It was just his first start so that has to be considered but sophomore Manny Wilkins is going to need to improve steadily and significantly for Arizona State's offense to have enough balance and big play potency in the passing game for to be successful in the Pac-12 in 2016. ASU head coach Todd Graham did his best to frame the conversation in a positive way for Wilkins by saying that former quarterback Mike Bercovici's first start was also shaky. But that was against UCLA and this was Northern Arizona, so that's a big difference.
Offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey shrunk things down for Wilkins to put him a good position to be successful, and that's fine against an FCS opponent. He's not going to be able to do that in subsequent weeks and probably even against Texas Tech this Saturday, when the Sun Devils could need a lot of points to win. Lindsey said that Wilkins maintained his composure and had good body language, but those aren't areas of concerns about Wilkins to begin with. His intangibles are good. But he missed open receiver progressions, in particular the skinny post -- often called a bang-8 route -- that was open on multiple occasion.
Wilkins' throws were mostly run replacements and quick game, but accessing big play opportunities was an issue and Wilkins was spotty with read option decision making, pre-snap identification cues on where to deliver the football and why, and his platform mechanics as a thrower.
No problems here for the Sun Devils but the real question is whether they'll have an offensive line and quarterback that allows the tandem of Demario Richard and Kalen Ballage to excel. The Lumberjacks brought eight men into the box and Lindsey and Graham were determined to smash the ball into a numbers disadvantage in order to wear the defense down. That worked, and ASU put points on the board consistently with its late game drives.
There was a glaring absence of targets to the tight end position in this game from the Sun Devils and no catches. How much of that was the defense they were playing? How much was Lindsey? How much was Wilkins? How much was the tight ends themselves? It's probably a combination of all of those things to some degree but Lindsey put two tight ends on the field a fair amount in 12 personnel, and in fact probably more than he's ever done as a play caller. It also comes back to decisions made by a play-caller because of his personnel at quarterback, and then the quarterback identifying opportunities. From a blocking standpoint this game was a mixed bag. Senior Kody Kohl told us he had some good blocks and felt like he was more powerful on the field, but that in instances that called for more finesse he at times was overly aggressive in a way that hampered his execution and we felt that was very honest self-assessment. Kohl had a great down block on a rushing touchdown with Lindsey comfortable using bookend tight ends and Wilkins under center near the goal line. Also, Kohl and junior Raymond Epps were ahead and blocking on the first career touchdown to freshman wide receiver N'Keal Harry, and both were flexed out on the play in trips, a sign of the versatility of the players and how they can be used.
We knew coming into this game that senior Tim White was poised to have a big season in the slot role and that was demonstrated with his nine catch, 95 yard performance. He had twice as many receptions and three times as many yards as anyone else on the team, which is a sign of two things: the obvious thing it shows is that he's going to be the feature target in this offense and a safer target for Wilkins because a lot of the throws will be more near-area passes; it also demonstrates that accessing bigger play opportunities could be a challenge for the personnel and particularly at the quarterback position. White, though, was stepping out of and around tackles and seems poised for a huge season.
True freshman N'Keal Harry became just the second true freshman to score a touchdown in his first game as a Sun Devil. He finished second on the team with four catches for 31 yards and also had a lateral catch that went into the books as a run and it resulted in a 34 yard touchdown. So he had a total of five touches and 65 yards in his debut, which was very solid. ASU didn't target him into the boundary on any types of fades and we'll have to see how much that's incorporated in subsequent weeks because it should be a big part of the offense.
We didn't see junior Cameron Smith or sophomore Jalen Harvey flat out run past the defense on the field side but there were several missed big play opportunities, either just not seen or not connected on. Junior Ellis Jefferson didn't play hardly any role at all, which was an interesting development, but perhaps expected in light of Harry passing him for the starting nod in the last several weeks.
It may sound boring but perhaps the most impressive thing about this group was the blocking we saw on the perimeter from Harvey, Harry and Smith. We cited this as signifiant in several wrap-up analysis pieces and then Lindsey echoed our perspective in his post-game obit following Wednesday's practice. That has the potential to really take a lot of pressure off Wilkins and a young offensive line. If receivers and tight ends do a good job blocking on the perimeter it expands the playbook and can stretch a defense laterally so that it's easier to run the football inside and take more big play shots.
An inexperienced group that looked it last Saturday against Northern Arizona, ASU's offensive line will need to take a major jump forward in its overall play in weeks to come in order to help take pressure off its quarterback and also allow Lindsey to play to the offense's strengths at running back. Opponents are going to bring a lot at the ASU offensive front in terms of loading the box and pressures, and try to make Wilkins beat them with his arm. So it's already a challenge to begin with but that's even more reason why the line has to work effectively.
At center, senior Stephon McCray had a performance that left something to be desire. He has good flexion, but he's more of an angle and leverage blocker than a power player. That's a better guard skill set than center, where brute force is needed to move the defensive tackle in the A-gap. ASU coaches are looking this week at moving McCray out of the starting lineup entirely in favor of junior A.J. McCollum or perhaps shifting him to guard and moving sophomore Quinn Bailey to right tackle if redshirt freshman Zach Robertson is unable to play due to a gimpy left ankle. There's even a possibility McCray doesn't get the start at guard and ASU inserts redshirt freshman Steve Miller.
