UCLA Football: An early preview of the Arizona State Sun Devils

Oct 29, 2016; Eugene, OR, USA; Arizona State Sun Devils head coach Todd Graham reacts during the third quarter against Oregon Ducks at Autzen Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Cole Elsasser-USA TODAY Sports
Oct 29, 2016; Eugene, OR, USA; Arizona State Sun Devils head coach Todd Graham reacts during the third quarter against Oregon Ducks at Autzen Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Cole Elsasser-USA TODAY Sports /

In 2016 the UCLA Football team lost a heart breaker, and potentially a back breaker, when they took on the Sun Devils in Tempe. Now ASU comes to the Rose Bowl in a battle of uncertain teams.

The 2016 UCLA Football team took perhaps its biggest loss of the season against the Sun Devils last season. Not in terms of points or anything else that would show up in a box score. In that game last season the Bruins lost starting QB Josh Rosen. After that the season was essentially in a tailspin.

We already know Rosen is back and healthy. What we still don’t know yet is how viable will this offensive line be under a new coach and in a new scheme? If the answers to those questions are favorable then the task to winning the PAC-12 starts with beating conference opponents.

Something UCLA Football didn’t do much of in 2016.

In last season’s meeting the much maligned UCLA Football run defense came to play and limited the Sun Devils to just 79 yards on the ground. It helped that the offense couldn’t throw the ball at all but considering the type of RBs ASU has it was an impressive performance.

Not many teams in the PAC-12 have more questions than the Bruins as we look towards 2017 but the Sun Devils are one of those.

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What: UCLA Bruins vs ASU Sun Devils

Where: Rose Bowl, Pasadena, CA

When: November 11

ASU’s 2016 Record: 5-7 Overall,  2-7 PAC-12

Todd Graham came to Tempe with the idea of creating an explosive offense that could run the ball on anyone. However his main focus was turning ASU into a dominant, exotic defense that would carry this team.

The defense certainly could create pressure but created too much stress on the defensive backfield resulting in one of the worst pass defenses in 2015 and 2016.

Some changes have been made on the coaching staff and on the field but will it be enough to get the Sun Devils through 2017 with a winning record?

ASU Offense

The key to this offense is in the backfield. Both Kalen Ballage and Demario Richard are NFL caliber running backs. Ballage is a bruiser who is already at the top of many NFL scouts’ draft boards. He has better than average hands for a back and impressive athleticism for a man his size. The only question is why so few touches?

The answer to that may very well be the play of Richard. Although he was banged up in 2016 and his touches were thus limited, he is the more complete back in my opinion. He doesn’t have break away speed but his ability to make you miss in a phone booth and the way he bounces off tacklers mean he’s a dangerous runner.

The offensive line charged with both pass protection and run blocking will be more experienced but will they be better? At this point it is hard to say. While they’ll continue to be a stronger rushing team they will have to really improve to not be one of the worst pass protecting units in the country again.

Right tackle Quinn Bailey is a strong run blocker but can be troubled by speedy rushers and is likely better suited inside. On the left side Cohl Cabral has prototypical size but is young and will need seasoning.

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The passing game gets some nice  WR pieces back in massive N’Keal Harry and feisty Jalen Harvey. They did lose Tim White to graduation. While he was a consistent factor for the Sun Devils out wide his position will be upgraded by either John Humphrey or Kyle Williams.

The biggest question on offense is who will be starting under center? Manny Wilkins threw for almost 2400 yards last season but was knocked out of numerous games with his skinny frame and tendency to run. He will be pushed by sophomore transfer Blake Barnett. A former five star recruit who was granted a special waiver by the NCAA, Barnett will be eligible to play in 2017 and is ridiculously talented. Now someone just has to win the job.

ASU 2016 Offensive Stats

Total Offense: 390 ypg (9th in the PAC-12)

Passing Offense: 259 ypg (6th)

Rushing Offense: 131 ypg (10th)

Scoring Offense: 33.3 ppg (6th)

ASU Defense

Like I mentioned earlier, this defense is the brainchild of head coach Todd Graham. He wants pressure from everywhere and for his teams to be carried by their dominating defenses.

Well the past few years have shown him that while creating tons of pressure is great, if you can’t cover on the back end it doesn’t really matter. In 2016 the pass defense ranked 128th in the country. Clearly things needed to change.

The change came in the hiring of former Baylor defensive coordinator Phil Bennett who worked with Graham at Texas A&M. It will be interesting to see how much really changes and how much control Graham is wiling to relinquish.

Upfront JoJo Wicker can be a one man wrecking crew. He’s stout but doesn’t come up short in the pass rushing department. In my opinion he’s out of position in a three man front and would be a nightmare as a 4-3 base end. He will get plenty of help from veteran defensive tackle Tashon Smallwood who is undersized but incredibly active in the interior. He reminds me of former Sun Devil Will Sutton who has had mixed reviews in the NFL.

The linebacker group is the pride of this team and is led by the human missile that is D.J. Calhoun. Last season Calhoun tallied 77 tackles despite being keyed on by every opponent. He should continue his play as one of the best linebackers in the PAC-12 this season. He’ll be flanked by new starter Christian Sam who gives this unit some girth.

On the outside Koron Crump will provide some pass rush from his Buck position. He led the team in sacks in 2016 with nine and will have opportunities to improve on that.

The defensive backfield is the scariest part of this defense. They lost their team leader in interceptions and return a large portion of the unit that was burned in 2016. Kareem Orr is the best corner on the team but will need help from his teammates. Marcus Ball is a huge safety but has pass coverage limitations. Projected starter at free safety Armand Perry missed the spring still recovering from surgery.

ASU 2016 Defensive Stats

Total Defense: 520 ypg (12th in the PAC-12)

Rushing Defense: 163 ypg (7th)

Passing Defense: 357 (12th)

Scoring Defense: 39 ppg (10th)

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The Sun Devils have plenty of questions to answer as 2017 looms. Will Todd Graham’s seat continue to heat up or has he found a few solutions? In my opinion this team is in need of an overhaul and doesn’t have the possibility for a solid season like the UCLA Football team does. When these two teams meet in November we will already know plenty about both of them. What I am confident saying today is that the Bruins will defend home turf and knock off the Sun Devils.