Arizona State football: Way-too-early look at the 2022 Sun Devils
There’s no bigger story in Arizona State football right now than the one currently wrapping its teeth around head coach Herm Edwards.
This week, offensive coordinator Zak Hill resigned. According to reports from The Athletic and Sun Devil Source, the three ASU assistant coaches who had been placed on paid administrative leave last summer were given the option to resign or be fired. Tight ends coach Adam Breneman resigned, wideout coach Prentice Gill and secondary coach Chris Hawkins were fired for cause.
Members of Arizona State’s athletic department are expecting Level I violations to be handed down by the NCAA at some point this calendar year, per Sun Devil Source. NCAA investigators have reportedly been told during interviews that both Edwards and defensive coordinator/recruiting coordinator Antonio Pierce took part in alleged recruiting violations as well.
All of this stems from allegations that the ASU football program, among other things, paid for the travel of recruits to Arizona State’s campus and for their lodging while in town, met with recruits in-person both on and off-campus during the extended recruiting dead period brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic from March 2020 through May 2021, and left the state of Arizona during the recruiting dead period for recruiting purposes.
That four of Edwards’ assistant coaches have been fired as a byproduct of the NCAA looking into the situation means there’s reasonable cause to suspect the recruiting coordinator might meet the same fate. And if half of his staff gets the ax over allegations of rules violations that are proven to have occurred, it’s hard to envision a scenario where Edwards remains in charge regardless of what he did or didn’t know.
Of course, that outcome might be far down the road. Perhaps it’s best to view this program as driving through a dark tunnel right now, just hoping the light at the end is coming soon.
There was reason for optimism entering the 2021 season—one that featured Edwards’ most talented team to date, and by a good margin—but things have gone haywire in some very key ways.
Recruiting fell apart—the overall class, transfers included, ranks 64th nationally right now, some 40 spots behind ASU’s territorial cup rival—and talented players left and the passing game cratered and now Edwards needs to hire a third offensive coordinator in five years while his future looks quite cloudy.
Is it outlandish to think the Sun Devils missed their window in the Pac-12 South? Utah is here to stay. UCLA feels the same way about Chip Kelly. And USC is coming, it’s just a matter of when. Arizona State athletic director Ray Anderson has some tough questions in front of him that need answering, and one would hope he approaches them as the ASU AD and not as Edwards’ former business associate and friend.
What worked in 2021
The macro-level things.
Arizona State did the two things well on a football field that any team needs to in order to enjoy success: run the ball and stop the run. The Sun Devils ranked…
- …25th nationally in yards per carry and 28th nationally in yards per carry allowed.
- …2nd nationally in expected points added (EPA) per rushing attempt
- …3rd nationally in line yards (a Football Outsiders metric that commits a portion of rushing success to the offensive line)
- …16th nationally in stuff rate (another FO metric that tracks carries stopped at or behind the line of scrimmage)
A key piece of what powered an 8-5 season: running back Rachaad White. The fourth-year back finished with 1,006 yards and 15 scores on 5.5 yards per carry. Add in his receiving workload (43 receptions and 456 yards, both second-most among ASU players) and his per-touch average on offense goes to 6.5 yards. With White out of the lineup, ASU went 0-2 and scored a total of 34 points. With him in the lineup, the ASU attack averaged 30 a game.
ASU also got 309 rushing yards (5.5 per carry) and four scores from Daniyel Ngata, 401 yards (5.1 per carry) and six scores from DeaMonte Trayanum, and 710 yards (5.1 per carry) and six scores from Jayden Daniels.
When they were able to pound away on the ground, Arizona State was pretty tough to stop. Most of what folks expected to see came to fruition on the ground. A highly-experienced offensive line entering the season paved the way for rushing success. Multiple linemen earned all-conference recognition after the campaign concluded. The backs running behind that line consistently carried the burden and the defense’s attention.
On the other side, ASU’s front seven held five of its 12 opponents under 4 yards per carry (adjusted for sacks) and held eight at or below the national average (4.3). When teams broke off chunk runs (10-plus yards), they got some pretty sizeable gains, but ASU did well to limit the frequency of those runs; the Sun Devils ranked 30th nationally in explosive run rate allowed.
No matter what else is going on in your operation, if you can run the ball and stop the run, you’re going to put yourself in a position to be competitive week in and week out. Arizona State did that. Maybe the best show of that was in its bowl game, when a seriously under-manned Sun Devil side played a bone-crushing Wisconsin team tough to the end.
What didn’t work in 2021
Arizona State was the fourth-most penalized team in college football and the special teams unit ranked 95th nationally in Bill Connelly’s SP+ system. Want to know what the culture of a team looks like, key in on those two areas. If a team is shooting itself in the foot with any amount of consistency, it’s fair to question what’s going on during the week in practice. What’s emphasized? What’s allowed to slide?
