When most of the nation thinks of the Arizona State Sun Devils’ offense, the first name to come to mind is junior wide receiver N’Keal Harry. The 6-foot-4 wide out has a very good chance to be a first round pick in next year’s NFL Draft. And the Washington Huskies know that.
It’s most likely Washington head coach Chris Petersen and defensive coordinator Jimmy Lake will attempt to make someone rather than Harry beat them on Saturday. Lake, who has been at the school since 2014 has helped get the likes of defensive backs Marcus Peters, Kevin King, Budda Baker and Sidney Jones to the next level.
Lake now has junior safety Taylor Rapp and redshirt sophomore cornerback Byron Murphy project to reach the next level of the next couple of years. In the Sun Devils win last year, Harry had nine receptions. It was one of three games he had nine or more receptions, but he only had 79 yards against the Huskies compared to 142 and 148 yards in the other two games with nine-plus catches.
“I think they do a really good job of, they have a great balance of really good talent that tackle well and then they have a scheme that prevents you from making big plays and that’s a pretty good recipe,” offensive coordinator Rob Likens said. “And they’re well coached, (Chris Petersen) does a great job, he’s done it everywhere he’s ever been and so that’s the challenge is we have to execute at a high level and can’t turn the ball over.
“The big thing about Washington is they put their safety so deep that they don’t give up big plays. So that’s their whole thing is, ‘We’re gonna play this, the free safety 15, 17 sometimes 20 yards deep.’ And they’re not gonna let you get behind them, they’re not gonna give up the big play.”
If Petersen and Lake decide to let anyone but Harry beat them through the air, the weight will fall on the shoulders on redshirt junior Kyle Williams, redshirt sophomore Frank Darby and junior JUCO transfer Brandon Aiyuk. The collection of those three may be considered the “other guys,” by outsiders who don’t know ASU’s wide receiver crop. But they all have different skill sets.
Williams, who works mostly from the slot or as the “H” receiver will most likely be redshirt senior quarterback Manny Wilkins’ go-to target if Harry is covered. Williams has already proved himself in a big game as he led the team in receiving in the win over Michigan State. He had seven catches for 104 yards in that game, including his 38-yard reception before the game-tying touchdown connection between Wilkins and Harry.
Darby and Aiyuk have taken the roles of the “Z” receiver, but their games are slightly different. Darby has become the favorite deep threat for Wilkins as coach Herm Edwards explained on Monday.
“He’s sneaky fast. He seems to get behind people. We’ve seen this the last couple weeks. Probably is one of the best long-ball catchers on our team, as far as adjusting to the ball and finding it in the air,” Edwards said. “The kid makes a good strip from a Michigan State or he catches one against Michigan State as well down the boundary.”
Darby might struggle to get behind defenders if the Washington defense plays how Likens expects it to. However, if Darby is getting attention from the defense, ASU will take that as it will open up the field more for Harry and Williams.
Aiyuk still hasn’t shown everything from fall camp that created the buzz around him coming into the first game. There were flashes of it in the game against SDSU. Aiyuk got a screen that showcased his speed and ability to run in more of an open field. He then was able to shed a tackle for a 12-yard touchdown against the Aztecs.
Washington may be able to limited Harry, but that doesn’t mean the passing game will be slowed down completely. If ASU walks out of Seattle with a victory, one or possibly two of Williams, Darby or Aiyuk will have had big days.