Not many expected Arizona State to be in contention for a bowl game, much less the Pac-12 South title a year ago.
With the uncertainty of Herm Edwards’ first season as a college head coach and some talent losses from the year before, many pundits penciled the Sun Devils into last place in the division.
ASU didn’t win the South, but did surprise many with a winning season that included a trip to the Las Vegas Bowl. This month, BuffZone.com is previewing each of Colorado’s opponents, with this installment focusing on ASU, which will host the Buffaloes in Tempe, Ariz., on Sept. 21.
Despite no experience at quarterback, losing a first-round NFL draft choice at receiver and having some holes to fill on the defensive line, expectations are a bit higher this year for the Sun Devils, who finished a game behind Utah in the South.
“We’re going in the right direction, which is a good thing,” Edwards said at the end of spring drills.
While hiring Edwards – who hadn’t coached in a decade and hadn’t been in the college game since 1989 – was criticized and viewed as unconventional, the Sun Devils were fairly steady through last season and seem to have a solid foundation for this year.
At quarterback, however, three-year starting quarterback Manny Wilkins has graduated, leaving the Sun Devils with virtually no experience. Junior Dillon Sterling-Cole threw just two passes last year and knows the offense, but also has plenty of competition. Three true freshmen enrolled early and competed in spring, led by Jayden Daniels. The competition for the starting job will go into the fall and appears to be mainly between Sterling-Cole and Daniels.
“It’s still competition,” Edwards said of that position at the end of spring. “You see some bright spots and you see some ‘oh no,’ and that’s the way it is with young guys. That’s the great part about it. They’re all very eager to learn.”
While quarterback is a major question mark, the Sun Devils are in good shape around that position. Running back Eno Benjamin racked up an ASU-record 1,642 yards in 2018, while scoring 16 touchdowns and also catching 35 passes. He’s one of the top running backs in the country.
ASU also features a veteran offensive line that includes four returning starters. All five projected starters saw the field quite a bit last year.
While N’Keal Harry is now with the New England Patriots, the Sun Devils still have talent at receiver. Brandon Aiyuk, a former JUCO transfer, appears have No. 1 receiver ability, while senior Kyle Williams is a reliable target, as well.
Defensively, ASU leaned on a lot of freshmen last year, but that group played well at times. The Sun Devils could start six or seven underclassmen on defense this fall.
“We’re not afraid to play young guys and this program is built that way,” Edwards said. “As they continue to play, they’re going to get better. A lot of young guys are going to play together for the next two or three years here and if they do things right, we have a chance to be a really good football team.”
They might be a good football team this year, if all the pieces come together.
“We’ve got the makings,” Edwards said. “There’s a lot of work to be done in having a pretty good football team. It’s going to be fun watching it grow.”
Arizona State Sun Devils
Date with CU: Sept. 21, time TBA, at Sun Devil Stadium in Tempe, Ariz.
Head coach: Herm Edwards, 2nd year (7-6)
Series: ASU leads 8-2
Sun Devils in 2018: 7-6, 5-4 in Pac-12; Lost to Fresno State, 31-20, in Las Vegas Bowl
Returning starters: 15 – 8 on offense, 7 on defense
5 offensive players to watch (2018 statistics):
WR Brandon Aiyuk, Sr. (33 catches, 474 yards, 3 TD)
RB Eno Benjamin, Jr. (300 att., 1,642 yards, 16 TD; 35 catches, 263 yards, 2 TD)
QB Jayden Daniels, Fr. (true freshman)
QB Dillon Sterling-Cole, Jr. (0-for-2; rushing, 2 att., 22 yards)
WR Kyle Williams, Sr. (44 catches, 449 yards, 2 TD)
5 defensive players to watch:
LB Darien Butler, So. (70 tackles, 7 TFL)
S Aashari Crosswell, So. (43 tackles 4 INT, 9 PBU)
NT D.J. Davidson, So. (10 tackles, 2 sacks)
CB Chase Lucas, Jr. (62 tackles, 4 TFL, 2 sacks, 3 INT, 5 PBU)
LB Merlin Robertson, So. (77 tackles, 5 sacks, 3.5 TFL, 1 INT)
Notable: CU has won two of the last three meetings, but both were in Boulder. The Buffs are 0-5 all-time at Sun Devil Stadium. … Since the conference expanded to 12 teams in 2011, ASU has been to bowl games in seven of eight years. The Sun Devils are just 2-5 in those bowls, however, including three consecutive losses. … The Sun Devils are the only team in the Pac-12 that does not have a quarterback with starting experience in college. … The ASU defense gave up 39.8 points per game in 2016, but lowered that to 32.8 in 2017 and 25.5 last year. … ASU’s 29.9 points per game last year was its lowest average since 2009 (22.3). … The Sun Devils play seven of their 12 games at home, including three of their last four. … Four full or part-time starters are back on the offensive line, including center Cohl Cabral, a three-year starter who has also played left tackle. … Junior kicker Brandon Ruiz is back after hitting 18-of-22 field goals and all 45 extra points. … ASU led the Pac-12 – and finished 11th nationally – with a plus-10 turnover margin in 2018.