Expert Preview: Arizona State vs Texas-San Antonio

Arizona State has an opportunity to improve to 3-0 this season when it plays Conference-USA opponent Texas-San Antonio Friday at the Alamodome. Here's our comprehensive look at UTSA and the matchups.

UTSA offensive scheme

A program still in its nascent stage, Texas-San Antonio's first year of FBS football was 2012, the same year Todd Graham became the head coach at Arizona State. The Roadrunners didn't even play football at all until 2011, when former Miami coach Larry Coker led the team to a 4-6 record as an FCS independent. The following year, UTSA joined the WAC, where it turned in a solid 8-4 effort including 3-3 in the league. 

In 2012, the Roadrunners moved to Conference-USA, a group of five conference in which Louisiana Tech, North Texas, Rice, Southern Miss, and Texas-El Paso are the other members of the Texas-heavy West division. Things started well for Coker in the C-USA, with a 7-5 (6-2) record and tie for second place in the division. It turned for the worse after that though, with increasingly unsuccessful seasons in 2014 (4-8; 3-5) and 2015 (3-9; 3-5) before Coker was forced to retire. 

It didn't appear Coker's terminus at UTSA was his decision alone. He had three years left on his contract and had a month earlier fired then-offensive coordinator Kevin Brown, citing a need to score more points. The Roadrunners were No. 104 nationally in scoring (22.6) and No. 99 in total offense (362.2).

The program's new head coach Frank Wilson took the job after spending six years as LSU’s running backs coach and recruiting coordinator. He's known as one of the country's top recruiters, but having such success at UTSA will of course be a much bigger challenge than at LSU. 

One of Wilson's key hires is offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Frank Scelfo, who has college and NFL experience. Scelfo has been in coaching since the early 1980s, with a background as a longtime high school football coach who eventually became the offensive coordinator at Tulane, and later, coached quarterbacks at Arizona. Scelfo spent 2013-15 coaching quarterbacks and as an offensive assistant with the Jacksonville Jaguars. 

UTSA appears to be trending in the direction of being increasingly multiple in its formations under Scelfo, with personnel being the only thing limiting the program in this regard. Whereas last year the Roadrunners were pretty predictably going to be in a spread 11-personnel set with one running back and one tight end a majority of its downs, that isn't the case this year. 

In the first half of a 23-14 loss to Colorado State last weekend, UTSA showed not only a similar 11-personnel look as last season, but also went into empty spread sets with no backs or receivers on the field, and even some 12-personnel pro-style sets with one back and two tight ends. Scelfo has much more use for tight ends and as he's able to recruit, UTSA will likely take on an increasingly pro-style look schematically. 

The Roadrunners have played two men at quarterback, junior Dalton Sturm and Sam Houston State grad transfer quarterback Jared Johnson. Sturm has received a clear majority of the reps and has completed 73 percent of his 48 passes in two games, with four touchdowns and two interceptions. ASU coach Todd Graham didn't mince words when he called Strum the team's best quarterback earlier this week. 

The Roadrunners are trying to jumpstart an offense that struggled a lot last year and there have been mixed results early in the season. Sturm is a reasonably mobile quarterback who can move the pocket and throw on the run. It's an offense that will primarily throw the ball to its Z (flanker) and H (slot) positions, wide receiver targets, Kerry Thomas and Marquez McNair. Thomas set a program record last season with 52 receptions. Slot receiver Brady Jones is more of a short yardage target, tight end Trevor Stephens is a seam stretcher even out of an attached alignment, and UTSA likes to throw the ball to its backs on flat routes and screens. 

UTSA is winless in seven previous games against FBS schools, including 0-3 against Arizona, 0-3 against Oklahoma State and 0-1 against Kansas State. This game may not be a push over though for Arizona State, as Arizona beat the Roadrunners in San Antonio by a narrow 26-23 margin in a 2014 season that ultimately saw the Wildcats finish 10-4 and first in the Pac-12 South at 7-2. 

UTSA key offensive personnel

Dalton Sturm (No. 14) -- A 6-foot-2, 195-pound junior, Sturm was named the starter in UTSA’s final seven games after former UTSA quarterback Blake Bogenschutz missed the final seven games due to injury. In February, Bogenschutz announced he was forced to retire due to “lingering concussion-like symptoms.” With Bogenschutz out for the latter half of 2015, Sturm went 125-of-212 passing for 1,354 yards and 13 touchdowns in 10 total games played. He's somewhat mobile and can move the pocket, throw on the run and scramble for first-downs. He's been turnover prone at times. 

Kerry Thomas (No. 7) -- Last season was a breakout one for Thomas, as he started all 12 games as a sophomore and finished with a school-record 52 catches for 541 yards and four touchdowns. The Roadrunners will also get the ball to Thomas at his flanker position on swinging bubbles or give it to him on motion sweeps. He's one of the two offensive weapons player on the field they want to get the ball to the most. 

