Viewing Guide: Northern Arizona

What things should fans pay particularly close attention to in Arizona State's season opener against Northern Arizona Saturday evening in Tempe? Here's our answer to that question in this week's Sun Devil viewing guide.

1. Quarterback play and offensive flow:  ASU is one of just two programs nationally without a quarterback who has thrown a pass in his career. Sophomore Manny Wilkins is getting the call to start and it's an opportunity to show he can manage the Sun Devils' offense efficiently. There are key indicators to look for in this regard. How are they operating in terms of getting the play in and lined up quickly? Are there any procedural penalties? Are they avoiding negative plays? Is Wilkins putting the ball in jeopardy with his decision making? Is he holding it too long or vacating the pocket prematurely? Is he accurate delivering the football, especially down the field? Is ASU able to take vertical shots? These are the questions that ultimately will hint at the offense's capability in subsequent games. 

2. How ASU handles NAU's passing attack: The Lumberjacks averaged 303 passing yards last season and found a revelation in freshman quarterback Case Cookus. Some ASU players have said Cookus is the best player on the offense and he's only a sophomore. But he completed 69 percent of his throws last season, a lot of which went to Phoenix Mountain Pointe alum Emmanuel Butler, a big 6-foot-4, 220 pound junior wide receiver. Butler had 64 catches for 1208 yards and 15 touchdowns last season. He's going to be a huge test for an ASU secondary that finished last in the nation last year in passing defense. The Lumberjacks are going to take big shots on fade routes to Butler and junior 6-foot-1, 175 pound wideout Elijah Marks and ASU's cornerback duo of sophomore Kareem Orr and senior De'Chavon Hayes will be tested. If ASU struggles here, it's not going to get any easier a week later against Texas Tech. 

3. How the ASU defensive front performs: A better four man pass rush would go a long way to enabling ASU coaches Todd Graham and Keith Patterson feeling more confident about playing more conservative coverages. In recent years they've sent more six man pressures at opponents than any Pac-12 program and part of that is because they've felt they had to. But sophomore Joseph Wicker looks like a possible 10-plus sack weapon who can bounce between end and Devil backer, and junior college newcomer Koron Crump is an explosive athlete at Devil backer. The team's starting 3-technique tackle junior Tashon Smallwood should also have the best year of his career. ASU's going to want to stuff up the run lanes early against NAU and then make it a one-dimensional offense. But if it is forced to bring a lot of pressures, the secondary will again be in a lot of challenging situations. 

4. How seamless will ASU's staff changes look: Even though Lindsey was with the team for the bowl game it's a major challenge early in a season when half of a coaching staff is new. Not only is Lindsey in his first year in Tempe, but wide receivers coach Jay Norvell, running backs coach John Simon, defensive line coach Joe Seumalo, and secondary coach T.J. Rushing are also in year one of their current jobs, and tight ends coach Del Alexander has shifted to the position for the first time. How well will these coaches work with one another on the headsets and with substitutions and everyone being on the same page? Will there be any confusion? Additionally, ASU defensive coordinator Keith Patterson is taking over full playcalling duties apparently this season and that could also change how things look and operate on the sidelines. 

5. Can ASU special teams be the best in the Pac-12: This was a weakness for the Sun Devils early in the Graham-era and he fired a former assistant coach as a result. ASU lost games due to poor special team play. Now the Sun Devils have a chance to have their special teams be a great asset. They're the only program in the league with a Lou Groza Award Watch List candidate and a Ray Guy Award Watch List candidate for the best kicker and punter nationally. Senior Zane Gonzalez will shatter the career scoring mark at ASU this year and is the best player nationally returning on kickoff touchback percentage. Senior Matt Haack is one of the two best returning punters in the league and has done a great job with hang time and 20 yard line pins. Senior Tim White should be among the best return men in the league as well. If ASU's punt coverage and long-snapping is executed properly -- the latter a legitimate issue because starter Mitchell Fraboni is injured to start the season -- it could be good enough special teams to give ASU an extra win or two. 


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