Our preseason forecast of ASU as 9-10 win type of team was too high. The following is a look at how we arrived at that prediction and what has contributed to it not materializing.
Prior to Arizona State's 2014 season the Sun Devils had a lot of key players to replace on defense and we were skeptical of its ability to do that especially because the preseason practices we observed were not especially impressive on that side of the football. ASU coach Todd Graham had spent all offseason suggesting that the attacking defensive scheme is what largely created ASU's success, and while replacing Will Sutton, Carl Bradford, Chris Young and others from its 10-win, Pac-12 South championship team in 2013 wouldn't be easy, there would be no drop off in the overall team's success. That was hard to believe in light of just how good those departing players were, and we thought the Sun Devils would win a game or two fewer last season, but it still wound up with 10 wins on the year including the Sun Bowl win over Duke.
Last season's 10-win effort came even with the Sun Devils having to replace experienced starting quarterback Taylor Kelly for a big chunk of the season with then-backup Mike Bercovici, with Bercovici playing well and being a key figure in several big wins against some of ASU's toughest opponents. As Kelly moved back into the lineup, a big debate began playing out on the message boards and in the broader ASU community about whether Kelly was fully healthy, and whether Bercovici was more likely to be successful than Kelly even if Kelly was healthy. That was a very understandable conversation due to Bercovici's success and Kelly initially struggling when returning to the lineup.
My opinion, some may remember, was that Bercovici wasn't a better quarterback than a healthy Kelly when fully accounting for the ASU scheme and its overall personnel. Bercovici is certainly better at some key aspects of quarterbacking, with a quicker release, better arm, better pocket utilization and more, but those things were largely offset by Kelly's mobility, read-option capability and other strengths when considering the overall ASU offensive big picture.
Even though I held this belief, I still ultimately arrived at the opinion that ASU would be roughly as good this season as it was last season despite the losses of star receiver Jaelen Strong, two starting offensive tackles, starting wide receiver Cameron Smith, and others. There were a few major factors that contributed to this determination, with Graham's staunch belief that the 2015 Sun Devils would be his best team in Tempe at or near the top of the list. Graham said that every chance he got and also consistently and repeatedly said it was the best preseason camp by far that the program had in his tenure. After being skeptical of Graham's similar perspective a year earlier and it being demonstrated that he was correct, I was influenced more than I should have been by his take on this team.
Another major factor which contributed to our overly bullish forecast is that while reporters only get to see a relatively small amount of ASU's overall preseason preparation, the Sun Devil offense looked pretty sharp. Bercovici, in particular, had a very good showing in August in the full practices, and segments of practices, observed by media. There was no inability to run the football successfully against the ASU defense in the traditional looks it would face against Pac-12 foes, and no lack of vertical capability in the passing game. In other words, there was no clear foreshadowing when looking at ASU relative to its last three seasons of camp that led us to the conclusion that ASU's offense would hold back its overall ability to win football games at a similar rate as the past, especially in light of Graham's tendency to get his teams to overachieve.
So, while there's still a reasonable chance that ASU finishes strong now that it is into what should be an easier half of the season -- a nine-win season is still a possibility -- it's important to acknowledge that I was wrong and along with that there is a responsibility to work to better understand all the elements that contributed to that being the case in order to do a better job of forecasting moving forward. We've studied this team's 4-3 start in great detail and have come to some conclusions. Here are some of the main ones:
Key veteran players are not performing as well as needed for ASU to overcome its offensive challenges
Really it starts with ASU's offensive front and in particular its returning starters on the interior of the offensive line, Nick Kelly, Christian Westerman and Vi Teofilo. Collectively and individually, a lot was expected of this group in 2015 and its play has been largely inconsistent, and at times substandard. There's a lot of contributing factors as to why this is the case but truth be told, these guys just aren't winning enough of their individual reps man on man either in zone or man blocking, nor are they working together as a unit as seamlessly as they need to. As a result, ASU's top three running backs in terms of number of carries are averaging fewer yards per carry in 2015 (4.95) than last season (5.5) and 2013 (5.3).
