As Arizona State quarterback Manny Wilkins took hit after hit against Utah in a 49-26 loss, the inexperience of the Sun Devils' sophomore signal-caller and an offensive line decimated due to injury were revealed in full.
The Sun Devils’ starting offensive against the Utes featured senior left tackle Evan Goodman, redshirt freshman left guard Steve Miller, walk-on junior center Tyler McClure, sophomore right guard Quinn Bailey and redshirt freshman right tackle Zach Robertson. Of the five starters up front for ASU, only Goodman had notched more than 10 starts in his career prior to the Sun Devils' meeting with the Utes.
A unit missing three of its five starters allowed a season-high 11 sacks to an aggressive Utah front seven, and that performance vaulted ASU to the top of the Pac-12 in sacks allowed as the Sun Devils have now surrendered 33 this season.
“No, not really,” offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey said when asked if he was worried about the offensive line’s recent play. “We gave up some sacks, but you’ve got to remember only four of them are really on the O-line. The quarterback’s got to do his job, throw the ball away.”
On many occasions, Wilkins tried to make something out of nothing when pressure came at him, but that strategy often backfired. Wilkins recorded 17 rushing attempts against Utah, 11 of which counted as sacks, and finished the evening with minus-42 rushing yards.
Lindsey points to Wilkins’ lack of game experience as a contributing factor in the quarterback's decision-making process, and said that Wilkins' desire to scramble hurt the Sun Devils on a handful of plays against Utah.
“When you run around and make a play, great,” Lindsey said. “Then, when you run around out of bounds and take a sack, it’s not so great. It’s not necessarily the O-line’s fault, so we’ve got to do a good job there. And then running backs also part of protection, it’s not always just the O-line. At the same time, those are mistakes we’re learning from. There’s been games we’ve done really well, it’s just sometimes when you play good people things happen a little faster than you’re probably used to.”
With a mobile but inexperienced quarterback to protect, ASU's offensive line has faced its fair share of challenges throughout the season. Aside from having to protect Wilkins and pave holes for the Sun Devils' running backs, ASU's offensive line has been forced to cope with frequent personnel rotations.
Senior guard Stephon McCray, junior center A.J. McCollum and sophomore guard Sam Jones have all missed important playing time in recent weeks, and that has forced offensive line coach Chris Thomsen to shuffle personnel up front in an attempt to find the best possible combination.
“I think our O-line is what they are,” Lindsey said. “They’re a young group who’s missing a couple of guys that’s struggling. When you play good teams, that happens. We’ve got to do a better job of helping them out all of the way around, the quarterback, running back.”
Last year, the Pac-12's First Team All-Conference offensive line featured USC’s Zach Banner (Junior), Washington State’s Joe Dahl (Senior), Stanford’s Joshua Garnett (Senior), Oregon’s Tyler Johnstone (Senior), and Stanford’s Kyle Murphy (Senior).
In 2014, the conference's first team unit listed three seniors and two juniors while in 2013, the first team group was anchored by two seniors and three juniors.
The last two sophomores to be featured on the All-Pac-12 team on the offensive line were UCLA’s Xavier Su’a-Filo and Oregon’s Hronnis Grassu in 2012.
While ASU began the season with a pair of seniors in Goodman and McCray up front, the Sun Devils were forced to play a sophomore, a pair of redshirt freshman and a walk-on against Utah last week, and the lack of repetitions ASU's players had under their belts became obvious.
This season, ASU has used at least five different combinations of starters along the offensive line, where the the lack of cohesiveness has been evident. Lindsey said if the Sun Devils were able to secure bowl eligibility in their final two games, it would go a long way toward building the confidence of the younger linemen who have been called upon to take on larger roles early in their careers.
“No question,” Lindsey said. “The offensive line last year, when I was here for the bowl game, was an experienced group. They had already been through their ups and downs, so to speak. There was still times where they struggled, too, so it’s one of those things where our guys just got to get more reps. Obviously staying healthy is always important, and I’m excited about that group as a unit. I think we got 10 or 11 guys that can play, which is good. Just got to get more reps and get guys back healthy.”
With many of ASU's current starters now learning on the fly, the Sun Devils have a golden opportunity in front of them to secure up to 15 additional practices by becoming bowl-eligible. That’s why Lindsey sees notching at least one win in ASU's final two road contests of the season as a crucial building block toward next season and beyond.
News and notes
- McCray was out of a green jersey at practice on Wednesday, but still had his ankle heavily taped up. McCray missed Thursday's game against Utah after being hurt on the first play against Oregon, but did participate in individual drills and with the second team offense during an 11-on-air tempo drill.
- Wilkins practiced for the second day in a row with his ankles heavily taped, but went through warmups and ASU's tempo period normally. Wilkins led the first team offense during the 11-on-air drill.
- Neither junior linebacker Christian Sam or sophomore wide receiver Jalen Harvey were at practice during the media viewing period Wednesday. Sam has not practiced since the first week of the season while Harvey had heavy tape around his ankle during Tuesday's practice.
- Jones continued to walk through ASU's injury line during warmups and went over to work at Muscle Beach during the Sun Devils' individual and team periods.
- Senior linebacker Salamo Fiso arrived at practice Wednesday with a noticeable limp and with a brace on his left knee, but did not have tape on his knee and participated in various individual drills.
- Redshirt freshman defensive tackle George Lea wore a bulky brace on his right knee and walked gingerly during warmups. Lea also went over to Muscle Beach during the individual and team periods.