Eve Craig/SunDevilSource

Revisiting the three key questions ASU faced entering 2016

At the beginning of the season, SunDevilSource posed three key questions Arizona State would need to answer if it wanted to meet and or exceed expectations in 2016. Now that the season is over, SunDevilSource is evaluating how effectively ASU answered those questions.

From the outset of the 2016 season, Arizona State faced a significant number of question marks because of personnel turnover and staffing changes that provided a major shakeup within the Sun Devils' program.

Entering Todd Graham's fifth season with the program, ASU was coming off of Graham's first sub .500 season in Tempe and was forced to replace a starting quarterback, four starting offensive linemen and five assistant coaches.

At the start of ASU's fall camp, SunDevilSource posed three key questions that the program would need to provide satisfactory answers to if it wanted to avoid a final record reflective of a team experiencing major turnover.

After a second consecutive sub. 500 season that culminated with a final mark of 5-7 and six consecutive losses, it's clear ASU didn't answer many of the most pressing questions the program faced heading into this season.

Still, the manner in which ASU would answer SunDevilSource's three key questions would help provide a broader perspective of the direction of the program moving forward, and give a better sense of how equipped ASU is to handle future seasons under Graham.

With that in mind, SunDevilSource is revisiting the three key questions and evaluating the way ASU answered them in 2016.

Who will the quarterback be and will he be ready to play effectively in the Pac-12? 

For the first time since Graham's first season at ASU, the Sun Devils held an open quarterback competition to determine the starter at the position for the 2016 season.

When former offensive coordinator Mike Norvell departed ASU to accept the Memphis head coaching job this offseason, Graham made hiring an offensive coordinator who had a proven track record of developing quarterbacks a priority. Prior to the Sun Devils' bowl game last season, Graham settled on Southern Mississippi offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey, who would assume Norvell's previous roles as both offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach.

With an entire slate of spring practices and fall camp to work with, Graham and Lindsey entertained a three-way competition for the starting job held among sophomore Manny Wilkins, redshirt freshman Brady White and redshirt freshman Bryce Perkins. Even though four-star recruit and 2016 signee Dillon Sterling-Cole arrived on campus in time for fall camp, the Sun Devils never considered Sterling-Cole a competitor for the starting job.

After a neck injury sidelined Perkins during the first week of fall practices, the competition was whittled down to Wilkins and White, a pair of former four-star recruits with varying skill sets. 

Leading up to ASU's season-opener against Northern Arizona, Graham declared Wilkins the Sun Devils' starter, and didn't leave much wiggle room for White to continue competing for the job during the regular season.

With Wilkins under center, ASU jumped out to a 4-0 start, as the sophomore signal-caller earned victories over Northern Arizona, Texas Tech, Texas San-Antonio and Cal. Even though ASU was averaging more than 48 points per game through its first four contests, it was uncertain whether Wilkins would be able to sustain the Sun Devils' offensive explosiveness as the schedule became more difficult.

Nevertheless, as we noted prior to the season, it's nearly impossible to compete for a division title in the Pac-12 without competent quarterback play, and entering the month of October, Wilkins gave the Sun Devils hope that his play would at least stack up to middle of the road quarterbacks in the conference.

After four games, Wilkins had completed 84-of-125 attempts (67.2 percent) for 1,085 yards and five touchdowns. Still, Wilkins had three interceptions and had demonstrated a propensity to throw too many jeopardy balls because of his tendency to lock in on receivers early in routes and his failure to see whole-field concepts.

During the first month of the season, Wilkins also demonstrated a competent ability to tuck and run, but lacked the ability to keep his eyes downfield and extend plays through the air with his feet. After four games, Wilkins ranked as the team's third leading rusher behind juniors Kalen Ballage and Demario Richard, as Wilkins entered October averaging 4.7 yards per carry.

On Oct. 1, the Sun Devils' momentum came to a screeching halt in a 41-20 loss against USC in Los Angeles. While ASU suffered its first setback of the year against the Trojans, Wilkins suffered a personal setback that impacted his play and development for the remainder of the season.

Late in the second quarter, Wilkins took off scrambling and suffered a high ankle sprain that sidelined him for the duration of the game and kept him out against UCLA the following week. The ankle sprain was the first in a series of injuries Wilkins would incur over the final two months of the year, and the injuries stripped him of valuable and necessary practice repetitions.

With Wilkins out against the Bruins, White made his first career start and began to showcase a developing handle on ASU's offense in a critical 17-point third quarter. White finished the night completing 19-of-36 passes for 179 yards, but also finished the night prematurely as he suffered a devastating foot injury late in the fourth quarter that forced the Sun Devils to burn the redshirt of Sterling-Cole.

