BearTerritory: Arizona State was known for its blitzing on defense last season, but they've decided to go away from that a bit in the early goings this year. What gives?
Sooburn Im/USA Today Sports
Our weekly Q&A on Cal's opponent features Chris Karpman of SunDevilSource
Chris Karpman: Last year the Sun Devils were last in the country in passing defense (No. 128) and by a wide margin, and also gave up more 40-plus yard explosive plays than anyone. When ASU's had great man coverage play in the secondary it has had good defenses. Its 2013 team went 8-1 in the Pac-12 and won 10 games overall, featuring all-league cornerbacks Robert Nelson and Osahon Irabor and safeties Alden Darby and Damarious Randall (who later became a first-round NFL pick). When ASU has had poor coverage from its members of the secondary, such as last year, its ultra-aggressive approach hasn't worked. In order to take more pressure off the secondary, as needed, ASU's incorporated more Cover 3 defense this year and at times chosen to rush only three or four players. But still, ASU coach Todd Graham is attack-oriented and the Sun Devils are still going to rush five and six as much as any team in the Pac-12, though perhaps a bit more selectively.
BT: How much of Arizona State's defensive struggles can be chalked up to the injuries the Sun Devils have had to deal with through fall camp and up to now?
CK: It's definitely been a strong contributing factor, and not just injuries but also suspensions. The team's leading returning tackler, senior inside linebacker Salamo Fiso, missed the first three games of the season due to suspension but is returning for Cal. He is a key communicator with the defensive front. Next to him, junior inside linebacker Christian Sam was the team's second-leading tackler last season. He suffered an ankle injury in the team's first game of the season -- actually in the first half -- against Northern Arizona, and hasn't played since. He's still doubtful for Cal. A key member of the secondary, senior starter Laiu Moeakiola, has been battling a hamstring injury that kept him off the field earlier this season, but he played extensively against UTSA. In the second half, when he moved to the hybrid Spur position for the first time this year, UTSA punted four times in a row and had just 21 yards in the final 28 minutes of game action. So that's three of ASU's key defensive players. Also several other secondary players have been out as well, but are back to full strength or near it for this game.
http://www.scout.com/college/arizona-state/story/1709328-asu-backs-remai...BT: The Sun Devils are last in the FBS (128th) in passing yards allowed. How much of that is a function of playing a pass-happy team like Texas Tech, and how much of that is a true indication of what this team is like on the back end?
CK: ASU finished last in 2015 in passing yards allowed, so this is a continuation of last season and a reality of the team as a result. Certainly playing Texas Tech is going to exacerbate this problem for a defense, but ASU's schedule strength isn't especially hard through three games, with FCS Northern Arizona and Group of Five UTSA the other two opponents. The ASU scheme is very risk tolerant defensively in an effort to generate negative plays, turnovers and three-and-outs. If there aren't great coverage defenders in the secondary, there will be big plays allowed, and especially if there are the types of assignment breakdowns we've seen last year and to start this season. ASU was lit up last year at Cal and even though three of those defensive starters are gone from that team, this is still perhaps the biggest question mark for the team moving forward. It's not going to get any easier against Cal.
BT: How much different is Chip Lindsay's offense from Mike Norvell's? Does it fit quarterback Manny Wilkins better than Norvell's, or is it a wash in that regard?
CK: Lindsey's offense was basically the Gus Malzahn spread no huddle. Lindsey's offense has some clear similarities, particularly in the run game, which still features a lot of mixed man and zone blocking, and is still run-based. But Lindsey's passing offense tends to include more Air Raid concepts with some pro-style stuff mixed it. It's really unique to his background as a high school football coach, which started as an assistant to a team that ran the Winged-T offense. Lindsey is not as much tight end-based, more 11 personnel, more wideout-based, with the formations and plays you'd associate with such looks. Wilkins was very well suited to Norvell's offense, which included more roll out passing and perhaps even a bit more zone read, though that remains a big part of the scheme. Lindsey's offense is a bit more pocket-oriented and quicker if operating properly, with getting the ball out from the quarterback. From the pocket is where Wilkins needs to make most of his development, particularly with processing the field and getting to secondary targets.
BT: So much of the ink on Arizona State's offense has been spent on the running game, between Wilkins, Kalen Ballage and Demario Richard, but Wilkins can certainly throw the ball. What should we know about his main targets?
CK: His two primary wide receiver targets are senior Tim White and true freshman N'Keal Harry. White is the team's leading returning receiver and plays the slot ('H') position. He had eight touchdown receptions and 50-plus catches last year as a perimeter receiver before moving inside this year. He didn't play last week at receiver due to an ankle injury but did field some punts in the second half. White is practicing normally this week. Harry plays the 'X' position primarily, and is increasingly considered one of the top freshmen at the position nationally. He's 6-foot-4 and 220 pounds so he's a handful, but also has made plays down the field. ASU's other top pass catching options are junior Cameron Smith, who is a speed threat on the perimeter, sophomore Jalen Harvey, a good route runner on the outside, and senior Fred Gammage, the backup slot player behind White. Senior tight end Kody Kohl is the leading returning pass catcher at the position in the Pac-12 but has been used primarily as a blocker.
http://www.scout.com/college/arizona-state/story/1709287-richard-wants-t...BT: What are the names we should know on defense? It seems like the safety spots may be a bit of a revolving door.
CK: Up front, ASU returns three defensive line starters who are solid players: senior Viliami Latu at nose tackle, junior Tashon Smallwood at 3-technique tackle, sophomore Joseph 'JoJo' Wicker at end. They tend to do well against the run and can collapse the pocket, especially Latu, and pass rush with some degree of effectiveness. Wicker at some point should become a big weapon in this regard on the edge but might still be a year away. At linebacker, Fiso and Sam are very good interior run stoppers and Sam has range and versatility. Junior D.J. Calhoun is a physical linebacker who is also a good pass rusher. At cornerback, senior De'Chavon Hayes is good in man coverage but has some questions in zone and when there are changes pre-snap, sophomore Kareem Orr is very physical but will be tested by speed when receivers cleanly release at the line of scrimmage. At safety, Moeakiola is really good at Spur when healthy, sophomore Armand Perry is a solid all-around player who is still growing into the role, and the Bandit safety has been a big question mark with junior Chad Adams giving way to junior college transfer J'Marcus Rhodes against UTSA. Junior Koron Crump is a speed rush sub-package player and junior Alani Latu is a base down end who has a good motor.
BT: Are there any injuries of note that Arizona State is still dealing with, or any other absences expected on Saturday?
CK: The only big one to watch at this point is Christian Sam, who I would say is somewhere between doubtful and questionable. Todd Graham said he's hopeful Sam plays against Cal but Sam hasn't practiced during the Tuesday and Wednesday portions of practice open to media. Second-string defensive tackle George Lea is somewhat limited due to an ankle but has been practicing.
BT: Cal can't seem to run, and ASU is stout at stopping the run. The Bears can pass, and ASU can't stop the pass. Cal can't stop the run to save its life, but 537 net rushing yards between Ballage and Richard, not to mention 191 from Wilkins, prove that the Sun Devils can run all over the yard. Will this be another shootout for these two teams, and what's your final score prediction?
CK: Right now I'm thinking this game probably ends up with 100 points scored or at least year it. I'm going to be watching more of Cal in the next two days so my pick could subsequently change but an early forecast is around 55-52 ASU. This a real toss up game that might come down to turnover margin and which quarterback doesn't turn the ball over.
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