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College Football Preview 2021: 20. Arizona State Sun Devils

Jayden Daniels, Arizona State

 20. Arizona State Sun Devils

After a lost 2020 season, expect a big '21 in what will essentially be Herm and staff's third season at the helm

2020 Review
Like so much of the Pac-12, it's hard to take much information from Arizona State's abbreviated 2020 "season". They had a heartbreaking loss to USC to open up the campaign in a game they led nearly the whole way, then didn't take the football field again for nearly a month due to COVID problems. When they did return, they dropped a game to UCLA before finishing strong, demolishing arch-rival Arizona 70-7, then cruising past Oregon State to finish 2-2 overall.

(* Important Note) Days before publishing, rumors surfaced that Arizona State was under investigation for serious recruiting violations stemming from the NCAA's "Dead Period". Due to fact that this investigation is ongoing and its impact unknown, these violations will not be addressed further in this post. 

2021 Outlook
Offense: Arizona State had one of the youngest offenses in the Pac-12 in 2020, as true sophomore quarterback Jayden Daniels was surrounded by a host of freshmen and sophomores at the skill positions. The main exception was wide out Frank Darby, who was done for the season following the opener against USC.

Daniels still managed to put up solid numbers in the four games the Sun Devils played, throwing for 701 yards and five touchdowns, with just one interception. In his time in Tempe, Daniels has displayed not only intriguing running ability (223 yards last fall) but also an extremely electric arm. He's still working on becoming more consistent, but there's not a lot of sophomore quarterbacks with his blend of pure talent and excellent decision-making. 2021 is the year he asserts himself as one of the best quarterbacks in not only the Pac-12, but the entire country.

Arizona State has a nice trio at tailback in junior Rachaad White and redshirt freshmen DeaMonte "Chip" Trayanum and Daniyel Ngata. White led the team in rushing yards last season, hitting 420 yards and five scores despite the short schedule. He proved to be awfully efficient, averaging 10 yards per carry, using his impressive elusive ability to his advantage. White is unlikely to replicate those numbers again, but should be ready to be the feature guy once again. 

Frank Darby never really got going last season and was a sixth-round selection for the Atlanta Falcons. His departure leaves the team without a clear No. 1 receiver, but there are several players looking to step into that role. Redshirt freshman L.V. Bunkley-Shelton led the team with 11 receptions for 100 yards in 2020 and should be targeted early and often this year. Joining him is sophomore Ricky Pearsall and redshirt frosh Johnny Wilson, who both saw a healthy dosage of snaps a season ago. Wilson, a former high-profile recruit who was committed to Oregon for a long time, likely has an NFL future.

The real wild cards at receiver are freshman Elijhah Badger and Utah transfer Bryan Thompson. Badger was ineligible in 2020 due to academic problems, but the coaching staff has been raving about his potential throughout the spring. Whether he's able to take the next step and play a leading role remains to be seen, but the raw tools are in place. Thompson managed 461 yards at Utah in 2019 and displayed real deep threat potential. He has a lower ceiling than most of the other wide outs on this ASU roster but the fact he has proven experience in the Pac-12 is a major plus.

Making life easier for Daniels and this ground game is the fact that four starters are back on the offensive line. The headliners of the group are senior left tackle Kellen Diesch and center Dohnovan West, who plays a pivotal role at the heart of the unit. The only real concern is the left guard spot, where there isn't a clear starter set to take over the job. Sophomore Ralph Frias probably closed spring with a slight edge, but it will be a position to keep an eye on when fall camp opens.

Offensive coordinator Zak Hill never really got a chance to show what he can do in his first year on the job last fall, but the small sample size was promising. It's been a long time since Arizona State had a quarterback with the natural talent of Daniels, and both the skill positions and offensive line are loaded with talent and depth. There will be ample time to sort things out early on as well, as the Sun Devils open with two extremely poor defenses (Southern Utah & UNLV) before a road trip to BYU.

Defense: Former NFL linebacker Antonio Pierce split defensive coordinator roles with former Cincinnati Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis in 2020, but is now the sole DC in '21. In just a short time helping run this defense, Pierce has gained a reputation as an elite motivator and superb defensive mind. He has a chance to build on a very promising defensive season for ASU a year ago.

The Sun Devils don't have very many headliners on the defensive line, but it's a group with a healthy amount of experience and some pass rushing ability. Defensive tackles D.J. Davidson and Jermayne Lole should play a major role in helping lead the rush defense, which was awfully inconsistent in 2020. Off the edge, junior Tyler Johnson was used in a rotational role last fall, but is ready to step in as a full-time starter. He was the team leader with five sacks and has an explosive first step. 

