Ten takeaways: New Mexico

Arizona State got into a better offensive flow -- its best of the season -- in the second half against New Mexico Friday. How does it look in all facets heading into conference play? Here's our 10 takeaways from the weekend.

1. A big component of the zone read and why teams use it is to keep the backside end and/or the read player -- what Arizona State calls the adjustor -- occupied with the threat of the quarterback keeping the ball and running around the end. Essentially, the quarterback is blocking the player with his eyes with the run threat, enabling the rest of his team's blockers to physically block other players and gain a man advantage at the point of attack. When the quarterback doesn't ever keep the ball, the backside end crashes down and makes tackles from the backside, or is able to help clog up the run lanes, especially on cut backs or A-gap runs. This is a huge part of ASU's run game capability because it operates out of the shotgun and uses a lot of zone blocking. ASU quarterback Mike Bercovici was told by ASU coach Todd Graham on the sidelines during the second quarter that he needed to run the ball more and that he isn't the offensive coordinator. At the start of the third quarter when Bercovici did keep the ball on the first two plays from scrimmage on zone read, it opened up ASU's offense. Later he scored easily on a zone read carry. ASU's run game has been diminished this year even though it has the same three returning offensive line starters inside and isn't substantially less capable with run blocking at tackle, and a reduced capability/threat in the zone read is a contributor.

2. Bercovici's zone read prowess or lack thereof would probably not be as much of an issue if ASU had a full compliment of its offensive skill weapons but that hasn't been the case through three games. When sophomore running back Kalen Ballage was sidelined with mono immediately before ASU's opener with Texas A&M, it forced the team to give more carries to junior De'Chaon Hayes when the opponent called for more of a bruising, bigger-bodied rusher. When Hayes went down with a hamstring injury early against Cal Poly, it forced additional concessions from ASU offensive coordinator Mike Norvell, primarily giving senior D.J. Foster more of a workload in the backfield. The problem with this against Cal Poly was that it was Tim White's first real game after missing weeks with a broken had and ASU's other option at the position, Fred Gammage, hurt his right arm in the game. All of this has been disruptive to the Sun Devils' offensive plans. While others, including senior wide receiver Gary Chambers, sophomore wide receiver Ellis Jefferson and junior tight end Kody Kohl are going to get some targets and make some plays in the passing game, they are role players. ASU's most explosive offensive skill athletes are sophomore running back Demario Richard, Foster, Ballage, Hayes and senior wide receiver Devin Lucien. Foster, Lucien and Richard have more than half of ASU's total receptions (36 of 70) and White and Hayes would make up a greater percentage if not for their respective injuries. Of those six, Ballage hasn't played, Foster has been moved away from his ideal position, Hayes has missed about seven of ASU's 12 quarters, and White wasn't really ready to play at full capability until this last week. All of this has been a drag on ASU's offensive capability.

3. Demario Richard should be a workhorse player for ASU. Graham said after the Texas A&M game that Richard played more snaps than they'd ideally want but if you look at it from a workload standpoint, Richard isn't being overworked. ASU's total number of offensive plays has averaged out to be about 76 per game and Graham and Norvell have said they'd like to be averaging 90 plays per game. So they're currently about 40-45 plays off their target number. Richard has 56 carries, which is 18 per game. 15 of the top 25 individual rushers in the country have as many or more carries than Richard. Predictably, Richard is averaging 5.3 yards per carry. He's going to always average more than five yards per carry as long as he's in college. ASU isn't wearing out Richard in the passing game either, as he's caught eight passes this season. If anything, Richard is a guy who, particularly with Ballage out, ASU should be giving more reps to and looking to run the ball more on first down. Then when Ballage is back, perhaps ASU could ease back on the throttle. Getting the ball to Richard should should always be prioritized.

4. Some good news could be on the near horizon for ASU with regard to these key offensive injuries. Hayes suited up and ran routes before the New Mexico game Friday and looked pretty good. If he doesn't have a setback this week, he could play against USC. Hayes is certainly now starting to really get into the flow of things in a way that helps ASU if it has to continue to use Foster some at running back. Ballage is probably the most uncertain of ASU's key six offensive skill players -- excluding the quarterback -- as he recovers from mono, but Graham has been hopeful about getting Ballage back sooner than later, perhaps even this week. When ASU is able to have Richard and Ballage soak up all the reps in the backfield, and get Foster, Lucien, White and Hayes on the field together -- or three of the four along with Kohl -- against defenses that don't get good pressure with four rushers, it will likely show a much improved big play capability. Of course, Lucien's status is now uncertain after an apparent left hamstring strain against New Mexico on a play in which he was awkwardly contorted after the catch.

