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ASU Football: Examining the success of the zone-read at Arizona State part II

The variety of options the zone-read gives Arizona State's offense have helped take the Sun Devils to the next level.

Taylor Kelly makes a last-second determination in the 2012 Territorial Cup.
Taylor Kelly makes a last-second determination in the 2012 Territorial Cup.

With 143 total yards and three passing touchdowns against the Texas Tech Red Raiders in the Holiday Bowl, quarterback Taylor Kelly will set Arizona State single-season records in both categories.

Kelly's numbers are prolific, as the redshirt junior has compiled 3,973 yards from scrimmage this season. The Eagle, Idaho native would join Brock Osweiler as the second Sun Devil to ever record 4,000 total yards in a season if he has an average opening drive in the Holiday Bowl.

What makes Kelly so special? The Sun Devils signal-caller has mastered offensive coordinator Mike Norvell's complex playbook in his second season at the helm.

Norvell's playbook is as demanding as any in college football, but what separates the 31-year-old offensive coordinator's game plans are the split-second decisions made on almost every play. When Kelly comes to the line of scrimmage, the quarterback will often have a play call that can change two to three times during the play.

That's because Norvell asks Kelly to facilitate the zone-read, a growing trend among college football's highest-scoring offenses that requires a quarterback to make multiple run-pass reads after the snap of the football.

On Tuesday, House of Sparky released part one of a three-part series examining the zone-read scheme at Arizona State. The Sun Devils are owners of the ninth best scoring offense in the country at 41.0 points per game, and they achieved that statistic against one of the nation's toughest schedules.

Part one of the series focused on the origins of the zone-read attack under Todd Graham and why the Sun Devils' offense is so closely related with two of the other top scoring offenses in the country. Part two highlights the success of the zone-read at Arizona State, and how the Sun Devils integrate personnel into the scheme.

On Thursday, House of Sparky will determine why the zone-read is the offense of the future at Arizona State. Even if offensive coordinator Mike Norvell leaves for a head coaching position, the Sun Devils will remain a zone-read oriented team.

Now, it's time to to ask and answer question two of our three-part series.

(For reference, here's a link to part one)

Question: Why is the zone-read successful at Arizona State?

Answer: If you look at Nick Marshall (Auburn), Tajh Boyd (Clemson) and Taylor Kelly (Arizona State), all three quarterbacks have one thing in common. Each quarterback can make plays with his feet.

To run the zone-read successfully, a quarterback must have instincts to make decisions in the blink of an eye and the speed to make plays in a fraction of a second.

At Auburn, the Tigers employ a run-first zone-read scheme that asks Marshall to handle more responsibilities in the running game. The junior only has 1,759 passing yards this year, but he has 1,023 rushing yards because Malzahn has tailored his offense to get the most out of his quarterback's abilities.

At Clemson, Tajh Boyd is a pass-first quarterback, and his 3,473 yards through the air reflect that. Boyd has only rushed for 273 yards this season, but his 514 yards on the ground from a year ago show his dual-threat capabilities.

At Arizona State, Taylor Kelly leads the most balanced of the three schemes. Kelly has 3,510 passing yards and an additional 473 rushing yards. Of the three signal-callers, Kelly is actually responsible for the most total yards.

Arizona State's offense averages more points per game than both Auburn and Clemson, and the Sun Devils have the best balance of the three schools as well. The zone-read is successful at Arizona State for a variety of reasons, but mostly because of the man taking the snaps.

Kelly was a two-star quarterback recruit coming out of high school, and the third quarterback on the depth chart when Graham and Norvell arrived in Dec. of 2011. If all goes well next season, Kelly will hold a number of school records and he's on pace to set a few single-season records in the Holiday Bowl this year too.

Norvell's arrival and Kelly's presence in the program was fortuitous because neither of the quarterbacks ahead of him had the capabilities to run the zone-read attack. Mike Bercovici is a solid passer, but he lacked the speed to win the starting job. Michael Eubank has the speed, but he remains far from a polished passer and Kelly's decision-making in the zone-read is far superior.

While Kelly was a head-scratching choice for the starting job last year, it actually created the perfect storm.

Even though the Sun Devils' averaged more than 38 points per game in 2012, the offense was missing a critical component. Arizona State did not have a true No. 1 receiver, and that forced Mike Norvell to get creative.

The zone-read thrives on creating new looks off of a base play, and when Kelly keeps the ball after his initial read of the edge rusher, he often has a run-pass option. Last season, the Sun Devils did not have a consistent downfield receiving target or someone who could make plays on a bubble screen, so tight end Chris Coyle invariably became the go-to option.

