Todd Graham has schemed against his fair share of Air Raid offenses during his career, but Saturday's contest against Texas Tech represents a rare challenge for Graham and Arizona State's defense.
Texas Tech junior quarterback Patrick Mahomes is a dynamic talent, and after Tuesday's practice, Graham called Mahomes one of the best Air Raid signal-callers he's ever seen.
"There's a guy named Case Keenum who was the best I've ever played against in the Air Raid, and I mean good, and this kid (Mahomes) is in the ballpark with him," Graham said. "I'm not going to ever say anybody's better than him, because he was really good. But this guy really has a great understanding of the system, and he's big. He's 230-something pounds, 6-foot-3, and he just flicks it. He can throw it 40 yards like that."
In Texas Tech's season opening win over Stephen F. Austin, Mahomes racked up more than 400 yards of total offense in the first half and finished with 483 passing yards on 30 completions. Aside from his skills as a passer, Mahomes also boasts impressive mobility for a quarterback in an Air Raid offense, as the scheme lends itself to pocket passers.
Last season, Mahomes accounted for 456 rushing yards and 10 rushing touchdowns, and in this year's season opener, Mahomes punched the ball into the end zone twice on the ground. Mahomes' ability to extend plays this week will be key against a Sun Devil defense known for its pressure and because the Red Raiders have three new starters along the team's offensive line this season.
"He's (Mahomes) as good as we're going to play against," Graham said. "The best guy in the world is who you're playing next, but this guy, Mahomes is a special quarterback. I think they had the No. 1 passing offense in the country last year, very talented at receiver, three or four new offensive linemen, so they've got a young line, but they've got a really, really experienced quarterback and their system is one that is very true to the Air Raid."
Moeakiola, Latu returning to action
After missing Saturday's contest against Northern Arizona with a hamstring injury, senior safety Laiu Moeakiola has been cleared to play and Graham said he expects Moeakiola to be in the lineup against Texas Tech.
Moeakiola is one of three key defensive players who missed Saturday's game, as senior defensive tackle Viliami Latu and senior linebacker Salamo Fiso were held out of the contest due to disciplinary issues.
Early in the game, junior linebacker Christian Sam suffered an ankle injury, and early in the third quarter, junior linebacker Marcus Ball was disqualified following a targeting penalty. The absences of Sam and Ball meant ASU was without five of its most important defensive players, and Graham gave updates on each of the players after Tuesday's practice.
Latu will definitely be back for Saturday's game, but Graham said he's unsure as to whether Fiso will play. According to NCAA rules, Ball must sit out the first half of the Texas Tech contest, but ASU is hoping that Sam will be available to participate.
Sam arrived at practice Tuesday with heavy tape around his right ankle, and he walked alongside the warmup line at practice. After practice, Graham said the Sun Devils are still unsure about Sam's availability, but will know much more after further evaluations on Wednesday.
News and Notes
- Graham admitted he was nervous about how sophomore quarterback Manny Wilkins would perform in his debut as a starter Saturday, but said anytime a coach inserts a new starting quarterback into the lineup, there's always going to be concern. "I'm not going to say it was oh well, no problem, we weren't worried, you always in a game, you want to, we expected to do what we did the last seven series. You have to give them credit but he was solid."
- When asked whether he thought Wilkins managed the game well, Graham said yes, but qualified the statement by saying he needs quarterbacks to be more than just game managers. "I've been mostly a defensive guy who has made his living off of quarterbacks. So when I talk to them, I talk to them from that standpoint of you can't just manage the game, you've got to make plays and you've got to distribute the ball. Part of managing the game is distributing the ball where it has to be."
- Freshman Kyle Williams is still wearing a white defensive jersey and practicing with the safeties after making his ASU debut in Saturday's contest. Williams played on ASU's kickoff coverage unit and as the second team field safety late in the fourth quarter after spending most of fall camp at wide receiver.
- Long snapper Mitchell Fraboni is still warming up in ASU's injury line, but for the first time since fall camp began, Fraboni was jogging through the injury line instead of walking. Fraboni did not participate in any periods of practice open to the media, but he did offer coaching points to walk-on long snapper Riley John during punting practice.
- Junior safety James Johnson was wearing a green non-contact jersey at practice and continues to wear a knee brace at practice.