With the Cactus Bowl loss to West Virginia in the rearview mirror and the 2015 season now done and dusted, it’s clear that this past season can now be referred to as a disappointing one for a Sun Devils team that was came into the year ranked within the AP top-25 having won ten or more games in back-to-back seasons for the first time since Frank Kush was roaming the sidelines over forty years ago.
We witnessed the progression of young skill position players in Demario Richard, Kalen Ballage, and Tim White. At the same time we also saw a mediocre senior-laden offensive line and an inconsistent receiver group cost senior quarterback Mike Bercovici a chance at making it ten-plus wins in three-straight seasons.
The defense, while once again racking up sacks and tackles for loss, was average at best early on in the season before free-falling to join the bottom-dwellers of the Pac-12 by November in yards-per-play, scoring defense, and explosive plays. Overall the passing defense finished dead last in FBS play allowing 337 yards on average throughout the course of their 13 games played.
With that said our staff of writers sat down previous to the bowl game to hash out our list of award winners for the six win edition of Todd Graham’s squad.
Offensive Player of the Year: Demario Richard, Running Back
The Pac-12 was fortunate to have its shelves stocked with young impact players at the running back position starting for no less than half of its teams. Richard was one of those players, and while he may not have been invited to to New York City in December with the likes of Stanford’s Christian McCaffrey, he held up his end of the bargain in his second season in Tempe, and first as a starter.
Richard finished the regular season sixth in the Pac-12 with 1,056 yard rushing. His 229 touches on offense were 125 more than the next Sun Devil (Kalen Ballage). As the metronome of the offense, he recorded seven games of over 100-yards rushing, including 254 yards of offense in a 34-10 win over New Mexico on September 18.
As steady a performer as there was on the Sun Devils’ offense in 2015, he averaged 96 yards rushing during his 11 starts with a knee injury causing him to miss the Utah game back in mid-October and helping to spawn a three-game losing streak that erased all hopes for the Devils to win ten-plus games for a third consecutive season.
Runner-Up: Devin Lucien, Wide Receiver
Defensive Player of the Year: Antonio Longino, Devil backer
The senior Devil backer continued the trend of Todd Graham defenders to make an impact on the national scene with their Havoc numbers, as Longino finished the regular season second in the country in tackles for loss and just outside the top-10 in sacks.
Much like Marcus Hardison a season before him, Longino took time to adjust to his position in the starting line-up before achieving great success. And it wasn’t a position short on suitors as Graham had tried the likes of freshmen Joseph Wicker and Ismael Murph-Richardson, sophomores Kalen Ballage and Christian Sam, before settling with Longino. His second go at the position after he was tried there to minimal success during his junior season.
But for Longino, his gradual success path was held back at first due to minor injuries holding him back at a position where he was forced to go against offensive linemen who regularly outweighed him by at least 60 pounds.
After getting settled into the Devil backer position, Longino recorded sacks in four of his final six regular season games as a Sun Devil in 2015, including a four sack performance in a 52-37 Territorial Cup win over Arizona in November. Production that helped Longino to become the first ever Sun Devil defense to be named Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Week in consecutive weeks.
Runner-Up: Salamo Fiso, Linebacker
Special Teams Player of the Year: Tim White, Kick Returner
The football/track star out of the College of the Canyons literally hit the ground running in his first season in Tempe as a
junior college transfer highlighted by his 100-yard kickoff return in Salt Lake City against Utah on October 17.
While he also made contributions with the offense (most plays of 30+ yards among Sun Devil receivers) it was the threat he posed in the return game that helped the cause for new special teams coach Shawn Slocum. White represented quantity and quality as the first kick returner to run one back for the Devils since Rashad Ross in 2012. At the same time it wasn’t just feast or famine as he was also the first since Ross to average more than 25 yards per return, with his 27 yards per return finishing second behind the other-worldly McCaffrey.
Runner-Up: Zane Gonzalez
Most Improved Player: Christian Sam, Linebacker
The Sun Devils were blessed with both talent and depth at inside linebacker in 2015 with Salamo Fiso finally meeting the
expectations of a promising freshman campaign of 2013 now in his junior season and sophomore DJ Calhoun totaling 6.5 sacks as a situational pass rusher (including 4.5 of those sacks during the month of October).
But it was the play of Sam, a burgeoning star in the Pac-12 at his position, that really became a trademark of a defense that was otherwise underwhelming and gave up far too many big plays in 2015. Considered the best looking NFL prospect among the group due to this size/speed combination, Sam’s 97 tackles were second only to Fiso, sixth in the Pac-12.
In his first year as a starter, some of Sam’s best games came down the stretch in wins against Washington (12 tackles and an interception) and Arizona (10 tackles and a strip of Jarrard Randall). With two years of eligibility remaining, the future is very bright for the linebacker.
Runner-Up: Matt Haack, Punter
Newcomer of the Year: Devin Lucien, Wide Receiver
This vote raised some controversy as the award will clearly need to be clarified in 2016 as freshman and transfers were eligible. And the latter statement allowed the graduate transfer, who previously recorded 58 receptions in 3 seasons with UCLA, to bust down the door and claim this award from the likes of freshman Joseph Wicker and Kareem Orr.
For Lucien, he will always be remembered by Sun Devil fans as a player who played his most productive game at wide receiver up to that point against the school’s biggest opponent. His 9 catches for 190 yards in the Territorial Cup, including a 59-yard touchdown reception was the beginning of a 3-game stretch that saw the California native total 26 receptions, 534 yards, and 5 touchdowns to close out his collegiate career.
It was indeed a tale of two seasons for Lucien who struggled to learn the offense early on combined with a leg injury that forced him to miss out on the USC game, a game which saw the Devils fall behind 35-0 to the Trojans by half time. But in the later weeks of the season, Lucien would total more than three quarters of his offensive production, including the first 100-yard receiving game of his career in the loss to Utah.
Runner-Up: Joseph Wicker, Defensive Lineman