Marquez McNair (No. 4) -- The nephew of former NFL quarterback Steve McNair, Marquez arrived at UTSA this year from the junior college ranks in Mississippi. He immediately jumped into a starting role at the slot position, where he has good length and fluid movement skills at 6-foot-0 and 175 pounds. He was a quarterback in high school and has only really made the transition to wide receiver in the last several years so he's still early in his development, but talented, and he has caught six passes for 88 yards and a touchdown already this year. 

Jarveon Williams (No. 2) -- A sprained left ankle limited Williams in the team's loss to Colorado State last week and it remains to be seen how close he'll be to 100 percent against the Sun Devils. He had just eight carries for 13 yards in that game coming off the bench, a stark contrast to what the 5-foot-9, 200-pound senior was able to accomplish last season, when he became the program's first-ever 1,000-yard rusher with 1,042 yards in just 11 games. A senior, Williams is a preseason C-USA pick. Last season he had just nine catches for 60 yards. 

Jalen Rhodes (No. 28) -- In 2015 one of Rhodes' best games came against Arizona, when he had 78 yards from scrimmage and a touchdown. He played a major role last week as the primary ball carrier with Williams limited, but otherwise has served in a backup capacity. Rhodes has the ability to catch the ball out of the backfield though and it's something ASU is going to have to be aware of. 

Trevor Stephens (No. 87) -- Primarily a blocker last season as a junior, the 6-foot-3, 245-pound Stephens has more ability as a route runner and pass catcher than his offense took advantage of in the past. This year he has more of a role in this regard, with three catches for 47 yards in two games. 

UTSA offensive line -- While UTSA had a pretty good rushing offense last season relative to its peers in C-USA, its passing offense lacked potency and part of the reason was an inability to protect the quarterback. That was equal parts scheme and personnel, but the Roadrunners finished last in the league in sacks against with 44 (3.67 per game). Junior right guard Reed Darraugh is the most established and physical player in the group at 6-foot-4 and 285 pounds. Junior center Juan Perez-Isidoro and left guard Austin Pratt look relatively sound but not athletic, and a little undersized, particularly Pratt as a 6-foot-2 guard. UTSA has two new offensive tackles, with the left side manned by Jovonte Domond, who was at Glendale Community College for a year. Domond went to LSU, didn't play, and graduate-transferred to UTSA.

ASU defense against UTSA offense

The Roadrunners have worked to minimize exposure to negative plays and sacks while also having more offensive potency this season, but it has been a mixed bag. They've moved Sturm around and worked to have him get the ball out more quickly, and built in more personnel groupings and formations for opponents to account for. Even so, this is an offense that can be made to look very limited when it isn't running the football successfully and that's going to be ASU's goal. 

We can expect the Sun Devils to work to bottle up Williams and Rhodes, even if that requires the five-man run pressures Graham has become known for. If ASU can keep UTSA off schedule in its first and second downs, it has more of an opportunity to get its pass rushers at the quarterback in this game than in the previous two games against NAU and Texas Tech. ASU's defensive backs won't have easier opportunities to cover than in this game and so it will be a test to see if they're operating effectively 

UTSA defensive scheme

Just as they are on offense, the Roadrunners are increasingly multiple on defense. They've primarily played out of a 3-3-5 base odd-front set with just three down linemen, three linebackers and five defensive backs. At times, particularly in third and short and goal line situations, they've moved to a 4-2-5 formation, substituting a linebacker for a heavier player who comes in to play with his hand in the dirt at the end position. 

UTSA is very young overall on defense and doesn't have many heavier-bodied players up front, but it has pretty good length and activity level, with multiple 6-foot-4 players and a 6-foot-7 245-pound hybrid end, outside linebacker and pass rusher, junior Marcus Davenport. It also rotates a lot of players along its defensive front to keep players fresh and active. 

First-year defensive coordinator Pete Golding arrived in San Antonio after spending the last two seasons as defensive backs coach at Southern Miss where he was on the same staff as ASU offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey and running backs coach John Simon. 

Before taking the Southern Miss job, Golding had two-year stints as defensive coordinator at Delta State and Southeastern Louisiana, respectively. Upon making the hire, Wilson said Golding uses a scheme that includes "innovative ways to pressure the quarterback." Indeed, in the team's 26-13 win over Alabama State, UTSA had six quarterback sacks, a program record. 

Even though Golding uses a three-man front as the base of his defense, it's not a conservative two-gap scheme. He has his defensive linemen working to attack gaps out of odd-numbered alignments, with a nose tackle who usually shades off the center's shoulder and defensive ends who play from a 5-technique alignment.

