Rob Malara

ASU Midterm Report: Offensive Line


As the Sun Devils head into the middle of what Todd Graham refers to it as an “extra week” on his program’s schedule, we have broken down each and every position group on the football team giving a recap of performance with an GIF to match.

While the “final chapter has not been written” on the 2015 season according to Graham, the offense has struggled mightily through the first seven games of the season, lacking any consistency from week-to-week.  And by most accounts, the offense has been the main reason behind at least two of the team’s three losses.

Entering the 2015 season, it was widely accepted that the offensive tackle position, teamed with the vacancies at wide receiver would be the biggest personelle challenges for Todd Graham’s team to overcome if they were to have continued success coming off back-to-back 10-win seasons.  It was not helpful therefore when the Sun Devils faced off against Texas A&M in their season opener, a team possessing perhaps the best pair of pass rushing defensive ends in the nation, and as a result, annihilated first time starting tackles Evan Goodman and Billy McGehee en route to a nine sack day of quarterback Mike Bercovici.  

While things would improve in subsequent games against lesser opponents, there’s no getting around the fact the offensive line has underachieved for the most part throughout the first seven games.  When measured off of basic statistics, the Devils have given up 3 sacks per game, 113th in the nation, second worst in the conference behind only Washington State.  In terms of the run game, the offensive line has helped block for running backs that have gained the third worst yards per carry in the Pac-12.  

When you start to peel back the onion however, you begin to see some of the line’s faults this season have to do with a continuing trend of a reliance on throwing the football in critical situations rather than calling a run play.  In terms of play calling, offensive coordinator Mike Norvell has called a run on nearly 45-percent of its total plays this season, ranking 109 in the country, a number that has steadily decreased by 11-percent since the current coaching staff took over in 2012, a year when the Devils ran the ball 56-percent of the time.

Even in this age of the prominence of the spread offense, the dominant theory with developing offensive lines is that it’s much easier to run the football successfully when your linemen are given the opportunity to do so on a repetitive basis.  But things get worse from this perspective when you look at red zone play calling, an area where ASU has suffered mightily to turn drives into touchdowns (dead last in the Pac-12).  Heading into the Utah game, Norvell had called the second fewest amount of passing plays in the red zone, second only once again to the pass happy Cougars.  The ASU offense also ranks dead last in the Pac-12 in gaining a first down in the most critical area of the field by way of the run.

Another key figure in judging the success of an offense, third down success, has been just as abysmal for the ASU offense this year, with the offensive line holding its share of the blame.  The coaching staff and players were applauded for its run game execution against UCLA in what to this point has to be considered its best win of the season.  The Devils followed up its success in dominating the Bruins in the trenches by doing more of the same against Colorado the following week.  In those two games the Devils run game averaged over 7 yards per rush on 43 attempts, helping them convert on half of their third down opportunities.

If you take out those two big offensive nights against the Bruins and Buffs, the ASU offense has converted on just 35-percent of their third down opportunities, a number that would put them above only lowly Oregon State in conference.

But this is an area that can improve with a bit of help down the stretch.  Senior interior linemen Christian Westerman and Vi Teofilo have not been healthy throughout the first seven games, while Nick Kelly has been inconsistent on iso blocking the bigger defensive tackles he’s gone up against.  Team this with failures in game planning to properly match when to zone block, and when to go power, and you see a perfect stew of failure in the run game.

Perhaps a week off to make adjustments schematically by the coaching staff, a healthier finish by the guards, and a slew of games under the belts of the new offensive tackles could predict a better second half of 2015 for this position group?  That’s a lot of ifs for this writer’s taste, but if two of the three improvements take place, an offensive improvement should be expected against at least four of the five remaining opponents on the schedule.

About Rob Malara

Rob Malara

Rob Malara is a 2002 Sun Devil grad having spent the majority of his time in Tempe as a football, basketball, and baseball season ticket holder and front row inhabitant. A member of the Football Writers Association of America, he hosted the ASU Devils podcast and was its sub-optimal technical producer through its lifespan. Currently the president of the ASU Alumni Association's Northern Colorado Club, he is part of a family of maroon and gold residing in Fort Collins with his Sun Devil wife and nearby Sun Devil sister.

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