Chris Thomsen is no less of an offensive line coach than in the past and he did a very fine job with his group last season, but this year's results aren't the same despite ASU having the same blocking and protection schemes and three of the same starters. Linemen are being beaten more off the snap, losing leverage as blockers, too upright in the run game, not coordinating their efforts as well, not locating their hands properly, not running their feet through engagement. There's a lot of things going on here and it varies from one play to the next but the blocking schemes are accounting for everyone as they should and yet individual and collective performance isn't as optimized.
I thought senior center Nick Kelly would be in line for all-conference consideration after the amount of improvement he showed in each of the last two seasons and really talked him up during the summer months but he hasn't taken a step forward with his play this year. Senior right guard Vi Teofilo is coming off an ACL surgery less than a year ago and perhaps that's a contributing factor but regardless, ASU's most experienced player has been a stronger run blocker in the past than this season. Senior left guard Christian Westerman has been battling a hand injury the last few weeks that appears to have limited his effectiveness, and when not operating in tight quarters he has a tendency to get a bit loose when locating and securing blocks.
Elsewhere, ASU's veterans haven't been making the key plays needed for a team to win big games against quality competition. The loss ASU suffered at the hands of Utah last week is a prime example, as senior receiver D.J. Foster and junior tight end Kody Kohl each dropped a very catchable ball in the end zone and ASU only got a field goal on both drives. If it had scored touchdowns on those possessions, it would have changed how the game unfolded. ASU just isn't dynamic enough offensively to have those types of opportunities not be converted at a higher rate.
With Demario Richard looking like a star player at running back and De'Chavon Hayes coming off a redshirt year under the expectation from ASU coaches that he would be an immediate impact player in the slot of two-back formations, D.J. Foster was moved to a true wideout position in a move that hasn't worked as designed
This was one of the biggest missteps of ASU coaches as it relates to the 2015 season's underachievement on offense. ASU coaches Todd Graham and Mike Norvell were very high on junior De'Chavon Hayes since he signed with the program in the 2014 class. Evidence of this is easy to find in the form of a lot of quotes from both men suggesting Hayes would be a key weapon for the Sun Devils and one of their more dynamic offensive weapons.
The expectation of this contributed to the off-season decision to move senior D.J. Foster in a true wideout role, with the plan being to use Hayes in the two-back 3-man slot role that led to Foster becoming a star player for the Sun Devils and the only player in the FCS nationally to have more than 2,000 yards rushing and 2,000 receiving in his career.
With Jaelen Strong departing and leading returning wide receiver Cameron Smith needing season-ending surgery, the move of Foster made sense in theory, as it would allow Norvell to mitigate those departures with Foster in a way that still allowed ASU to get what it believed to be its best offensive weapons on the field together at the same time.
But what happened instead is Hayes struggled mightily out of the gate this season. He couldn't get aligned properly and was bogging down the entire ASU offense as a result, even running the wrong plays at times. Norvell and ASU severely overestimated Hayes' ability to be successful this season and instead of being a key weapon in the passing game, he's sitting on 10 receptions in seven games and has practiced mostly on defense in the last month of the season.
Lost in the aftermath of ASU's loss to Utah is the fact that Norvell started to again use Foster at times in the game in the two-back 3-man slot role in which he initially excelled earlier in his college career, including on the play in which Foster dropped a ball in the end zone in the first half. But this adjustment was made too slowly this season in light of Hayes' struggles and the overall importance of ASU's running backs and tight ends in the program's passing game.
Early in the season junior wide receiver Tim White was limited due to the broken hand he was coming back from and junior Frederick Gammage was out of action for an extended stretch of games due to an arm injury. Those were two of ASU's other options at the 2-receiver position and likely factored into Norvell's decision to not move Foster back into the his old role more and earlier.
