BearTerritory: D.J. Foster has 790 all-purpose yards, but he had at least 81 yards rushing/receiving in every game against FBS opponents in 2014, and has done that only three times this season. Is that more a function of other playmakers emerging, or has his lack of production been one of the reasons that ASU has had middling success this year on offense?
Chris Karpman: The loss of star wide receiver Jaelen Strong to the NFL Draft and starting wide receiver Cameron Smith to a knee injury, coupled with the emergence of running backs Demario Richard and Kalen Ballage last season, prompted Arizona State coaches to switch Foster’s position at the outset of this season. In an creative attempt to figure out how to get the team’s best playmakers on the field together, Foster was moved from a running back/slotback role to that of an outside receiver, as the Sun Devils anticipated athletic junior college transfer De'Chavon Hayes — forced to redshirt last year due to an academic issue — would successfully fill the slot role at which Foster flourished earlier in his ASU career. ASU coaches were trying to get UCLA-transfer Devin Lucien and junior college wide receiver Tim White up to speed and there appeared a need at the outside receiver positions. But Hayes struggled severely early in the season and as Lucien and White got more acclimated, ASU offensive coordinator Mike Norvell moved Foster back to the role at which he had so much success earlier in his career in more recent games. He’s had more touches and productivity since that happened in the second half of the year. The idea behind the move of Foster made sense, but ASU’s offense is at its best when it throws the ball a lot to its backs — including the tight slot receiver in two-back formations — and tight ends and it wasn’t doing that as much in the first half of the year in particular.
BT: ASU was expected to compete for the Pac-12 South title yet again, but have fallen short. What’s the temperature of the fans and those around the program in Tempe these days?
CK: For a while, the overall mood was very dour. ASU coach Todd Graham had sold this as a potentially special season and said anything less than a Pac-12 Championship would be a disappointment and so of course that became the fan expectation. When the team played poorly in two big early losses to Texas A&M and USC, there was a widespread angst among closer followers and quite a bit of blame thrown around, especially at Norvell. The Sun Devils had fourth-quarter leads against Utah, Oregon and Washington State in three consecutive games and yet lost all three. It won almost all of its close games the last couple years and it almost became expected. Eventually, it seemed that a lot of people came to the realization that ASU just wasn’t ever a championship caliber team and perhaps ASU’s coaches had been too ambitious in their public comments about its potential. ASU’s rebounding wins against Washington and Arizona, in which it has played some of its best football of the season, has been a tonic of sorts, especially coupled with some major recruiting successes ASU’s had in recent weeks. That’s seemed to get a lot of fans focused on what is believed to be a bright future, with a lot to young talent waiting in the wings.
BT: Earlier in the season, it seemed Mike Bercovici (who's second in the Pac-12 with nine interceptions) wasn’t going down field as much, but against Arizona, he really found some open space back there. Was that a function of the Wildcats’ defense, or something else?
CK: The lack of success throwing the ball vertically earlier in the season was a product of ASU’s challenges at wide receiver as much as anything else. Foster was at the field side position where this type of playmaking has historically been relied upon but he’s a different type of receiver, more of an underneath to intermediate leverage pass catching option. Lucien’s adjustment took probably half the season or more and though he has that ability and is now showing it with big catches down the field, there were timing and route running kinks that had to be worked out to enable it. The bottom line is ASU’s personnel just wasn’t built to be able to be that type of team from the outset of the season. Playing against Oregon and Arizona, two of the worst pass defenses in the country, helped it showcase its improvement in that regard in more recent weeks.
BT: ASU used a lot of outside runs against Arizona’s stack defense, and given what Oregon did against the Bears on the outside a few weeks ago, I’d expect the Sun Devils to at least test that early on. Thoughts?
CK: This ASU offense is very much geared toward taking what defenses give it in terms of both individually exploitable match ups and overall play calling. Teams that bring an extra defender into the box and align safeties in a way that makes it conducive are going to get a lot of sweeps and stretch zone concept runs by ASU and also targeted big play shots down the field. When teams play more five man box and keep their safeties aligned further from the line of scrimmage, ASU will run more inside zone and power. When opponents play off at cornerback and other perimeter positions, ASU will run a lot of bubble screens. What really gets ASU going is when it can establish inside run and then turn that power into edge-winning buck-type sweeps and replacement runs as teams commit more to prevent being gashed up the middle. A lot of the concepts are triple option with read zone coupled with a quick throw off of it, either wide screen or quick slant.
BT: The blitz that Arizona State runs, said Jared Goff, is “unique” in his experience. Being in the North, we haven’t seen it much, obviously, up close. How did this defense develop, and is it anywhere close to being as effective as it can be? Who are the guys we should be watching out for on the Sun Devils’ defense?
CK: It has worked, the question is at what cost? ASU’s by far leading the league in sacks and among the nation’s best in sacks and tackles-for-loss, but the trade off has been less redundancy on the back end and more reliance on individual members of the secondary making very good plays with consistency. ASU’s often in man free coverage across the entire field or half of the field when it pressures with six as it does more than just about anyone. The result is ASU’s last in the nation in giving up 60-plus yard touchdowns. It is a high risk, high reward to football. When quarterbacks are able to get the ball out quickly and consistently with good decision making and accuracy, and an offense protects well in concert with that, ASU’s tended to struggle. When teams haven’t been able to do that, ASU’s often feasted.
The last two seasons, field side safety Damarious Randall was a huge part of ASU’s success from a coverage standpoint. But he was picked in the first round of the NFL Draft and his replacement, sophomore Armand Perry, was knocked out for the season in non-conference play. That led ASU to move true freshman Kareem Orr from cornerback and it’s been a mixed bag result. Orr leads the Pac-12 and has set an ASU freshman record with five interceptions, but has also had more big play breakdowns than the team’s typically seen at the position. But Orr’s certainly not been a lot, with senior cornerback Kweishi Brown underperforming his potential this season and Bandit safety Jordan Simone — who is now out for the season with a knee injury — being challenged against more athletic teams in coverage.
ASU’s other key defensive players are Antonio Longino at Devil backer, which is a hybrid position that aligns into the boundary on the edge, inside linebackers Salamo Fiso and Christian Sam, Spur (a hybrid linebacker safety that aligns on the field side) Laiu Moeakiola, and boundary cornerback Lloyd Carrington. ASU has some of the best linebackers in the Pac-12 and a defensive line that has been very effective at helping it win the line of scrimmage, led by tackles Tashon Smallwood, Demetrius Cherry and Viliami Latu and freshman end Joseph Wicker.