As Arizona State's run game continues to struggle with production, a youthful offensive line's quest for improvement grew more challenging after the Sun Devils lost one of their interior anchors.
Sophomore left guard Sam Jones watched practices Tuesday and Wednesday with a boot on his right foot, following an injury on the final play against Colorado. In Jones' absence this week, ASU looked at redshirt freshman tackle Zach Robertson with the first-team offense to examine whether his presence could help the Sun Devils find stability up front.
“Oh, yeah, most definitely,” Robertson said. “I feel like this is my chance to reestablish myself back on the starting group. Just make sure, if anything happens, just give it my all and whatever happens — if I stay on the first team or if I go back — it’s whatever.”
This week, ASU had senior right guard Stephon McCray switch over to the left side, as he’s had experience playing both guard positions during his career. Sophomore right tackle Quinn Bailey kicked inside to right guard into McCray’s spot, while Robertson assumed Bailey's spot at right tackle.
“I feel like we’re prepared,” Thomsen said. “Those guys have had tons of reps. Those guys that we’re talking about have been in our program now for a year and a half, so it’s not like you have a rookie or freshman going out there. That’s just football. Guys get banged up, the next guy’s just got to come. Fortunately, we’ve got guys who have been in our program and know our system, so going out there and the guys who don’t know what they’re doing. I’m excited, if other guys do get an opportunity. I’m excited to see them play.”
If Jones, who is doubtful to play Saturday, doesn't end up suiting up, it will be an even tougher task for the Sun Devils to try and reestablish a ground presence they’ve searched for desperately.
First-year offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey believes ASU is still looking for a perfect combination of linemen to gel together up front, but Lindsey and Thomsen still believe ASU's line is well prepared to handle the loss of Jones heading into a crucial Pac-12 battle.
“Yeah, I think they’ve adjusted pretty well,” Lindsey said. “Fortunately, Chris (Thomsen) has moved some guys around giving them some experience in different spots so we’ve got to continue to find out the best combination I guess is the best way to say it with these guys. We’re still hopeful Sam (Jones) will get back, but at the same time we’ve got to be prepared in case he doesn’t.”
After only registering 199 total yards of offense in ASU’s 40-16 loss, 37 yards of which came on junior running back Demario Richard's lone scamper from ASU's “Sparky” formation, the ground game was limited to 13 yards on 27 carries. Not only that, but the last three weeks, the Sun Devils’ once-dynamic ground attack has been limited to an average of only 68 yards per game against USC, UCLA and Colorado.
Because of injuries at ASU's quarterback position, Pac-12 defenses have continuously stacked the box against the Sun Devils, but senior left tackle Evan Goodman said that is no excuse for the offensive woes of late.
“No, it’s just more blitzes,” Goodman said of what the offensive line has seen from defenses. “Just bringing more people in the box, but that’s no excuse for us to not run the ball. We still have to run the ball efficiently.”
Lindsey, who had ASU’s rushing attack humming for the first month of the season, is creatively looking for ways to try and resurrect the rushing game against Washington State on Saturday.
The Sun Devils’ offensive coordinator points to the early success the Sun Devils had due to their powerful running attack spearheaded by Richard, junior Kalen Ballage and even sophomore quarterback Manny Wilkins in run-pass option reads early on this season. With Wilkins limited, the sputtering rushing attack has had to look for alternative ways to produce yards, and ultimately, points.
“Yeah, it has,” Lindsey said. “We were successful early on, because we were able to run the ball. Looking back, the way we ran it, Manny (Wilkins) made a lot of those plays, but at the same time when he made those plays it allowed us to use our running backs better. Bottom line is we’ve got to continue to work and improve in that area. Running the ball, I think that’s what makes the offense go.”
An area where the Sun Devils have struggled offensively is on first down, which has consistently put them into second and third and long situations, forcing them to be rather one-dimensional.
"I mean it all presents challenges," Lindsey said. "When you can’t run the ball, it’s tough. So, we’ve got to do a better job definitely on first down. Whatever we’re doing, running or throwing, and get ourselves in some good down and distances.”
When analyzing ASU's recent struggles along the offensive line, Thomsen didn't cite one particular issue, but did suggest a need for overall improvement in each phase of blocking.
Whether it be getting to the second level, maintaining blocks or securing running lanes, the Sun Devils’ offense believes it is capable of improving its overall abilities on the ground.
“Just a combination of a lot of things, but bottom line up front we’ve got to do better,” Thomsen said. “We’ve got to do better getting on blocks, staying on blocks, giving our backs a chance to make plays. We just haven’t done that consistently, so at the end of the day that’s on us.”