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Herm Edwards can actually succeed at Arizona State. Here’s how

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There are plenty of reasons to doubt, but he passed his first test with a late recruiting surge, and his Sun Devils will have plenty of opportunities to pull upsets.

NCAA Football: Arizona State Spring Game Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Bill C’s annual preview series of every FBS team in college football continues. Catch up here!

By now, I’ve made it pretty clear what I think of Arizona State’s hire: I’m not really a fan.

I thought firing Todd Graham reeked of Glen Mason Territory, and unless you’ve got a Kirby Smart lined up as a replacement, you can’t fire your way out of Glen Mason Territory. And the fact that athletic director Ray Anderson’s Smart was Edwards, a 64-year-old former NFL coach (and former agency client of Anderson) whose offenses were stodgy and outdated 10 years ago?

I tried to talk myself into the hire by reminding myself that the model ASU was trying to create is the Mack Brown CEO Coach model, and that Brown won big for quite a while. I still didn’t like the hire.

When SB Nation’s Richard Johnson went out to Tempe this spring to profile Edwards and ASU, I read with an open mind. And I remained extremely skeptical.

But any hire can work. So instead of rehashing all my old points about why the ever-quotable Edwards (his latest: the ASU pitchfork logo “looks like a candle”) won’t work, let’s paint a different picture.

If this does work, how will things unfold? Let’s create a checklist for the next year.

1. Edwards proves his recruiting bona fides in his abbreviated 2018 class.

CHECK!

The man is undoubtedly charismatic. Edwards’ late-signing-day performance was encouraging. He landed a couple of late four-star commits and flipped ASU’s ranking from mid-70s before February to mid-30s afterward. This is the only step he’s had a chance to take, and he stuck the landing.

He also landed a former blue-chipper for the offensive line in Stanford graduate transfer Casey Tucker, who was hurt last year but a two-year starter before that.

2. ASU overachieves its S&P+ projection in 2018

Graham did engineer the start of a rebound in 2017, but it was only the start of one. After finishing 49th in S&P+ and an unlucky 6-7 in 2015, the Sun Devils plummeted to 83rd and a lucky 5-7 the next year as assistant coach turnover caught up. In 2017, the offense rebounded enough to drag ASU to 6-6, but the defense remained mostly awful, and the Sun Devils were only two spots better on paper.

2017 Arizona State S&P+ progression

With the defense now replacing its top three tacklers on the line, top two at linebacker, and top two in the secondary, S&P+ (which doesn’t take coaching changes into account) only projects ASU to rebound to around 60th. And with a schedule that features six projected top-30 opponents plus an extremely tricky non-conference visit to SDSU, that means a projected record of around 5-7.

You want to prove that you’re better than Graham and inspire confidence for a huge future? Win at least six or seven games against this schedule.

3. Edwards’ first full recruiting class ranks in the top 20.

With a full year to assess recruits and implement his plan, he needs to come up big next December and February.

Edwards doesn’t have to make an immediate national title run, and in this brief checklist, he’s already nailed step one. If, when I’m writing the 2019 ASU preview, we’re talking about a Sun Devil team that went to the Cactus or Sun Bowl and landed the 10 or so four-star prospects generally required to land in the top 20, then I’ll be prepared to eat some crow.

For now, though? I’m still a skeptic.

Offense

2017 Arizona State offensive radar

Part of Anderson’s goal was to replace Graham but keep Graham’s coordinators. It seemed odd — If these coordinators are so good, then why isn’t one of them considered for head coach? And if Graham was capable of hiring these amazing coordinators, then why did you fire him? — and it created an opportunity for a pratfall when both coordinators left.

When Billy Napier left for the UL-Lafayette head job, Edwards promoted receivers coach Rob Likens, another Graham hire, to the OC role. Likens bombed the last time he was calling plays, at Kansas in 2015-16, but in his defense, that was Kansas. He didn’t have quite the same talent (or morale).

I guess we’ll find out if Edwards really is a CEO-style, heavy-delegation coach because at first glance, Likens’ tendencies and Edwards’ could not possibly clash more. Likens coached on Sonny Dykes air raid offenses, and his Jayhawks were pass-first, pass-second.

