Bill C’s annual preview series of every FBS team in college football continues. Catch up here!
Once the smoke had cleared and the gross MBA jargon had been fumigated from the premises, Herm Edwards’ first season at Arizona State was startlingly normal.
- Edwards inherited a team with a third-year starting quarterback (Manny Wilkins), a potential first-round draft pick at receiver (N’Keal Harry), and a reasonably experienced defense. The QB almost perfectly matched his 2017 numbers (3,270 yards and a 142.6 passer rating in 2017, 3,025 yards and a 141.2 in 2018), the potential first-rounder became an actual first-rounder, and the defense improved a bit, as one might expect.
- ASU was projected 52nd in S&P+ ... and finished 52nd. The Sun Devils finished 35th in Off. S&P+ in 2017 ... and finished 35th in 2018.
- ASU had averaged 6.7 wins per year over the previous decade and won seven games in 2018.
- Per the 247Sports Composite, the Sun Devils’ last seven signing classes had averaged a ranking of 30th. Their 2019 class ranked 31st.
Firing Todd Graham (who averaged 7.7 wins per year) was a bit odd, and replacing him with Edwards — a 63-year-old television personality who hadn’t coached in a decade and hadn’t coached at the college level in nearly three — was odder.
First came athletic director Ray Anderson’s odd proclamation that he would look for a coach who would keep Graham’s coordinators, Billy Napier and Phil Bennett. Graham hired those coordinators. And one could ask ... if they’re so good, why not hire one of them as head coach?
It just kept getting stranger.
Anderson, a former agent, quickly pursued Herm Edwards, a former client of his. Edwards hasn’t coached a team since 2008, when he was fired as head coach by the Kansas City Chiefs. He was 20 games under .500 as an NFL coach and hasn’t coached in college since a three-year stint as San Jose State defensive backs coach ended in 1989. He has spent most of the last decade as a yeller on ESPN.
There was no market for Edwards as a coach, so Anderson’s wooing ended successfully. Edwards was announced as ASU’s head coach on Sunday.
This coaching hire was a whirlwind of weird. And in the short term, it produced maybe the single most average, normal Arizona State season ever.
I think I want my money back. I wanted either a flaming success or spectacular failure.
While there’s still time for both, Edwards has quickly rounded into form as a perfectly average college coach. Granted, he’s a little more rigid than others about what happens when you enter the transfer portal, and that could create some depth problems down the line, but a year and a half into his tenure, he’s blending in.
If nothing else, that allows us to treat his 2019 ASU squad as a normal college football team, affected by normal things like returning production. To that end, the offense could struggle to match last year’s stats, while the offense could improve again.
- ASU’s offense was a hair disappointing last year, remaining at the same level despite not only the Wilkins-Harry connection but also 1,600-yard rusher Eno Benjamin. It now has to replace both Wilkins and Harry, plus a pair of honorable-mention all-conference linemen, and is projected to slip a bit to 43rd.
- The defense improved, albeit only from 99th to 86th in Def. S&P+, but with last year’s top seven creators of havoc plays (tackles for loss, passes defensed, forced fumbles) returning, it is projected to improve to 60th.
That results in slight projected improvement, to 49th overall with an average projected win total of, you guessed it, seven. They are healthy projected favorites in three games and multi-score underdogs in two, with seven relative tossups.
If last season was any indication, you can take this projection to the bank.
Anderson made a show of wanting to keep both coordinators upon firing Graham and of course retained neither. Offensive coordinator Billy Napier left to become UL-Lafayette’s head coach (he’s doing quite well, it appears), and defensive coordinator Phil Bennett stepped away from the sport for a bit.
In Napier’s absence, Edwards handed the reins of the offense to line coach Rob Likens.
Likens has quite a bit of Air Raid in his coaching DNA, having worked for former Cal head coach (and current SMU head man) Sonny Dykes at both Louisiana Tech and Cal. But Edwards has always been a run-first guy, and their philosophies apparently met halfway. ASU ran 61 percent of the time on standard downs (one percentage above the national average) and 34 percent on passing downs (one percentage point below); the Sun Devils were extremely balanced despite having Terry in the receiving corps.
That approach made sense considering how effective Eno Benjamin was. Wilkins carried about 7.4 times per game (not including sacks) and picked and chose his spots effectively, but Benjamin took on a heavy load and responded well.
A former blue-chipper, Benjamin was one of only three FBS backs to carry at least 300 times (the other two: Wisconsin’s Jonathan Taylor and Boise State’s Alexander Mattison), and he was up for the challenge: he averaged 5.3 yards per carry in November and beyond. For the season, ASU graded out better in the run (19th in Rushing S&P+) than in the pass (50th in Passing S&P+).
It probably goes without saying that, without Wilkins and Harry, ASU probably isn’t going to start passing more.
It wouldn’t hurt, though, if some of Benjamin’s backups prove capable of taking on a heavier load so he didn’t have to. Isaiah Floyd was second among ASU backs in carries (45) and yards (209), but that’s not many carries or yards. Floyd was also far less efficient than Benjamin.
The line should still be solid, at least. Two longtime starters (guard Casey Tucker and tackle Quinn Bailey) are gone, but four returnees — all seniors — boast at least 10 career starts, and center Cohl Cabral is maybe the best in the conference.
Whoever wins the starting quarterback job will likely contribute to the rushing totals, too. Junior Dillon Sterling-Cole has dropped 25 pounds in the last year or so — he’s now listed at 6’3, 215 — in attempt to maximize his athleticism, and Edwards signed a trio of freshmen to push him, including four-star Joey Yellen and Jayden Daniels, the anchor of the 2019 class and a top-40 overall prospect.
