Biggest questions raised by ASU football's season

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By Brad Denny By Brad Denny

We’ve covered the successes, and we’ve covered the failures.

Arizona State’s 2014 regular season had plenty of highs and many lows. It also raised some significant questions moving forward.

This is not simply a list of top questions for 2015, but rather several key quandaries raised by what we saw on the field in 2014. 

Can Berco be “The Man”?

It was arguably the biggest storyline of the 2014 season: who should be ASU’s quarterback?

With three-year starter Taylor Kelly on the shelf, Mike Bercovici engineered wins over USC and Stanford, and put up huge numbers in the process. His play reignited the Sun Devil offense, and when the unit struggled when Kelly returned, the fanbase largely called for Bercovici.

They got their wish when Todd Graham pulled Kelly for Bercovici in the second half against Arizona. While Bercovici nearly pulled off the comeback, he also threw a costly interception that resulted in the eventual game-winning touchdown by the Wildcats.

All told, Bercovici completed 115 of his 186 passes (61.8 percent) for 1,445 yards, 12 touchdowns and four interceptions.

Did ASU fans see enough to believe he can be the quarterback to keep ASU in the Pac-12 title race?

On one hand, Bercovici showed off a terrific arm, capable of making all the throws needed by the offense. He has spent three full years in the Mike Norvell offense, and knows it inside and out. Bercovici is also praised for his leadership ability, and he has earned the confidence of his teammates. There is no question that he has the “it” factor and swagger that championship quarterbacks possess. 

However, he also showed the downside of his gunslinger mentality. Due to his confidence in his arm, he sometimes forces throws that can result in costly mistakes (see UCLA, Arizona). Graham and Norvell value ball security more than anything in their quarterbacks. Bercovici was the presumed favorite for the quarterback job in 2012, but his struggles with turnovers ultimately led to Kelly winning the job. While he also has improved his mobility, he is nowhere near the running threat that Kelly has been.

All told, Bercovici’s talent and short-term production this year should give ASU fans optimism that he can continue the team’s success, and perhaps even take them to the next level. Yet, questions will remain until he shows he can do it consistently. 

How will the D look? (AKA Will the Devilbacker return?)

In 2012 and 2013, the ASU defense was among the most aggressive and productive units in the nation. A large part of that success came from the Devilbacker position and Carl Bradford. Part rush end, part outside linebacker, the position and Bradford's athleticism melded perfectly to form a potent defensive weapon.

Bradford left school early, becoming a fourth round pick of the Green Bay Packers. Replacing his unique skillset become one of the top offseason's questions, and the early answers weren't great.

Darrius Caldwell, a highly-touted junior college transfer, committed and was thought to be Bradford's successor. However, he failed to qualify academically and did not enroll. Throughout fall camp and the season's first four games, ASU tried Edmond Boateng, Antonio Longino, Chans Cox, Eriquel Florence and tight ends De'Marieya Nelson and Marcus Washington there.

It didn't work, and the defense as a whole suffered. Quite simply, without a player to effectively play Devilbacker, the defensive scheme wasn't working. 

Was it time to kill it (or at least, put it on the shelf)? 

The staff finally thought so, and made a change to a stouter look up front, showing more 4-3 sets. That bolstered the line with Demetrius Cherry, Ami Latu, and Mo Latu seeing greater playing time, and inserted the 235-pound Longino in at WILL linebacker. 

Over the final half of the season, the defense became a team strength, generating pressure (ASU is 6th in the FBS in tackles for loss, 8th in sacks) and turnovers.

So how will ASU look in 2015? With most of the front seven returning, will they stay with their current look? Or will the Devilbacker return to prominence?

ASU should have some new options at the position. Ishmael Murphy-Richardson will be coming off a redshirt year, and the Sun Devils have a current commit from highly-ranked Davon Durant that could factor in. They are also pursuing 4-star prospects Porter Gustin and Cassius Peat that could excel at the position.

The Sun Devils have shown that they can bring the heat with or without the Devilbacker, so this gives the team the flexibility to adapt and scheme based on talent and personnel.

Where were the halftime adjustments?

Let's take a look at how ASU did by quarter this year.

They generally started off fast, outscoring opponents 103-58 in the first quarter and 153-96 in the second. The Sun Devils also closed fairly well, posting a 121-96 advantage in the fourth quarter.

