Arizona State Football: Midseason Grades for Players and Coaches
The Arizona State football team is off to a 4-2 start and has only one Pac-12 loss to its name. In many respects, ASU is still set up for a run at the roses.
The Sun Devils have sent their fans on a roller-coaster ride of emotions so far in 2013.
They've experienced it all: winning on a lucky last-minute flub, dominating inferior teams and coming up just short twice on a national stage. The moral of the Sun Devils' first half of the season seems to be "close, but no cigar."
If ASU wants to become a program that has constant national recognition, it needs to win the big game, something that's been elusive this year.
ASU's two losses have come on the road to Stanford and Notre Dame. In retrospect, those are both games ASU could have won.
Stanford outmatched ASU in the first half, but the Sun Devils roared back in the second only to find they had dug themselves a hole too deep to recover from. Against Notre Dame, ASU's mental errors cost it a victory.
As the Sun Devils make the turn toward the second half of their schedule, every game becomes more and more important as a conference title is on the line essentially every week.
With that being said, let's take a look at how the Sun Devils have fared in each aspect of the game through the first half of the season.
All stats and info from ESPN.com unless otherwise indicated.
Head coach Todd Graham and his coaching staff have made some questionable decisions so far this season but have done an above-average job of getting their team prepared for big games.
Graham has become notorious for using timeouts at questionable times.
While it is understandable to want your team lined up correctly and on the same page before every play, there have been times when Graham has elected to use timeouts when it could have cost the Sun Devils later.
Graham explained his philosophy to Doug Haller of azcentral.com, saying, "One of the things, you don't get to take your timeouts with you at halftime so we're pretty liberal with them."
Another area where the coaching staff has struggled this year has been getting the team prepared to play on the road.
ASU's two losses both came away from Sun Devil Stadium.
The team doesn't seem to come out with the same fire and intensity it does when ASU plays at home. Maybe the Sun Devils should take the Tillman Tunnel with them next time to fire them up.
Other than the Notre Dame game, Taylor Kelly has put together an impressive 2013 campaign.
While he has already thrown six interceptions this year, he has also thrown for almost 2,000 yards and 16 touchdowns.
Kelly has also run for 165 yards and a touchdown.
Part of the reason the Idaho native has played well is due to the emergence of wide receiver Jaelen Strong as his go-to guy.
But Strong isn't the only reason Kelly has had success.
He appears to be more confident in his second year of running Mike Norvell's offense and has thrown the back-shoulder fade to perfection.
Kelly, like the rest of the Sun Devils, has struggled on the road this year, though, and explained those struggles to Haller:
It’s just a different environment. I have to (adapt) faster. Last year it was a big step, just going to those different places. Like USC. I had never been there, so playing in the Coliseum was a big deal. … I just have to get used to the environment faster.
ASU needs Kelly to protect the ball and get comfortable on the road if it wants to capture the Pac-12 South crown.
Considering this time two years ago Kelly was a benchwarmer nobody had heard of, though, it seems he'll be just fine as long as he continues to grow like he has.
Between Marion Grice, D.J. Foster and Deantre Lewis, ASU has one of the best backfields in the Pac-12.
Grice has been on a torrid scoring pace all season and isn't showing any signs of slowing down anytime soon.
He leads the nation with 15 total touchdowns and has accounted for 15 points per game.
Behind Grice is Foster, who has the ability to be a top-tier back as well. The problem for Foster has been his touches, though.
The sophomore has only rushed for 100 yards this year and has only had 21 carries.
Lewis rounds out the group and has had a phenomenal year after returning from his 2011 injury.
He's been running with a purpose this year and has helped provide ASU with another big-play back who is also a game changer.
With all three running backs playing at a high level, ASU is poised to continue putting up gaudy offensive numbers in the second half of its season.
Wide Receivers and Tight Ends
While Jaelen Strong has emerged as one of the best wide receivers in the country, the rest of the tight ends and receivers have struggled to put two hands on the ball.
Strong is currently on a five-game streak of having at least 100 yards receiving and has developed chemistry with Kelly that allows them to pull off some spectacular plays.
The problem for ASU, though, is behind Strong, there aren't many playmakers at Kelly's disposal.
Last year's leading receiver, tight end Chris Coyle, has struggled in 2013.
He's not the only Sun Devil who has struggled, though. Richard Smith has also been a big disappointment for ASU this year.
It's not a good sign when two running backs are in the top three on the team in receiving yards.
The biggest problem ASU's receivers and tight ends have had is simply catching the ball. Todd Graham expressed his frustrations to Haller earlier this year, saying, "I’ve seen more drops in two weeks than I’ve seen around here in a year and a half. It’s just a lack of concentration.”
The depth of the wide receiving corps was a major question mark this offseason, and it's just as big of a question heading down the stretch.
