Heat from the Sun Devils-The Offense

LetTheFurFly unlocks the keys to the #16 Arizona State Sun Devils...As the Lobos look for the right combination after the UTEP loss. Up first: The Offense

Hail you loyal Lobo football fans and welcome to the 2014 preview of the Arizona State Sun Devils.

This is the first meeting in nearly forty years for these two squads so I'll be humming a little more than a few bars for this preview. Everything is new: The uniforms, the coaches (kinda) and whatever their football team unveils as the crowd can take it in.

Saturday. The game is on Saturday. Don't show up before then. I'll have security remove you if you do.  

"New to you" is a good way to describe University Stadium....with it's added pleasantries and upgraded field amenities... and ASU fans should take in as much as they can. This home-and-home series is slated to return next year in Tempe and maybe only towards that foreseeable future.

If I have to type another one of these in 37 years (and It's not being read in my mind by some variation of Google Glass) you'll forgive my arthritis in advance. Won't you? Please? You'll have to trust that my nurse will be taking care of it as best she can. It'll be the best foosa-mah-ball article written to date and more than likely incite a stroke from my UNM Lobo blanketed retirement cot.

From age? From applause? Maybe the bright shiny objects just scared me....who knows.

But one thing I do know: the info is pretty thick on this one. Let's spread this puppy out. Everybody needs it quite frankly.

Arizona State is coming in Saturday ranked #16  in the coaches' poll and among four other teams ranked in the PAC-12. Washington just skimmed it's ranking back into the ether after a scare to Hawaii last week. All ranked PAC-12 teams are in the top twenty. Personally, I wish there wouldn't be any rankings until OOC play is done, but what are you going to do? The press likes who they like...just ask any sports writer below the Missouri state border or in Bristol, Connecticut city limits.

ASU returns defending it's PAC-12 south title last year and a good number of starters on the offense. For their trouble, head coach (and former JUCO FB player) Todd Graham was named 2013 PAC-12's coach of the year in 2013.

So there's that.

ASU returns defending it's PAC-12 south title last year and a good number of starters on the offense


ASU once again avoids Oregon in their division crown defense but did draw Stanford from the PAC-12 north division...a team that bounced them twice in 2013 at home and in the championship game.

This will be Graham's ninth year as a head coach and previously met the Lobos at the helm of Tulsa (2007-'10) in Rocky's last year. Rocky's 3-3-5 got caught looking over their own shoulders on defense and rudderless from an injured Donovan Porterie in a 56-14 rout.

Like most Resource 5 coaching staffs, there's more co-everything than you can count on the coach roster. Assistant head coach Chris Thomsen followed Graham through Tulsa and they have a "Deputy Head Coach" (what?!) in Mike Norvell on offense. The Norvell, Thomsen and Graham triangle reinforces the Tulsa outline (to the point of some pretty fluffy resume titles) and cement the style in the squad. Sort of oddly, Todd Graham actually called the DEFENSIVE plays on the sideline in 2013. Quite strange. What the hell were the rest of your co-coaches for? I guess we'll never know.

You'll remember Davie's initial DC prospect hire fled to Arizona State when Davie arrived in 2011....he then hired Jeff Mills from Washington to complete his staff. The trade off was the addition of Ben Hilgart at strength and conditioning. He was formerly at the same position at ASU.

ASU runs a multiple offense - which is natural with an excruciatingly long staff list - but is predicated in throwing the ball around in several root forms. Calling them an ordinary spread is not enough; the Sun Devils have a passion to throw the ball with many four receiver sets, but package them in shotgun, pistol and even power running sets with a receiving tight end (or two). Keeping balance to this initiative is the zone read, which attempts to split the direction of the play even when it's keeping the secondary honest from the pass. Their quarterbacks are mobile (and dangerous) when all else fails and it's scrambling time.  

ASU's defense is technically a 4-2-5, though it's hard to separate a lot details in their quasi-LB-like "Devil" position on the weak side. You can easily mistake it for a 4-3 pretty quickly (mostly from size) and if they're not using their base form to attack...they're playing 3-3-5 for pass control situations. A lot of Resource 5 squads do this and pick apart lots of forms of the game to "plug and play" on defense. At times they've used NFL sets just for special teams...observed in their spring game.

If you have the money to pay a "Senior Associate Offensive Analyst" (Again, WHAT?!) you have a lot heads in the same room to Frankenstein a lot of stuff together.

