It didn’t fall apart from the get-go, but once it happened, it happened in one fell swoop.
That’s essentially the story of ASU’s 2016 season on the gridiron, as a 4-0 start culminated in a six-game losing streak and utter humiliation in Tucson. As injuries dissolved ASU’s quarterback depth and the Sun Devil defense labored its way to bottom of the FBS in total defense, the 5-7 campaign was the worst in Todd Graham’s tenure and led the way for high scrutiny heading into the 2017 season.
ASU was able to rebound on the recruiting trail - landing its biggest fish in the form of former five-star Alabama QB Blake Barnett - but the last couple of seasons of Arizona State football have proved that even improved recruiting doesn’t directly-translate to wins come conference season.
With questions abound surrounding this Sun Devil team, they’ll enter the 2017 season looking to re-assert themselves as serious contenders in the Pac-12 and re-establish the trajectory that many thought Graham had the program on after back-to-back ten win seasons in 2013 and 2014.
As spring practice approaches, let’s analyze a few of the narratives surrounding the Sun Devils heading into the 2017 campaign.
Who asserts themselves in the receiving corps?
ASU already has its Batman in the shape of N’Keal Harry - whose freshman season saw bursts of greatness despite ASU’s offensive woes - but the Sun Devils will need to find their Robin if they expect to develop a more-balanced offensive attack in the 2017 campaign.
If they don’t manage to develop that consistent second option, it won’t be for the lack of players. ASU has plenty of depth in the receiving corps, and former four-star recruits Jalen Harvey and Terrell Chatman are still chomping at the bit to find their place in the Sun Devil offense.
They’ll have a pair of notable transfers to compete with for those opportunities, as Ryan Newsome (Texas) and John Humphrey (Oklahoma) arrive in Tempe after moving on from elite Big-12 programs. Both players are expected to contribute immediately, but how well they acclimate to the Pac-12 and their new offense will be paramount in determining whether or not they can develop into that consistent threat behind Harry.
Does the Sparky offense evolve or go by the wayside under Billy Napier?
Much was made about the effectiveness of the Sparky offense - the pseudo-Wildcat formation that Chip Lindsay brought to Tempe with enormous success - but there were also signs of its stagnation as the season dragged on and opponents became more keen to it.
Under new coordinator Billy Napier, there’s no telling whether or not he even has an intention of keeping the Sparky attack as part of his game plan, but if he does it’ll need to have some tweaks added to it. In short-yardage and goal-line situations the Sparky was immensely-effective last season, but it’ll need to be developed further for it to remain relevant in the ASU offense.
Can the secondary respond?
The Sun Devils have a new defensive coordinator in Phil Bennett, and the new DC will be under intense scrutiny to shore up the pass defense that has handcuffed ASU over the last two seasons. Armand Perry and Kareem Orr return as experienced starters, but the two were hardly bright spots in a secondary that averaged 357.42 passing yards allowed per game.
Aside from Perry and Orr, there’s little certainty as to who else will be relied upon to return ASU to the defensive dominance that Todd Graham prides his program on. Redshirt freshman Chase Lucas is in line to earn time, but he’ll be pushed by veterans Maurice Chandler and J’Marcus Rhodes.
This entire position group is a thing of uncertainty, as even players that return can’t be fully-trusted to perform at a improved level from last year’s output. How Bennett shapes his gameplan around the talent he has will be critical.
Who ascends across from Koron Crump as a consistent sack threat?
One of the few bright spots from the 2016 season came in Koron Crump, who burst on the scene as a JuCo transfer and led the Sun Devils with nine sacks on the year. Krump’s speed around the edge terrorized Pac-12 quarterbacks and even qualified him for time as a special teams gunner.
Krump returns as ASU’s top sack-master, but he’ll need some help if ASU expects to hold its own in the trenches consistently. Doug Subtyl returns to action after sitting out 2016 for academic reasons, and his frame places him as an ideal candidate to step in at Devilbacker and wreak havoc in opposing backfields.
On the defensive line, JoJo Wicker and Tashon Smallwood have to return to their 2015 form - and that doesn’t include just providing sacks and pressures. ASU’s defense was abysmal against the rush last season, and the play of these two experienced returners will be of the utmost importance.
Out of all the guys ASU has at QB, does one develop into being THE guy?
Ah, the, question that makes all other questions irrelevant. If ASU can’t answer this one, it won’t matter how well the rest of the team patches itself up.
There’s no shortage of talent in the ASU quarterback depth chart, but who earns Todd Graham’s vote of confidence in August and whether that guy ends the season in the same graces he started it in is yet to be determined. Blake Barnett and Manny Wilkins appear as the favorites, with returning starter Wilkins aiming to prevent transfer Barnett from swooping his job out of from under him.
But there’s still Bryce Perkins and Dillon Sterling-Cole that’ll be taking snaps in practice pads for ASU looking to earn real-game opportunities. Sterling-Cole showed flashes of ability in very limited game time.
It goes without saying that if you don’t figure out the quarterback position, you won’t have much success once the real games start. ASU has plenty of capable signal-callers, but no clue whether any of them are the signal-caller the Sun Devils need to return to national prominence.