Position review: Offensive line

After replacing four starters from its 2015 team, Arizona State's offensive line experienced severe growing pains due to inexperience and injuries that limited the line's effectiveness.

Over the past few seasons, Arizona State made a concerted effort to improve its recruiting efforts along the offensive line. 

When fall camp began this year, it was readily apparent that the program's efforts paid off, as the Sun Devils boasted a contingent of impressive, physically imposing young linemen. 

The most important descriptor in that last sentence, however, is young, because as it turns out, inexperience was the Sun Devils' downfall up front this season.

Despite having redshirt freshmen like Steve Miller and Zach Robertson and true freshman Cohl Cabral, whose frames are much more in line with those of NFL-caliber prospects than the linemen ASU featured early in Todd Graham's tenure, the Sun Devils' offensive line put together its worst season under Graham's watch.

A team that began the season knowing it would have to run the ball and protect a first-year starting quarterback to win was able to do neither, as the Sun Devils finished 10th in the Pac-12 in average rushing yards per game and dead last in sacks allowed (41), giving up nine more than the next closest team in the conference, Stanford. 

After waving goodbye to seniors Christian Westerman, Nick Kelly, Vi Teofilo and Billy McGehee, the Sun Devils returned just a lone starter from its 2015 squad, senior left tackle Evan Goodman.

Such significant turnover in the trenches could stunt any offense's growth, but with a first-year offensive coordinator and a new starting quarterback, ASU was practically in a hole before the season even began. 

Toward the end of fall camp, ASU had yet to settle on a starting offensive line, with fierce competition taking place between players like Miller, Robertson, sophomore Quinn Bailey and senior Stephon McCray for the final starting spots.

“Would I rather have four or five guys that have started a lot of games? Of course you would," ASU offensive line coach Chris Thomsen told SunDevilSource before the season. "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.”

Outside of Goodman, only sophomore Sam Jones, ASU's left guard, entered the season with a solidified starting spot, as Thomsen indicated he was willing to tinker with various combinations early in the season to see which group produced ASU's best results. 

It turns out, Thomsen had no choice.

In the opening week of the season, Thomsen started Goodman at left tackle, Jones at left guard, McCray at center, Bailey at right guard and Robertson at right tackle. That lineup didn't start another game together the rest of the year. 

After Robertson sprained his ankle against Northern Arizona, ASU inserted junior college transfer A.J. McCollum into the lineup at center, slid McCray to right guard, and moved Bailey to right tackle.

Though that particular lineup clicked better than most of ASU's combinations, it lived on for just a month. 

By the end of the year, Jones had missed five games due to an injury, McCollum missed two games for an undisclosed reason, McCray missed two games with an injury, and Robertson had returned to the lineup only to suffer another injury that ended his season late in the year.

In total, ASU used at least five different combinations along the offensive line, but never found a starting five that clicked together. The Sun Devils' failures up front were emblematic of the team's overall struggles, as ASU's offensive line came apart at the seams in the same fashion most other position groups did during the team's six-game losing streak to end the season.

What we learned 

One of the long-standing traditions of college football is that the best offensive linemen, more so than the best players at nearly any other position, are almost always upperclassmen who spent their early college years developing both physically and mentally.

While the sport's best linemen may have demonstrated vast amounts of potential as freshmen and sophomores, that potential goes somewhat unrealized until they receive the requisite number of repetitions to ensure all of the complicated and technical components of playing in the trenches clicks together in a consistent nature.

We knew all of this heading into the season, but ASU's 2016 offensive line and the struggles it faced on a weekly basis only reinforced these notions.

When the Pac-12 All-Conference teams were announced last week, Washington sophomore Trey Adams became the first freshman or sophomore to be named a First Team All-Conference lineman in the Pac-12 since Oregon's Hroniss Grasu and UCLA's Xavier Sua-Filo accomplished the feat in 2012, breaking a three-year streak of the All-Conference team consisting exclusively of upperclassmen.

Entering the year, it was unlikely any ASU offensive linemen would have joined the All-Conference conversation, but after watching the Sun Devils sputter to a 5-7 record, we have more perspective on the struggles of ASU's front. 

Never more than average contributors, neither Goodman or McCray was likely to lead the charge for ASU in 2016.

Could Jones or Bailey take the next step? As sophomores, both offered glimpses and certainly looked like the two most capable linemen at various points in the year, but both were probably a year away from capitalizing on their potential.

Miller and Robertson? Despite having elite size, both players struggled to acclimate to the speed of the college game, further proving their best days are much further down the road.

Though ASU's efforts on the recruiting trail have been valiant in recent years, Adams' recognition proves how rare it is for an underclassman to shine in a power conference as a linemen. While the Sun Devils' program now boasts more linemen with higher ceilings, it doesn't change the fact it takes time to get off the ground floor.

Departing personnel

Evan Goodman: A two-year starter at left tackle for ASU, Goodman entered the Sun Devils' program with high expectations that he struggled to live up to for much of his career. At 6-foot-4 and 300 pounds, Goodman had a strong combination of size and speed to be an anchor for ASU's offensive line, but he never demonstrated the consistency or power the Sun Devils' coaching staff hoped he would develop. 

Stephon McCray: A career backup who filled in at multiple positions along the offensive line early in his time with ASU, McCray became a full-time starter as a senior thanks to his ability to plug in and play anywhere he was needed. Like Goodman, McCray rarely demonstrated the type of consistency and dependability coaches expect of seniors, but did give the Sun Devils positional flexibility in a season in which ASU needed to explore options.