This has proven to be a mistake, and a major factor in ASU's overall lack of production in the passing game from running backs, something that has always been a staple in ASU's offensive success under Graham. In fact, the drop-off in productivity from ASU's running backs and tight ends seems to directly correlate to its reduced offensive capability as the below chart shows:
|Yards Per Play/Season||6.0||5.8||5.9||5.5|
|TE/RB % of Team TD Catches*||57.5||64.2||38.2||35.7|
|TE/RB % of Total Team Catches*||56.4||52.7||42.3||33|
* A limited number of Foster's catches this year have come in the two-back slot role in recent weeks, or motioning/initially aligned in the backfield. This is not fully reflected in the chart.
ASU's offense has operated most successfully when it targets its tight ends/3-backs and running backs as a much higher percentage of its overall pass attempts than it has this season. The chart shows that ASU's quarterback rating, completion percentage, first downs, yards per play and scoring are all down this season even though it is running roughly the same number of plays and completing the same number of overall passes. The number of receptions by running backs and tight ends, and numbers of catches and touchdowns by these players as a percentage of the overall ASU passing offense has plummeted.
Earlier in the Graham era, tight end Chris Coyle, Foster and running back Marion Grice were extremely relied upon by the Sun Devils in the passing game. Collectively, Demario Richard, sophomore running back Kalen Ballage, Hayes, and Kohl, plus ASU's other tight end options, are not as capable from a receiving standpoint. Foster is the player who could have given the team more of a weapon here but instead was at a wideout position, where his per-game reception number is virtually unchanged from previous seasons, at 4.6 this season compared with 4.8 last season and 4.5 in 2012. What's really eye opening is the fact Foster's averaged fewer yards per game this season than in the past, despite being at an outside receiver spot.
Foster being used as an outside receiver wouldn't have been bad for him or ASU if the Sun Devils had not also seen a significant drop off in its productivity in the receiving game from its backs and tight ends. At the NFL level Foster is more of a hybrid type player than a true running back, and showing more versatility on film would only help his cause. He's not a better pure rusher of the football than Richard, either. But ASU's big drop off in receiving production from backs/tight ends tells us that the move hasn't worked.
Now that White is really coming on, senior wide receiver Devin Lucien is stabilizing as a solid weapon and Gammage is healthy enough to play, ASU should consider playing Foster much more in the two-back slot role the rest of the season.
Another factor in this is Bercovici needs to focus as much as possible on taking what defenses give him, as it's been proven that ASU can be very potent throwing the ball to its tight ends and backs.
Mike Norvell has been too slow to adjust in a way that fully maximizes his personnel, and at times not been creative enough
A lot of fans have mentioned that ASU is running too much read option but that's actually a misnomer. Though its certainly an advantage, a mobile quarterback isn't needed to operate the ASU offense or offenses like it, as long as he's a good quarterback and the rest of the personnel is capable. The read option isn't so much of a play as it is a scheme that is designed to provide a numbers advantage on run plays at the point of attack when defenses play two high safeties, and give the offense man coverage mismatches when defenses bring an extra defender into the box.
The way in which this is accomplished is by forcing defenses to account for the possibility of the quarterback keeping the ball in a way that allows the offense to not have to physically block that player and still be able to have him accounted for. It also is designed to keep that player from making the play on the ball carrier from the backside. In that respect, the read option actually helps an offensive run game capability from a schematic standpoint when it operates from the shotgun and doesn't have a mobile quarterback. It doesn't hurt said team.
Some have asked why ASU is play action faking read option on third and 10 when everyone knows it is going to throw the football, but it's simply a timing mechanism more than an actual effort to get the defense to react in that situation. In watching No. 2 Baylor Saturday -- perhaps the most potent team in the country offensively and a system that is a close cousin of ASU's -- it did the same thing on third and 10 and connected on a long touchdown pass.
Now, all of this isn't to suggest that Bercovici is the most ideal quarterback for the scheme, but there's no way ASU can change the scheme in a way that puts Bercovici at a greater advantage for a variety of reasons. Most prominently, Bercovici has always been a shotgun style quarterback and ASU doesn't have the personnel to change its offensive philosophy even if it wanted to and could in-season (which it couldn't anyway).
