The 5: Storylines surrounding the ASU Sun Devils this season
The college football season officially kicks off for the Arizona State Sun Devils in Tempe on Thursday.
ASU is noticeably different this season with numerous departures to the starting lineup and plenty of new faces throughout the roster poised to contribute right away.
But before we get to the season opener against Kent State, here are five things to keep an eye this season for the Sun Devils:
The true freshman signal caller
There’s no doubt about it.
The spotlight shines just a bit brighter on ASU’s quarterback situation.
The team will roll out a true freshman in Jayden Daniels as its starter after he beat out the rest of the competition during the preseason.
His high school totals speak for themselves, as the second-ranked dual-threat quarterback in his college class threw for 14,007 passing yards and 170 passing touchdowns at Cajon High School, breaking past sectional records in the process. He also showed out on the ground, rushing for 3,645 yards and 41 more scores.
While Daniels has shown his abilities as a passer, it’s the run game that has yet to be unlocked as the team works to limit injury.
But don’t get it twisted.
Head coach Herm Edwards and the rest of the ASU coaching staff know there are going to be some growing pains throughout the year, but they appear excited to see what they have in the 6-foot-3, 180-pound signal caller.
“He’s just a natural playmaker … he hangs in there, makes throws, always thinks he can make every throw,” offensive coordinator Rob Likens said of Daniels.
“I’m anxious to see – because I haven’t seen it – what he’s going to look like when the play breaks down, so I think we’ll naturally see some plays being made.”
Can Eno Benjamin sustain success in 2019?
With a freshman quarterback at the helm, what does that mean for the production of junior running back Eno Benjamin?
Last season as the Sun Devils’ premier back, Benjamin compiled 1,642 yards and 16 touchdowns on 300 attempts (13 games played).
But he’s no longer a secret for opposing defenses. Teams most definitely will key on the No. 5 rusher in the NCAA from a year prior.
One facet of Benjamin’s game could see an uptick this season as he looks to keep defenses guessing. With a young QB under center, the running back could be called upon more in the passing game.
As a receiver out of the backfield, Benjamin recorded 263 yards and two touchdowns on 35 receptions a year ago, the latter of which was good enough for third-most on the team behind wideouts Kyle Williams (44) and N’Keal Harry (73).
It wouldn’t be a farce to think Benjamin could see an uptick in production as a pass-catcher as defenses likely load the box to limit him on as a rusher.
“He had 35 catches last year. I really talked to him about catching the ball even more,” Edwards said to Stadium earlier in August. “When you have a running back of his caliber, you’re going to get a lot of eight-man box. How do you get him free? We would like to get him in space with some linebackers one-on-one catching the football.”
The receiving room
Gone to the NFL is ASU’s top receiving threat in Harry.
But while there’s certainly a void left to be filled in that department, the Sun Devils have a number of returning wide receivers who could step up into that spot.
Most notably, seniors Brandon Aiyuk, Kyle Williams and Ryan Newsome, redshirt junior Frank Darby and junior Curtis Hodges join a handful of underclassmen also expected to contribute.
Aiyuk, Williams and Darby each recorded more than 400 yards receiving for 1,344 combined yards and seven scores on 98 receptions last season. Aiyuk edged out the others in terms of yards (474) and touchdowns (3), while Williams paced the three in catches (44).
Based on how close they are in receiving totals, and their expected usage this season, it could take some time for the No. 1 option to emerge, but all possess the talent to do so.
Having at least three potential No. 1 guys is never a bad thing.
Does the defense take another step forward?
While ASU took a positive step toward being a dominant defensive team last season, defensive coordinator and assistant head coach Danny Gonzales knows there’s still more work to be done.
“The great thing about football is every year, year to year, you cannot live on your past success,” he said in late July. “We were not very good last year in my opinion. I still don’t think we’re very good now. I think we have the makings to be great around here, and my thoughts are we’re going to make tremendous strides this year. We should be significantly better.
“Coach says it all the time: ‘words and actions.’ If you don’t believe it, don’t say it. That’s the attitude I want our kids to play with.”
As a team, the Sun Devils ranked fourth in the Pac-12 in interceptions (12), seventh in points per game allowed (25.5), tied for second in fumble recoveries (9) and tied for fifth in sacks (29).
Gonzales and the coaching staff is hoping to exceed that interception total, with 20 being the target number for 2019.
How can they improve?
After a dominant freshman campaign, ASU is hoping sophomore linebacker Merlin Robertson can take yet another step in helping solidify the team’s defense. In 11 starts as a Sun Devil, Robertson made 77 tackles, 8.5 tackles for loss and 5.0 sacks, all team highs.
For his efforts, the linebacker was named the Pac-12’s Defensive Freshman of the Year and made USA Today’s Freshman All-America team.
Fellow sophomores Darien Butler, a linebacker, and Aashari Crosswell, a safety, are two other freshmen that turned it on last season.
Butler finished 23rd in the the Pac-12 in tackles (70), adding eight tackles for loss, a sack and two fumble recoveries. Crosswell caused problems for opposing quarterbacks, recording the third most interceptions in the Pac-12 with four, while also adding 43 tackles and a fumble recovery.
Another impact player that’s been talked about by the coaching staff throughout the preseason has been junior defensive back Evan Fields.
While Fields only recorded 28 total tackles and a pass defensed last season, he could be a main contributor in 2019.
Can Herm Edwards, ASU continue to compete in the Pac-12 South?
When the ASU Sun Devils made the Herm Edwards hire official, some didn’t view the decision optimistically.
Edwards was quick to quiet naysayers by not only winning a few big games but challenging in the Pac-12 South in 2018.
The team narrowly missed taking the title, finishing 5-4 in the division (7-6 overall), just a game behind Utah.
Nonetheless, the football buzz around Tempe was rejuvenated.
But gone is last season, and the expectations surrounding the Sun Devils has only grown.
While the team has been knocked due to their quarterback situation, ASU does boast a number of returners from last season on both sides of the ball that can help lessen the learning curve.
The Pac-12 South also seems much more winnable this season with question marks surrounding USC and Arizona, which is already 0-1 after losing to Hawaii in Week 0.
The team that seems to be the biggest problem in the Sun Devils’ quest for the Pac-12 South title looks to be the Utes for a second season.
Two preseason polls, one from The Athletic and the other from Pac-12 media members, have Utah taking the top spot in the division this season. In both of those polls, ASU finished second and third, respectively.