In the 100 days leading up to the kickoff of the college football season on Saturday, Aug. 25, HERO Sports is ranking the top 100 teams in the FBS. Each day, starting May 17 and ending Aug. 24, a new team is revealed in the HERO Sports Top 100.
No. 81 Arizona State
It takes a very, very long time to construct these preseason rankings. I create a go-with-my-gut top 100 and then move teams in and out of pods (e.g. top 10, top 25, fringe top 100, etc.) based on film, returning players, coaching hires and more. Those pods slowly break down into smaller pods and, eventually, individual slots. No team moved around more than Arizona State.
I don't have a clue what to expect from the Herm Edwards-led Sun Devils in 2018. A two-win season wouldn't surprise me, nor would an eight-win season. Not. A Clue. I do know that they have a lot of talent. Arizona State isn't 81st because of a lack of talent; they're 81st because Herm Edwards has never done this before.
2017 Record: 7-6 (3-6, Pac-12)
Arizona State improved their win total by two but still had a third straight season with seven or fewer wins after back-to-back 10-win seasons in 2013 and 2014.
The bad: They lost two non-conference regular-season games for the first time since 2008, couldn't stop the run (five yards per carry) and gave up at least 30 points in 10 of their 13 games.
The good: They beat Washington and, in a win over Arizona, held Khalil Tate to 28 rushing yards.
It wasn't enough for Todd Graham to keep his job. He was fired one day after the Arizona win, a decision that athletics director Ray Anderson said he made a month earlier.
Head Coach: Herm Edwards (1st Year)
Everything has been said and broken down. Edwards was one of the bizarre hires in any sport ever. He has three total years of college football coaching experience. He had a wild introductory press conference.
Seventeen years ago, USC hired Pete Carroll, an average NFL coach who hadn't coached college football in 18 years. USC was raked over the coals for the head-scratching move — albeit not as head-scratching as Edwards. That worked out, so who knows.
"When you change coaches, there's always this adjustment period," he said after spring practice ended. "They need to know what I'm about; I need to know what they're about. And I think we've grown together. They know one thing about me: I'm always going to tell them the truth."
RB Kalen Ballage, RB Demario Richard, G Sam Jones, DE JoJo Wicker, DT Tashon Smallwood, LB Christian Sam, LB D.J. Calhoun, LB Alani Latu, S Chad Adams, S J'Marcus Rhodes
Kalen Ballage had the seven-touchdown game and was a fourth-round draft pick but it was Demario Richard that led a decent rushing attack. The senior had his second 1,000-yard season and left Tempe with a 5.2 yards-per-carry average.
The defense was hurt by departures at each level. Wicker, Calhoun, Latu, Sam and Smallwood led the team in tackles for loss — in that order — and two productive safeties, Chad Adams and J'Marcus Rhodes, are also gone. Wicker was among 37 early draft entrants who went undrafted.
Returning Offensive Players
QB Manny Wilkins, RB Eno Benjamin, WR N'Keal Harry, WR Kyle Williams, OT Quinn Bailey, G Steven Miller, C Cohl Cabral
Rob Likens, one of a few Todd Graham assistants retained by Edwards, was promoted from receivers coach and passing game coordinator to offensive coordinator. While most spread schemes will remain the same, he'll use a lot more quick passes, similar to a system he ran while coordinator at Kansas from 2014-15 — except with actual talent this time.
His quarterback is senior Manny Wilkins, whom Likens said needs to become a more "polished pocket passer" and, along with everyone else on offense, think less and react more.
"He’s very meticulous,” Edwards said of Wilkins. “When you watch him in practice, he’s always looking. He’s trying to look at things through not only the quarterback’s eyes, but what I like, through the defensive eyes. He asks me questions. I like players that ask questions. I like players that ask ‘why’ because they’re searching for knowledge.”
Wilkins will take more snaps under center and while he'll still scramble and have designed runs (seven rushing touchdowns in 2017), there will be more run-pass options and progression reads that are a staple of the Air Raid system.