ASU also doesn't have the personnel to be an under center team right now other than situationally, and yet at the same time, it also does not have the personnel to maximizing Bercovici's strengths, so in that regard, ASU is in a Catch-22 type situation that leads to a potential mislabeling of its struggles. It lacks the tight ends, has no established fullback and hasn't worked to develop a broad, full-service overall capability in this regard anyway. This is something that takes years to do. There is no ability to change the offense to fit a quarterback who has no experience running such a system when the personnel doesn't even exist to do it anyway, especially in season.
So, Norvell doesn't deserve criticism for this, though ASU should be able to get under center on short yardage and goal line situations and be more successful, and also have more tight ends who are capable of performing at a high level in Year 4 of the program, and in those areas they aren't as far along as they should be.
Where criticism is warranted is with Norvell's incorrect evaluation of Hayes and slowness to understand the need to boost ASU's output in the passing game from running backs and tight ends in light of the historical importance in the offense and Foster as far and away the most capable of helping him achieve this.
Also, Norvell hasn't done nearly well enough at creatively scheming to get the ball in the hands of his star players in run replacements when the team's run game hasn't been working. We haven't seen nearly enough creative formations, motions, misdirection plays, line of scrimmage and near-area picks, and other unconventional quick hitters to get the ball in the hands of Foster and others.
Perhaps most importantly, there's been a lack of situational understanding in the play calling that has actually exacerbated ASU's offensive struggles and made it tougher for the team to be successful as a whole. The most perfect example of this was Norvell calling for a max protection 12 personnel play (one running back, two tight ends) on second and 3 from the ASU 12 yard line early in the fourth quarter with an 18-14 lead at Utah to throw a low percentage home run ball for Foster -- who was well covered -- with no realistic check down option. ASU went on fail to convert the third and 3 on a 50/50 at best pass to Foster and junior Matt Haack shanked a 20 yard punt that gave Utah starting position inside ASU territory for the first time in a game in which the Sun Devil defense had held Utah scoreless for two quarters.
In that situation, Norvell simply can't afford to call for a low percentage play call. If he's thinking more as a head coach than an offensive coordinator, he's apt to be more cognizant of the need to generate a first down, and to treat that first down as more important than the cavalier way in which it is perceived to be viewed via such a low percentage throw to Foster on second down, a player who hasn't had a completion of longer than 33 yards all season.
The impression I have of Norvell's play calling this season is that he's operating from a mindset of what previous teams of his were capable of from a potency standpoint, and not based on what this team's capability has demonstrated itself to be. This season, first downs should be treated more preciously, with ASU's defense playing extremely well against the run and a much improved special teams. Norvell's called for too many low percentage plays on second-and-short, and not valued ball control, clock management and drive sustainment as much as he should, nor has he been committed enough to using the run early in games to wear opponents down and use that as a means of opening the field vertically later in games, not to mention in a way that pairs with his team's defensive capability.
Talent acquisition and/or player development issues have limited ASU's offensive capability
This is the season in which ASU's recent class struggles to sign high level tight ends and junior college offensive tackles has proved limiting to its offensive capability. The Sun Devils recruited but did not sign any junior college offensive tackles in the last two classes and the sporadic, average-at-best play of starters Evan Goodman and William McGehee has no doubt contributed to ASU's overall reduced offensive capability. Currently the Sun Devils only have two healthy scholarship tight ends who aren't true freshmen, one of whom is a first-year junior college player who still isn't fully up to speed. Given that the tight end/3-back role is so essential to ASU's overall offensive success, it needs more talent and experience at this position group than it has at this juncture.
Also, while ASU has signed some well-regarded wide receiver prospects in recent classes including Eric Lauderdale, Tyler Whiley and Jalen Harvey, it has gotten virtually nothing to this point productivity wise from them, a sign that either it recruited the wrong players and/or hasn't been able to develop them quickly enough.
At running back, ASU has to make sure that its recruits are system-friendly, and by that we mean players who are good weapons in the passing game as well as carrying the football. At least some of them have to be good route runners, pass catchers, and be able to operate in the slot.
