Entering the 2015 season, Arizona State’s offensive line boasted four senior starters and the veteran-laden unit was perceived as one of the strengths of the Sun Devil team. But after just one week of play, the front five is already facing injuries and question marks that demonstrate it must work to overcome unexpected issues.
In ASU’s season-opener against Texas A&M, the Sun Devils surrendered 14.0 tackles for loss, including 9.0 sacks, which signified the highest totals in those respective categories in the Todd Graham era.
At Monday’s press conference, Graham expressed disappointment in ASU’s inability to keep Texas A&M from penetrating into the backfield, citing the offense’s struggles in varying the snap count as a primary factor in the Aggies’ defensive success.
“We knew going in we had two young tackles,” Graham said. “I thought (junior left tackle) Evan (Goodman) and (senior right tackle) Billy (McGehee), they did some really good things. What we did really, really poorly is allow the guys to jump the count. I mean, I don't care who is playing tackle, you can't allow people to do that. That's something that with the crowd noise was an issue. But it's something that we also have a plan for, and we didn't do a very good job of executing that plan.”
Offensive line coach Chris Thomsen also addressed the issue after Tuesday’s practice, and said much of the responsibility falls on his shoulders. The Sun Devils have played in hostile environments before, but Saturday’s game was the first time ASU had snap count failures excessively exposed and the Aggies' sack total reflected the Sun Devils’ offensive vulnerability.
Redshirt junior left tackle Evan Goodman and redshirt senior right tackle William McGehee each made their first career start against Texas A&M, and Thomsen said the coaching staff needs to take some accountability for failing to put the new starters in better positions.
“I just think the guy just got a couple great jumps that like I said, we need to do a better job of varying the cadence, and that’s on me,” Thomsen said. “I don’t think it was a thing Nick (Kelly) was doing, it’s just we have to vary it a little more in an environment like that. And there were some things that Evan (Goodman) has got to clean up technique-wise and get himself in a better position, but there was other times where he jumped the count and Evan was in better position and made a block on him so it’s just a combination of things we can help them more from a coaching standpoint.”
Of all the players ASU faces this season, it is conceivable no pair of defensive ends will control the line of scrimmage as well as Aggie starters Myles Garrett and Dasheon Hall.
Aside from their combination of physicality and speed, the duo showed a propensity for timing up the snap of the football which put Goodman and McGehee in compromised positions to make stabilizing blocks.
"That's something we work on and being able to (be) where teams teams aren't able to get off on your rhythm," ASU offensive coordinator Mike Norvell said. "I think there were times during the game they definitely timed us up. We put our guys in situation, I put our guys in a situation with not enough variation. We did have some variation but they probably got too much in a rhythm on where we were at through the course of the game to let guys get off on us.
"We were on the road in a hostile environment and we gave up too many negatives. We played a good defense and they had some quality players but any time you're on a big stage like that, you can't do things that hurt yourself. Like I said after the game, I think there's some things I could have done better to prepare our guys. Coming back and looking at it, we've got to continue to focus on us. Make sure we're putting ourselves in the right position, executing our job and doing our assignments. If we do that I think we'll be very, very successful."
Even though ASU’s offensive tackles were often outmatched, Thomsen said there were a number of repetitions in which Goodman displayed flashes of potential, which gives the coaching staff positive teaching points to build from.
“That’s what I pointed out to him (Goodman),” Thomsen said. “I said look, there’s obviously some times here where it’s unacceptable and we’ve got to get way better, but there’s times when you’re doing it the way you’re coached to do it, you’re doing it right, you’re staying within the system, your technique and your own fundamentals and you’re having success against one of, if not the best rushers in the country so he already knows it was a bad game for him, but we also have to show him the positives of it and he’s got to go from there and build on that.”
As for McGehee, Thomsen said he wants to see the first-year starter become more active with his hands at the point of attack. McGehee has the potential to be more physical than his predecessor at the position, Tyler Sulka, and with a larger frame and improved technique, McGehee’s versatility could shine through more often in the coming weeks against smaller opponents.
“Same thing, I think there’s some things he (McGehee) can clean up just using his hands better,” Thomsen said. “(Dasheon) Hall got to his edge a little bit, which that’s just a matter of punching and keeping the pocket a little wider and like you said, Hall beat him back inside a little bit. Hall is a great rusher too and that’s how you get better.”
Asking Goodman and McGehee to corral Garrett and Hall on the perimeter was going to be a difficult task in any scenario, but with Texas A&M keying in on ASU’s snap count, it was as if the Sun Devils gave the speedier Aggie players a one-meter head start in a five-meter sprint to the finish line, or in this case, the quarterback.
