an average of 45 yards with one kick inside the 20. He had two touchbacks and of course the defense would love those pinned but it was a great night for Hubner overall. He also did a perfect job on the short snapping during point after attempts.
Coverage Teams: A
Illinois had an average starting position on their 18 yard line! This is a huge stat. Compare it to ASU's 43 yard line starting point and you might start to see why the score was 45-14. A lot of big plays by the coverage teams and I saw guys doing a great job avoiding blocks and squeezing the ball. The Devils were very average in this department last season and I know that since special teams are a high priority with this staff we will see these stats trend.
Return Teams: A
No muffs, and no plays that put the team in jeopardy. There were only two kickoff returns totaled with Jamal Miles having his longest reaching 31 yards. The team has home run threats here and Illinois knew that making sure they punted the ball out of bounds more often than not when kicking to the Sun Devils.
Overall Summary: Grades:
Special Teams: A
The Sun Devils are playing beautiful football right now. So efficient, so disciplined and the results have shown. The Sun Devils only had one penalty for five yards. ONE PENALTY FOR FIVE YARDS! You will win football games this way.
As a fan, a former player and someone who loves the game I have to say this team is playing exactly how this game is supposed to be played so far. You truly can see the difference in character on the field and this staff has done one hell of a job getting the Sun Devils prepared for success this season.
Best part about it is that you can tell the team is having fun playing right now. I expect the momentum to keep on path and the Missouri Tigers better get ready for a big show coming to town. No doubt they will be anxious to get some revenge on the Sun Devils after last year's overtime loss and I can assure you even with some of the injuries they have they will be ready to go.
Illinois provided a great early test and one that was passed with flying colors. I thank Coach Graham and his staff for all their hard work. I am so proud to be a Sun Devil right now and the product both on and off the field speaks for itself. The ceiling on this season really has no limit and we all need to keep getting behind all the great things this program is doing. Here is to a great week ahead of us in Sun Devil country and let's take it to Missouri!
Defensive end Kyle Caldwell played for the Sun Devils from 2003-2006 and finished with Sun Devil career with 90 tackles and 10.5 sacks. He earned Pac-10 All-Freshman honors in 2003 and Honorable Mention All-Pac-10 recognition in 2006. A graduate of Scottsdale Saguaro High School, Caldwell is also a member of the Sabercats' coaching staff who won the 2010 Class 4A Division I state championship.