Who will the quarterback be and will he be ready to play effectively in the Pac-12?
This is understandably the most pressing issue on the minds of many ASU fans, and probably offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey as well. It's nearly impossible to claw into the top tier of the Pac-12 in any season without a competent quarterback and ASU has virtually no experience returning at the position.
Lindsey was hired by the Sun Devils in December to replace Mike Norvell. Upon making the hire ASU coach Todd Graham said one of the main reasons for the decision was Lindsey's career-long experience developing quarterbacks. He'll get immediately tested in that regard, certainly, and he's never coached at the major conference level.
Graham and Lindsey have said they're looking for the quarterback who best elevates the other 10 players on the field. Leadership qualities and ball security are of paramount importance. Graham wants an offense that has few negative plays and rarely turns the football over. That comes down to the offensive coordinator and quarterback above all others.
There's no stated leader for the quarterback job entering preseason camp, but sophomore Manny Wilkins might have a slight, unofficial edge. He's a year older than redshirt freshmen Bryce Perkins and Brady White, and Wilkins has the respect of his teammates for his approach and intangibles. The extra year means he's known more of his teammates longer and that helps from a relationship standpoint.
Wilkins may also have been the most consistent of the three quarterbacks during spring ball. He's very quick and elusive -- a containment threat to defenses -- but also has a big arm and throws a clean football. If there's a question with Wilkins it's how he handles the speed of the game and having the poise to hang in the pocket and get through his progressions to find the open receiver if it's his second or third option.
Perkins was sporadic in his play during the spring. He was turnover prone in a number of practices, particularly in the first half of the spring, but then had a good effort in multiple scrimmages. He has a very good combination of size and overall athleticism, with terrific strength and open field speed for the position. He wants to be a passer more than a runner even though he's quite good in the open field. He's been limited by his arm to some degree, with not as much throwing range as the other two down the field, or velocity getting the ball to the perimeter.
White is an underrated athlete from a mobility standpoint but the least of the three in terms of speed and quickness. He's able to run everything in the offense though, and extends plays with a focus on looking to throw the ball, which is different than Wilkins, who quickly becomes a runner, with Perkins somewhere in between the two in that regard. At times White has held the ball too long in practice and taken sacks so he needs to find the right balance between trying to make a play and not taking a loss.
In 2012 Taylor Kelly emerged from third in the pecking order to become the starter due to an impressive camp in Graham's first season. it became clear within the first handful of practices that Kelly had made significant strides during the summer. We'll learn in the next few days if there are any big changes with this quarterback battle. We'll also learn whether true freshman newcomer Dillon Sterling-Cole, who physically looks the part already, will have a chance to shake up the race further.
Can ASU rebound from a catastrophic failing of its passing defense in 2015?
The Sun Devils finished last in FBS (No. 127) in passing yards allowed per game last season at 337.8, which was 24 yards worse than the next closest team, Indiana. Their 35 passing touchdowns yielded tied for second to last nationally, and the number of 40-plus yard plays given up was last in FBS.
Graham said ASU's breakdown was largely attributable to injuries at safety, with Armand Perry being lost for the season in the second game and Jordan Simone suffering a torn knee ligament against Washington. But Simone's injury came in mid-November, when ASU was already really struggling against the pass, and the Sun Devils had two senior starters at cornerback, Lloyd Carrington and Kweishi Brown.
As Graham said at Pac-12 Media Day, injuries are going to happen. The Sun Devils weren't prepared for even one injury though in their secondary in the fourth year of their program, which was an eye-opening reality. They'd made some mistakes in recruiting at the position and other guys just weren't ready to go when they needed to stop the bleeding. Graham tried myriad combinations of players in the defensive backfield but nothing worked at all.
This year, Perry is back and should be a starter. But he's never played safety in the Pac-12 so even though he looks promising, there's still much to prove. Sophomore Kareem Orr is likely moving to cornerback after leading ASU and the Pac-12 with six interceptions as a safety. He showed flashes of great potential but also struggled a lot in coverage situations, kind of a boom or bust result which isn't surprising as a true freshman thrust into such a job.
One of the most interesting developments to track in camp is Graham's decision to move senior Laiu Moeakiola from Spur to Bandit in order to help shore up the back end. Moeakiola played deep safety including the field side spot as a true freshman before suffering a hamstring injury, so he's got experience there. But is the move going to fix one position only to create an issue at another? The worst case scenario is ASU is diminished at both spots with Moeakiola not at his best position.
There's just not a lot of returning options at cornerback and that's why ASU added junior college players Maurice Chandler and J'Marcus Rhodes as mid-year transfers. But neither showed in the spring a clear readiness to play at this level. They'll need to make major strides in August to be up to the man coverage island situations they'll be put in by Graham and defensive coordinator Keith Patterson.
Then there's senior De'Chavon Hayes, who was thought to be an impact addition last year on offense only to rarely see the field and end up getting moved to defense. Hayes is a very impressive athlete to be sure, and he can handle the most straightforward man coverage assignments. But there's a lot more going on in the ASU defense and to communicate it all and be on the same page with his teammates is not going to be an easy task.
There's just a lot of uncertainty here heading into camp and it'll need to be sorted out if ASU's going to be able to play as aggressively as it always has and still be able to hold up against the pass. Will we see more zone blitzes this year, something Graham did a lot more of in 2012 and into 2013 before largely going away from last year when it may have been most appropriate?
Will the Pac-12's most inexperienced offensive line be up to the challenge?
There's been a clear correlation in the conference -- and really all of college football -- between offensive line experience (starts) and wins. Football really does start up front and strong line play makes it a lot easier for everyone else to be successful.
ASU doesn't have the benefit of being able to have its new quarterback or two standout running backs Demario Richard and Kalen Ballage operate behind a veteran offensive line, however. By some measures the Sun Devils are the most inexperienced unit in the Pac-12, which has more often than not been a harbinger of things to come.
With four offensive line starters to replace, there figures to be an adjustment period. But ASU needs to expedite this in a hurry because its second game against Texas Tech shouldn't be easy and and even a road trip to UTSA is far from a sure win.
If this offensive line can give a new quarterback some breathing room to start the season and allow the running backs to get into a nice rhythm, it could pay real dividends later in conference play.
Senior left tackle and lone returner starter Evan Goodman has been given rave reviews by ASU strength staff for how well he's handled the off-season from a conditioning and leadership standpoint. He's under 300 pounds and been a vocal presence with the unit in summer workouts. Fellow senior Stephon McCray has some experience as a starter even though he's mostly played when others have been injured. He has shown he can handle the rigors of the Pac-12, but doing so in a sustained fashion over a full season is yet to be determined.
There's a handful of really talented young players on the roster but they haven't seen any real action to this point, if any. Sophomore Sam Jones could break out at left guard this season and appeared to be in fantastic shape in the team's final conditioning workout Friday. Sophomore Quinn Bailey is very lean at 303 pounds when compared with the last year or two, and has made enormous strides in practice since arriving at ASU. Now he's going to have to transition that to the field though, and at right tackle it's going to be a huge test. Young redshirt freshman Steve Miller and Zach Robertson are waiting in the wings.
Center is a question mark. Junior walk-on Tyler McClure was atop the depth chart in the spring and looking like he's capble of playing at this level, but actually doing it is a tougher challenge. He could get pushed by junior college transfer A.J. McCollum, who wasn't able to practice in the spring but has been in Tempe for a number of months working out and getting ready.