Returning personnel

Sam Jones: The sophomore was ASU's best lineman before he suffered a season-ending ankle injury on the final play of the Sun Devils' 40-16 loss to Colorado, and his absence really hindered ASU's ability to run the ball during the latter half of the season. A former three-star recruit who showcased a better ability to pull and block on the move than McCray, Jones is an athletic guard with a bright upside who could develop into a candidate for an All-Conference honor if he's able to continue his development.

Quinn Bailey: Bailey joined Goodman as the only ASU linemen to start all 12 games, as he flipped back and forth between guard and tackle on the right side of the offensive line. While the 6-foot-5, 307-pound product out of Higley High in Gilbert may be best-suited in the long run as a guard, ASU's depth at the tackle positions remains an issue and could force the Sun Devils to continue to play him on the outside of the line of scrimmage if Robertson doesn't demonstrate the ability to handle speed on the edge. A strong basketball player in high school, Bailey's footwork is better than most of ASU's other young offensive linemen.

Zach Robertson: Armed with a massive 6-foot-5, 325-pound frame, Robertson looks like a better long-term tackle prospect than Bailey, but his preference is to play inside at guard. Robertson has told us he feels more comfortable in pass pro as a guard working against bigger-bodied players than he does working on the edge, and his play this season at tackle reflected that. A former four-star recruit, Robertson has plenty of potential, but it might take him at least until his junior season to demonstrate the consistency ASU needs out of a starting lineman.

A.J. McCollum: The nation's No. 1 junior college center prospect in the Class of 2016, McCollum came to ASU from City College of San Francisco and his acclimation process took longer than anticipated. McCollum arrived at fall camp out of shape, and battled a hamstring injury for much of the month of August that set him back. After joining the starting lineup against Texas Tech, McCollum left the team for a personal matter midway through the season and had a hard time earning his starting spot back from walk-on Tyler McClure once he did return to the team. Though McCollum has a nasty streak Graham likes from a player he considers an "old school" center, he'll need to focus on getting in better shape this offseason.

Steve Miller: Miller's athleticism is his best asset, but his ability to harness that athleticism and combine it with the power and strength required of a starting lineman in the Pac-12 is going to take time. At 6-foot-4 and 326 pounds, Miller moves exceptionally well for his size, but too often this season, he played like a lineman with a much slighter, less powerful build. Miller was moved off the ball easily in short yardage situations and needs to improve his pad level to become a more effective run-blocker. The pieces are there for Miller to be an effective guard or tackle, but development in the spring and fall camp will be critical if he wants to assume a larger role next season.

Cohl Cabral: One of the most physically impressive true freshman linemen to come through the ASU program since Graham arrived, Cabral likely could have benefitted from a redshirt year to preserve his eligibility. Instead, ASU elected to work Cabral into the rotation of linemen, as he primarily played in ASU's "Sparky" package. With Goodman set to graduate, Cabral could take over at left tackle if ASU doesn't find a capable junior college option in the upcoming recruiting class, but he also has the type of athleticism to play anywhere on the offensive line if that plan doesn't come to fruition. 

Tyler McClure: A walk-on who spent the entire spring practicing with ASU's starting offensive line, McClure faded into the background during the first month of the season when the coaching staff inserted McCray and McCollum into starting lineups ahead of him. However, McClure earned his first career start against Washington State in October, and he handled his playing time about as well as a coaching staff could expect from a walk-on. It's unlikely McClure earns a starting spot at center next season, but he should continue to serve as a depth option.

Marshall Nathe: A Centennial High product from Peoria, Nathe used 2016 as a redshirt season after suffering a knee injury during his senior year of high school. Nathe practiced at center this year, and may have the potential to become the center of the future as he's a good looking prospect who demonstrated the ability to play with a low base and a nice pad level in the limited practice reps we saw of him this year.

Cade Cote: A redshirt freshman out of Williams Field High in Peoria, Cote doesn't possess the same type of athleticism that some of ASU's other young linemen like Miller and Robertson do. However, Cote could end up as a McCray-type who ends up filling multiple backup roles, specifically at guard and center, over the next few seasons. Cote didn't practice during the final few weeks of the season as he suffered an injury at practice that left his arm in a sling.

Mason Walter: A redshirt freshman who spent much of the year as the Sun Devils' backup right tackle, Walter has a long ways to go to enter the rotation along the offensive line. Walter doesn't possess the agility to make an impact at this stage of his career, and he'll need to improve his pad level and tendency to stand straight up at the line of scrimmage in order to see the field in the future.

Connor Humphreys: A backup guard for most of the season, Humphreys has a good frame for the interior positions on the offensive line, but as a sophomore, he found himself passed up on the depth chart by younger players like Miller and Robertson. Humphreys began his career as a defensive lineman, but hasn't demonstrated the explosiveness at the line of scrimmage on either side of the ball to contribute just yet.  

Alex Losoya: A junior college transfer from Orange Coast College, Losoya came to ASU with three seasons of eligibility remaining. Losoya worked as a backup offensive guard this season, but never entered the rotation and stayed behind Miller, McClure and McCollum late in the season when ASU experienced significant injury issues. Because Losoya played in two games in a limited capacity, he'll have just two seasons of eligibility left.

Tyson Rising: A 6-foot-4, 295-pound junior college transfer from Ventura College, Rising came to ASU hoping to join the mix at either tackle or guard, but an injury derailed his plans. Rising didn't see the practice field for most of the year and as a result, didn't end up receiving the type of repetitions that would help improve his stock when competing for playing time next season. Because Rising took a redshirt year, he'll have two seasons of eligibility remaining. 

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