ASU held on for a 23-20 victory over UCLA, but Oct. 8 would be the final time the Sun Devils found themselves in the win column as underwhelming quarterback play hindered offensive progress for the remainder of the season.

With Sterling-Cole unprepared to start and Wilkins severely hampered by his ankle injury, Graham and Lindsey elected to start Wilkins in the team's next two games against Colorado and Washington State.

Against the Buffaloes, Wilkins completed just 13-of-35 passes for 149 yards, as his limited mobility allowed the Buffaloes to sack him five times in a 40-16 loss.

Wilkins didn't make it out of the first quarter against Washington State, as he suffered a shoulder injury that forced Sterling-Cole into the lineup for the most extensive action of his career to date.

Wilkins' ankle and shoulder injuries, in addition to a bout with turf toe, kept the first-year starter off the field against Oregon, and kept him out of full-contact practices for the remainder of the regular season. In a year pivotal for Wilkins' development, ASU's starting quarterback rarely practiced at full speed, and didn't receive the necessary opportunities to develop the type of situational awareness required of effective Power 5 conference quarterbacks. 

After starting the year with potential, Wilkins ended up completing 197-of-311 passes (63 percent) for 2,329 yards, an average of 232.9 yards per game. Wilkins' touchdown to interception ratio of 12:9 left him far behind the conference's best passers, and his 133.2 efficiency rating ranked sixth in the Pac-12 at the end of the regular season.

Perhaps most telling, for a quarterback who began the season with 263 rushing yards through his team's first four games, Wilkins finished the year with 246 rushing yards as his limited mobility and indecisiveness in the pocket against superior competition forced Wilkins into taking more sacks than any other starter in the conference.

Of the five quarterbacks with a better efficiency rating than Wilkins, four of those quarterbacks (Jake Browning, Luke Falk, Sefo Liufau, Sam Darnold) led their teams to at least eight wins in the regular season, while three of those quarterbacks still have the potential to play in New Year's Six bowl games.

While Wilkins statistically outperformed a handful of Pac-12 signal-callers like UCLA's Mike Fafaul and Arizona's Brandon Dawkins, most of the quarterbacks ranked behind Wilkins at the end of the season were backups forced into starting roles due to injuries or poor play.

By the end of the regular season, Wilkins' injury limitations prevented him from receiving enough practice opportunities to grow and develop into an effective, decisive Pac-12 quarterback. Because none of the four quarterbacks ASU began the season with on the depth chart demonstrated a convincing command of the Sun Devils' offense this fall, it's very possible ASU will once again entertain an open competition at the position this offseason.

Can ASU rebound from a catastrophic failing of its passing defense in 2015?

New personnel, new defensive backs coach, same catastrophic failure.

A season after posting one of the worst marks in college football history by allowing 337.8 yards per game through the air, the Sun Devils managed to regress against the pass.

If not for a three-completion, 77-yard effort through the air by the Arizona Wildcats in ASU's final game of the regular season, a game in which Arizona rushed for a school record 511 yards, the Sun Devils almost certainly would have finished with the worst pass defense in FBS history.

Instead, the Cal Bears' 2014 mark of 366.7 yards per game stands alone in the record books, but the Sun Devils' 2016 average of 357.4 passing yards allowed per game gave the Bears' record a serious chase.

Last season, Graham attributed ASU's struggles to injuries in the secondary, which included key personnel losses of safety Armand Perry, who suffered a season-ending injury in the Sun Devils' second game, and safety Jordan Simone, who tore a knee ligament in mid-November.

With a pair of senior starters at cornerback in 2015, though, the Sun Devils' catastrophic pass defense was inexcusable, and the team's ill-preparedness to handle injuries foreshadowed the struggles ASU would face in 2016.

Without depth on the roster to withstand one key injury last year, what would happen to ASU when it needed to replace three of its four starters in the secondary? 

After hiring former NFL defensive back T.J. Rushing to replace assistant coach Chris Ball, who departed to take the defensive coordinator position at Memphis, Graham set out to stockpile various options in the secondary.

In its 2016 signing class, ASU added a pair of junior college transfers, safety J'Marcus Rhodes and cornerback Maurice Chandler, as well as freshmen defensive backs Chase Lucas and Robbie Robinson. Additionally, Graham attempted to bolster the secondary by moving senior Spur linebacker Laiu Moeakiola back to Bandit safety, a position he played earlier in his career before becoming a starter at Spur.

Aside from providing the Sun Devils with more options in the defensive backfield, Graham also began fall camp by introducing more zone coverages. 

