ASU football practice

ASU defensive tackle Jermayne Lole runs through a drill during practice (Photo: Brad Denny)

TEMPE, AZ (3TV/CBS 5) -- On, then off, and now back on.

The 2020 Pac-12 football season is officially (finally) upon us. With the season opener on Nov. 7 drawing near, Arizona State opens their fall camp on Friday morning.

Even in this most unusual year, familiar fall camp storylines like position battles and scheme changes will surround the Sun Devils.

While ASU returns several key starters on both sides of the ball, there remain many positions worth tracking in the coming weeks.

“We understand who the starters are a little bit,” head coach Herm Edwards said on Wednesday. “There’s still some competition at certain positions, which makes it kind of interesting.”

In addition, the team will continue the installation of their new offensive and defensive schemes that began during spring practice. 

Here are four pressing questions the team will look to answer over the next month prior to their opener against USC.

Darby...then what?

Senior wide receiver Frank Darby has some big shoes to fill. In each of the last two NFL Drafts, he's seen a fellow Sun Devil receiver taken in the first round. Now it's his time to shine.

During his career, Darby has proven to be an effective deep threat. He's averaged just over 20 yards-per-reception in his career, and he ranked 10th nationally in that category last year (19.9). Even with questions about how he will improve his game heading into the 2020 season, he's the clear No. 1 target for quarterback Jayden Daniels.

But then what? Daniels will have a host of talented—but inexperienced—weapons at his disposal.

Outside of Darby, the returning targets haven't produced much so far. Redshirt senior Brandon Pierce, redshirt sophomore Geordon Porter and true sophomore Ricky Pearsall have a combined 16 career catches. The tight ends—sophomore Nolan Matthews (six) and senior Curtis Hodges (13)—haven't made many grabs yet either. No current Sun Devil running back has made a catch at the FBS level.

There are also a robust group of newcomers vying for targets.

A lot of hype has surrounded the quartet of incoming 4-star receivers. Even with one, Elijhah Badger, ruled academically ineligible this season, the remaining trio of Lavon Bunkley-Shelton, Johnny Wilson, and Chad Johnson Jr. add some explosive potential to the mix. ASU added a pair of tight ends as grad transfers, including Kyle Horn, who led UMass in touchdown receptions (three) and yards-per-catch (13.1) in 2019. 

So how will the pecking order develop after Darby? Could it be Porter's blend of size and speed? Pearsall over the middle? Perhaps Bunkley-Shelton from the slot, or Wilson's size (listed 6-foot-7, 220 pounds) will stand out. As the old saying goes, a tight end is a quarterback's best friend, and offensive coordinator Zak Hill's offenses have proven to involve the position heavily in the passing game. 

There will be options, and for those players, plenty of opportunity in camp to become a trusted target.

Who will lock down the end spots? 

The Sun Devils' switch to a 4-man defensive under co-defensive coordinators Marvin Lewis and Antonio Pierce began this spring. As fall camp opens, defensive line coach Robert Rodriguez is tasked with building up a formidable front for a defense featuring a bevy of playmakers at linebacker and in the secondary.

In the middle, Jermayne Lole (6-1, 310) and D.J. Davidson (6-5, 320) provide experience and playmaking potential. It's at the end spots that things become more uncertain.

“Our line is obviously one that has some experience inside, not so much outside,” said Edwards. “Every team looks at itself and says ‘OK, we’re going to be strong here. We’re going to continue to grow in certain positions.’ We just feel like we’re capable of doing some things with how we’re trying to play in a four-man front that will help those guys.”

In spring, senior Shannon Forman (6-0, 300) and redshirt sophomore Michael Matus (6-2, 260) held down the starting end spots. But with the team needing to bolster its pass rush, others figure to make a strong push for their jobs.

Perhaps the most intriguing option is redshirt junior Tyler Johnson. In the Speak of the Devils fall camp preview, I highlighted the defensive end spots, and Johnson in particular, as my top area to watch. When healthy, Johnson has proven to be a disruptive edge presence in 2018. After an injury-hampered 2019 season, he retired from the game, but later opted to return. Now at end, the bulked up Johnson (from a listed 258 last year to 285) has a chance to become what the defense needs.

A similar transformation has happened with redshirt freshman Amiri Johnson. Arriving last year at 225 pounds, the 6-foot-6 Johnson is now a listed 280 pounds. Coaches are high on his potential. Other returning options include Stanley Lambert, a converted linebacker coming back from a severe knee injury, and Anthonie Cooper. Four-star true freshman Joe Moore joined the program over the summer and has a chance to earn reps.

Even with its shortened schedule, ASU will face some dangerous quarterbacks. Having players able to make plays off the edge will be crucial for the Sun Devils to live up to their lofty expectations.

How will the carries be divided? 

Over the last two seasons, Eno Benjamin accounted for 84% of the rushing attempts by Sun Devil running backs. He's now an Arizona Cardinal, leaving a major void in the ASU ground game.

The Sun Devils will still run a lot, but it figures to now be with a by-committee approach. Fortunately for them, they have a group of players with diverse and complementary skillsets.

True freshman DeaMonte Trayanum (5-11, 230) has the look of a lead back. A physical runner with speed, he was an early enrollee and took the majority of first-team reps during spring practice. Fellow 4-star true freshman back Danyiel Ngata (5-9, 185) was limited in spring, but provides a shiftier option. Junior college transfer Rachaad White (6-2, 195), labeled by running backs coach Shaun Aguano as a "slasher," is a combination of the two styles.

As Edwards described the three:

“Ngata is a little bit like Eno. He can make you miss, real good with the ball in his hand. Trayanum is a big powerful guy. When he runs through the hole, and I’m standing back there, I’m going, ‘Woah, this is a big man running through there. White is a combination of both. He’s a little taller, linear. He has great hands, great vision."

On the recent Speak of the Devils Sitdown Series episode, Aguano said that in over to “keep tread on their tires,” he aimed to have a three-back rotation, or at least two seeing the bulk of the work with a third mixed in.

As Edwards noted, they are all starting from a similar point with no Power 5 experience, and once practices get going with contact, things can change quickly.

Given the diverse skillsets, the Sun Devils have the ability to maximize their talents situationally or ride the hot hand during a game. Or perhaps, one will emerge as the clear lead back and heir to Benjamin.

How comfortable are the players with the new schemes?

One silver lining to the delayed season has been the extra time for the players to continue to learn the new offensive and defensive schemes.

ASU was fortunate to be able to get in seven practices during the spring before everything shut down. That allowed for valuable on-field reps and provided them with film to study in the ensuing months.

While the offseason was full of Zoom meetings (Edwards admitted to being "Zoomed out"), the Sun Devils were finally able to return for workouts and strengths and conditioning work in June.

While film, meetings, and walkthroughs help, nothing can replicate the impact of full-speed, full-contact work. 

"Everything changes when you put the pads on," Edwards said "and there are a lot of guys that are playing real good right now with a helmet on, but we have to see how they react when we put shoulder pads on.”

Unlike normal seasons, there are no FCS or Group of 5 opponents to work out the kinks. With a matchup against the presumed South division favorite, ASU will need to hit the ground running on Nov. 7.

 
 

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