On Monday, Graham indicated one of ASU’s biggest regrets offensively from Saturday’s game was not running the ball on the interior more frequently. The Sun Devils’ top three returning linemen start at left guard, center and right guard, and Graham expressed frustration ASU maintained a commitment to running outside the tackles where Texas A&M was enjoying success.
"When you have to make in-game adjustments, that's part of college football," Norvell said. "You have to make sure throughout the course of a game you can adapt and adjust to what you're getting defensively. On the same hand, when you have newcomers at new positions, that's where you can get yourself in trouble as well. You can adapt and adjust as a coach but if you haven't worked things or if you're asking guys to do something they haven't repped as much throughout the course of a game and if you have a guy who maybe has a missed assignment, those things aren't going to help you out regardless.
Those are things you have to have a balance on....It sucked, Saturday sucked. There was nothing fun about it. You try to learn from those experiences. There are some things you can take from it when you're dealing with some newcomers and dealing with guys who haven't been on that stage you can take and learn from but it's something with those in-game adjustments, being able to see where guys are at and obviously what our strengths are."
Thomsen said he was pleased with his interior linemen’s efforts in the run game, but wished ASU was able to prevent itself from getting into unmanageable down and distance situations. The Sun Devils routinely found themselves in third and long scenarios, which gave Texas A&M’s pass rushers even more of a head start off the ball.
“Those guys played very physical in the run game, inside they were getting off the ball well and there were times we did some good things in the inside run game, but we’ve still got to do better because there were too many third and longs,” Thomsen said. “That’s the whole thing against people like that, and I said it before the game, it’s like an NFL game, you don’t want to be in third and long. I don’t know how many third and longs we were in, but it was way more than I wanted to be in.”
Reshuffling the Line
While Saturday’s performance might have merited a discussion about how ASU wanted to rotate offensive linemen in with the first team this week, the Sun Devils were forced to reshuffle the rotation as a result of injuries.
At Tuesday and Wednesday practice, Goodman and senior center Nick Kelly were both wearing green non-contact jerseys. Goodman participated with the offensive line during individual drills, but Kelly remained off to the side. Neither participated in the team periods observed by reporters on either day.
Though continuity along the offensive line is critical, especially early in the season, McGehee said ASU’s offensive line has worked hard to develop a “next man up” philosophy and that took effect at Tuesday’s practice.
“I think everyone did well,” McGehee said in regards to Tuesday’s practice. “The great thing about our o-line is it doesn’t matter if you’re first string or second string, we make sure that everyone is ready to go because you never know what’s going to happen. So we make sure that my backup is ready if I go down, so that way he can go in and we won’t skip a beat.”
This week’s practices are pivotal for McCray, who has experience rotating in as the first substitute at each of the three interior positions along the offensive line. After a week in which ASU was a step behind at the line of scrimmage, there’s a particular emphasis on getting every offensive player back on the same page.
With Kelly’s availability for Saturday’s game against Cal Poly undeclared by ASU coaches, McCray is taking it upon himself to learn from the mistakes the offensive line made last week and anchor ASU’s communication up front.
“Communication is always key with everything that an offensive line does, so perfecting communication, continuing to work on that, and it’s going to be better,” McCray said.
In the two practices so far this week, McCray had a few high snaps during the team portion of practice that the media were able to view, but said it’s important to learn from his mistakes on the field and work through any difficulties. As someone who rotated in periodically last season, McCray knows he must prepare like a starter each week in the event the coaching staff calls on him to handle a start or give one of ASU’s top five linemen a breather.
“I always have the expectation, I always try and come out and perform as if I’m one of the best in the country, I think coach Graham just preaches that to us always no matter what your situation, you want to come out and prepare like a starter because you never know,” McCray said. As for the left tackle position, Jones was banged up for much of the two weeks leading up to the Texas A&M game, and missed a fair amount of practice time with a brace on his left knee.
After practice, Jones said he felt fine and was back to 100 percent, but also noted that he expected Goodman to be back with the first team offensive line as soon as possible.
“He (Jones) was cleared to play Saturday, it’s just that he was cleared late in the week and he hadn’t had a lot of practice reps so that’s not a game you want to go out and try to function in if you haven’t been practicing,” Thomsen said. “He’s out there now, though, but he’s ready to go.”
Thursday, reporters will have a better indication of whether Goodman and or Kelly will return to practice fully and play against Cal Poly on Saturday night. Regardless of who ends up starting, ASU’s offensive line is working to correct the errors it made against Texas A&M in hopes the unit can renew its status as a strength the entire team can rely on.