2015 Record: 7-6 (4-5 Big 12 Conference)
2017 NFL Draft Prospects: G Baylen Brown, WR Devin Lauderdale, QB Patrick Mahomes
Week 2 of the Sun Devils 2016 season will be a rematch of the 2013 Holiday Bowl where the Red Raiders stunned a veteran ASU defense favored by 17 points 37-23. After a heartbreaking loss in the Pac-12 Championship to Stanford, Texas Tech quarterback Davis Webb (newly anointed as Cal’s starting quarterback in ’16) threw for 403 yards and 4 touchdowns bringing an end to the college careers of defensive stalwarts Will Sutton and Carl Bradford.
WHAT TO LOOK FOR FROM THE RED RAIDERS ON OFFENSE
2015 S&P+ Offense: 3rd in FBS
2016 Returning Starters Offense: 6
Percentage of Offensive Yards Returning: 70.9% (60th in FBS)
Career Starts Offensive Line: 33 (121st in FBS)
The Red Raiders are oozing talent at the offensive skill positions as fall camp begins, lead by Mahomes, the junior playmaker at quarterback who can do a little bit of everything in Kliff Kingsbury’s offense. During his sophomore season the former two-sport letterman totalled 45 touchdowns (35 passing / 10 rushing) while completing nearly 64-percent of his passes.
Sun Devil fans expecting Todd Graham’s defense to pin back its ears and get after the Air Raid quarterback will be in for a surprise with Mahomes’ elusiveness (456 yards rushing, 10 touchdowns) both inside and outside of the pocket. The Red Raiders receiving corps suffered at times from the drops downfield but look to have improved as a unit even after factoring the loss of wide receiver Jakeem Grant and his 90 catches, 1,087 receiving yards, and 10 touchdowns. Kingsbury brought in 6-foot-3 junior college receiver Derrick Willies as a big-bodied downfield target to compliment the likes of slot receivers Ian Sadler (42 receptions) and Cameron Batson (29 receptions).
Much like ASU, Texas Tech will be replacing a handful of seniors on the offensive line with just 33 career starts returning among the likes of Baylen Brown at left tackle and Tony Morales at center. And while they lost their leading rusher from 2015 in DeAndre Washington, in his place steps junior Justin Stockton that can impact a game with his speed in whichever way Kingsbury gets the ball into his hands.
WHAT TO LOOK FOR FROM THE RED RAIDERS ON DEFENSE
2015 S&P+ Defense: 121st in FBS
2015 Havoc Rate: 91st in FBS
2016 Returning Starters Defense: 6
Percentage of Total Tackles Returning: 52% (105th in FBS)
The good news going into 2016 is that Texas Tech has a lot of young talent to put out on the field as the team heads into Year Two of the transition into David Gibbs’ 4-3 scheme. The bad news? Kingsbury replaced three of Gibbs’ assistants in the off-season from a defense that ranked 127th in the country, thanks in part to its inability to stop the run (280 rushing yards allowed per game at over 6 yards per carry).
Help came in the off-season by way of Ondre Pipkens, a 325-pound defensive tackle transfer from Michigan who will give the defensive line a gap-plugger on run downs. This will make a chess match out of how ASU offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey decides to run his hurry-up offense to exploit the likes of Pipkens on passing downs.
But it wasn’t just their inability to stop the run that cost Gibbs and company in 2015. The Red Raiders defense finished in the bottom half of the conference with 16 turnovers forced against league opponents, due in part to the fact they just couldn’t get to the quarterback. It’s a recipe for disaster when your offense scores a ton of points but your defense ranks last in the league with 16 sacks against a league that has been flourishing as of late at the quarterback position and wants to throw the football.
Simply put, with the production and efficiency of Kingsbury’s offense, if this defense could just perform at league average it could help vault this team at the very least into the top half of the Big 12 standings in 2016. More specifically, if a sophomore core of defenders up the spine of the defense (defensive tackle Breiden Fehoko, middle linebacker D’Vonta Hinton, and safety Jah’Shawn Johnson) can hold their own against a green ASU offense, it could be the 2013 Holiday Bowl all over again for the Devils.
With both teams coming off Week 1 tune-ups against FCS opponents, this will be the first test of similar question marks on defense and with offensive lines full of question marks. Mahomes has the pieces around him on offense to mount a Heisman campaign if his defense can simply hold serve. So this becomes the first exam for Todd Graham’s rebuilt coaching staff to see whether or not they can make the adjustments to prevent what happened in 2015 when the Devils were skinned on two occasions by teams running the Air Raid.
If the defense can’t at least slow down Mahomes and company, it will force an inexperienced ASU quarterback to make more plays than he may be ready for after just one collegiate start while taking the ball out of hands of the likes of juniors Demario Richard and Kalen Ballage.
**Havoc Rating was devised by Bill Connelly – “The percentage of plays in which a defense either recorded a tackle for loss, forced a fumble, or defensed a pass (intercepted or broken up). If QB hurries were a reliable stat (at the college level, there is far too much inconsistency in how they are recorded), they would be included here, too.”
**S&P designed by Football Outsiders – “Takes into account efficiency (Success Rates), explosiveness (IsoPPP), and factors related to field position and finishing drives. It is now presented in two forms: the first is a percentile, and the second is an adjusted scoring margin specific for this specific season’s scoring curve.”