“I love it,” Wilkins said of being under center more often. “It opens up the game so much more. Play-action is very crucial from under center because the linebackers can’t really see the ball as much and figure things out. I just think it’s so much more effective.”
His top target is junior N'Keal Harry, a former top-100 recruit and potential first-round pick in the 2019 NFL Draft. He averaged nearly 10 yards per target last year and was one of few skill players who had minimal mental errors a year ago.
New No. 1 running back Eno Benjamin was banged up last spring so this is his first full-participation offseason in Tempe. Likens has talked about getting guys like Trelon Smith and potentially freshmen like Brock Sturges involved too but, for now, Benjamin is the lead back.
Cohl Cabral moves from left tackle to center, a move he briefly made last year but ended after he had three poor snaps in the first quarter vs. Texas Tech.
Returning Defensive Players
DT Renell Wren, LB Koron Crump, LB Jay Jay Wilson, CB Chase Lucas, CB Williams, S Evan Fields, S Jalen Harvey
Edwards poached San Diego State defensive coordinator Danny Gonzales to lead a defense that struggled vs. the run and was often shredded through the air. He's installing a Rocky Long-inspired 3-3-5 system that uses three safeties in most packages.
"We’re going up against a tough look because Danny is going to run the same stuff they were doing at San Diego State, and that’s tough to prepare for," Likens said of the new defense. "It’s an unorthodox defense, guys running around everywhere."
Last year's unit wasn't great but at least they had the depth that Gonzales could use right now. He especially needs playmakers for their new Tillman and Ranger positions, named in honor of Pat Tillman. A hybrid defensive back/linebacker, they're similar to the Aztec spot at San Diego State that has produced so many game-changing plays over the years.
Ranger players must attack the line of scrimmage and cover receivers from the slot, while the Tillman spot is a linebacker/deep safety. The latter is expected to be occupied by sophomore Evan Fields.
Another sophomore, Chase Lucas (below), is back at cornerback after a strong freshman year in which he led the team in passes defended.
“You’ve got to be physical,” cornerbacks coach Tony White said. “Because when you’re running a 3-3-5, we ask our defensive backs to blitz, to play in the box”
Jalen Harvey had 54 receptions for nearly 900 yards the last two seasons as a receiver but has moved to safety, where he's expected to start. He suggested the move after thinking about it last year.
"The thing I'm excited about he's not afraid," Gonzales said. "He likes being in the mix, he's down there, he's a physical kid. He's been a leader so far, trying to get those guys to come along and play hard. So far I think so far it's been a good experience. He's very much like everyone else, making some assignment mistakes we've got to get fixed, and that's across the board. But the effort is there. I'm excited to see once we play some real football with pads on how he does."
Koron Crump and Jay Jay Wilson lead the linebackers and tackle Renell Wren is one of few defensive linemen with significant experience.
OT Casey Tucker, CB Dominique Harrison, S Aashari Crosswell
Stanford lineman and Arizona native Casey Tucker is a grad transfer who, despite not participating in spring practice, will start immediately.
Four-star safety Aashari Crosswell didn't visit Arizona State until mid-January but still picked the Sun Devils over offers from USC, Washington and others. The 6-foot, 190-pounder from Long Beach, Calif., did not enroll early but will still challenge for a starting spot.
Arizona State's home-and-home series with Michigan State begins with a Week 2 visit from the Spartans. It's the third-ever meeting between the two programs and first since 1986.
Danny Gonzales faces his old team San Diego State a week later and the Sun Devils kick off Pac-12 play with a visit to Washington in Week 4.
|Saturday, Sept. 1
|Saturday, Sept. 8
|vs. Michigan State
|Saturday, Sept. 15
|at San Diego State
|Saturday, Sept. 22
|Saturday, Sept. 29
|vs. Oregon State
|Saturday, Oct. 6
|Thursday, Oct. 18
|Saturday, Oct. 27
|Saturday, Nov. 3
|Saturday, Nov. 10
|Saturday, Nov. 17
|Saturday, Nov. 24