Both UTSA and Arizona State face a lot of unknowns as they head into battle this Saturday. UTSA will introduce an entirely retooled offense, while Arizona State will welcome a (mostly) brand new coaching staff. Each team has a lot to prove to themselves and others. We reached out to our SB Nation brethren at House of Sparky to gain some insight into how things are looking for ASU in the first week of the college football season. Thank you to House of Sparky’s managing editor Brady Vernon for passing along his knowledge
Underdog Dynasty: What’s been the general story line surrounding fall camp for Arizona State this year?
Brady Vernon: The new faces. Of course everybody’s eyes turn to Herm Edwards’ arrival. However, the Sun Devils’ roster has about 10-15 players who weren’t in Tempe in the spring and are now taking high priority roles. Two of the three starting linebackers will be freshman in Merlin Robertson and Darien Butler. Don’t be surprised if fellow freshman Stanley Lambert gets a few snaps at the outside linebacker spot in pass rushing situations. ASU also brought in the top JUCO recruiting class, the two main contributors look to be Brandon Aiyuk, who has earned the starting role of the other outside receiver from N’Keal Harry, and backup running back Isaiah Floyd.
UD: Manny Wilkins, N’Keal Harry, and Eno Benjamin create a scary offensive trio for the Sun Devils. Who is the most talented playmaker on the offense following those three?
BV: The starting slot receiver Kyle Williams is a very good receiver, but he isn’t always the flashiest of guys. Aiyuk on the other hand has top tier speed and could break a screen pass for a long gain. However, I believe the most talented player behind those three is JUCO transfer running back Isaiah Floyd. He’ll be more of the pass catching back, and he’s had a tremendous fall. He too has elite speed, he’ll reel in screens or wheel route passes and is always a threat to break off a big run.
UD: Arizona State struggled to keep defenders away from the quarterback last year, resulting in the Sun Devils ranking 115th in the nation in adjusted sack rate last year. Do you see ASU improving in pass protection this season? If so what steps do you see the team taking to give Manny Wilkins a more clean pocket?
BV: I do believe ASU will improve in pass protection this season. Those steps were made before the season began. Graduate transfer Casey Tucker from Stanford will be the Sun Devils’ starting left tackle adding more Pac-12 experience to the line. Cohl Cabral moves back to his more natural position of center. The right side of the line of guard Steven Miller and tackle Quinn Bailey have another year together as well. I also believe Wilkins’ pocket presence has improved which will help everyone involved.
UDD: Freshmen linebackers Merlin Robertson and Darien Butler are both expected to be depended on to play important snaps from day one. How would you describe the playmaking ability of both young backers?
BV: For Robertson, the game just seems to come to him easy. He’s focused, he’s bigger than most true freshman and most importantly he’s very good. He’ll be your all around outside linebacker who stops the run and uses his athletic ability in coverage and to rush the passer. While the talent and the expectations followed Robertson as a high recruit, Butler has worked his tail off. He started with the third team to start the fall practices to now earning the starting Mike backer spot. Butler will be more of one of those smaller middle linebackers that will probably end up leading the team in tackles because that’s just how college football works sometimes.
UDD: There’s been a lot of hoopla about Arizona State’s decision to hire Herm Edwards after he spent 29 years outside of the college game. Do you buy into the general skepticism for Edwards’ ability to run a modern college program? Where do you see him having the most difficulty adjusting to his role at Arizona State?
BV: I do buy into the skepticism of the Edwards hire, but the more time I watch the team, the more I believe he’s doing his best to connect with them and have fun with them. The players do enjoy having him around and it’s a lot looser environment, whether that’s good or bad, we’ll see. I believe his most difficult adjustment will be teaching, guiding and taking the time to nurture some of these younger guys. That too I believe he’s improving on, he spends a lot of time with a talented cornerback in Chase Lucas, who sometimes lets his emotions get the best of him. And Edwards talks to him one-on-one a lot at practice.
UDD: What’s the one area that gives you the most concern for Arizona State heading into gameday against UTSA?
BV: The concern would be over chemistry and communication. New coaches, new faces mixed with the old, of course there will be growing pains. The young linebackers have to grow up fast, not only because of playing but as well as the duties of alignments and assignments. The offensive line as well, the left side has two new starters and Cabral is in a new position. Playmakers will be on and off the field each drive. There will be a lot of moving parts and it’s just limiting those mental mistakes that are bound to happen.
UDD: Score prediction?
BV: Arizona State 37, UTSA 20