It's an approach with some advantages and drawbacks. The Roadrunners are most varied and unpredictable with how they choose to rush four and pressure with five and six blitzes. It's tougher to prepare for in that respect from a protections standpoint for opposing offensive lines. But it also puts a lot of demands on the team's inside linebackers to cancel out gaps, and also do so while frequently taking on linemen who have been unblocked releasing to the second level. 

A defensive backs coach by trade, Wilson has no problem putting his cornerbacks into man coverage situations at the line of scrimmage on early downs. It's a natural byproduct of having a system that is pressure-oriented, and can work effectively when the coverage and run stopping ability are both working in sync. When either of those things isn't, however, the whole system can get unbalanced and on its heels in a hurry as play action shots down the field become more accessible. 

UTSA key defensive personnel

Braylen Baker (No. 99) -- A redshirt freshman, the 6-foot-4, 285-pounder from Abilene, Texas, is going to be critically important to UTSA's run defense at the point of attack. He's not going to get many tackles or sacks as a product of the scheme and his position and role in it, but Baker needs to anchor the team's interior run defense going against ASU's center A.J. McCollum, and McCollum will look to physically manhandle Baker. 

Marcus Davenport (No. 93) -- UTSA's best attacking weapon, Davenport is 6-foot-7 and 245 pounds and frequently plays from a 2-point stance as a dedicated pass rusher. He has seven tackles on the season and is tied for the team lead with two sacks. He doesn't have great speed on the edge but his length is problematic for offensive tackles because of how he's able to win the hands battle, so this will take a lot of skill for ASU's players to manage, and in particular an opportunity to evaluate right tackle Quinn Bailey. Davenport started 11 games last year, and had 7.5 tackles for loss and four sacks. 

Josh Tauaefa (No. 55) -- A 6-foot-1, 230 pound MIKE 'backer, Tauaefa is just a redshirt freshman playing the first college ball of his career. He's done fine so far, with a team-high 22 tackles including two for loss and two quarterback sacks. He's a key player to watch as ASU will look at get interior offensive linemen to him to block in the run game, and also UTSA will bring Tauaefa on A-gap linebacker pops as a fifth pass rusher at times. 

Michael Egwuagu (No. 8) -- Perhaps UTSA's most experienced defensive player, Edwuagu plays the Lion strong safety position, which often operates in the box and usually on the boundary side unless UTSA is playing a more conservative zone shell, in which he'll sometimes be back. At 6-foot-0 and 220 pounds, Edwagagu is a preseason C-USA pick. He had 62 tackles last season with three interceptions and eight pass breakups. 

Nate Gaines (No. 11) -- A 6-foot-2, 200 pound junior free safety, Gains finished third on the team with 76 tackles last season and had three interceptions with nine pass breakups. He is relied on in a variety of coverage assignments, from man to middle responsibility in zone Cover 3 looks. He has had to make a lot of saving tackles in run support in the last year for the Roadrunners after backs have moved through the linebacker level and should again be tested in this regard against ASU. 

ASU offense against UTSA defense

The Sun Devils should be able to attack UTSA early in the run game and wear on the Roadrunners at the point of attack. While UTSA has pretty good activity level up front with active hands and an aggressive approach, it is physically out-matched by the Sun Devils, and the odd-front one-gap scheme is one that can be negated by an offensive line that should be licking its chops for this opportunity. 

UTSA tends to aggressively attack, but that's mitigated by a strong run-pass option play-calling strategy that stresses the adjuster to account for the quarterback while the running back can bludgeon a defense like this on inside runs. That's what we can expect to see, with a healthy dose of juniors Demario Richard and Kalen Ballage unless the Roadrunners decide to sell out and bring its safety alignments up tighter to the line of scrimmage with man coverage on the perimeter. That would give some opportunities for perimeter bubbles to be turned into big gainers. 

Prediction

No matter what UTSA does, with overmatched personnel it really shouldn't be able to significantly curb ASU's ability to put points on the scoreboard, even with a conservative approach to play calling. If the Sun Devils don't at least sniff 40 points it would be a big surprise just given what it should be able to do in the run game against a team that struggled to handle Colorado State's rushing attack early last week. This is another game in which sophomore quarterback Manny Wilkins won't need to do much other than what's given to him via the run-pass option spectrum of ASU's playbook. He won't need to cycle through progressions or hold the ball to find an open receiver. 

Defensively this is a ripe opportunity for ASU to see if it can be better with coverage assignments and overall schematic integrity. Can it execute the more conservative Cover 3 and Cover 4 shells without being exploited in the gaps? Will it be able to finally get more quarterback sacks and hurries when UTSA is in situations the require Sturm to hold the football longer? Does the defensive front totally shut down the run? This is an opportunity for ASU to have a big day defensively, but I anticipate there will still be some gaffes in the secondary. In our premium podcast I had UTSA scoring a bit more than my final game prediction, which is ASU 45, UTSA 20.


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