Welcome back to Bruins Nation’s opponent preview series for the 2019 UCLA Bruins football season! We are taking a look at an upcoming opponent this year, examining their strengths and weaknesses, and making a bold prediction regarding the outcome.
It’s time to take a look at UCLA’s eighth opponent: the Arizona State Sun Devils.
Todd Graham went 7-6 in his final year at Arizona State, and was fired because
the athletic director wanted to hire his former client the Sun Devils wanted to try and buck the trend and move towards more elite seasons. Enter Herm Edwards, who came into the job with so much bluster and dumb comments that everyone assumed some kind of disaster was imminent. Yet the Sun Devils also had a returning QB, a top-end wide receiver, and a fantastic running back. So, literally anything was possible.
Of course, the Sun Devils went 7-6 last year. Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.
It’s weird, because on one hand, Arizona State definitely looked the part. N’Keal Harry lived up to his billing and eventually became a first round pick of the New England Patriots, where he will terrorize defenses for the next 5+ years until Belichick decides to trade him. Manny Wilkins was a steady hand at the quarterback position and Eno Benjamin ran for approximately one billion yards. But it all didn’t matter as the Sun Devils still managed to stagnate. That’s almost impressive when you think about it.
Wilkins is gone. Harry is gone. Those are two major pieces that will be hard to replace.
The quarterback position seems like it could be an interesting problem this year. Junior Dillon Sterling-Cole has the experience to be the starter, but he’s been sharing first team reps with former UCLA target and true freshman Jayden Daniels. Starting a true freshman is always a gamble, especially with an old-school coach like Edwards behind the wheel, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see Daniels taking the majority of the snaps by this game.
The good news is that whoever wins the quarterback competition should at least be able to rely on the ground game. Eno Benjamin is back and the offense should revolve around him. On top of that, the Sun Devils return a good amount of experience on the offensive line, which should help the running game continue its pace from last year. That said, the Sun Devils really need to work on getting him a solid backup this year, at the very least, to have someone ready to go next year when Benjamin is gone, and to stop wearing him down with carries throughout the year.
The receiving corps is going to take a downturn in 2019, in part, because of the loss of Harry but also because of the new starting quarterback. Kyle Williams is back and should become something of a focal point in the passing attack, but ASU is going to need to find some new contributors in a hurry here.
Arizona State’s defense wasn’t very good last year (for comparison, UCLA’s very bad defense last year ranked 97th in defensive S&P+, and Arizona State was ranked only 11 spots higher). It was certainly improved from the final version that defensive wizard Todd Graham let loose in 2017, but not to a huge degree.
That said, one of the positives for the Sun Devils has to be that they used a ton of freshman and sophomores on that side of the ball and that experience could start to pay off in 2019. Leading the way was the linebacker corps, led by now-junior Merlin Robertson, who had 8.5 TFLs and 5 sacks last year. The entire group was mostly underclassmen. So. you have to assume some level of improvement.
The secondary as well had its fair share of youth. Gone are two of last year’s safeties, but Aashari Crosswell is back at the position and Chase Lucas will be looking to build on a decent year from the cornerback position.
The biggest issue could be on the defensive line. Arizona State was already trotting out the 105th ranked rushing defense by S&P+, and that was before losing a host of experience. They’ll be in a situation similar to UCLA last year, where they have a lot of unproven young guys getting major reps and growing through the season.
I feel I’ve been rather bear-ish in these predictions. So, allow me to change my tune: I think this is a game the UCLA Bruins can, and probably should, win. If the trends from the end of last season hold, UCLA will be on an upwards trajectory this year and that would put them ahead of an Arizona State team that has a ton of major holes to fill.
Plus, the game is at home. That has to count for something.
UCLA wins 28-17.