Welcome to Bruins Nation’s opponent preview series for the UCLA Bruins 2018 football season! Each week, we will be taking a look at an upcoming opponent this year, examine their strengths and weaknesses, and make a bold prediction regarding the outcome.
This week, we take a look at UCLA’s Week 10 opponent: the Arizona State Sun Devils.
Ok, I know that the opponent preview is supposed to be the serious one, but YOU GUYS THEY FIRED TODD GRAHAM JUST TO HIRE HERM EDWARDS AHAHAHAHA. Seriously, Todd Graham isn’t a bad coach - Arizona State finally backslid in 2016, which was understandable given the amount of coordinator and player turnover the Sun Devils had experienced the previous year, but the turnaround had begun last year. Arizona State ended the year 7-5, including a Territorial Cup victory over Arizona to close out the season, yet AD Ray Anderson fired him in order to hire his former client, a man who had not coached in 10 years, and was 20 games under .500 in his head coaching career at the professional level. To add on to this, it’s not like the Kansas City Chiefs and New York Jets are NFL franchises that will never win - Andy Reid has had the Chiefs in the playoffs for the last few years, while Rex Ryan did similar for the Jets. Herm Edwards is just a bad coach.
You want more proof of that? When Herm was hired, AD Anderson touted that he was also bringing in a New Leadership Model, where Edwards would act as the CEO and chief motivator for the team, while the coaches under him would do the actual coaching. UCLA fans feel uniquely equipped to understand the failures of this style of coaching. To top it all off, this whole system was done with the idea that Edwards would keep both of Todd Graham’s offensive and defensive coordinators. So of course both coordinators left afterwards; offensive coordinator Billy Napier became head coach at UL-Lafayette, while defensive coordinator Phil Bennett quit for health reasons. Should be fun!
Here is what we know about Herm Edwards’s offenses in the NFL: they liked to run and hated to pass.
Here is what we know about new offensive coordinator Rob Likens: he’s an air raid disciple and is very pass-first, pass-second in style.
So, that should be a fun clash.
The big thing here is that Arizona State’s existing personnel skews towards the passing game, so this will be a big test if Edwards truly will be as hands-off as has been touted. That existing personnel begins with Manny Wilkins, the redshirt senior quarterback who threw for over 3,200 yards last year. Wilkins is a prototypical dual-threat QB, able to make plays with his arm and his legs; Wilkins also ran around 7.5 times a game for 5.4 yards a carry (non-sacks). Those facts also tend to hurt him, as Wilkins can take sacks at a ridiculous rate, with ASU ranked 115th in adjusted sack rate last year.
If Wilkins plays to his strengths and limits the mistakes, he could have a big year, partly because almost every major wide receiver from last year returns. N’Keal Harry averaged 9.5 yards per target and had 1,142 yards on the season, so he should be the primary target. Kyle Williams and Frank Darby return solid production last year, and the rotation should add JUCO transfer Brandon Aiyuk, who averaged 16 yards a catch last year.
Just to continue this train of the existing personnel skewing towards the passing game, Kalen Ballage and Demario Richard are gone, which means only Eno Benjamin returns in the backfield for the Sun Devils. Benjamin was good in small samples, but he only carried the ball 23 times last year, and looks to have a substantially-increased role this year. Behind him are a bunch of players who did not see the field or are true freshman (including former 2-time UCLA commit A.J. Carter), so something has to give here.
The traditional bugaboo for Arizona State during the Todd Graham era was the defense. This was odd considering Graham was a defensive coach himself, but over the last 8 years the Sun Devil defense has only ranked in the to 40 of defensive S&P+ once. A lack of continuity at the defensive coordinator position may have helped this, but even then, Graham was still around as the quality control guy (it should be noted that this was the same general setup with Jim Mora at UCLA, but UCLA’s talent advantages helped them get rankings of 26th in 2016, 32nd in 2014, and 27th in 2013. Sometimes talent does win out).
Phil Bennett lefter after the Edwards hire, so Herm turned to former San Diego State assistant Danny Gonzales to run the defense. A Rocky Long disciple, Gonzales was promoted to defensive coordinator of the Aztecs last year, and the Aztecs ranked 38th in defensive S&P+ at the end of it. The belief is that Gonzales will bring over the 3-3-5 defense that has become a calling card of Rocky Long to Tempe, and continue with the attacking style of defense that was Todd Graham’s calling card.
Gonzales is going to have his hands full, however, as a lot of starting experience is now gone in the front 6 (formerly 7). 5 of last year’s 6 starters are now gone, with the only returning piece Koron Crump really providing any major experience on the defensive line. The good news is that Crump is one of the top pass rushers in the conference, but everyone behind him lacks experience, and this was already a unit that was bad against the run and pass. In the linebacker core, Jay Jay Wilson is a senior who should at least provide leadership for the group, but again, there is a real lack of experience in this group.
The only benefit on defense right now is the secondary. The Sun Devil secondary was actually pretty decent last year, ranking 34th in passing defense S&P+ and 30th in passing down defense, and many pieces that contributed last year are returning, though the Sun Devils are without starting safeties Chad Adams and J’Marcus Rhodes. Cornerback Chase Lucas, who had 10 passes defensed last year, good for 6th among freshmen, is back, and the Sun Devils return Demonte King from injury. The secondary will also see an infusion of talent, with 4-star safety Aashari Crosswell joining the depth chart.
Here’s the thing: I’m being rather rosy in my outlooks up there, but you should know that I have no confidence in this Sun Devils team specifically because I have no confidence in the head coach. The hiring of Herm Edwards continues to look like the worst of the NFL’s carousel-of-failure hiring process, especially considering that no one was beating down the door to hire him. And Herm can try to motivate all he wants, but it doesn’t get past the fact that this team still lacks talent at a handful of positions, and opens the year with this four-game slate:
- Home vs UTSA, a team that almost beat the Sun Devils 2 years ago, and had just posted their first winning record since 2013.
- Home vs Michigan State, a projected top 15 team.
- Road at San Diego State, a team that just last year beat these Sun Devils on the road AND Stanford at home.
- Road at Washington, a College Football Playoff contender.
There is a very real possibility that Arizona State opens the season 0-4 (though I’d probably lean towards 1-3), and after a 2-game break with Colorado and Oregon State, the Sun Devils go into the second half of their season with:
- @ USC
- @ Oregon
- @ Arizona
By the time this game rolls around for the Bruins, this Sun Devils team could be absolutely done. In fact, I’m expecting it to happen, and I’m expecting UCLA to roll. 35-14 Bruins win.