Posted on July 15, 2020
Although the 2020 college football season has yet to be finalized, we continue our Pac-12 football previews with the Arizona State Sun Devils. This weekly series culminates in what would have been Week Zero with a conference-wide preview, complete with projected win-loss records and season predictions.
Overview: Sun Devils in Good Hands with Jayden Daniels at the Helm
Coming off a victory over Florida State in the Sun Bowl, Herm Edwards must find the production to replace his leading wide receiver and running back. Brandon Aiyuk and Eno Benjamin combined for 2,628 yards and 20 touchdowns in 2019, leaving a significant void to fill on the offensive side of the ball.
Fortunately, Edwards has one of the best quarterbacks in the Pac-12 in Jayden Daniels. The sophomore projects to compete with Kedon Slovis for the Conference’s Offensive Player of the Year, if everything goes as planned. To help ensure that happens, Edwards brought in former Boise State offensive coordinator Zak Hill to implement a new system.
Daniels will put his faith in Frank Darby to replace the deadly Aiyuk, but a go-to back must emerge for the Sun Devils to challenge USC in the South. Incoming freshman Daniyel Ngata and DeaMonte Trayanum figure to emerge early in the season as a viable one-two punch to replace to Benjamin.
On defense, Antonio Pierce was promoted to co-defensive coordinator along with former Cincinnati Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis. The two are tasked with implementing a 4-3 formation, but have one of the most experienced defenses in the Conference. Pierce and Lewis will need to maintain or improve the defense’s 22.4 points allowed per game if the Sun Devils are to take the proverbial “next step” in Edwards third season in Tempe.
Best-Case Scenario: After losing the opener to USC, Edwards leads the Sun Devils to eight wins in a row, including a shocking upset over Oregon in Eugene.
Daniels adjusts to the new offensive system with ease, consistently connecting with Darby and keeping plays alive with his legs. The three freshman four-star receivers—Johnny Wilson, LV Bunkley-Shelton, and Chad Johnson Jr.—hit the ground running and catch five or more touchdowns each.
In the backfield, Ngata and Trayanum live up to expectations to help the ASU offense put up more points per game than the measly 24.8 posted in 2019.
On the other side of the ball, the defense thrives under the direction of Lewis, while recruiting increases another level under Pierce. The transition from the 3-3-5 is smooth and effective. Freshman linebacker Jordan Banks consistently cracks the rotation along with freshman defensive tackle Omarr Norman-Lott. After year-over-year improvement in the Edwards Era, the unit finally emerges as an elite force in the Pac-12.
For the first time since 1996, Arizona State finishes the season ranked in the Top 10 of the AP poll.
Worst Case Scenario: The limited practice time obliterates the smoothness of the transition to the new systems, causing problems on both sides of the ball well into the middle part of the season. Oregon State and UCLA stun the Devils in Tempe, and Edwards is forced to rally his troops after starting 0-3.
Things begin to turn around after the players are given enough time to properly adjust to the new schemes. ASU wins five of its last eight, but the season is stained by the slow start.
In the end, the lack of spring, summer, and fall practices prove too much to overcome under the new staff.
What Should Happen: Daniels should make a jump from his freshman campaign, throwing for more yards and touchdowns. And while the first few games could reflect difficulties in the transition to a new coordinator, the prolific passer should quickly adjust and run the offense efficiently. Darby and the freshmen wide receivers won’t miss a beat, providing a consistent threat all season.
Ngata and Trayanum combine for 1,000 yards rushing as the Sun Devils finish 7-2 on the year, with the losses coming at the hands of the Ducks and Trojans.
With Lewis to guide them, the defense raises its game and Pierce pulls in at least one five-star defensive commit out of California. Momentum continues to build in the Edwards Era, and the 2021-22 season begins to look like the year the Sun Devils emerge as the favorite in the South.
What Must Happen: Apart from the need to start strong and transition smoothly to the new coordinators, the experienced defense must take control of games. With an offense that may struggle early on, the veteran-laden secondary needs to create turnovers and avoid giving up big plays.
Last season, ASU was 6-1 when holding opponents to 21 points or less, but was 2-4 when giving up more. Limiting opposing offenses remains a key in 2020, and Lewis has upperclassmen and an experienced sophomore in the secondary to work with.
The top four leading tacklers, top three interception leaders, top three leaders in forced fumbles, as well as the sack leader all return for the Sun Devils in what projects to be the best year for the defense in more than a decade. Meeting the high expectations is vital to Arizona State’s success, and a jump to elite status could be enough to push the team to a South Division championship in 2020.