Another fun fact: Graham was Pitt's head coach for one year (11') before lily padding to Arizona State; a school that Coach Davie also spent a lot of time at before Notre Dame and Texas A&M. This completed a stint of three different positions in just three years from 2010-2012. This will be his 3rd year at ASU and has taken up heavy recruiting classes in the JUCO ranks in conjunction with his own recruits coming in. (We fought a few out of his hands even this season)

In the next post we'll take on some of ASU's offensive looks and personnel. Stay with me...



ASU has a lot of stock in their offense and they aim to please with it. Most of the significant returning players are on the offensive side of the ball while JUCO's were siphoned in to mingle with the defensive roster. ASU is not immune to the junior college path and it's fairly eyebrow raising for a resource 5 school. I wouldn't  think Kansas-level JUCO recruiting levels here, but I'll give a few good examples.

Receivers are a big deal for the Sun Devils and one of their main weapons came in as a JUCO sophomore originally: Jaelen Strong. 6'2", 212 with a 1,100 yard season receiving last year, joins a number of JUCO's that look to get in work right away. Every single piece of the WR corps is almost completely new to the field itself, waiting for their turn to play. Eric Lauderdale was brought in for support as a true JUCO and there are at least two outside guys that are 6-4, aside from Strong. ASU seems to go head-to-head for top JUCO talent in the former BCS world and harvest accordingly.

The running back type skill guys have been known to rotate into the slot and there's speed amongst the trees. The probable starting running back, DJ Foster, spent time at slot receiver and was their second leading receiver (693yd) before moving back to RB this year. Everything about the way these guys recruit suggests multi-role receiving and the flexible athlete. Nearly interchangeable...perhaps even to a fault.

ASU brings a redshirt senior QB on Saturday: Taylor Kelly. For savvy and seasoned lobo fans you'll find a strong resemblance to Nevada's Cody Fajardo in his skill set. Dual threat in it's purest form but surprisingly accurate (62.4% completion) for an athlete. Also note the number of plays and hurls: 302 for 484 (12 INT) 3600+ yards. That's a ton of throws! It stretches out the percentage a bit farther than a regular 50/50 guy comparison and gives the body of work more value. Kelly himself is technically ASU's highest returning rusher. It's a roster that's turning over from the former coach recruit cycles and plugging in guys as you gather them.

While the load of info above is positive for Kelly's stat book and the ASU offense, pointing out some of the more pertinent ASU concepts truly do help fish out the numbers a bit as they pile up. Let's take a look.


ASU runs a multiple offense heavy on the receivers: WR's and TE's are both in contrast to each other roles pretty well (Very tall, very fast, or limber, lighter tight ends). They also stay on the field when they get here: this system is never without four true receiving threats at any given time PLUS one underneath outlet. Here's a normal spread set....this time in the shotgun.



Basic shotgun with one back. One outside WR is out of frame, lined up on the strong side (right, bottom). Here we'll give an example of how ASU uses a zone read mechanic to option out to the receivers, freezing the defense enough to get a head start, effectively centering the defense and putting them behind the play. You'll notice this is from the PAC-12 championship against Stanford last year.


Note: This still is from one play later, but in the same form. The point here is scheme flexibility. That, and I didn't want to get another image.

Kelly has snapped the ball (above) and pulled from the RB immediately. Note how far the weak, outside WR has advanced up the field above: three yards. We're maybe a second and a half into this play and Kelly has already pulled, clutched and is now aiming the ball. It's that fast. Stanford has three of it's linebackers up to contain Kelly, a running back, and anything else while the ball is moving half a field width away.  Two WR blockers (one out of frame) are already hitting....something they would do for a normal run play anyway without much cause for alarm.


Look at all that field. You can see Kelly in the extreme left corner and nothing but green in front for the WR (center left), who is now holding the ball. The slot has only a strong safety (center) to beat in ALL THAT SPACE or two blockers to follow in front of him. Nobody even touches him until he's five yards down the field. All of this started inside the tackle box with a fake zone read motion and now the chase is on.

Other variations of the zone read fake are a directional hitch (zone read the RB to one side or throw to a hitching WR on the opposite) or simply running the base zone read via shotgun or pistol. ASU can leave in two TE's to run some of these forms and present more gaps to cover. All of these TE's can streak and become a passing threats easily. In some ways four receiving weapons never truly leave the game....plus any outlets underneath from a RB...plus Kelly's scramble threat. Plus plus and plus some more.


