Arizona State vs. Southern Utah preview: What to expect in Week 1 and beyond

Aug 30, 2023, 3:38 PM

Head coach Kenny Dillingham during practice on Wednesday, Aug. 23, 2023, with the Arizona State Sun...

Head coach Kenny Dillingham during practice on Wednesday, Aug. 23, 2023, with the Arizona State Sun Devils in Tempe, Arizona. (Jeremy Schnell / Arizona Sports)

(Jeremy Schnell / Arizona Sports)

It seems like a lifetime ago when Arizona State football ended its season at 3-9 in 2022, the team’s worst record since 1946.

No one could’ve foreseen how crazy the offseason would be, not even former Oregon offensive coordinator Kenny Dillingham when he took the reign as head coach of his alma mater.

Since the 33-year-old was announced as the new head coach back in November, ASU’s Sun Devil Stadium became Mountain America Stadium, ASU begun its transition from the crumbling Pac-12 to the seemingly ever-growing Big 12 and the team announced a self-imposed bowl ban for the 2023 season.

With a plethora of reasons to give in and quit given their circumstances, the Sun Devils can only perform how they practice.

With the team taking an emotional hit after hearing of the self-imposed bowl ban, Dillingham has encouraged his team to focus on what they can control.

“To me, the adversity is behind us,” Dillingham told reporters Monday. “We gave everybody one day to get (their) feelings out, including me. Get it out there, and let’s move on. We’re not just going to say something and get over it instantly, but we gave ourselves a day and moved on.”

With their “best practice in two weeks” on Monday, according to Dillingham, the team has shifted its focus to Thursday night’s season opener at home against Southern Utah.

There are a lot of questions surrounding the rebuilding squad, including 43 new players. Here’s a few to ponder on Thursday night:

How will Jaden Rashada perform as ASU’s starting quarterback?

Dillingham announced last week that freshman Jaden Rashada will start against Southern Utah in the season opener, earning the spot over the returning Trenton Bourguet and injured Drew Pyne.

The 6-foot-4, 185-pound quarterback, who signed with Florida in December but asked for his release in January, has impressed Dillingham all throughout camp.

“He’s getting better every day,” Dillingham said earlier in camp. “He’s making throws out here that are top-notch NFL throws that our team sees and it’s exciting to see.”

Rashada’s arm had never been questioned. It was his playmaking that improved over time, earning him the starting nod. With the self-imposed bowl ban in place for this season, there’s no reason for Rashada not to get reps and improve his craft.

Considered the No. 4 quarterback and No. 10 overall prospect in the class of 2023 by the Sports Illustrated 99, Rashada is seen as the quarterback of the future for the Sun Devils, and there’s no better way to get your collegiate career started than facing a defense that was tied for seventh among all FCS schools in turnover margin per game last season.

“I think you can expect to see a kid who cares, plays the game passionately, a kid who’s probably going to make a mistake or two. You know, he’s young,” Dillingham told Bickley & Marotta on Arizona Sports.

“Maybe it’s not the right way to do it but I tell him all the time, ‘Hey, I’m just waiting until you mess up, bud. I joke about it. That’s what I want to see. I want to see the resilience when that happens ’cause you’re talented enough (that) you’re going to get enough cheers.’”

Who are Rashada’s targets?

With junior wide receiver Elijhah Badger out for the first half against Southern Utah due to penalties from last year’s 38-35 loss to rival Arizona, Rashada will have to emphasize his other resources in order to jump out to an early lead on Thursday.

Badger was the Sun Devils’ top receiver last season, recording 70 receptions for 866 yards and seven touchdowns.

In his absence, senior wideout Giovanni Sanders, junior Idaho State transfer Xavier Guillory and junior tight end Jalin Conyers will look to receive targets from Rashada.

Cam Skattebo, a transfer halfback from Sacramento State, will look to help the Sun Devils score from the ground. Skattebo was named Big Sky Offensive Player of the Year in 2022 after rushing for 1,382 yards and seven touchdowns.

How will the defense fare?

Arizona State’s defense was ranked 107th in the nation in 2022, allowing an average of 31.4 points per game.

With new defensive coordinator Brian Ward and a plethora of transfers, the new-look defense should see an improvement.

It shouldn’t have an issue against Southern Utah, but the Thunderbirds have been focusing on improving their offensive line, and with a pass-oriented offense, the Sun Devils will need to contain the Thunderbirds’ aerial attack with its strong secondary defense.

Thunderbirds senior quarterback Justin Miller threw for 2,824 yards and 20 touchdowns in 2022, and will look to help the team build off its 5-6 record from last season.

Seven starters on the official depth chart for the defense are transfers, including everyone but B.J. Green on the defensive line, linebackers Tre Brown and Tate Romney, cornerback Demetries Ford and safety Shamari Simmons.

With powerhouse offenses in USC and Oregon making their way to Tempe later in the season, it’ll be beneficial to work out some kinks in the season opener.

Kickoff for Southern Utah-Arizona State will be at 7 p.m. Arizona time on the Arizona Sports app, 98.7 and

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