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ASU Football: Postseason Media Roundtable, Pt. 1

There’s a lot to think about.

NCAA Football: Washington at Arizona State Matt Kartozian-USA TODAY Sports

We reached out to those who participated in our preseason local media roundtable to get their thoughts on the Arizona State Sun Devils’ offseason outlook.

We’ve broken it up into two parts, with the first segment of questions and responses focusing on the positives, the negatives and the surprises from the season.

Our Panel

Connor Pelton - House of Sparky Co-Managing Editor (@ConnorPelton28)
Kaelen Jones - House of Sparky Co-Managing Editor (@kaelenjones)
Zac Pacleb - House of Sparky Multimedia reporter (@ZacPacleb)
Miles Todd - House of Sparky Multimedia Reporter (@5280fs_s)
Fabian Ardaya - Devils Digest/Campus Rush Reporter (@FabianArdaya)
Justin Toscano - Devis Digest Reporter (@JustinCToscano)
Stefan Modrich - State Press Football Reporter (@StefanJModrich)
Mathew Tonis - State Press Football Reporter (@Tonis_The_Tiger)
Brad Denny - Former House of Sparky Editor/3 TV Sports Writer - (@BDenny29 ... and the most credible person here, according to this)

1.) What's a positive and negative you took away from the 2016 season?

Ardaya: Let's face it—there weren't many positives for Arizona State during the 2016 season. Sure, the 4-0 start was a lot of fun to watch and surprised plenty (nobody saw eight touchdowns in one game coming, like what happened with Kalen Ballage against Texas Tech).

There weren't many who outperformed expectations, but the name that comes up to me as a positive from this season have to be linebacker Koron Crump. He stepped in and proved to be the Sun Devils' most versatile and reliable player on the defensive end. Another positive has to be watching Zane Gonzalez kick his way to greatness and the NCAA record books this season. Any chance to see history and greatness is a net positive. Also, N'Keal Harry is just so much fun to watch, and there's (at least) two more years of him. Sun Devil fans can be happy with that.

The negatives are aplenty. Let's start with the secondary, which despite brand-new personnel once again set new records for their inability to stop offenses from throwing the ball relentlessly against them. Had it not been for Brandon Dawkins' eight total attempts (none in the second half), the Sun Devils could have passed the 2014 Cal Golden Bears for the worst passing defense in NCAA history. Tackling opposing ball carriers seems like a very important part of the game of football, and Pro Football Focus said ASU's defense does that at a lower efficiency than anyone else in the country. ASU's offensive line needs helps, and the injuries—notably at quarterback—were a disappointment.

Denny: For much of the year, the Sun Devils showed a resolve that bodes well for the future. Despite the many obstacles they faced—tough teams, a massive rash of key injuries, making mistakes that come with being a young team—these Sun Devils never quit (until the season finale). They battled. They fought like hell. This resulted in some early season victories, and it put them in position to pull off wins against Oregon and Washington State. They would fall behind, but they were never out of it. That attitude is often one you see in more experienced teams, and if the young players who endured 2016 can come back strong and use that as a foundation, good things should be ahead.

I'm sure many of the others will point to something the defensive side of the ball as their top negative (and, rightfully so), so point to another: Quarterback. The race to replace Mike Bercovici was the big offseason storyline, and now a season later, we are even further away from a long-term answer.

Manny Wilkins flashed some potential, but also his limitations during his 10 starts. Injuries definitely hampered his development, but legitimate questions remain about his viability as a Pac-12 caliber starter. That same injury bug knocked Brady White out for the year (and through spring ball), while Bryce Perkins never made it through fall camp before he was hurt. True freshman Dillon Sterling-Cole never got his chance to redshirt, but looked promising—and very raw—during his time. Now, former Alabama quarterback Blake Barnett is transferring in, with coveted recruit Ryan Kelley still committed to the program.

After a disillusioning season, ASU remains as unsettled as ever at the game's most crucial position.

Jones: The emergence of Koron Crump, N’Keal Harry and Kalen Ballage as the team’s top players, in my opinion, was huge because it hints at the idea ASU possesses some star power. Those are three guys who can be the difference in a ball game moving forward.

Still, the fact the offensive line is in flux and the secondary is still a problem which has yet to be fixed is something to give fans pause moving forward. Not to mention the quarterback situation, which wasn’t solved.

Modrich: It fits with the theme of a historic, record-setting campaign for Zane Gonzalez – the biggest positive, at least in the long term, for ASU, was the impact of Shawn Slocum’s special teams unit. The Sun Devils improved markedly, going from 59th to 38th in special teams from 2014 to 2015 to 25th overall in 2016.