Then there is that dreadful third quarter, in which ASU was outscored 82-64. Sometimes, their strong fourth quarters helped bail out the Sun Devils. Other times, especially late in the year, the deficits and momentum sustained after halftime were too much to overcome.

Most damningly, their struggles happened in the season's most defining games. Against UCLA, ASU was outscored 21-10 in the third. They were outscored 7-0 against both Oregon State and Notre Dame as the ASU offense vanished. Worst of all, they were tossed around by the Wildcats in a 14-0 third quarter against Arizona. That put ASU in a hole against their rivals from which they never recovered.

While the Sun Devil defense often came out flat in those third quarters, the ASU offense was the primary source of blame. In the Notre Dame, Oregon State, and Arizona games, the Sun Devils were outgained 492 to 163.

This is not a new trend, either.

In 2013, ASU outscored their opponents in the first, second, and fourth quarters by an average of 152-88, yet in the third quarter they trailed 109-99.

Perhaps it's time to change up the halftime routine.

Can WRs flourish without Jaelen?

Over his two seasons in Tempe, Jaelen Strong put his name in the conversation of best wide receiver in school history. Due to that success, it's widely believed that 2014 was his last season as as Sun Devil, as he is eligible to enter the 2015 NFL Draft.

That will leave a first-team All-Pac-12 sized hole in the Sun Devil offense, and based on what we saw at times when Strong was sidelined, it could be trouble for ASU.

Strong missed the Washington State game this year, and missed time during the Oregon State game this year and during three games last season. Notably during the loss to Oregon State, ASU's passing game all but dried up. While some of that is due to the quarterback play, the other wide receivers failed to rise to the occasion.

Sophomore Cam Smith did emerge as a viable No. 2 option. The speedster is third on the team with 41 catches for 596 yards and six touchdowns, and has shown the ability to beat defenses deep. He did step up in a big way with Strong out of the lineup against the Cougars, posting a career-best 131 yards and two touchdowns. However, it remains to be seen if he can consistently be the No. 1 target for ASU.

Outside of sophomore Smith, the rest of the wide receivers had a quiet year. 

Frederick Gammage (12 catches, 104 yards, one touchdown), Ellis Jefferson (10-137-2) and Gary Chambers (9-190-2) each had positive moments, but also were non-factors for long stretches.

Two 4-star players will be coming off redshirts next season, Eric Lauderdale and Jalen Harvey (Tyler Whiley is expected to move to defense), that have great potential. The Sun Devils are also hotly pursuing a few high-caliber wide receiver recruits including 5-star Christian Kirk, and 4-stars Trent Irwin and Cordell Broadus.

ASU’s offense will be throwing the ball a lot next season, and it remains to be seen who will be catching them.

Who should be the lead RB?

On the surface, this question is odd. 

ASU is likely to return D.J. Foster, who has run for 1,002 yard yards this year, becoming just the 15th Sun Devil to top 1,000 yards in a season. He’s averaged a very healthy 5.5 yards per carry while scoring nine touchdowns on the ground. 

However, more than half of his yards (510) game in the first three games of the year, in which he faced FCS level Weber State, New Mexico (122nd ranked run defense in the FBS) and Colorado (102nd). During the next five games—against UCLA, USC, Stanford, Washington, and Utah—Foster had just 190 and averaged just 2.9 yards per carry.

Over the back half of the season, true freshman Demario Richard began to see more work as the team looked to reinvigorate the run game. His beast mode run against Washington helped jumpstart a snoozing ASU offense, and he followed that up the next week with 116 yards in a powerful effort against Utah. Against Notre Dame, he had 101 yards from scrimmage and scored two touchdowns. Richard even started three of ASU’s final four games.

Richard’s emergence didn’t relegate Foster to the bench, of course, as Foster’s versatility and game-breaking talent kept him on the field. Foster caught 31 passes over the final six games, and had 120 yard rushing against Notre Dame and 96 yards and three rushing scores against Washington State.

Such production talent—highly talented true freshman Kalen Ballage added 176 yards and three touchdowns from scrimmage—gives ASU’s coaching staff plenty of options for 2015.

Do they keep Foster as the primary back, and mix in Richard and Ballage? Should Richard carry the primary ground load, freeing up Foster to be used in a variety of ways? Or do they just sit back and feed the hot hand?