Arizona State is now just two days away from hosting New Mexico State at Sun Devil Stadium for the season opener. The Devils are favored heavily in this matchup - the line currently sits at ASU -23.5 - but there are still many areas in the program that need to be addressed.
Let’s take a look ASU’s greatest strengths and weaknesses heading into their week one matchup.
During Monday’s practice just four players wore green (non-contact) jerseys and three sat on muscle beach, excluding themselves from tempo drills. This is a huge improvement from last season, and though it won’t stay this way, ASU fans should be extremely confident in most difference-makers being healthy to start week one.
The front seven - excluding Jalen Bates, who was not likely to see much playing time anyway - is fully healthy and remains one of the best in the conference. It’s also refreshing to see a healthy slew of defensive backs and a deep offensive line with little to no question marks health-wise.
Injuries went a long way to derail the Sun Devils 2016-17 campaign, but a lack of them could make a huge difference down the stretch for ASU.
When you take your attention away from the highly-publicized quarterback battle and analyze the rest of the offense, it’s easy to realize that it may not matter too much or starts the season under center, as long as they can get the ball into their teammates’ hands.
Running backs Demario Richard and Kalen Ballage both have extremely high ceilings as rushers and are both capable of splitting the workload and each getting near 1,000 yards. They represent a dynamic one-two punch of speed, versatility and experience that rival any backs in the conference.
Receivers is another area that is full of interesting talents, N’Keal Harry clearly demonstrated his ability to take over a game last season and Jalen Harvey flashed potential as a solid number two to Harry. This season, however, Arizona State has added more talent to their slot position in transfers Ryan Newsome and John Humphrey. It’s difficult to say what exactly they will finish with when the season comes to a close but adding two dynamic speed-first receivers to the slot never hurts.
It’s easy to get lost in the shuffle when concerned about the secondary, quarterback battle or offensive line play. Someone that has seemingly flown under the radar during summer practice is freshman kicker Brandon Ruiz. Since flipping from Alabama, the kid once heralded as one of the best in the nation has done nothing but impress over the last few months. It’s a good sign when multiple writers on our preseason roundtables believe he’s capable of three or more 55 plus yard field goals.
Although the last few seasons have obviously been poor for ASU in terms of it’s secondary performance, I’m not ready to say that they’ll be just as terrible as they were last year (or the year before). There are some solid athletes back there, but they lack experience. Joey Bryant is a converted track and field athlete, Kobe Williams has played almost exclusively at the junior college level and it’s important to remember that even Marcus Ball is just in his second season in the secondary.
Graham and company didn’t necessarily have many options after Armand Perry and Kareem Orr left, but it’s unlikely these guys make a huge improvement over last year’s unit.
A definitive answer at the SPUR position
Defensive coordinator Phil Bennett has been searching for his lead guy at SPUR - ASU’s linebacker/safety hybrid position - since he arrived last spring. Although J’Marcus Rhodes is listed as the starter, you could argue that Ball is the superior option due to his frame and experience as both a linebacker and safety. They will likely both campaign for starting reps at arguably the most important position on Bennett’s unit.
Another area of concern would be the depth beneath these two. Ball is also listed as the second option below Dasmond Tautalatasi at the bandit safety position, which could create some issues.
For example: if Tautatasi gets injured and Rhodes is struggling - or vice versa - Bennett will have to choose where to insert Ball. If he plays him at bandit, redshirt junior Tyler Whiley will be thrust into just his fifth game on the field. If Bennett slots Ball into the SPUR position, that leaves 5 foot 10 freshman Langston Frederick in the starting role at bandit. Neither of these are beneficial situations for the Sun Devils
Of course, the Devils cannot control (for the most part) who they’re up against this season, but that doesn’t change the fact that their 12-game slate won’t do them any favors this year.
Outside of New Mexico State, the Devils have a quietly tough non-conference schedule. They have an 11-3 San Diego State program that did lose star running back Donnell Pumphrey to the NFL, but it does take more than just a talented back to win that many games in the Mountain West. They beat a California team that took ASU deep into the fourth quarter and tallied a +27.1 point differential across their 11 victories. Texas Tech possesses one of the most electrifying offenses in the country and we will likely see another absolute shootout like we did last year. That game is a toss-up.
The main issue is the middle six games of the season, where Arizona State faces Oregon, Stanford, Washington, Utah, USC and Colorado. Oregon has far too much talent to stay at the bottom once again, Stanford and Washington will go head-to-head for the Pac-12 North title and a shot at the playoff later this fall, Utah and Colorado had very strong seasons last year and USC is a top-five team nationally.
If ASU wants a bowl berth they had better sweep all six games they will likely be favored in.