I don’t feel great about bashing the secondary, which was injury-plagued and overmatched throughout conference play, in addition to being the worst FBS pass defense. But I’m going to do it anyway. Arizona State identified and diagnosed a glaring weakness in its special teams play and quickly took action to cure it. The same thing needs to happen with the defense, whether it’s a coaching change, a philosophical shift, or a focus on recruiting better defensive backs.

Pacleb: Positive: N’Keal Harry is awesome in every aspect in which a receiver can be awesome, and he did it with every quarterback that lined up for ASU. Tim White was hobbled for most of the season, but Harry showed early that he could carry the load as the No. 1 option out wide.

Negative: I had no idea what is going on in the secondary other than it wasn’t doing its job, and heading into next season, I’m not sure how the improvements can be made. As a whole, the defense dealt with the exact same issues as last season (big plays, poor tackling), so I have to say I’m not optimistic about what that side of the ball will look like next season. Of course, I’m sure players hear the criticism and will put in work to improve, but two seasons of the same trend is something that is less than ideal, especially when it isn’t just a few players but rather a whole roster.

Pelton: Well, the first half of the season was certainly a positive. Outside of the ugly loss at USC and all of the injuries to various quarterbacks, there wasn't much to complain about in the team's 5-1 start.

As far as negatives go, the last six games, and the way Arizona State played and lost those games, could certainly qualify. Only one of those six losses was competitive, and most of them featured late collapses where the Sun Devil defense was carved up in every way imaginable.

Todd: Positive: N’keal Harry is an absolute superstar. He can do it all and is going to be a monster in the future. Incredible joy to watch.

Negative: Giving up BIG plays, obviously. It became the same story every week. Also, it’s not like they would give up big plays in crunch time or anything but mostly just in the middle of the game. It would be a close game and then that big play would happen and all of a sudden the momentum is completely shifted and ASU wouldn’t be able to recover.

Toscano: Positive—Aside from the historic season Zane Gonzalez had, a positive I took away looking towards the future is Koron Crump. Considering all of ASU's defensive mishaps, miscues and overall ineptitude at times, finding its Devilbacker is a success. The program has been searching for a Devilbacker ever since Carl Bradford excelled at the position in 2013. In fall camp this year, the team didn't have a set Devilbacker, which was further evidenced by different players like JoJo Wicker working with the Devilbackers during practices. Luckily for the Sun Devils, Crump stepped up in a big way at Devilbacker and on special teams. ASU's defense had a historically bad year, but it could have potentially been much worse had Crump not been out there. Moving forward, he's a bright spot heading to the Spring, and I expect the expectations to follow him into next season.

Negative—The secondary. Obviously the defense as a whole was brutal in 2016, but the secondary served as a real negative for me because they were a new group that preached using this season as a "clean slate" after the 2015 debacle. However, little changed. I believe the secondary and the defense will once again preach the fresh start 2017 brings, but I'm not so sure things drastically improve, which is why the secondary is my negative takeaway. The unit can't get much worse, right? On the same token, I don't see many reliable avenues to drastic improvement either. Kareem Orr will undoubtedly be important, but ASU loses Laiu Moeakiola and Gump Hayes. The Sun Devils have guys like Maurice Chandler, J'Marcus Rhodes and Robbie Robinson, but all are pretty unproven for the most part. I am interested to see how ASU goes about improving its secondary.

Tonis: The development of young players on the offensive side is one of the few positives of the 2016 season. N'Keal Harry was consistently the best player on the field for ASU and Dillon Sterling-Cole looked like he could assume the starting quarterback role as soon as the spring, despite some freshman mistakes in his limited playing time. Negatives are the same as they have been, the defense is bad and can't stay healthy. It's hard to say if the defense is as bad as it was if all 11 starters could have been healthy, but they weren't and we ended up witnessing one of the worst defenses in the history of college football. Something needs to change, or else it's more of the same in the future.

2.) Who or what surprised you the most this season? (can be good or bad.)

Ardaya: What surprised me the most might the fact that not only did the secondary not improve with TJ Rushing taking over for Chris Ball as the defensive backs coach, it might have taken a step back. The only returning starter who played the majority of games in 2015 was Kareem Orr, but the overall talent level of having Armand Perry and expected newcomers Maurice Chandler and J'Marcus Rhodes was expected to be increased over Orr, Lloyd Carrington, Jordan Simone and Kweishi Brown. That didn't really work out, even with the emergence of Marcus Ball down the stretch.

