Arizona State Football Offensive Preview

Cal visits the cursed Arizona desert to try and stop Jayden Daniels and the ASU rushing attack.

Cal has a very tough match-up ahead of them on Saturday. Herm Edwards has done a very good job getting players to play up to their potential— and that potential ceiling has only increased as ASU continues to recruit better and better. Herm Edwards has also made some impressive coaching staff hires: former Bengals head coach (and Super Bowl-winning defensive coordinator with the Ravens) Marvin Lewis shares defensive coordinator duties with former NFL linebacker Antonio Pierce, and former Boise State offensive coordinator now leads the offense (the latter being a preferred OC candidate for Cal this past off-season). Zak Hill has a reputation for developing quarterbacks, most remarkably Vernon Adams Jr. at Eastern Washington, who then won the starting job at Oregon as a graduate transfer. Vernon Adams Jr. and star ASU QB Jayden Daniels have a very similar skillset, which makes him a great candidate to help develop Daniels.

Although QB Jayden Daniels is starting just his second season, ASU lost a number of other top contributors from last year’s offense: WR Brandon Aiyuk (who has been tearing it up his rookie season on the 49ers), RB Eno Benjamin (Cardinals), TE Tommy Hudson (Titans), and WR Kyle Williams (UDFA on the Titans, but since released). With that said, let’s take a look at the position-by-position breakdown.

Quarterback

Jayden Daniels is a phenomenal athlete, and he definitely has all the physical tools needed to be a star quarterback. He’s still a bit undersized at 6’3” 185 lbs (his closest QB comparison, Khalil Tate, was something like 6’2” 215 lbs), but he has a strong enough arm to make throws, and he’s pretty well-coached at ASU, as he doesn’t have any real mechanical issues with his throwing. I know he’s still a young quarterback, but his biggest liability is still reading the field. He’s confident to make throws on his first read when it’s open, but he has a tendency to hesitate on throws on his second or third read, which results in his trying to overcompensate with arm strength or throwing across his body. However, he has such absurd athleticism on his feet that his running ability is frequently able to bail him out of bad reads.

I am going to take one specific play from last year’s game and demonstrate exactly what I mean:

On the right side of the formation (top of the screen), WR Frank Darby runs a crossing route and uses the ref as a blocker to get open. On the left side of the formation are 3 receivers: WR/TE Curtis Hodges in the front (#86), who will run an out route, WR Kyle Williams (#10, on the inside of this set, lined up farthest away from the line of scrimmage) who will run a bubble route, and WR Brandon Aiyuk on the outside/far left (#2), who will throw a block for Williams on that bubble screen. Daniels’ first read should probably have been Darby, who was open right around the time he’s crossing the ref, but let’s say Daniels isn’t confident he can make that throw. Aiyuk gets a good block a the bottom of the screen, which leaves WR Kyle Williams wide open as a safe and easy throw to make. What ends up happening instead is that linebacker Evan Weaver (#89, as if you didn’t already know), savvy as ever, recognizes the play and sees that freshman OL Dohnovan West is responsible for blocking LB Cameron Goode (#19) on the bootleg, which leaves Weaver free to blitz Daniels. This would probably have resulted in a sack against most quarterbacks, but Daniels is able to escape using his legs and still turn the play into a 15 yard gain.

Let’s start with positives: Daniels has no shortage of athleticism. There are plays that absolutely 100% should not work, but Daniels has the athleticism to make them work anyway. Here’s a play from last year’s Sun Bowl:

This is a play based on misdirection, and FSU was not fooled at all (they ran similar plays against USC last week, and USC absolutely was)— but did it matter? No, Daniels found his way into the endzone anyway.

Here’s Daniels with the zone-read against USC last week:

Daniels may be slow to make reads, but he is not slow to sense pressure (although, if anything, he might be too sensitive to it, and choose to run when he should throw). Daniels frequently turns what should be negative plays into positive ones:

It should comes as no surprise that I think most of the damage Jayden Daniels can do will be on the ground. I wasn’t alone in my criticism of Jayden Daniels’ passing last year, either: PFF ranked Jayden Daniels as the least accurate quarterback in the Pac-12 (I’d take PFF’s college rankings with a grain of salt, though: they have UCLA’s Dorian Thompson-Robinson ranked above Stanford’s KJ Costello and Davis Mills, which I find to be positively absurd).