Norvell motioned Coyle across the formation to put him in favorable situations in the receiving game. The majority of Coyle's receptions in 2012 came on routes that pushed him toward the sideline, which is atypical of a traditional tight end.

The Sun Devils' offense struggled last season when teams were able to key in on Coyle's alignment and cover him. In Arizona State's five losses last season, Coyle recorded just a single touchdown and surpassed 56 yards just once (85 against USC).

Norvell's strategy for using Coyle isn't how the offensive coordinator wanted to build the offense, especially because the tight end is a necessary component in run-blocking for the zone-read. With Coyle out in space, the Sun Devils often had one less blocker on the field than they would have liked.

All of that changed when the Sun Devils added wide receiver Jaelen Strong into the mix this season. Strong gives the Sun Devils' an added element that allows the zone-read to evolve and become a big-play threat.

When Kelly keeps the ball on the zone-read, some variations give him the option of running and others give him a run-pass option. This season, Kelly did not have to rely on throwing to a tight end in the flat route, and could instead establish a connection with Strong on bubble screens and their trademark back-shoulder fades.

With Strong in the fold, Norvell was able to use Coyle as an extra blocker or send him down the middle of the field in space which is why Coyle's reception numbers dropped from 57 to 28 and his yards per catch numbers improved from 12.2 to 14.8 yards per catch.

The Sun Devils' improvement from an 8-5 season in 2012 to a 10-3 season with a potential for an 11th win in 2013 can be directly traced back to the offensive adjustments the team made this season.

Most of the personnel (Kelly, Grice, Coyle, and Foster) were in their second year working in the zone-read offense which takes time to familiarize players with. Much of the attack relies on timing and repetition, which makes Nick Marshall of Auburn look that much more impressive.

The only key changes the Sun Devils made at skill positions came at wide receiver, where Strong aligned as an outside target and Foster aligned in the slot. Changing personnel is much easier at wide receiver as opposed to running back and quarterback, because the timing and mesh point is harder for running backs and quarterbacks to pick up because it requires a live defense to simulate.

Because the Sun Devils' maintained so much consistency on offense this year, it was nearly impossible for opponents to limit all of Arizona State's targets. A basic zone-read play could give Kelly the option of putting the ball in the hands of Grice, Foster, Coyle, or Strong and most defenses do not have the manpower to match up with all of those weapons.

This begs the question, "When does the zone-read not work?" For the 2012 version of the Sun Devils, we already know that teams that could stop the run and key in on Chris Coyle had the best chance at slowing down Arizona State. For the 2013 version, it was teams that dominated the Sun Devils' offensive line.

The Sun Devils have only lost three games in 2013; two to Stanford and one to Notre Dame. Both Stanford and Notre Dame had superior defensive fronts that were able to shut down the most important element of the zone-read before it got started; the running game.

In Arizona State's first game against Stanford, the Sun Devils rushed for 50 yards. Against Notre Dame, Arizona State gained 112 rushing yards on an average of 2.6 yards per carry and sacked Taylor Kelly six times. In the Pac-12 Championship game, the Sun Devils gained 178 rushing yards while Kelly was sacked five times.

Furthermore, if you eliminate D.J. Foster's 51-yard rushing touchdown, Arizona State amassed just 3.02 yards per carry.

The trend of stopping the zone-read by stopping the run isn't just applicable to Arizona State losses. In the Sun Devils' 20-19 victory against Utah, Arizona State scored just seven points through the first three quarters. Not surprisingly, the Sun Devils rushed for just 54 yards through those first three quarters. In the final frame, Arizona State racked up 95 rushing yards and 13 points to sneak out of Salt Lake City with a victory.

Quite simply, the zone-read (and Arizona State) goes as the offensive line goes.

When the Sun Devils hung 62 points on USC, Arizona State rushed for 261 yards on an average of 7.5 yards per carry. When Arizona State put up 53 on Washington, Marion Grice led the way with 158 of the Sun Devils' 314 rushing yards. Finally, against UCLA, the Sun Devils were persistent in running the football as they rushed 50 times for a total of 223 yards.

The success of the zone-read is far more simple to trace than it is to stop. Even some of the nation's best defenses will have trouble against the zone-read because it forces teams to guess where the ball is going. So unless a defensive line is far more talented and physical than an offensive line, the zone-read will help an offense have its way with a defense.

That's why Todd Graham likes it, and on Thursday, we'll discuss why the zone-read is here to stay at Arizona State.