Cleat Geeks

2016 Pac 12 Preview: Arizona State Sun Devils

For the first time in nearly a decade, the South division looks to crown the Pac-12 champion – and this very well could be the year that they do so. The favorite within the division looks to be the Trojans of USC. Despite moving onto their third head coach in five years, the Trojans enter the season with arguably the highest expectations of any team in the conference, and deservedly so. They have all the pieces to make a legit run at a conference championship, but can Clay Helton lead them to glory in his first full season as the headman in LA? The UCLA pose the biggest threat to USC as they return promising sophomore QB Josh Rosen, a QB with #1 pick potential. His talent alone could lead the Bruins to a conference championship. One of the most underrated teams in the country, the Arizona Wildcats are a sleeper to take the conference this season, but will they be able to overcome the likes of USC and UCLA? Kyle Whittingham leads a strong Utah unit year after year, but will their depleted offense be able to keep up with other high-powered offenses in the country? Arizona State has one of the best RB tandem in the country, but their defense still poses as a liability to giving up the big play; they may be a year or two away as Manny Wilkins needs experience under center. Colorado went 1-8 in conference play last season, but they return 16 starters, and experience goes a long way in the college game.Pac12IntroPhoto

Take a look as we dig deep into the Pac-12 South division. Comment with some predictions of your own for the Arizona State Sun Devils and if you think they’re dynamic backfield tandem can lead them to a bowl game, or if they’re defense will continue to serve as a liability. Follow @JonValencia_WiB for more Pac-12 updates throughout the offseason as we gear up for opening week.

5 – Arizona State Sun Devils (5-7, 3-6 – SOUTH)

Players to Watch: RB Kalen Ballage, RB Demario Richard, WR Tim White, WR Cameron Smith, DE JoJo Wicker, LB Koron Crump, S Laiu Moeakiola
Key Departures: QB Mike Bercovici, RB/WR D.J. Foster, WR Devin Lucien, G Christian Westerman, LB Antonio Longino

After posting back-to-back 10 win seasons, the Sun Devils posted a 6-7 record in 2015 – three of those losses coming by 6 points or less. Todd Graham now enters his 5th season as the headman in Tempe, compiling a 34-19 record along the way while establishing his reputation as one of the most aggressive defensive play callers in the country. He enters 2016 with a question mark at QB, but he has arguably the best backfield in the country to counter. Arizona State seems to always be the wildcard of the Pac-12, and nothing changes this season.

DemarioRichardKalen BallageLeading the charge for the Sun Devils will be the tandem of junior tailbacks Demario Richard and Kalen Ballage. In an offense with a rebuilding offensive line and a QB with no experience, a lot will be asked of Richard and Ballage. Richard led the team with 1,098 yards and 7 TDs on the ground last season. He offers a great receiving threat out of the backfield with a good combination of strength and quickness. Ballage possesses more physical traits and brings a intimidating presence to the field. Like Richard, another skilled pass catcher out of the backfield. Both of these RBs will be up for All-Conference honors and even have the potential to both amass 1,000 rushing yards.

Under center will more than likely be dual threat sophomore Manny Wilkins. The four star recruit and California native has elite athleticism at the position and tremendous leadership skills. Wilkins would add another great runner along with Richard and Ballage, but there are questions regarding his arm talent. He has capable arm strength, however his accuracy isn’t reliable just yet. Regardless, the Sun Devils will have a capable playmaker at QB who adds to one of the top rushing attacks in the nation.

In the receiving game, Arizona State loses their top two playmakers as Devin Lucien and D.J. Foster departed to the NFL. Luckily, Tim White returns for his senior season. White was 2nd on the team with 633 receiving yards last season and tied for the team lead with 8 TDs. Cameron Smith makes his comeback after missing 2015 due to injury. Smith provides a legitimate deep threat on the offense and could make his fair share of big plays connecting with Manny Wilkins.

In the trenches, the Sun Devils start rebuilding as they return only one starter from last year’s squad. They ranked 113th in sacks allowed last season, so you can just imagine the hardships they will endure this year. The departure of Christian Westerman, who was drafted in the 5th round by the Cincinnati Bengals will hurt, to say the least. His impact will go unmatched as he served as a mauling, intimidating force who offered the versatility to shift all along the line. The lone returning starter will be senior Evan Goodman who will occupy the blindside tackle slot. It’s going to be a rough season for Arizona State in the trenches, but they have the playmakers on the ground to make up for it.

JoJoWickerNow we get to Todd Graham’s bread and butter, the defense. While they were quite dreadful last season, allowing 337 yards per game which was their worst mark in school history, there is a lot to be optimistic about heading into 2016. They are very strong up front. JoJo Wicker had a standout season as a true freshman. He started the majority of the year and was in the backfield quite often. Wicker is poised for a breakout sophomore season. Wicker is joined by Tashon Smallwood. The two fit Graham’s defensive scheme very well and will cause havoc on the defensive line. Both could be up for All-Pac 12 honors following the season.

Senior Salamo Fiso is a productive leader in the LB corps. Occupying the esteemed Devilbacker position will be JC transfer Koron Crump. He has big shoes to fill, but he caught the coach’s attention during Spring practice and will serve as the team’s pass rushing specialist. Back in the secondary is where the Sun Devils hold a liability. A unit that allowed many big plays and ranked 127th in pass defense doesn’t get any better this season after losing three starters.

The Sun Devils have some nice pieces, most notably their prized tandem of Demario Richard and Kalen Ballage. However, their inexperience under center and on the offensive line will prove to be costly in close conference matchups, along with their poor secondary against high powered passing attacks such as non-conference foe Texas Tech and Washington State. Give Manny Wilkins a year to get comfortable as the team’s starting QB, and the Sun Devils will be a competitor entering the 2017 season. However, the current build of their team doesn’t make them a legit threat this season, although they’ll pull out an upset here and there as a spoiler.

9/3: vs Northern Arizona WASUFork
9/10: vs Texas Tech L
9/16: @ UTSA W
vs California W
10/1: @ USC L
10/8: vs UCLA L
10/15: @ Colorado W
10/22: vs Washington State L
10/29: @ Oregon W
11/10: vs Utah L
11/19: @ Washington L
11/25: @ Arizona L

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