That’s not to say that Daniels can’t hurt you through the air, though. ASU frequently runs four verticals (4 WRs all running go-routes deep), which makes it difficult to stop Daniels from being able to find space to scramble. However, if one of those receivers finds himself open deep, Daniels has the arm strength to hit that receiver in stride. This isn’t Four Verts, but it has the kind of throw I’m referring to:

A lot of Daniels’ passing yards come from yards after the catch or from just one or two big throws like the one above. Relatedly, there is a ton of hype surrounding Jayden Daniels, and I’d say that a big reason people might think of him more fondly than deserved is that he’s as clutch as it gets: he had 4 game-winning drives last year (#18 Michigan State, #15 Cal, Washington State, and #6 Oregon). He almost had one more against Oregon State, but the 2-point conversion failed on a trick play: a pass from RB Eno Benjamin to QB Daniels in the endzone, but Daniels was out-muscled by the corner Nashon Wright for the interception (there was also an ineligible man downfield, but tomayto tomahto). No one remembers all the early misfires when the last drive is perfect and wins the game.

Perhaps that’s how USC escaped with a win last week: after scoring a touchdown, they recovered an onside kick, and then scored another one. Probably wise not to give Jayden Daniels the ball back with too much time on the clock.

The announcers won’t stop talking him up on Saturday, but remember: he’s not unbeatable.

Running back

With the loss of Eno Benjamin to the NFL, I thought ASU might have had a harder time replacing him. Indeed, all 3 of the running backs listed on the depth chart were not there last year: Rachaad White (JC transfer from Mt. Sac, Antonio Pierce’s college), DeaMonte “Chip” Trayanum (4-star true freshman), and Daniyel Ngata (4-star true freshman).

I was immediately impressed with freshman DeaMonte Trayanum. He’s listed as 5’11” 230 lbs. (again, as a true freshman), and he showed both impressive power and speed running through USC defenders last week, averaging 7.0 yards/carry with 2 TDs to match. You know someone’s a terrifying talent when they’re outshining USC blue chips. Here Trayanum shows off his speed:

And here he doesn’t even bother to evade USC tacklers:

Trayanum is quite obviously the power back, while Rachaad White showed a bit more versatility as a passing threat:

Rachaad White is a bit tall for a running back at 6’2”, but again notice the impressive speed on this guy: USC couldn’t catch him.

RB Daniyel Ngata did not appear in the USC game, but reports are that he’s more of a homerun-threat and less of an every-down back, with speed, shiftiness, and good hands out of the backfield.

As much as I thought Eno Benjamin would leave a big hole for ASU, they wasted no time in filling it. Along with Daniels’ running ability, it’s pretty obvious what the strength of this team will be.

Wide receiver

The last two #1 receivers for ASU were selected in the first round of the NFL Draft: N’Keal Harry in 2019 and Brandon Aiyuk in 2020, but that trend seems unlikely to continue. ASU lost roughly two-thirds of last year’s receiving production, and with Frank Darby questionable with a rib injury, that number drops to about 87% of last year’s production.

If Frank Darby plays, he’d be the clear #1 receiver (and for what it’s worth, I think he projects as a mid- to late-round NFL prospect). Frank Darby is a speedy receiver and a good route runner, but he most often used that speed to run go-routes (or routes that looked like go-routes until they’re not).

Here’s one such example that shows both his speed and his route running:

And here he is demonstrating that speed again, but this time with some nice hands:

Besides Darby, though, the WR corps is looking a little thin. A pair of 4-star freshman wide receivers made their start against USC: the 6’6” Johnny Wilson, and the 6’0 LV Bunkley-Shelton. LV Bunkley-Shelton showed good hands in making a couple of catches on short throws, but ASU’s top 2020 recruit Johnny Wilson let his nerves get the best of him and had somewhere in the neighborhood of 4 or 5 drops:

Wilson will certainly look to prove last week a fluke.

ASU’s previously strong WR corps may have hid some of QB Jayden Daniels’ passing deficiencies last year, but this year the pressure will be on Daniels to improve his ball placement as his passing windows are about to get smaller without soon-to-be NFL receivers getting 5 yards of separation.

Offensive Line

ASU’s offensive line struggled last year, giving up more than double the number of sacks in 2019 as they had in 2018. This year, ASU dipped into the transfer portal to beef up their line, adding reserve linemen from Texas A&M (Kellen Diesch) and Stanford (Henry Hattis). Cade Cote returns at center after being granted a 6th year of eligibility, sophomore Dohnovan West is starting at LG, and freshman Ben Scott is starting at RT. This is a line without a lot of experience playing together, but they preformed admirably (for the most part) against USC. However, this is not a line with a lot of depth, so ASU’s linemen will need to stay healthy if ASU is hoping to compete for the Pac-12 South title.

Conclusion

Cal doesn’t have a great track record playing in the Arizona desert (please don’t remind me), and Wilcox’s defenses have struggled against dual-threat QBs. ASU will be a very run-heavy attack, and Cal will be looking to fill the void left by Evan Weaver. This isn’t my favorite matchup, but it should still be another close game this year.

Go Bears.