That doesn’t jive with what we remember of Edwards’ NFL offenses. Over his last four years in the pros, with the Jets and Chiefs, he only once oversaw a passing game that ranked better than 23rd, per DVOA.

NCAA Football: Arizona at Arizona State
Manny Wilkins
Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

ASU’s returning production skews to the passing side of the ledger, too. Quarterback Manny Wilkins returns after throwing for nearly 3,300 yards. Napier crafted a balanced attack for Wilkins — ASU ran the ball 59 percent of the time on standard downs (1 percentage point below the national average) and 40 percent on passing downs (5 percentage points higher). A lot of those passing downs rushes were Wilkins scrambles; not including sacks, he averaged about 5.4 yards per carry over about 7.5 carries per game.

Wilkins had some pass efficiency issues; he did complete 63 percent, but as with many QBs who trust their mobility, he took a lot of sacks, and ASU ranked 115th in Adj. Sack Rate and 73rd in passing success rate. He’ll get both of last year’s tackles back, plus Tucker, but a lot of those sacks were on him.

If he gets the pass off, it’ll likely be directed at a pretty exciting receiver. Almost literally every wideout is back, including N’Keal Harry (1,142 yards, 9.5 per target), Kyle Williams (763, 8.8), and blazing sophomore Frank Darby (234, 14.6). Throw in 6’8 sophomore Curtis Hodges and incoming JUCO Brandon Aiyuk (16 yards per catch for Sierra College in 2017), and you’ve got everything you need. Well, except tight ends, I guess. They only caught six balls in Napier’s offense last year.

Oregon v Arizona State
Jalen Harvey
Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

The run game is a bit of a mystery. In Demario Richard and Kalen Ballage, the Sun Devils must replace a duo that combined for 1,696 rushing yards and 28 receptions. Four-star sophomore Eno Benjamin looked great in a small sample (23 carries for 142 yards, including 42 in the Sun Bowl), but he’s the only returnee who saw the field. Someone from a pool of untested sophomores (Trelon Smith and Isaiah Floyd) and true freshmen (Brock Sturges, A.J. Carter, Demetrious Flowers) will have to prove reliable as a backup.

ASU’s returning strengths lean much closer to Likens’ identity; if ASU’s is a run-heavy attack in 2018, we’ll know that Edwards is providing quite a bit of input.

Defense

2017 Arizona State defensive radar

Despite a 37-35 win over Oregon, ASU was relatively listless early. The Sun Devils were 2-3 heading into mid-October, and while the offense was looking pretty solid, the defense was every bit as bad as it had been in 2016.

ASU won five of seven to finish the season — enough of a turnaround to save Graham’s job, I figured — and the turnaround came mostly on defense.

Arizona State in 2017

Category First 5 games Next 7 games
Category First 5 games Next 7 games
Avg. score Opp 36, ASU 33 ASU 31, Opp 28
Yards per play Opp 6.9, ASU 5.6 Opp 5.9, ASU 5.7
Avg. percentile performance 35% 52%
Avg. offensive percentile 62% 51%
Avg. defensive percentile 25% 50%
Avg. performance vs. S&P+ proj. -1.8 PPG +9.8 PPG

After a bye week, ASU held Washington to seven points and Utah to 10. It was one of the most baffling turnarounds you’ll ever see, and it didn’t last, but it did give us a glimpse of the attacking defense we saw during Graham’s peak.

And it’s potentially a style we’ll continue to see under Edwards and new coordinator Danny Gonzales, who occupies quite a few branches on the Rocky Long coaching tree. Gonzales played for New Mexico in the mid-1990s, and his first gig was as a UNM graduate assistant after Long, now SDSU’s head coach, had taken over. He has only coached for Long since — first at UNM, then at SDSU.

Long’s 3-3-5 has long been one of the more deceptive and exciting. SDSU has ranked in the Def. S&P+ top 40 in each of the last three seasons, peaking at 24th in 2016; ASU has only once ranked in the top 40 in the last eight seasons.

