The first half of 2016 Sun Devil football season has been punctuated with surprise performances both positive and negative for a team picked on Pac-12 Media Day to finish fifth in the division. Surprisingly however, with just a loss against USC going into Saturday’s game against Colorado, ASU finds itself in a tie for first place in the South after six games.
With the second half of 2016 still to come, there are still a bevy of ways the season could finish for the Devil’s between making the Pac-12 Championship game and missing out on bowl season. The following helps best summarize the story of how the Devils got to where they are at this point offensively.
There are a lot of places to look at on offense, especially considering major parts of the starting eleven were huge question marks coming into the season outside of Demario Richard, Kalen Ballage, and Tim White. Low and behold these three players have been key to the offense ranking 35th in Football Outsiders Offensive S&P+.
Ballage scoring eight touchdowns against Texas Tech in September might be the biggest surprise moment of the season. But Ballage was expected to be a key contributor. White leads the team in both targets and receptions despite missing time with a hamstring injury. And Richard is currently on pace to finish a hair short of the thousand yard season he put in as a sophomore.
True freshman N’Keal Harry is on pace to catch around 50 passes. He’s a true freshman. Things like this don’t happen very often historically with ASU, so his early success is a pretty big deal. How quickly quarterback Manny Wilkins gets back on the field could determine how useful Harry is the rest of the season.
But to this point, offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey and offensive line coach Chris Thomsen deserve gold stars for how they’ve both molded together a position group that was among the least experienced in the country entering the season, and schemed to protect them. This group of big men, more than any one player on offense, has been the biggest surprise so far in 2016.
Left tackle Evan Goodman was the only returning starter on the line, and has been joined by guards Sam Jones and Stephon McCray, center A.J. McCollum, and right tackle Quinn Bailey have helped the Devils hold serve from a production standpoint to what they’ve done in the past. From a pass protection standpoint, the group is looking to match last year’s numbers in terms of sacks per drop-backs by the quarterback (14.4 in ‘16 compared to 14.7 in ‘15). They are also on pace to allow 30 sacks for the season which would be the lowest since Graham took over in 2012, a stat slightly diminished by the fact Lindsey is calling running plays at the highest percentage seen under Graham since his inaugural season.
Health at the quarterback position over the last two weeks could be the biggest determining factor in how the Sun Devils season is remembered. Things have gotten so bad so quick in fact that ASU will more than likely start its third different quarterback in three consecutive weeks heading into Boulder. That would make it only the second time in nearly twenty years that this has happened in Tempe.
But if you had to point a finger at the biggest disappointment so far, it’s been production from the tight end position where Kody Kohl lead all returning Pac-12 players in career receptions at the position but has caught just four passes through six games. His biggest catch being a 36-yarder in the Texas Tech game. But for the most part the tight ends have been non-existent as a whole in the passing game all year, targeted on 6-percent of all throws (down from 12% last in ‘15).
Hands down it’s Harry for what he has done so far on the field and what he represents going forward as a highly-touted local product out of Chandler High.
He has made some fantastic catches so far, the touchdown grab to end the first half against UTSA being the best of them. And he looks to only get better under the tutelage of wide receiver coach Jay Norvell, whose job it will be to turn a raw and athletic athlete into the complete package by the time he’s draft eligible.
Going forward he looks to be the most dependable deep threat among the receiver group in 2016, and doubles up as a capable blocker on the perimeter.