That’s where my mind goes in trying to decipher what happened to the passing game in 2021. Quarterback Jayden Daniels posted a career-high completion rate but a career-low yards-per-pass clip. Over his first two seasons running the show, Daniels attempted 422 passes and only three were picked off, a rate of 0.7%. In 2021, he threw 10 interceptions in 301 attempts.
It wasn’t for lack of a complimentary run game, obviously. And it wasn’t for lack of quality along the line. PFF graded ASU as the 25th-best pass-blocking team in college football last season.
Daniels has a strong arm but missed throws. No doubt he has been hurt by a talent drain of sorts at receiver (more on that in a minute), but his per-play efficiency has also steadily declined each season. Using ESPN’s total QBR metric, Daniels dropped from 87.1 to 67.2 from 2020 to 2021. He ranked as the 55th-best quarterback in 2019, then soared to the seventh-most efficient quarterback in the country in 2020, and then ranked 43rd last season.
ESPN’s numbers factor in rushing ability to its overall score, so Daniels has a bit of a leg up there (no pun intended). Isolated just as a passer, the numbers have gone south every season. He posted a passing EPA/play of 0.151 in 2019, 0.138 in 2020, then 0.112 last season—all pretty average numbers but you expect a quarterback to grow with experience.
If Daniels reads every word written about him this offseason, he’ll probably see “regression” enough to grow sick of the word. I don’t know if I want to call it regression without having a total understanding of what was going on behind the scenes, but there’s no doubt the quarterback will need to have a bounce-back kind of performance in 2022.
What’s coming back
There are some major losses but there are some potential impact additions that have been made to counteract those hits.
Arizona State will lose its top two rushers; White is off to the NFL and Trayanum elected to transfer to Ohio State to play linebacker. It’ll lose a really valuable center in Dohnovan West, one of 17 Power Five centers with at least a 70 grade as a run-blocker and pass-blocker, per PFF. It’ll lose left tackle Kellen Diesch, the fifth-highest graded Power Five tackle, per PFF. It’ll lose seven of its top 10 tacklers from a season ago.
Add in transfer portal losses of wideout Lonyatta Alexander Jr. and Johnny Wilson, defensive back Tommi Hill, and defensive lineman Jordan Banks, and there’s a good deal of movement out of the ASU program this offseason. Using The Action Network’s returning production tracker (which factors incoming transfer production into the equation), ASU ranks 34th nationally in returning offensive production and 128th in returning defensive production.
Net, ASU is middle-of-the-pack in returning overall production.
Wyoming senior running Xazavian Valladay, the Mountain West’s top rusher over the last three seasons, is coming to Tempe and that’s a major coup for Edwards and his offense. A 6-foot, 198-pound back, Valladay totaled 3,271 rushing yards and 19 rushing scores with 584 receiving yards over his four years in Wyoming. He led the Mountain West in rushing yards as a sophomore in 2019, earned first-team all-conference selections in 2019 and 2020, and nabbed a second-team all-league selection in 2021. Adding him to a room that’ll also feature Ngata and 4-star 2022 signee Tevin White could make for another strong backfield.
On defense, the loss of Darien Butler is going to be a tough one to endure at linebacker, but ASU should still have a strong corps for the 2022 season. It could, in fact, be the strength of the defense with Merlin Robertson (64 tackles), Kyle Soelle (team-high 88 tackles), and Eric Gentry (45 tackles) all back to anchor it. Soelle will be a super-senior. Robertson will be a fifth-year starter. Gentry was a consensus Freshman All-American.
ASU has also added Miami defensive tackle Nesta Jade Silvera from the transfer portal, who I think can be an impact player in the middle of the defense, and it’ll get back Jermayne Lole after a lost 2021 season to injury.
What’s on the schedule
- vs. Northern Arizona (Sept. 1)
- at Oklahoma State (Sept. 10)
- vs. Eastern Michigan (Sept. 17)
- vs. Utah (Sept. 24)
- at USC (Oct. 1)
- vs. Washington (Oct. 8)
- at Stanford (Oct. 22)
- at Colorado (Oct. 29)
- vs. UCLA (Nov. 5)
- at Washington State (Nov. 12)
- vs. Oregon State (Nov. 19)
- at Arizona (Nov. 25)
With Oklahoma State, Utah, and USC on the schedule in the first five weeks of the season, there’s the potential for things to get off to a rocky start. That’s especially true if the off-field distractions linger into fall camp and the start of the season. ASU’s mettle will be tested. And that opening stretch will likely set the tone for how the rest of the season goes. Given everything going on with the head coach, a few bad showings could snowball things.
Alternatively, a few nice performances early coupled with taking care of business against Northern Arizona and Eastern Michigan could set ASU up with some confidence as it moves into a very manageable three-game stretch against Washington, Stanford, and Colorado. Could it be 6-2 after the first nine weeks?