5. Lucien's injury comes just as he was starting to get more in sync with Bercovici. Among the wide receivers, Lucien is now averaging 49.0 receiving yards per game and he was starting to get his timing in step with his quarterback just at the right time, heading into conference play. His injury didn't look serious, but hamstrings should never be taken likely and are difficult to predict. He could be back at practice at full speed this week, or could be limited or even out. We'll learn more about his status either at today's noon press conference or Tuesday at ASU's practice.

6.ASU's been relatively ineffective when going with heavier offensive personnel groupings, be it in short yardage situations, along the goal line, or just in general. This isn't a big surprise because we knew that it still doesn't have the bigger bodies at tight end to wear on teams physically on the edge or at the second level. Sophomore Raymond Epps has good potential as a versatile tight end but is still early in his growth and development. This lack of capability in two tight end formations has also been limiting with ASU's offense.

7. Offensive tackle continues to be a position of flux and uncertainty. Junior Evan Goodman started at left tackle, got called for a false start (at least his third of the season), was replaced by redshirt freshman Sam Jones. At right tackle, Billy McGehee has had some issues with handling speed on the edge as well as his hand placement and hand quickness as a blocker both in his run blocks and pass sets. Jones has been beaten in space and is going to have to continue to refine his pass pro. Any combination of these three as starters is possible moving forward. Goodman is the best athlete of the three but prone to mental lapses and frustration mistakes. USC doesn't have great edge rushers so that's a positive development for ASU, which also has changed its snapping procedure in a way that's seemingly helped. It has gone to having the right guard Vi Teofilo alert center Nick Kelly when he can snap the ball via a tap. This is commonly done in the NFL.

8.Led by junior Laiu Moeakiola, whom Graham called the MVP of ASU's defense to this point in the season, Cal Poly and New Mexico were both very limited in their ability to access the alley to the field sign in their triple option offenses, which is a huge component of what they want to do. Moeakiola's ability to get off blocks and disciplined approach to making the offensive commit has been remarkable and as long as he's healthy -- he appeared to get a bit banged up near the end of the New Mexico game -- he's going to be a real strength for ASU as it works to limit outside runs and screens to the wide side of the field. Additionally, junior SAM Salamo Fiso has been much improved at running to the football laterally this year and ASU's safeties, led by Jordan Simone, have done very well at run supporting. Simone was stellar against Cal Poly and New Mexico and his style of play is perfectly tailored to those types of opponents.

9. ASU will probably get Viliami Latu back against USC because Latu dressed fully and went through some warm ups against New Mexico with his left ankle heavily taped. Latu will allow ASU to get back to a three tackle rotation on the defensive line, which is important to help keep senior Demetrius Cherry and sophomore Tashon Smallwood fresh. Smallwood was ASU's best defensive tackle against Cal Poly and New Mexico because of how quick he's able to get off the football. He was the only of ASU's defensive tackles to be able to keep opposing offensive linemen from getting their hands on him or cutting him, and instead was breaking through the line of scrimmage in a disruptive way. Smallwood is starting to show the shades of Will Sutton that was hinted at by Graham when he was signed by ASU. His next order of business will be continued skill development with his hands and adding more grip strength to complete tackles with his arms extended. ASU got good reps from redshirt freshman Renell Wren Friday against New Mexico, even though he wasn't out there more than a handful of meaningful snaps. Wren has some pop behind his pads when he plays with leverage, and can run and pursue after disengagement, possibly as well as any of ASU's tackles. He may be ready for some more reps, especially if Latu is still limited, against a talented USC offensive line.

10. Other than White's mistaken attempt to field a difficult bounding punt that he muffed, ASU's special teams had its best overall game against New Mexico and is trending in a positive direction. ASU doesn't use rugby punts in practice so it's likely Hayes was doing something he didn't have as much experience or comfort with. Redshirt freshman Dasmond Tautalatasi also erred on the play by not falling on the football and instead trying to pick it up. ASU's at least average to good on kickoffs, field goals and punts and has a good kick return blocking scheme. The Sun Devils have struggled in special teams in a costly way in big games, including against USC. With Adoree Jackson returning punts and kicks, there can be no slip up. He's every bit as good if not better than Christian Kirk was for Texas A&M in the opener.


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