Ten Takeaways: Northern Arizona

Here's a detailed analysis-based look at our biggest takes from Arizona State's win over Northern Arizona on Saturday at Sun Devil Stadium.

1. Arizona State's opening game performance clearly illustrated why our final 2016 preparedness grades had Spur/Bandit and Field Safety/Cornerbacks as two of the three least ready groups entering the season. This wasn't a surprise of course after the Sun Devils finished last in passing defense nationally a year ago. Getting Laiu Moeakiola back will perhaps help the secondary and defense as a whole -- though that's debatable if he's asked to do too much that isn't well suited to his game -- but the Sun Devils yielded 369 passing yards to Northern Arizona and when the Lumberjacks max protected with seven players there were some big play opportunities. Senior cornerback De'Chavon Hayes lost visual awareness of his assignment downfield on multiple reps. Junior Chad Adams had a forced fumble but was largely unremarkable on the field and not a plus-coverage player. Sophomore cornerback Kareem Orr had some very good reps but also had several bad penalties and was beaten on occasion. Sophomore safety Armand Perry was at his best in run support and had a good game when coming forward to make plays. He's probably better suited to play Bandit than field safety long term and quarters and Cover 2 are better suited to him than being a deep middle third safety. An easy case can be made that Northern Arizona's coverage down the field was better than ASU's. Texas Tech will be a huge challenge. 

2. Quarterback was the bottom position group in our final readiness grades and again, the reasons for this were on display against the Lumberjacks. While sophomore Manny Wilkins completed 20 of 27 passes, it only was good for 180 yards of passing offense with no touchdowns and one interception. He did have the swing screen to freshman receiver N'Keal Harry that was ruled a rush. If that's instead a pass it makes the numbers look a little better on the passing side. There was a lack of explosive plays or downfield access though, and ASU offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey shrunk the game down as much as possible for Wilkins, particularly after his interception. That was a really shaky rep and potential harbinger of things to come. On that play NAU was in a 4-2-5 with a zone defensive back in the alley that never hinted at anything over than zone coverage pre-snap. Wilkins apparently didn't identify this pre-snap and didn't see the player settle into an area immediately between the quarterback and intended target. Later, Wilkins was sacked after freezing on a 20 personnel rep in which both backs ran routes and were hot options. Junior Kalen Ballage was wide open but Wilkins couldn't get off his first read down the field even knowing pre-snap that he'd only have five protecting. There were mechanical issues with his footwork and situational awareness cues that clearly convey Wilkins' inexperience and some of the limitations we've seen in a practice setting. It was important to give him the benefit of the doubt considering 90 percent of the football played in August was out of reporters' view. But there were a lot of signs that he's not ready to play at the highest college level successfully. 

3. The Sun Devils' defensive approach was not unexpected but noteworthy nonetheless. In the first first practice of preseason camp we saw some Cover 3 looks that were unlike what we've typically seen ASU use under Todd Graham. ASU defensive coordinator Keith Patterson and Graham didn't wait to show this against a better opponent. They went right to sky Cover 3 (two cornerbacks and a safety making up deep third responsibilities) as one of their most frequent coverages and an alternate to Cover 1 (man across with a single safety over the top reading the play). There were some other coverages mixed in but to see ASU play a little more conservatively, with far fewer blitzes as an overall percentage of their reps, was interesting. We didn't see the boundary cornerback blitz or the Spur blitz nearly as much as we've grown accustomed to. We saw more movement from the Spur based on formation and play expectation and different deployment of the Bandit. It's still a question as to whether they have the personnel to play Cover 1 and 3 as a predominant percentage of their reps overall, and also whether they'll do so against spread teams like the Air Raid Texas Tech squad they'll play Saturday. That's a totally different type of offense than the one we just saw from NAU, and could lend itself to different personnel and coverages. 

4. Player absences made this defense still somewhat of an unknown. How will the Sun Devils use Moeakiola and does that change the most common coverages against this type of offense? What happens with senior Salamo Fiso returns to the field? Does that mean the Sun Devils will play junior Christian Sam in the hybrid role that at times will be more Spur and at times more SAM backer? Will the return of senior tackle Viliami Latu solidify the defensive tackle rotation? We saw his brother, junior Alani Latu, move inside on passing downs in a nickel look that was unconventional and unexpected. Odds are good Fiso wouldn't have played anyway much against Texas Tech because he isn't on field in nickel groupings and that's ASU's most common look against the Air Raid offenses. Moeakiola might play Spur instead of Bandit against this type of team because it's so pass heavy. It's one way to get more coverage in the secondary. But not having Moeakiola, Fiso, Latu and then Sam and junior Marcus Ball on the field for all or most of the game was definitely limiting. 