For a Bercovici-styled quarterback to really flourish in this system, ASU has to be more talented and capable at its wide receiver, tight end and offensive tackle positions so that he has more time to operate in the pocket, more vertical weapons to target, and more big bodied possession receivers to diversify play calling and provide more higher percentage options.
The Sun Devils have turned the ball over more than in their back-to-back 10-win seasons in 2013 and 2014, and have generated far fewer turnovers
Graham talks about ball security as much or more than any of his other prominent talking points. It's almost a daily thing he says to reporters, so we can only surmise how much more frequently he's mentioning it to his players. This year's start makes clear why Graham considers it to be so important, and why turnover margin is perhaps the No. 1 predictive statistic in the outcome of football games.
The Sun Devils are last in the Pac-12 in turnover margin at minus-4 after being second in the category at plus-14 in 2014 and first in the league at plus-15 in 2013. ASU's turned the ball over as many times in seven games this year as it did in 13 games last year and already had a handful of fumbles come inside opposing territory and even scoring position. That's lost points that other teams didn't give away.
Additionally, from 2012-2014, ASU’s defense averaged 31 turnovers per year and this season it only has nine in seven games. It went from averaging 2.3 per game to just 1.3 this season. Through those turnovers, ASU’s offense was able to start its drives in its opponent’s territory on average of 14.7 times per season from 2012-14, roughly 1.1 chances per game through three seasons. But in a year when a struggling Sun Devils’ offense probably needs turnovers and short fields the most, the ASU defense hasn’t delivered. So far in 2015, ASU’s defense has given the offense four chances to start in its opponent’s territory. Through seven games this season, that’s about .57 chances per game, almost half of what the program has been averaging in the past.
|TO Margin Pac-12 Rank||1||2||12|
|Starts in Opp. Territory/Game Via TO||1.2||.92||.57|
ASU's red zone efficiency has dropped off in 2015 and it can't afford for that to be the case this season given its broader challenges
ASU has 16 touchdowns in 30 red zone trips this season, a 53 percent rate. Utah has 15 touchdowns in 24 chances (62 percent), Stanford has 20 touchdowns in 28 chances (71 percent), USC 18 of 26 chances (69 percent). This problem for the Sun Devils is a clear drop off this season. ASU scored touchdowns on 63 percent of its red zone chances in 2014, 61 percent in 2013, and 62 percent in 2012.
It also scored on a higher percentage of its overall red zone opportunities -- including field goals -- in each of the last two seasons seasons. ASU has scored points on 83.3 percent of its red zone chances this season, off of its 90.6 percent result last season and 89.3 percent success in 2013. Part of ASU's reduced touchdown capability in the red zone is missing a Strong type weapon, but it's also guys just not making plays at the same rate, and fewer tight end and running back weapons in the passing game.
The Sun Devils miss having a chain-moving/red zone possession receiver like Strong on third downs, and that masked some of its blemishes last season.
ASU's reliance on the back shoulder fade to generate first downs has become more evident this season, when it doesn't have a Jaelen Strong type of weapon at receiver to accomplish this tactic nearly as successfully. I thought the back shoulder fade was so heavily utilized in the ASU offense the last couple seasons because of how frequently it was completed between Kelly and Strong for the number of yards it generates -- usually it was a 15 or so yard play and was successful at a high rate.
But this season, even when it has been far less successfully completed and especially early in the season before Bercovici and senior UCLA-transfer Devin Lucien were as synced up, there was an over-reliance on the throw, almost as though ASU had developed a crutch for the back shoulder fade as a way of bailing it out of situations. What's happened is, ASU has gotten away from throwing the ball more and on higher percentage looks to its tight ends and running backs (as explained earlier) and the result has been a tougher time of moving the sticks.
Also, not having Strong in red zone situations has no doubt contributed to the aforementioned drop in red zone productivity. Having a less mobile quarterback running the offense also leads to a slight narrowing of the playbook, a reality which needs to be accounted for in the form of more formational capability, heavier personnel packages and more tight end receiving options in the end zone, none of which has really materialized.