The 2014 football season is upon us, and there remain several unknowns with this year's version of the Arizona State Sun Devils. While opening against Weber State should pose little risk to the Sun Devils in the loss column (the Wildcats were winless on the road in 2013, and won just two games overall), Arizona State has a lot to learn in its season opener.
The offense has relatively few question marks. Outside of who will emerge as the true number two receiver opposite Jaelen Strong, and how well the offensive line has bonded in camp, Sun Devil fans should otherwise be ready to sit back and enjoy a night of high octane, run-and-gun offense that should, in all honesty, score 35 or more first-half points.
But defense...oh defense. While Todd Graham would have us all believing that this year's team is going to come together to be just as good as last years while defending the ball, they've yet to prove they are even in the same tier from a talent perspective. And that brings us to the first Matchup of the Week in 2014.
Keith Patterson and Todd Graham vs. Expectations
It is true; there is really no matchup to watch on the field. Weber State lacks any real talent on either side of the ball. The team averaged just less than 16 points per game in 2013, and then lost its starting quarterback and second-leading rusher.
I know, this game doesn't seem like a problem for Arizona State then. The defense should come out, play its base packages, control the game and be off the field at halftime of a presumptive blowout. But that's the problem. If new defensive coordinator Patterson and Graham want to rapidly develop this young group of players, they've got to let them play most of the game, regardless of the score.
With as many as nine freshman expected to be in the rotation, the Sun Devils must employ their entire defense, complete with the line-of-scrimmage calls previously left to Alden Darby and Chris Young, the stunts and twists run by Will Sutton and Carl Bradford, and the one-on-one, man-against-man matchups that Gannon Conway consistently won in 2013 without gaining any attention.
Here is the list of players who have little-to-no in-game experience, but are expected to be in the defensive rotation on Thursday night: Demetrius Cherry, Tashon Smallwood, Edmond Boateng, DJ Calhoun, Christian Sam, Armand Perry, Solomon Means, Kweishi Brown, Marcus Ball and Jordan Simone.
So what will I be looking for? What should you be watching for?
I'm interested in seeing the communication between linebackers. Graham's aggressive scheme puts a lot of pressure on the linebackers to make adjustments at the line of scrimmage, and miscommunication can be deadly. The Sun Devils don't play a lot of two-deep, which means Damarious Randall is on his own. That's not a problem, but Randall can't cover two or three receivers at once. It will be important for DJ Calhoun to get his pre-snap reads correct and communicate with the rest of the defense.
The other glaring area to watch is the defensive line. We still don't really have answers as to who is going to play where, but we do know that aside from Jaxon Hood, it appears that Marcus Hardison is the only other lock to see significant playing time. With Hood possibly moving away from the nose tackle position, I want to see him dominate the line. He should have more luck getting to the quarterback while split out to the 3-technique.
Where Sun Devil fans should start to worry is if Weber State is opening up big holes in the running game. One problem with relying so heavily on youth up front is that often it's the linemen who take the longest to develop strength. If Weber State can move the Sun Devils off the line, than what is UCLA going to do?
I'm less concerned about the secondary in this one; the Wildcats couldn't throw last year and shouldn't be able to against Arizona State either. But, if corners are getting beat deep, that again raises a red flag.
I know this isn't ground breaking stuff, but these are the type of things you look for in a preseason game, and let's all be honest here, this is a preseason game. A loss spells doom for Arizona State's season anyway, and it is true that FCS teams stun several FBS teams every season, but I just don't see that here. This game is, however, going to be a good indication of just how well Patterson and Graham have been able to groom this young defense.
Arizona State has three games to kick the defense into high gear and keep the offense fresh and healthy. Weber State, New Mexico and Colorado should all be wins. But if the Sun Devils allow an FCS team coming off a shockingly inefficient season to move the ball, sustain long drives and not turn it over, then it's time to raise the red flags all over Tempe.
Arizona State has absolutely nothing to gain in this game. A blowout is expected, and a shutout should be a very real possibility. Nobody will be patting the defense on their backs if they hold Weber State to a goose egg, but a penalty-filled, turnover-less performance that yields two or three touchdowns will not be what Graham and company, or the fans, are looking for to start the season.