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Sun Devils still searching for offensive identity

Arizona State's Kalen Ballage, right, scores a touchdown as he beats San Diego State's Chibu Onyeukwu (55) during the first half of an NCAA college football game Saturday, Sept. 9, 2017, in Tempe, Ariz. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

TEMPE, Ariz. — Establishing an offensive identity wasn’t supposed to be a problem for the Arizona State football team this season. With talented running backs Kalen Ballage and Demario Richard, the Sun Devils knew their strength.

They also believed the additions of transfers Ryan Newsome, John Humphrey, the maturation of N’Keal Harry and the toughness of Jalen Harvey would improve the receiving corps enough to balance that rushing attack.

“We have a defined philosophy,” coach Todd Graham said way back at the start of spring ball. “We are going to be an 11-personnel team. We’re going to be a run, play-action pass team. If you’ll go back every year I’ve been a head football coach, we’ve been a spread, no-huddle team, all the way back to 2006.”

Two games into the 2017 season, the Sun Devils (1-1) are still searching their pockets for that well-worn calling card.

“I think we need to do better in that regard and no one is more responsible for that than me,” offensive coordinator Billy Napier said Wednesday. “In reality, the external factors shouldn’t affect how you perform, how you come to work every day.

“What’s reality? What are the things that we really need to evaluate to put a plan of attack together to improve in certain areas and then get ready for each game, each week. We need to establish an identity.”

While Napier dismissed external factors in the Sun Devils’ struggles, he has had to play almost all of the first two games without Richard due to a knee injury. Graham said Ballage got dinged up in last Saturday’s loss to San Diego State and ASU has also played the first two games without Newsome, who suffered a quad injury.

While the Devils could be without deep threat John Humphrey this Saturday at Texas Tech — he limped off the field after the San Diego State game with the help of a staff member and is considered questionable — the other three are expected to play against the Red Raiders.

That should help, but to use Napier’s words, the reality is that the Sun Devils’ offensive issues run deeper. The line has had protection and blocking issues and the tight ends and backs have contributed greatly to the former issue. The greatest concern is that there simply isn’t enough talent along the line or at tight end to open holes and pass protect.

“I’m not going to make any excuses,” Napier said. “The thing we’ve got to do is get it done. That’s the business I’m in.”

It’s important to remember that Napier is in his first year as the offensive coordinator and he is the third offensive coordinator ASU has had in the past three seasons. Continuity and familiarity both play roles in the success of an offense.

The trouble for ASU is that its schedule doesn’t care about that transition period. After this week’s road game, the next seven opponents ASU faces will be the toughest seven opponents it faces all year. Each presents the offense with a challenge, whether it’s scoring enough points to keep up with Oregon, or scoring at all against Washington.

Napier acknowledged that the unit’s identity must be established by the time it opens conference play on Sept. 23 against the Ducks.

“Most football teams are works in progress throughout the entire year,” he said. “You’ve got dynamics in all areas: morale, personnel, the opponent that you play. There’s a ton of variables in football and the number one variable is people — motivating people, getting people to do their jobs at an efficient level, everybody pulling the rope in the right direction.

“The message to our players is: ‘Eleven players, one heartbeat, do your job.’ When we do that we’ve had success and when you see us struggle it’s usually a product of poor fundamentals, poor decision-making and it’s sometimes just flat-out effort.

“We’ve got lots of things to work on.”

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