5. One of the takeaways that should give ASU fans the most hope from this game was Lindsey's overall comfort and decision making as a play caller. He knew that the physical edge possessed by ASU would pay off later in the game and didn't get antsy whatsoever with his calls. There were legitimate claims to be made about former ASU offensive coordinator Mike Norvell's tendency to try to do too much when he didn't have to. At times Norvell would make low-percentage calls that were unnecessary. He could go away from the run, perhaps out of sheer boredom or maybe because he wanted the big play too much instead of the sure play. Lindsey showed a more conservative discipline to play-calling, especially after the Wilkins interception. How much of this was based on ASU playing an FCS opponent? Probably a lot, but not all of it. Lindsey seemed very comfortable to try to take what was given, even if he wasn't all that eye-catching. But he will have to expand things in a way that will challenge Wilkins in subsequent games and probably as soon as this week. 

6. Something needs to be said for NAU's talent and approach, particularly on offense. The Lumberjacks recruit, scheme and play-call in a structurally sound fashion. They know exactly who they are, what they're trying to do organizationally, what types of players they need and why, and how to best incorporate them into the game. In local products Emmanuel Butler and Elijah Marks the Lumberjacks have two big play receivers we felt were very underrated coming out of high school, and quarterback Case Cookus delivers a very clean, accurate ball down the field. There isn't much different between these guys doing it and a Pac-12 program doing it, regardless of the team name on the jersey and the FCS designation. That's a good sign for ASU. 

7. I don't agree with ASU's decisions to play true freshmen Cohl Cabral and Kyle Williams. The Sun Devils did a great job with their decisions and executions in recruiting both players and they're two of the best young athletes on the roster. That's exactly the reason you don't play them. Cabral was literally used only on short snaps. ASU's known for several months that snapper Mitchell Fraboni likely wouldn't be ready to start the season. As a program you have to be able to find a second-team snapper who isn't one of the best freshmen offensive line prospects you've had in years. Even if that's a walk-on tryouts, it has to be done. Teams in the SEC have found kickers through university-wide competitions. You can't get a short-snapper? Williams played only on kickoff coverage and the final minutes of a blowout at field safety. Why? Senior Zane Gonzalez has the best touchback percentage in the country. At Sun Devil Stadium almost every Gonzalez kickoff is going to be a touchback. Do you need Williams? Of course not. On defense? Not unless you already feel like your secondary is going to be that porous that a guy who has only been working at the position for two weeks is going to help. And if that's the case, is that reason enough to preserve the redshirt anyway? Maybe. 

8. ASU's perimeter blocking was very good and this tends to go largely unmentioned in post-game obits or team analysis in general. Harry's first career touchdown came out of a trips set to the field with two tight ends flexed out and head hunting blocks in front of him on the bubble screen. Sophomore Jalen Harvey got the start at the Z position and came right out and menaced NAU with his run blocking on a seven-play, seven-run touchdown drive to start the game. Even Harry had a nice drive block on a play in which junior Demario Richard ended up just shy of the goal line. This important skill has been upgraded by ASU this year, and that's a good sign for the offense because it will probably need it. 

9. A young Sun Devil offensive line wasn't severely tested with its pass pro in terms of athletic talent on the edge, but there were still plenty of inexperience-related mistakes. Sophomore Sam Jones had some good reps but also missed his assignment at least twice on pass protections, and not even on stunts or twist game action. Redshirt freshman Zach Robertson didn't handle some of the deeper pass pro sets in which he had to chase the rusher past the pocket as functionally as he would have liked. Long term he still looks like a guard, ideally. Sophomore Quinn Bailey is at his best down blocking when he's able to get quick initial contact. But he was hit or miss overall. There were too many times in which offensive linemen had their back to the play because someone had played through the line. This defensive line of the Lumberjacks wasn't talented enough for that to be happening to the degree that it did. Wilkins should be sacked zero times against a team like NAU unless he holds the ball too long. 

10. The stadium experience won't totally be felt until next season but when it's done, Sun Devil Stadium will be as good or better than any venue in the Pac-12 as long as its fans do their part and fill it up on an every game basis. That's coming from someone who has been to every stadium in the league in the last few years. There are issues to be worked out, of course, but only when you've been to all the other venues can you really understand how good ASU's stadium can be relative to the rest. They did a great job with the west side overhaul. The elevated concourses and open flow has allowed air to move better through the stadium, access is great, particularly when you factor in light rail. 


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