The back-seven in general should have Arizona State fans very excited, with loads of potential All-Pac-12 talent roaming around. The linebacker corps includes a pair of dynamic outside linebackers in Darien Butler and Merlin Robertson. Robetson was Pac-12 Defensive Freshman of the Year in 2018 and has built on it with two productive campaigns, notching 24 tackles in 2020. Butler isn't quite the playmaker that Robertson is, but is also a fourth-year starter who can help this defense in a variety of different ways. The unsung hero of the unit is middle linebacker Kyle Soelle. He doesn't get as much attention as Robertson or Butler, but is a real run stuffer, with 26 tackles a season ago.

In the secondary, the Sun Devils have nearly everybody back. Corners Chase Lucas and Jack Jones are two of the best in the Pac-12, Lucas boasting five pass deflections last year, while Jones only played in the opener against USC. Jones, who had taken an interesting path from originally beginning his career at 'SC to heading to the junior college ranks and then ASU, was suspended last season but took advantage of the COVID year of extra eligibility. At safety, the Sun Devils also feature a pair of senior starters in Evan Fields and another former transfer, DeAndre Pierce. Fields has earned a reputation as one of the harder hitters out West, while Pierce came down south from Boise State and immediately worked his way into the starting job. The amount of veteran experience back here makes it clear that there is no reason why this shouldn't be one of the best secondaries in the league. 

Arizona State's defense was difficult to get a read on during their four-game 2020. Their overall numbers weren't very good in terms of yardage but they ranked tops in the Pac-12 in scoring defense at 23.2 points per game. They personified the "bend-don't-break" defense, playing their best defense in the red zone, and also forcing plenty of turnovers. Herm Edwards and Pierce know that isn't sustainable if this team wants to be a Pac-12 South Title contender. With so much experience back and star plays at nearly every level, it absolutely should be a much better group.

Special Teams: Kicker is a real question mark for Arizona State entering 2021, as Christian Zendejas and Jack Luckhurst split time last season. Zendejas has since transferred, leaving Luckhurst as the favorite, but he had just one field goal attempt in 2020. Perhaps true freshman Eddie Czaplicki, who comes all the way from North Carolina, could give him a run for his money. The good news is that punter Michael Turk may be the best in the conference, giving ASU a huge advantage in field position.

Bottom Line: A 17-13 record in two-plus seasons at the helm might not jump off the page at you, but there shouldn't be any denying how good of a job Herm Edwards has done in Tempe. He's elevated ASU's recruiting and brand in a big way and by bringing in a host of former NFL players and assistants, he's changed the way they develop that talent. The next step is getting more consistent results on the field, and the 2021 team should be the one to do that. They're loaded with fun offensive talent throughout the roster, including a budding star at QB in Daniels, and the defense has the pieces in place to be a real strength. It also helps that the Sun Devils have a schedule that sets up nicely for them. They get an easy non-conference slate to ease into the season and get their toughest Pac-12 South competition, USC, at home. Road trips to Seattle and Salt Lake City to face Washington and Utah are perilous, but the Sun Devils should still be favored in as many as 9-10 games. I have them a step below the Trojans in the division but even so, don't be surprised if this ends up being the big "breakthrough" year for Herm and this staff.

Further Breakdown
Team Projections
Projected Record: 9-3 (6-3 Pac-12)
Offensive MVP: QB Jayden Daniels
Defensive MVP: LB Merlin Robertson
Breakout Player of the Year: WR Johnny Wilson
Impact Freshman: DB Tommi Hill

Recruiting Breakdown
ASU brought in a much smaller class than normal, bringing in 13 high school recruits. They finished with a class near the bottom of the league due to the smaller numbers, but this one is still ripe with upside. Corner Isaiah Johnson is a headliner out of California who could see playing time right away, even in the loaded secondary. Tommi Hill and R.J. Regan both join him in the defensive backfield, Regan also hailing from California, while Hill arrives from Florida. Hill comes in as the No. 11 Athlete in the 2021 Class and could theoretically play both sides of the ball, but spent most of his time at corner during the spring. Keep an eye on linebacker Jaydon Williams. Pierce was the primary recruiter on him and managed to keep him away from several other programs. Williams rose up recruiting boards late in the process but managed to catch the eye of numerous Power Five schools.

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