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ASU Football: What to watch in the season opener against NAU

Five things to watch at Sun Devil Stadium or on the TV tonight

Zac BonDurant

Forty-plus new players means equally as many new storylines for Arizona State football. Thursday’s season opener against Northern Arizona will offer a glimpse into how far this team has come since the spring, and how different the game plan will be with two new coordinators and a fancy new quarterback.

On the opposing sideline, the Lumberjacks are looking for a second in-state upset in as many years after beating Arizona 21-19 last September. On top of a potential FCS tournament run, the ASU matchup will be their Super Bowl.

“We get to start it off Thursday night at home against a really good opponent, NAU,” head coach Herm Edwards said. “I mean, when you watch how they play, offensively and defensively, (head) coach (Chris) Ball has done a good job over there. And, you know, they beat Arizona last year. I know they’ll be excited about playing the Sun Devils.”

There is a lot to catch up on, so grab your notebooks. Here are five storylines to watch in addition to the game action.

Run/pass balance under Glenn Thomas

When Glenn Thomas came to Tempe in January, players beamed at the opportunity for a fast, pass-heavy offense. During the Spring Showcase and media day, Thomas and other coaches established the team’s fun-first mentality, while applauding Wyoming transfer Xazavian Valladay and third-year back Daniyel Ngata.

Rightfully so, this even coming from a quarterback-minded coach. Valladay is the active FBS leader in rushing yards (3,274), and Ngata is a former four-star recruit.

How far has the offense developed with Jones under center? How balanced will it be?

The Sun Devils’s talent offensively is centrally located around the running backs, tight ends and Jones. Multiple factors point to Edwards and Thomas taking a conservative approach against NAU: it is the season opener, quarterback Emory Jones arrived on campus just four months ago and next week’s matchup against no. 12 Oklahoma State is the premier non-conference matchup of the season. It may be in ASU’s best interest to keep the heavy-hitting plays and schemes on the shelf for another week.

The offensive line will also dictate some of the game plan. Penn State transfer and right tackle Des Holmes, an emerging leader among the linemen, will miss Thursday’s game, so ASU will be short-handed up front, though the coaches wouldn’t say so. Joey Ramos, who is also in contention for starting right guard, will fill in at right tackle.

Expect a lot of running. If the line does not hold up, simple and short play-action passes can give Jones space and room to run. Jones will likely not throw the ball over 25 times Thursday.

Offensive target share

Everybody is dying to know who is next up at receiver. ASU sent three wide receivers (N’Keal Harry, Brandon Aiyuk and Frank Darby) to the NFL from 2018-2020, but the room took a significant blow when Ricky Pearsall, the team’s leading receiver in 2021, transferred to Florida.

“The veteran guy (is) obviously (senior Bryan Thompson), but there’s a bunch of young talented ones there that haven’t played a lot,” Edwards said. “I think it’s going to be interesting to me too to watch (Glenn Thomas) call a game and how, you know, I’m going to be in communication with him obviously, but how he calls the game. We got some interesting stuff. It’s going to be interesting how he decides who’s getting (what) and I think it’s like anything else when you get a hot player, you get it to him.”

This may be the year a tight end, either Jalin Conyers or Messiah Swinson, leads the team in receptions. Or will it be a running back?

Keep an eye on Elijah Badger. Badger is widely regarded as the most talented receiver in Tempe, but off-the-field issues early in his career and lack of consistency have prevented a breakout for the former four-star from Folsom, Calif.

“Now, it’s just a matter of can (Badger) do it in games consistently, right?” Edwards said. “You see flashes. There’s no doubt. We saw that when we first got him. He’s matured a lot too since.”

The flashes showed last season with some gadget plays, and in camp as a true receiver, but Badger is still on the cusp of becoming a memorable name in the conference.

Emory Jones under pressure, and will he face any adversity?

Edwards was vocal about his expectation for Jayden Daniels to run for four first downs every game on off-schedule plays. Emory Jones shares a very similar skillset to Daniels with the ability to extend plays with his legs. Jones also edged out Daniels in most statistical categories in 2021, including passing touchdowns (Jones: 19, Daniels: 10), passing yards (Jones: 2734, Daniels: 2380) and rushing yards (Jones: 759, Daniels: 710).

Daniels was quick to run when the pocket collapsed at ASU. It will be interesting to see if Jones keeps his eyes downfield while under pressure, or if he puts his head down and fights for the first down marker.

The program and its fans would like to see an upgrade in the passing game from Daniels’s 2021 performance, but that will be dictated by a multitude of factors, including pass protection, and pass-catcher production.

Defensive rotations

The first eleven defensive players that Edwards and defensive coordinator Donnie Henderson send on the field will likely not be a surprise. It is the substitutions, and their frequency, that will be newsworthy.

We could see as many as eight different defensive linemen, four different linebackers and 9-10 defensive backs all rotating Thursday night. The snap counts will reflect where the coaches are placing their trust in some positional battlegrounds, such as defensive end (Joe Moore, Travez Moore, Anthonie Cooper) cornerback (Ro Torrence, Ed Woods, Macen Williams) and safety (Khoury Bethley, Chris Edmonds, Kejuan Markham, D.J. Taylor, Alijah Gammage).

Players like B.J. Green and T.J. Pesefea made a name for themselves on third down last season, so it will be interesting to see this year’s group, and if Henderson and defensive line coach Robert Rodriguez form player platoons to keep the legs fresh.

The smaller battles

Whether it be drops, mental mistakes or bonehead penalties, ASU was poisoned by discipline issues last year. They finished 128th (131 total) in the FBS in penalty yards per-game.

Had this sickness been a milder case, the Sun Devils may have had an extra win last year.

“We can’t have that. We can’t go back to what we were last year. We need to change this team,” captain Case Hatch said. It is a poignant note that can be applied to many facets of Sun Devil football.

More generally, special teams success and victories on third down are often a recipe for a strong showing on the gridiron. Last year, ranked ASU as the no. 119 team in the FBS in special teams, also good for last in the Pac-12.

On third downs, the Sun Devils found more success. Their 44.93% conversion-rate was good for np. 23 in the nation. Weirdly enough, that was only the sixth-best rate in the Pac-12.

Will the NAU matchup come down to third-downs and special teams? Probably not, but Edwards and company have struggled to correct these issues in the past. Week one woes in the smaller battles could signal trouble down the road.