Four Reasons Arizona State Can Be Competitive in 2016

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It would be an understatement to say that the 2015 Arizona State Sun Devils were disappointing. Coming off two consecutive 10-win seasons, and at one point being ranked 6th in the nation during the 2014 season, the Sun Devils had their sights set on the PAC-12 championship game with the hopes that a conference title would also be a lock for a spot in the College Football Playoff.

Yet the Sun Devils finished with a regular season record of 6-6, with more blowout losses than closely-contested duels, and their meager invitation to the little-known Cactus Bowl resulted in the final nail in the coffin as they lost to West Virginia, largely due to some odd game management decisions by head coach Todd Graham.

The 2016 Sun Devils are set to look very different, however. Solely looking at the coaching staff, Arizona State has five new coaches. The biggest one is new offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey, who actually coached the team in the Cactus Bowl and brought an offensive rejuvenation despite horrid defensive play. Also on the offensive side is Jay Norvell (no relation to former offensive coordinator Mike Norvell) as the wide receivers coach and passing game coordinator, fresh off an as-successful-as-you-can-be stint at Texas, and running backs coach John Simon, who worked with Lindsey at Southern Miss.

Defensively, the staff has embraced defensive line coach Joe Seumalo, who coached one of the most consistently dominant units during his 2006-2014 stint at Oregon State, and TJ Rushing, the new defensive backs coach who spent 2015 as a graduate assistant with Stanford and also won a Super Bowl as a player with the Indianapolis Colts.

Beyond the coaching staff, though, the roster has completely changed. Starting QB Mike Bercovici graduated and left an intense competition between Manny Wilkins, Bryce Perkins, Brady White, and Dillon Sterling-Cole. DJ Foster and Devin Lucien, the top two receivers last year, are gone, as is All-PAC 12 offensive lineman Christian Westerman.

As a result of all this change, many are expecting Arizona State to fall somewhere in the middle of the PAC (hey look, puns!) as they take their first step towards a slight rebuild. Yet, many may recall the 2012 season when Graham, in his first season at ASU, led the team to an 8-5 (5-4) record and finished second in the PAC-12 South division after what was supposed to be a rebuilding year. Well, I’m here to tell you that the 2016 season will be a very competitive year for the Sun Devils, and here are four main reasons why.

#1: Chip Lindsey

As mentioned before, Lindsey is the new offensive coordinator. Under former coach Norvell, who left to become the head coach at Memphis, the offense leaped between explosion and stagnation on a near weekly basis. This inconsistency was magnified in 2015 with Bercovici, who was talented but nevertheless a poor fit for the offense. Lindsey’s offensive scheme is fairly similar to Norvell’s, which bodes well for the fit of the current roster, but Lindsey has displayed a much better track record of playcalling and in-game adjustments.

At Southern Miss in 2015, Lindsey created an offense that ranked 12th in yards and 5th in touchdowns scored, as he took former 2-star QB Nick Mullens and squeezed 30 touchdowns and 4,000 yards out of him, as well as producing not one, but two 1,000-yard rushers in the ground game.

If you’re looking for two running back candidates to potentially break 1,000 yards each, look no further than last year’s top two runners Kalen Ballage and Demario Richard. Last year, Richard was the primary back, as he took 209 carries for 1,098 yards and 7 scores. Ballage only got the ball 125 times, most of which were in 3rd-and-short situations, and produced 653 yards and 4 scores. Expect a big uptick in both of their statistics under Lindsey.

The quarterback competition is a tough decision, but that works out well for Arizona State. Wilkins and White are both highly-regarded 4-star recruits, while Perkins has every physical trait necessary, and Sterling-Cole looks like a young Ben Roethlisberger. My money is on Perkins winning the job, but literally any of these four has as much a chance as the other. Either way, the Sun Devils will have one of the best young quarterbacks starting for them this year.

 

#2: Secondary Reinforcements

The defense under Graham is simple yet effective (when done right): blitz every play and force the opposing QB into bad decisions. A large reason for last year’s collapse was the egregious play of the secondary, as they allowed 160 plays of at least 10 yards, worst in the nation last year; 34 of those plays allowed at least 30 yards, 24 plays of at least 40 yards, and 14 plays of 50 or more.