To get it done, linebackers Merlin Robertson and Darien Butler must maintain their level of play, while Jack Jones, Aashari Crosswell, Evan Fields, Chase Lucas, and Cam Phillips need to continue to shine in the secondary.
Up front, Jermayne Lole’s transition to the 4-3 formation and ability to match his 6.5 sacks from last year is key.
Greatest Strength: Returning Defensive Production and an Elite Quarterback
The experience on defense can’t be overvalued.
After giving up just 24.8 points per game in 2019, the returning production matches or exceeds the elite defenses at Oregon and Washington. To translate that returning firepower to improvement on the field, the incoming freshmen class could be a game-changer.
Ranked as the fourth-best class in the Pac-12 and 23rd nationally, the defensive headliners are at the linebacker and lineman positions.
The adjustment of Brooks and Norman-Lott to the college game could be the extra push the defense needs to take the next step. Both four-stars figure to be featured in the rotation, but if either were to exceed expectations it could be the difference between a second and first-place finish in the South.
The defense’s improvement would be moot, though, if Daniels struggles in adjusting to Hill’s new scheme. The returning sophomore only threw two interceptions last year, a feat that will be a challenge to match. Fortunately, he only spent one year under the previous system and isn’t as entrenched in the playbook as an upperclassman.
With five highly rated recruits at the wide receiver and running back positions, Edwards has reloaded Daniels with enough talent to make up for the lost production of Aiyuk and Benjamin.
It will be up to Daniels to utilize the weapons around him and lead the team to victory.
Biggest Concern: Inexperience at Running Back and Pressure on Passing Game
The void at running back is easily the biggest cause for concern for the Sun Devils heading into the season. Ngata and Trayanum project to allay those fears, but neither has taken a snap at the college level and the regular practice schedule has been decimated by the Coronavirus.
The result is an even greater concern for the vital position.
Not only will the freshmen be relied upon to run the ball in game one, but they need to prove they can also catch out of the backfield and block with consistency. Junior college transfer Rachaad White figures to add extra depth, and Daniels should match or exceed his 355 yards rushing from last year, but there is almost no experience in the backfield to rely on.
Any struggles in the run game could force ASU to be one-dimensional, allowing defenses to ratchet up the pressure on Daniels and force poor throws. In many ways, the running back’s development could make-or-break the Sun Devils’ season.
Deciding Factors: The Effectiveness of Daniels in ASU’s New Offense
The play of Daniels and his adaption to the new offense is the most important piece to the Arizona State puzzle in 2020. After throwing for nearly 3,000 yards, 17 touchdowns, and just 2 interceptions last season, expectations are high for the true sophomore. He made a name for himself as a freshman, and now the pressure has ratcheted up.
His poise, leadership, and maturity in handling the brighter spotlight will go far in ASU’s success. The tutelage of Edwards and Lewis, two experienced former NFL coaches, may be the X-Factor in his development.
Not many expected Edwards to do this well, and he appears to be proving those who doubted him wrong. The addition of Lewis as the co-defensive coordinator was a power-move that is expected to pay dividends both on the field and off.
In just two seasons, recruiting has noticeably increased. But it’s now time to translate that to the field.
The bar has been raised in Tempe.
Schedule Analysis: Key Conference Games (Subject to Change)
The Pac-12’s decision to go a conference-only schedule could hurt the Sun Devils more than other teams in the Conference because it doesn’t allow them to break in their new coordinators in the traditional warm-up games. Instead, the players and staff are dropped right into the fire. The Conference schedule may change, but here’s how it shapes up for now.
The opening game in L.A. against USC already projected to be difficult, but it now seems all but impossible to pull off the upset that would make them the Divisional favorite.
Back-to-back games in Tempe against Oregon State and UCLA project as wins, but trap games follow in Boulder and Pullman against Colorado and Washington State. It doesn’t get any easier, as California comes to the desert for a defensive struggle the following week.
Daniels and company then head to Eugene for a battle with the Ducks. Oregon will be foaming at the mouth for revenge after last year’s loss in Tempe, but the game presents a golden ticket for recruiting in California if ASU were to win.
Utah comes to town for the final home game of the year in what is expected to be another difficult test.
The season is capped off with the traditional Duel in the Desert with Arizona, but this time at Arizona Stadium in Tucson. The Sun Devils have won three in a row against the Wildcats, and they appear destined to continue that trend this season.
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