In 2015, many of ASU's failures could be traced back to Graham's insistence on playing Cover 0 or Cover 1 shells that forced less athletic defensive backs to attempt to handle one-on-one situations at the back end of the Sun Devils' defense. With larger, less rangy cornerbacks like Lloyd Carrington and Kweishi Brown on the field, ASU didn't have the requisite athletes it needed to play coverages that demanded speed and quick-twitch athleticism to handle man-on-man conflicts in the open field.

From the outset of the 2016 season, though, ASU appeared confident it could limit opponents' passing attacks by mixing in more conservative zone coverages and dialing down the pressure-based calls Graham became accustomed to running during his first four seasons with the program.

While the strategy appeared sound in theory, ASU's defensive backs failed to adjust to the Sun Devils' updated scheme and appeared to be caught in between for most of the season.

If Graham pressured and ASU played man coverages, the Sun Devils were susceptible to giving up explosive plays, especially on short check down routes that required sound open field tackling. According to Pro Football Focus, ASU had the worst tackling team in the country, missing on 19.5 percent of attempts. Those misses were apparent on long touchdown passes, like JuJu Smith-Schuster's 67-yard catch and run against the Sun Devils in their 41-20 loss to USC, and the 74-yard touchdown reception by Cal running back Tre Watson in ASU's 51-41 win over the Bears.

If Graham called for ASU to rush four to give the Sun Devils' an opportunity to play a conservative zone, the Sun Devils were equally susceptible to giving up explosive plays. 

There's no shortage of examples to cite of long touchdowns the Sun Devils allowed this season, but unlike 2015 when most of the Sun Devils' struggles came exclusively in man coverage situations, there's also no shortage of ways in which opponents gashed ASU this season.

During ASU's six-game losing streak to end the season, Graham consistently pointed to missed assignments or communication breakdowns as the underlying theme behind an opponent's touchdown.

After a 49-26 drubbing at the hands of Utah on Nov. 10, a stunned Graham couldn't even find a reason why the Sun Devils were suffering so many catastrophic breakdowns.

"The plan was to keep everything inside and in front," Graham said. "We line up and blow three coverages. We were supposed to be playing off and we were playing bump and that’s our responsibility. I don’t understand how that happens, but you know, our goal going into the game was keep the ball in front of us. We played Cover 4 most of the night so that was frustrating. We just played very poorly on the backend." 

In the season's final month, ASU's defenders were frequently caught freelancing and playing out of position. Even against an Arizona team that hardly attempted to disguise a bubble screen in the first half of the Territorial Cup, two of ASU's most experienced defenders, Perry and Moeakiola, completely blew a coverage and chased after a receiver in the flat, allowing a wide open Nate Phillips to go uncovered up the seam on a 64-yard touchdown reception. 

How did the efforts to load up on personnel in the secondary pan out for ASU? Obviously, not well.

Rhodes finished the season behind career reserves Chad Adams and James Johnson in the Sun Devils' safety rotation, while Chandler spent much of the year battling nagging injuries that left him in an open competition with a converted running back, senior De'Chavon Hayes, for cornerback reps. 

As for Robinson and Lucas, the former played sparingly as a nickel cornerback, which calls into question ASU's decision to burn his redshirt, while the latter, ASU's most highly ranked defensive back recruit in 2016, ended up preserving his redshirt through the entire season.

Moeakiola, meanwhile, didn't last into conference play as the team's Bandit safety, as the Sun Devils needed his consistency and ability to dissect plays immediately back at Spur linebacker. While the tradeoff netted the secondary junior Marcus Ball, who finished as ASU's second leading tackler, Ball doesn't possess the speed or coverage skills of a more traditional safety. 

Ultimately, ASU went from having the worst passing defense in the country in 2015 to a regression that calls into question the direction and leadership of the Sun Devils' defense. Much like ASU's quarterback situation, the Sun Devils begin the offseason presented with the same question marks in the secondary that they began the 2016 season with.

Will the Pac-12's most inexperienced offensive line be up to the challenge?

With left guard Christian Westerman departed for the NFL, and center Nick Kelly, right guard Vi Teofilo and right tackle Billy McGehee all graduated, the Sun Devils were forced to break in four new offensive lineman to protect a new starting quarterback this season.

Unlike skill positions like wide receiver and running back where freshmen and sophomores frequently emerge as play-makers early in their careers, the learning curve for offensive linemen at the Power 5 conference level is stiff, and that's reflected in the postseason All-Conference teams.

From 2013-2015, no freshmen or sophomores earned a First Team All-Pac-12 recognition along the offensive line, and this season, only one sophomore, Washington's Trey Adams, was recognized on either the Pac-12's First or Second Team All-Conference lists (Adams made the First Team). 