The second piece is tempo. ASU can stack the number of plays in a row and Kelly is an experienced audible caller. The O-line is still pretty big for this style (in and around 300-310) and although their flexible TE's don't look bred for blocking (6'3" to 6'6"; under 235) the figurative center of this offense still has enough girth to operate with a spread built AROUND it.

And yes, they do have ONE, UNO, SINGULAR, (wait for it)....FULLBACK! 

Woo! I always check the roster anyway...but I knew you were wondering. WE ARE INDEED ON FULLBACK ALERT! YET AGAIN! Cheers to Mark Cosgrove...the lone Sun Devil fullback. Thumbs up. Glad to have you. Do the game a favor and keep that position alive young man. clapping.gif

ASU doesn't hinge on tempo exclusively, but it's an element in their offense. They're in a group of schools that introduced tempo to their system and use it on select occasions. Needless to say, they've increased the number of plays they run a game (along with the rest of college football) but not nearly as constant as an Oregon or a Texas Tech. Expect mixes of "hurry up" to disrupt the flow of the game at times. Not a lot, but enough when the opportunity strikes. Perhaps just enough to waste the other team's practice time, to be honest.

Here's one more set: an example of what an ASU "power running set" looks like. Of course, they have the same personnel described above....which is why I have to sling around quotation marks. They're using it on a team that doesn't have a defensive size advantage against them (a pattern that will probably carry over to Saturday). This is versus Washington State.



Keep in mind the TE lined up is maybe 230 (center left, in backfield), while the line is still 305 across the board generally. You have the Z receiver in motion (bottom) running a fly sweep and you still have a timed zone read with the RB as the WR approaches, the ball is hiked, and the WR crosses. The TE is actually trying to block here and the play still takes the ball three possible directions/combinations.

ASU can still run a screen option out of this form. They can motion in a receiver to the same (bastardized) blocking position and a TE can still streak in other versions. Lining two TE's, a WR motioned for blocking and a zone read can STILL have an option attached to it (which was demonstrated in the same game no less), while the defense is trying to get in front of "the blocks" of a "running play". It's quite frustrating.


Everything has a weakness though. So how do you defend it?

You have two choices. You can try to contain the weapon choices on the field one-on-one or you can try to disrupt the system that ASU is trying to run altogether. It's an articulate, purposely refined spread in areas but it's still a spread at the end of the day. If you don't have the personnel to contain this offense (and hopefully jump on any mistakes they might make) you dictate to the offense and rush it into a bad rhythm.

Take USC v. Fresno last year (and this year too apparently). I'm certainly not suggesting we're packing a USC level of defense here, but one of the things to learn from the games is compacting the field against the spread. Taking away the short field options and encircling the pocket can force a spread out of it's main threats, and limit the amount of damage they can do. Therein, you take away the weapons that it litters the field with.

Even at one-on-one match ups, ASU can get an extra step on a like-recruited squad. Waiting for them to make a mistake isn't really the way in UNM's case. UNM has to compact the field and disrupt what they can early in the play.

UNM has to compact the field and disrupt what they can early in the play


Play up and send five. THERE'S NO TIME!

Secondary much take away early:

The hitch
The inside slant
The bubble screen

...or it won't work. Do your best to get into the backfield through the front six/seven and in the face of audibles. Corners and safeties will have to work assignment shifts together and the front seven will have to produce as often as they can.

More time than: "one-thousand-one, one-thousand-two" will be too much time for Kelly and he'll sling it around intermediately. Break up the play before it can be hashed out, along with any bad match up it might present. "One-thousand-three" is absolute death, through the air or on the ground.

Force ASU into it's outlets and take down the outlets. Shut down their regular play call and make them beat you some other way. You still have to try to pierce their line and at the very least, the middle must hold (as much as possible) to work the play outward. The DE edge will still have to contain the outer gaps as they converge within and the Sun Devils will try to work out more run than they usually do...probably somewhere around 65/35 pass/run is my best guess. This will be a good tackling day or we will fail quite fast.

You don't have to win every play, but you still have to keep fighting. You don't give in without a fight. We have to keep that ball and score every single, golden opportunity...forced turnover or no. If we bottle up ASU enough we might have enough to take a shot at them by the end. 



Next we'll look at ASU's attacking defense and the versions they throw their safeties around in.


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