Part of the reason for this poor play was the loss of team captain and starting safety Jordan Simone early in the season. However, his absence forced cornerback Armand Perry into the safety spot and allowed true freshman Kareem Orr to play cornerback. After some expected growing pains, Perry settled into the safety position and Orr cemented himself as one of the best young cornerbacks in the nation.

Going into this year, Perry will most likely remain at safety, with top 4-star recruit Chase Lucas likely joining him at the other safety position. Orr will most certainly start at corner, and he’ll be joined by three other cornerbacks, all of whom have great potential. Maurice Chandler was the top JUCO transfer this past offseason and he showcased blinding speed and instincts at the position. Fellow JUCO transfer J’Marcus Rhodes possesses top level closing speed that combines well with his standout physicality against taller receivers. Chad Adams, a former 4-star recruit from Allen High School (the Alabama of high school football), brings a certain level of positional versatility similar to Cardinals star Tyrann Mathieu, as he can contribute at both safety and cornerback. He started in the Cactus Bowl to close the 2015 season, which could possibly illuminate his prospects for this year.

Regardless of which of these three gets the start opposite Orr, it’s undeniable that this secondary looks, at least on paper, to be much improved over last year’s unit.

#3: Promising Wide Receiver Corps

Tim White had an out-of-nowhere emergence last season, as he posted 57 receptions for 633 yards and 8 touchdowns. Based on those statistics, he is the best receiver returning this year and is a lock to start. After him, though, it’s a question mark. Three players poised to step up are Ellis Jefferson, Eric Lauderdale, and N’Keal Harry.

Jefferson enters his junior season and certainly has the size to compete, standing at 6’5″ and 212 pounds, but frequent drops have been his downfall up to this point. Lauderdale, a former 4-star JUCO transfer, is going into his fifth and final year of eligibility. Once thought of as the perfect compliment to Jaelen Strong, Lauderdale has failed to build any chemistry with the QB’s in recent years, but perhaps he can make up for lost time in 2016. Harry, unless he decides to redshirt his first year on campus, is the most probable bet to get consistent reps. The top wide receiver recruit in his class, he has the size (6’4″, 200 lbs) and athleticism to stretch the field on deep routes, as well as the vertical leaping ability and an enviable catch radius to go up and make contested catches. He compares favorably to Strong, and has a very good shot to start right away. He also went to high school with the aforementioned Lucas and Perkins, where the trio won a state title.

#4: Schedule

Often times in college football, it does not matter so much as to what teams you play, but more so as to when. Momentum is a big factor in a lot of games, so the positioning of the weekly matchups means a lot. For Arizona State, the non-conference portion is fairly easy again, with no matchups against SEC schools like Texas A&M to threaten them. The season opener against FCS school Northern Arizona University provides an easy win, as does their matchup against doormat University of Texas, San Antonio two weeks later. In between there is a game against Texas Tech, which will prove challenging but the home field advantage certainly helps Arizona State. If the Sun Devils can win those three, they’ve already won half as many games as they did the previous season.

PAC-12 play begins with a matchup against the post-Jared Goff Cal Golden Bears, and the momentum of a three-game win streak combined with a team still getting adjusted to a new QB could work out well for ASU. Then, of course, there’s the two-game gauntlet of playing at USC and then at home against UCLA. Afterwards, though, there are three very winnable games at doormat Colorado, at home against what should be a high-powered offense but mediocre defense in Washington State, and then away to face Oregon, who will be breaking in another FCS-transfer quarterback, though Dakota Prukop is not nearly as talented as last year’s Vernon Adams Jr. After that, there are two tough but, yet again, winnable games against Utah at home and then in Seattle against Washington. The season ends with the annual Territorial Cup rivalry in Tucson against Arizona, a fellow PAC-12 team in an even more serious rebuild.

It’s not an easy schedule, but it is arranged in such a way that allows for this Sun Devils team to compete, finish with an above .500 record and finish near the top of the division, and earn a more respectable bowl game berth than the Cactus Bowl.

There certainly is a lot of uncertainty heading into the 2016 season, especially with a quarterback competition that likely won’t be settled until Camp Tontozona in the first week of August, but this group of Sun Devils certainly has the pieces able to put forth a respectable performance and take a great step forward after such a disappointing 2015 campaign.

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