Senior left tackle Evan Goodman, ASU's lone returning starter on the offensive front, received rave reviews during the offseason from ASU's strength and conditioning staff and from position coach Chris Thomsen, and the Sun Devils entered the year in a position to lean on Goodman's experience. 

Aside from Goodman, only sophomore left guard Sam Jones began fall camp entrenched as one of ASU's starting offensive linemen, as the center, right guard and right tackle positions were up for grabs in fall camp.

At center, senior Stephon McCray, junior walk-on Tyler McClure and junior college transfer A.J. McCollum contended for the starting role, which McCray earned in the team's season opener against Northern Arizona, almost by default. ASU's coaches were hopeful McCollum, a highly-rated transfer from City College of San Francisco, would step in and assume the starting role, but McCollum arrived at fall camp out of shape and then battled a hamstring injury for several weeks in August.

At right guard and right tackle, sophomore Quinn Bailey, redshirt freshman Zach Robertson and redshirt freshman Steve Miller all began fall camp ranking among the Sun Devils' top seven or eight linemen, but none of the players had solidified themselves during spring practices as a surefire starting option.

Prior to ASU's season opener against Northern Arizona, the Sun Devils settled on a line of Goodman, Jones, McCray, Bailey and Robertson from left to right, with Miller, McCollum and McClure pushing on the starters' heels. Additionally, freshman Cohl Cabral, who began fall camp as a center but later transitioned to left tackle, would provide depth on the line during his first season with the program.

Even though ASU set its line for the opening week of the season, competition remained fluid and Thomsen admitted at the end of fall camp that he appreciated the competition among the younger players because they grew tired of hearing how their inexperience was viewed as a potential liability.

“Would I rather have four or five guys that have started a lot of games? Of course you would," Thomsen told SunDevilSource at ASU media day. "But there’s also an element to that where these guys are hungry and I feel like the guys that I’ve got are hungry to prove themselves. They’re tired of being told they’re going to be the weak link in the chain and as a coach, I can see that in their eyes.”

For a team breaking in new starters on the offensive line, a group lacking experience needs to find as much stability as possible. Blocking in the trenches, especially against blitz-heavy teams, requires outstanding communication and a natural feel for the way a lineman's teammates are going to set up and prepare for a block.

In the run game, communication and symmetry enables successful combination blocks that allow linemen to work to the second level of a defense to open up wider lanes. In the pass game, fluidity among offensive linemen allows for players to see stunts and twists as they develop, and have a basic understanding of where a player needs to drive a defender to keep the pocket clean.

The Sun Devils rarely had an opportunity for linemen to achieve a fundamental comfort level with one another, though, because injuries forced ASU into shuffling its personnel, practically on a weakly basis.

By the end of the season, McCray, McCollum and Robertson had all missed at least one game due to injury, while Jones didn't play in the Sun Devils' final five regular season contests after hurting his ankle on the final play of ASU's 40-16 loss against Colorado.

As a result of ASU's inexperience and injuries, the Sun Devils allowed a total of 41 sacks, nine more than the next closest Pac-12 team (Stanford) allowed during the regular season.

After beginning the year with four consecutive victories, ASU's run game was riding high, as the Sun Devils averaged 4.8 yards per carry through the month of September. By the end of the year, though, ASU's yards per carry average for the season had dropped to 3.3, and the Sun Devils finished 10th in the conference with an average of just 131.5 rushing yards per game.

To run the ball effectively for much of the year, Lindsey had to call upon ASU's Sparky formation, a Wildcat-package reminiscent of a single-wing formation teams used before the forward pass took over the game of football.

In the final eight games of the regular season, the Sun Devils surpassed 3.3 yards per carry just once, when they averaged 3.9 yards per carry in a 54-35 loss to the Oregon Ducks. Aside from that performance, ASU was limited to 2.3 yards per carry or less in five separate games, including once when the Sun Devils averaged 0.9 yards per carry against Utah and once when ASU averaged a season-worst 0.6 yards per carry against Washington. 

While ASU's offensive line failed to rise to the occasion this season, the Sun Devils are likely in a better position up front than they are at quarterback or in the defensive backfield. 

With Cabral, Jones, Miller, Bailey and Robertson all in the fold, the Sun Devils possess five players who gained important experience this season and have at least two years of eligibility remaining. In Cabral, Miller and Robertson's cases, all three linemen have NFL body types and three years left to grow into more consistent, dependable options up front for the Sun Devils. 

Though a declining run game and a conference-worst sack total indicate ASU's offensive line failed to provide a satisfactory answer to its key question this year, the historical trend of linemen peaking at the end of their college careers suggests ASU has reason to hold out hope if its players demonstrate development this spring. 


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