Denny: The "2016 is a rebuilding year" narrative was took center stage this year, and for good reason. Given the overall youth and roster makeup, the Sun Devils were long looked at to take some lumps this season as they build for the future. The roster, on both sides of the ball, was (and still is) loaded with so many potential stars.

However, in many critical areas, that building never took place. Most worrisome, there was regression in some cases.

As mentioned earlier, the quarterback situation is up in the air. The offense line was poor, and injuries prevented any kind of consistency in the trenches. And the defense...well, the defense was somehow even worse than it was in 2015. Tackling was shoddy, turnovers were not generated, the pass rush was inconsistent, and big plays...oh, the big plays. The defense was supposed to have a steep learning curve during the year, but they were supposed to get better. Instead, they got worse. Much worse.

Jones: It surprised me none of the key problems didn’t change for this team on either side of the ball. Offensive line—in my time following ASU—has usually been a strength, and the very least has been serviceable. The same goes for the secondary. While tackling issues have always been suspect, I didn’t expect communication to be so poor... again.

Modrich: It would be easy to say that a down year was expected, but there was quite a bit that surprised me this season.

I didn’t expect Dillon Sterling-Cole to play, much less start a game, or for Jack Smith (former Mountain Pointe quarterback) and for several other skill position players to throw passes this season. It goes without saying that I wouldn’t have expected the injury trouble to have afflicted the Sun Devils so severely.

I didn’t expect Kalen Ballage to set a single-game scoring record and rack up 469 total receiving yards, nor did I anticipate such a steep decline in usage and production from Demario Richard in the second half of the year, though this was likely due to injury.

Koron Crump’s play was a pleasant surprise, and we got a chance to see how explosive he was late in the year against Washington and Arizona.

Finally, it was shocking that ASU was only competitive for a full 60 minutes in three Pac-12 games this season, and managed to win just two of them.

Pacleb: Honestly, not to beat a dead horse here, but the fact that the defense was just as bad at the same things surprised me the most. Sure, ASU started a converted running back (Gump Hayes) at cornerback and shuffled its lineup to make up for injuries, but the poor tackling was something I expected to naturally improve after struggling the year before. I get that some big plays will happen, especially when the plugging and replacing players at the rate ASU did, but to have what seems like an roster-wide problem with a critical component of playing any defensive position caught me off guard.

Also, that performance against Arizona..

Pelton: There were plenty of negative surprises, but I'll focused instead on one of the good ones.

I knew N'Keal Harry would be a solid option at wide receiver in his first year out of high school, but I didn't think he would have this big of an impact. The freshman led the team in receptions and touchdown catches and was oftentimes the team's only consistent option in the passing game. Those stats allowed him to take home our "Newcomer of the Year" Award, and there wasn't really any debate.

Harry did all of this while catching balls from three different quarterbacks throughout the season. It will be interesting to see how he does as a sophomore if there is only one signal-caller throwing him passes all year long.

Todd: This is a dumb answer but I want to be different so I’m not going to say N’keal Harry or injuries but what I was most surprised by the amount of hurdling done. Like seriously. It’s not a simple move to execute because of how dangerous it can be. However, Manny and Kalen Ballage consistently hurdled defenders and made it look easy.

Tonis: What surprised me most is something I alluded to in question one; the inability to stay healthy. Every team has injuries, but at one point, ASU was missing half of its total starters, and you can't win like that. Sure, players miss time, but when multiple players at each position are sitting for multiple games, there's no continuity on the playing or practice field, leading to worse performance on both.

Toscano: The injuries. The injury bug hit ASU in the deadliest way this year. The team started 4-0, but starting quarterback Manny Wilkins suffered an injury at USC, which started the onslaught of injuries. The Sun Devils played without 10 of their starters at Oregon, which is a crippling situation for an inexperienced team facing a transition year to begin with. Injuries are unfortunate, but injuries to the quarterback position are deadly. In addition to Wilkins missing time, ASU also lost Brady White. Bryce Perkins suffered a neck injury in the fall and missed the season, so ASU was forced to burn Dillon Sterling-Cole's redshirt. The Sun Devils had four new starters on their offensive line, and that group also experienced injury issues. The running backs were looked at as the offense's most talented position group, but both Demario Richard and Kaelen Ballage were hampered by injuries at points. The defense experienced injuries issues of its own as well. The linebacking corps was thinned down when it lost Christian Sam for the year and a knee injury slowed down Kareem Orr, just to name two of the many examples. Muscle beach was always packed at practice. Injuries are one thing — they happen in football, as Todd Graham noted many times. However, ASU lost many key players to injuries, which surprised me the most this season.