There were too many orthodox plays in which defensive linemen and came free through the 'A' and 'B' gaps in ASU's pass protections, which was a bit alarming. They didn't tend to be exotic overload pops or stunts, and there will be much stiffer challenges in subsequent weeks both from an athletic standpoint and also schematically. Senior left tackle Evan Goodman had some great reps but also was spotty on protections and Robertson didn't handle speed rushes on the edge particularly well even from players not on the same level as the Pac-12 rush ends ASU will face this season. The reliance on quick game made things easier on the ASU offensive line but even so this was a mediocre unveiling that will need a lot of tinkering.
A big challenge here was the absence due to suspension of senior pocket compressor Viliami Latu at defensive tackle and what challenges that brought to a front that doesn't have a lot of experienced depth at the position. It provided an opportunity for redshirt freshman George Lea to show what he could do in a starting capacity and also sophomore Renell Wren on the interior as a flex weapon who can move between end and tackle. Lea didn't directly make many plays but he served as a functional cog who held ground and Wren had four tackles including two for loss -- one of which was a missed blocking assignment in the A-gap that led to an easy tackle of a running back. But Wren's playing with improved pad level and a better motor so he's taken a step toward realizing some of his immense potential.
What a lot of fans and reporters took from this game was the absence of negative plays generated by the Sun Devils' defensive front. Part of that was due to a much more conservative approach to blocking, and another big factor was NAU's frequent seven man protections when it did attempt longer passes down the field. Other than that, there was a lot of quick game throws that got the ball out of the quarterback's hand quickly. But that isn't to that there were no opportunities for sophomore Joseph Wicker to make plays and Wicker is expected to take a big leap forward this year and be among the top defensive ends in the Pac-12. Wicker did have five tackles but none went for a loss, and he had no sacks. That's going to have to change for the Sun Devils moving forward.
There were some interesting things we saw from a coaching standpoint, particularly the move of Alani Latu inside on nickel situations at tackle, where he had a tough time on a third and seven double team which saw NAU run for the first down. Junior Koron Crump started at Devil backer but was a limited use player who had one tackle -- which went for a loss -- split time with others on the field, an indication that he's not ready to be an every-down player, as we suspected since he arrived on campus. He'll need to keep getting bigger and stronger and working to develop against the run. It was also a pretty quiet night for starting 3-technique tackle Tashon Smallwood, who had four tackles and did close down to the football well on a few occasions, but didn't flash into the backfield much.
With senior Salamo Fiso suspended to start the season ASU already didn't have one of its top linebackers and then lost junior Christian Sam on a dangerous play in which he was chop blocked on his right lower leg. Sam only had one tackle before that play and was pretty quiet on his reps, but we know he's capable of playing very effectively when healthy, as is the case with Fiso. But it looks like neither will be playing against Texas Tech, which is probably the best opponent to have that be the case since Fiso rarely plays on nickel downs anyway and isn't well suited to the Air Raid style.
With Fiso and Sam out, ASU relied heavily on junior D.J. Calhoun who is ostensibly a third starter-quality inside linebacker even though he's only primarily played on nickel downs in the past outside of some Spur reps as a freshman. Calhoun led the Sun Devils with seven tackles, one of which went for loss, and NAU averaged a net 1.6 yards rushing so it wasn't able to do much through the heart of the defense.
At Spur, junior Marcus Ball was playing reasonably well before he was disqualified for a targeting foul that will keep him out of the first half against Texas Tech. This was the best we've seen Ball from an assignment integrity standpoint. He was more quickly recognizing and reacting to plays than in the past and usually was getting to where he needed to be on the field. One issue that he had was breaking down at the point of the tackle with good fundamentals. It's one thing getting to the location on time and another challenge to bring down the player with the football in the open field. He missed a couple of opportunities, which would have made a good performance really good or even great. Ball had three tackles, one of which was for loss. When Ball was out, sophomore Tyler Whiley didn't immediately get into the flow of things and had some breakdowns that will need to be addressed as ASU moves to an opponent that will challenge Whiley and the ASU secondary much more. Whiley is one of the key players to watch in this coming game.
The Cover 3 look we saw early in camp but weren't able to precisely disclose was on display in the opener. It's a departure from the style we've seen from Todd Graham and the ASU defense to this point in his tenure and perhaps an acknowledgement that the team doesn't have the personnel to play as much Cover 0 and Cover 1 as we've seen from it in the past. You need great coverage safeties and cornerbacks to handle the most aggressive man free across or single high zone coverages and that's been a question about this team after its poor passing defense last season.
We saw impressive run support -- six tackles including one for loss -- from sophomore Armand Perry in his return to the field and Perry is capable of handling the middle third of the field in zone. Without senior Laiu Moeakiola due to a hamstring injury, junior Chad Adams got the start and had three tackles but there was a play-making element that wasn't there. Junior J'Marcus Rhodes split the reps at Bandit had showed a physical edge with more length and versatility than Adams, particularly on one of the game's most violent hits in which his form could have been better. But Rhodes had four tackles and should get increased opportunity.
At cornerback, sophomore Kareem Orr was really good at getting off blocks on the perimeter and making plays with physicality. It's one of the reasons he tied for the team-high with seven tackles. There were some shaky moments and undisciplined plays as well, including two off-sides and a clear-cut hold. But Orr has all the talent to play the position at a very high level and he's just got to have pure technique on his reps.
Senior De'Chavon Hayes was pretty solid overall in coverage but had a tendency to lose receivers at the conclusions of reps down the field, which is a potentially ominous sign given this week's opponent. He can probably do the job as long as it's stripped down for him with the reads and communication, but there will be big play miscues, both physically and mentally. Senior Bryson Echols was beaten over the top in a coverage in which it shouldn't happen and that could cost him playing reps. True freshman Robbie Robinson played a half dozen reps on nickel but is going to get a much bigger test of readiness this week.