This grade may not be entirely fair considering the size disadvantage ASU's offensive line had to deal with during the first part of the season, but the line hasn't played well enough for ASU to win its big games.
Kelly has been sacked 14 times this year and hasn't been able to make plays during crunch time due to inconsistent offensive line play.
Against Notre Dame, ASU's offensive line struggled mightily, not allowing Kelly to have a presence in the pocket or giving Grice any running lanes.
ASU's offensive line coach Chris Thomsen told House of Sparky's Ben Haber that his unit's inconsistent play stems from ASU becoming one-dimensional:
It's a matter of not getting in situations where we have to throw the ball too much. That's on us, we got to establish the run earlier, where we can stay in that run game rhythm. If we can stay balanced offensively, we got a chance to perform pretty well. We get in games where we have to be one dimensional, that's hard. We got to a better job when we get in those situations. We got to do a better job of keeping ourselves out of that.
It's crucial that the boys up front win the battle in the trenches moving forward, because Kelly needs time to see plays progress.
Kelly's two late interceptions against Notre Dame were partially due to his bad reads but mainly due to the fact that he didn't have any time to make a decision with defenders barreling down on him.
It's hard to imagine a unit struggling more than ASU's defensive line has in 2013.
The unit has only accounted for 3.5 sacks, not counting Carl Bradford, and is a major reason ASU can't stop the run to save its life. If you add Bradford in, the number jumps to seven—still not good.
Will Sutton hasn't been able to make the impact he did last year, and as a result, the whole unit has struggled. He only has one sack and 2.5 tackles for a loss on the year.
Sure, he is getting double-teamed on nearly every snap, but he still hasn't been able to leave his mark on games or even make his presence felt.
Jaxon Hood's injury also didn't help matters.
While the numbers are startling, ASU has played one of the toughest schedules in the nation up to this point. Haller explains how this tough schedule is one reason for these terrible stats:
According to the Sagarin computer ratings, ASU has played the nation’s seventh-toughest schedule. Last year at this point, the Sun Devils had played Northern Arizona, Illinois, Missouri, Utah and California, none of which finished the season in a bowl game. This season they have opened against Sacramento State, Wisconsin, Stanford, USC and Notre Dame.
ASU thrived on pressuring opposing quarterbacks last year and was one of the best pass-rushing teams in the nation.
This year has been much, much different.
ASU has struggled mightily to stop the run this year.
While part of this is due to the lack of defensive line production, the Sun Devils linebacker corps is also to blame.
The unit has so many playmakers, though, the struggles should correct themselves.
Between Carl Bradford, Chris Young, Salamo Fiso, Steffon Martin and Anthony Jones, the Sun Devils have plenty of talent.
Because teams have run for an average of 168.83 yards per game on ASU, though, it's hard to give this unit anything more than a passing grade.
The Sun Devils have only allowed one rushing touchdown in their two games in October, however, and even though one of those games was against Colorado, it's still something to build upon.
When ASU takes on Washington Saturday, we'll see just how much improvement this group has really made.
The strongest part of ASU's defense this year has been its secondary.
Alden Darby and Osahon Irabor have played exceptionally well thus far, and the introduction of Damarious Randall has helped solidify the group.
Randall got his first start against Notre Dame, and even though he dropped a couple of interceptions, he still made 17 tackles. Not bad for a first start.
Graham told Haller he was more than impressed by the safety's play:
He didn’t play just average. That’s as good as I’ve had a free safety play ever for me in his first game. He did some great things. Made a big-time tackle in the kickoff return that could’ve gone to the house. He made a lot of tackles all over the field in the run game and did a great job in one-on-one coverage.
Opponents have only scored nine touchdowns through the air against the Sun Devils, and ASU has 10 interceptions already this year.
Irabor, Darby and Robert Nelson all have two interceptions on the year and help lead their ball-hawking unit.
While ASU has struggled to stop the run this year, it hasn't struggled too much stopping the pass. The only game the Sun Devils were exposed in was against Notre Dame, but part of that was due to their inability to pressure quarterback Tommy Rees.
A few weeks ago, this unit would have failed, but freshman kicker Zane Gonzalez has settled in and helped solidify ASU's kicking game.
Gonzalez has made nine of his past 10 attempts dating back to the second week of the year and finally looks comfortable and poised.
Alex Garoutte was a touchback machine earlier in the year, but the past few weeks, he has struggled to regain that form.
The real issue for ASU has been its punting game.
Dom Vizarre and Matt Haack struggled early in the season, resulting in former kicker Garoutte coming in and punting the ball rugby style.
Few Sun Devils fans would have thought Josh Hubner would have been one of the team's biggest losses this past offseason, but so far, that has been the case.
At least the kicking game appears to have a savior in Tempe.