NCAA Football: Arizona State at Oregon State
Chase Lucas
Troy Wayrynen-USA TODAY Sports

As Gonzales has pointed out, the structure might be a 3-3-5, but good defenses play to the strengths of their personnel. ASU’s personnel looks a lot stronger in the back than the front. Though safeties Chad Adams and J’Marcus Rhodes are gone, six regulars return, including cornerback Chase Lucas, whose 10 passes defensed were sixth in the nation among freshmen, and safety Demonte King, who missed six games but still finished with 29.5 tackles and a handful of havoc plays (tackles for loss, passes defensed, forced fumbles)

You have to have depth to deploy a five-man secondary properly, and it appears Gonzales will, especially considering incoming talent like high-three-star JUCO corner Dominique Harrison and four-star freshman safety Aashari Crosswell, one of Edwards’ February coups.

NCAA Football: Washington State at Arizona State
Koron Crump
Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

While the secondary appears stable, five of last year’s starters in the front six have departed, taking 44 percent of ASU’s havoc plays with them. But when healthy, senior Koron Crump is one of the best pass rushers in the Pac-12 — he had nine sacks in 2016 but missed two-thirds of last season — and in linebacker Jay Jay Wilson and tackle Renell Wren, Crump’s got a couple of fellow seniors to help provide leadership up front.

After them, though, the personnel gets pretty green, pretty quickly. Untested linemen like sophomore Shannon Forman, junior Jalen Bates, and Ohio State transfer Darius Slade will be counted on quickly, and the most important position on the defense — the linebacker/nickel position known as the AZTEC linebacker at SDSU (it will be known as the TILLMAN at ASU, in honor of Pat Tillman) will be manned by either career backup Tyler Whiley or sophomore Evan Fields.

I’m not sure the run defense will be strong enough for Gonzales to take advantage of his secondary depth, but if ASU can leverage opponents into obvious passing situations, they should have the speed to swarm well.

Special Teams

ASU’s special teams was a mixed bag. Brandon Ruiz was a revelation as a freshman, booting efficient kickoffs and proving both automatic on shorter kicks and solid on longer ones (7-for-15 on FGs of 40-plus yards). But Michael Sleep-Dalton left something to be desired in the punting game (77th in punt efficiency), and the return game had little to offer.

As long as ASU is scoring, I guess, then everything’s fine — lots of opportunities for Ruiz and not so many for Sleep-Dalton.

2018 outlook

2018 Schedule & Projection Factors

Date Opponent Proj. S&P+ Rk Proj. Margin Win Probability
1-Sep UTSA 104 13.2 78%
8-Sep Michigan State 11 -13.2 22%
15-Sep at San Diego State 55 -2.7 44%
22-Sep at Washington 4 -24.1 8%
29-Sep Oregon State 110 14.6 80%
6-Oct at Colorado 89 4.4 60%
18-Oct Stanford 20 -7.1 34%
27-Oct at USC 15 -14.1 21%
3-Nov Utah 28 -4.6 40%
10-Nov UCLA 39 -1.2 47%
17-Nov at Oregon 23 -11.5 25%
24-Nov at Arizona 33 -7.9 32%
Projected S&P+ Rk 57
Proj. Off. / Def. Rk 21 / 109
Projected wins 4.9
Five-Year S&P+ Rk 5.9 (38)
2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk 38 / 28
2017 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin* 2 / -0.9
2017 TO Luck/Game +1.1
Returning Production (Off. / Def.) 63% (79%, 48%)
2017 Second-order wins (difference) 5.4 (1.6)

By the end of Edwards’ first September, ASU will have hosted Michigan State (projected 11th in S&P+) and traveled to both SDSU (Long vs. Gonzales!) and S&P+ No. 4 Washington. They’ll have hosted a UTSA that nearly took down Graham’s Sun Devils two years ago. This is a rough intro.

Any chance of a bowl will likely require wins over UTSA and SDSU. An upset of Michigan State wouldn’t hurt, either, because even after this brutal opening stretch, ASU is a projected favorite in only two more games (Oregon State, at Colorado).

The odds of Edwards succeeding at a high level aren’t great, but if his coordinator hires turn out strong (and I particularly like the defensive one), and ASU wins enough games this fall to help reel in a strong recruiting class, then he’s going to have a chance.

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