Daniels is a spectacular athlete, but he’s also a freshman. Odds are good that both he and Sterling-Cole have seen time with the first string by the end of 2019. We’ll see who makes the most of it.
The receiving corps is in decent shape despite losing Harry. Slot man Kyle Williams will be a lovely security blanket for whichever first-time starter wins the job, and while depth appears to level off pretty quickly, in Frank Darby and Brandon Aiyuk ASU boasts a couple of fun, all-or-nothing threats. Aiyuk is particularly intriguing: he came on strong late in 2018, making 22 of his 33 catches in the last five games.
I really liked Edwards’ hire of Danny Gonzales to replace Bennett as defensive coordinator. A longtime Rocky Long assistant at San Diego State, Gonzales was well-versed in Long’s tricky 3-3-5 defense, and his first ASU defense had a lot of the same DNA. While the amount of down linemen and linebackers varied, you could count on five DBs being on the field at all times.
Of course, that’s about where the similarities end. ASU’s defense wasn’t very good — the Sun Devils did improve but were after all still just 86th in Def. S&P+.
They were strong in big-play prevention. Opponents managed only 22 gains of 30-plus yards (34th in FBS) and only three of 50-plus (ninth), but they didn’t produce third-and-longs, they didn’t capitalize on the ones they had, and they were only marginally disruptive (46th in havoc rate).
Most of last year’s best disruptors are back, led by sophomore linebacker Merlin Robertson (8.5 TFLs, five sacks), safety Aashari Crosswell (13 passes defensed), and cornerbacks Chase Lucas (combined: 8.5 TFLs, 17 passes defensed). But leading safeties Jalen Harvey and Demonte King are gone, which, considering how important big-play prevention was to the Sun Devils, has to be a little disconcerting.
Still, while there were veterans up front and in the safety corps, ASU improved overall while still fielding quite a few freshmen and sophomores. The linebacking corps was crazy young, led not only by Robertson but also fellow freshmen Darien Butler and Tyler Johnson (a part-OLB, part-end).
Plus, in the back, Crosswell was a freshman, and Lucas was a sophomore, as were backups Evan Fields and Terin Adams, who combined for six TFLs. They’re all more experienced, and there could be another high-upside sophomore in Baylor cornerback transfer Timarcus Davis.
There are concerns up front. ASU allowed opponents to gain at least four yards on 54 percent of non-sack carries (123rd) and ranked 105th in Rushing S&P+, and that was WITH tackle Renell Wren and end Jalen Bates (combined: 10.5 TFLs, 15 run stuffs) up front.
It could be sophomores to the rescue once more. Jermaine Lole emerged as a play-maker late in the year (he had four TFLs and four breakups in the last five games), and big D.J. Davidson (6’4, 325) showed some upside before injuring his ankle. Edwards added Rice grad transfer Roe Wilkins (4.5 TFLs, 8.5 run stuffs), but this is a pretty thin group, and Lole and Davidson pretty much have to emerge as stars if the run front is to improve.
Edwards’ first year might have been average in most ways, but ASU made definitive improvement in special teams, at least, rising from 60th to 14th in Special Teams S&P+. They didn’t rank in the top 25 in any category, but they were between decent and good throughout and should remain so.
Kicker Brandon Ruiz (35th in field goal efficiency, 26th in kickoffs efficiency) is a keeper, Brandon Aiyuk is a steady return man, and while punter Michael Sleep-Dalton transferred to Iowa, Edwards brought in Lafayette’s Michael Turk, who had a better net average than Sleep-Dalton, at least.
2019 Schedule & Projection Factors
|Date||Opponent||Proj. S&P+ Rk||Proj. Margin||Win Probability|
|14-Sep||at Michigan State||23||-9.2||30%|
|16-Nov||at Oregon State||105||12.8||77%|
|Projected S&P+ Rk||49|
|Proj. Off. / Def. Rk||43 / 60|
|Five-Year S&P+ Rk||5.4 (50)|
|2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk||31|
|2018 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin*||10 / 0.4|
|2018 TO Luck/Game||+3.7|
|Returning Production (Off. / Def.)||66% (52%, 81%)|
|2018 Second-order wins (difference)||6.3 (0.7)|
In last year’s ASU preview, I listed out three ways for Edwards to begin proving skeptics wrong in his first 12 months on the job:
- Prove his recruiting bona fides in finishing up the 2018 class
- Overachieve ASU’s S&P+ projections
- Place his first full recruiting class in the top 20
He went 1-for-3, but ... it was a decent 1-for-3? He achieved ASU’s S&P+ projections on the nose, at least, and his first class was an at least decent 31st. His athletic director built him up to be capable of signing better than just the typical ASU class, but in Jayden Daniels, he might have nabbed his QB of the future, and he addressed soon-to-be needs by loading up on WRs and OLs (the Sun Devils are about to lose a lot of those).
He didn’t bomb, in other words, even if he didn’t exactly succeed either.
Edwards’ second team should improve further on defense, even if the run front is still iffy, and with Benjamin and quite a few veterans both in the receiving corps and on the offensive line, the new starting QB — be it Daniels, Sterling-Cole, Yellen, or whoever — will have a solid supporting cast. Then ASU could use QB continuity in 2020 to survive big turnover elsewhere on offense.
There are plenty of potential wins on the table, and it seems safe to assume ASU will snare about seven of them. We don’t know if Edwards is capable of more than that, but he’s at least capable of that.