In stark contrast to how he believes his team will perform this season, Herm Edwards spent much of the spring hobbling around Arizona State’s football facility on crutches after offseason knee replacement surgery. "This is going to get interesting when these new guys show up because they're going to be fast — they're going to be faster," the second-year coach said.
The Sun Devils surprised observers last season by significantly outpacing their last-place forecast and competing for the South title into the second half of November. If Edwards is right, ASU could again race past expectations due to a rapidly improving defense and one of the Pac-12's most explosive rushing attacks.
Previewing Arizona State's Offense for 2019
Star running back Eno Benjamin will operate behind an experienced offensive line as he looks to break his own single-season rushing record set last year when the Sun Devils were the lone Power 5 program to have a 1,500-yard rusher, 3,000-yard passer and 1,000-yard receiver. Replicating last year's production, however, will be a challenge for Benjamin given that the team's other two offensive pillars, quarterback Manny Wilkins and wide receiver N'Keal Harry, have departed.
Opponents are going to load up the box and force the team's new quarterback, whether it be junior Dillon Sterling-Cole or true freshman Jayden Daniels, to beat man coverage on the perimeter. Daniels showed promise during spring practices as an early enrollee and could eventually emerge as the starter.
Athletic senior receiver Brandon Aiyuk is likely to explode into a 50-plus-catch player after assimilating out of the junior college ranks as a part-time starter. Junior Frank Darby is one of the Pac-12's best deep-ball threats, though he’s still developing as a route runner. Senior slot receiver Kyle Williams has more than 100 career receptions and is an ultra-reliable blocker.
Depth is a legitimate question across the board, though there are some promising youngsters in the fold, including speedy redshirt freshman wideout Geordon Porter and redshirt freshman running back A.J. Carter. Some key backups, including senior receivers John Humphrey and Ryan Newsome, have struggled to stay healthy.
Up front, center Cohl Cabral will try to improve upon a second-team All-Pac-12 season after contemplating an early NFL declaration. He’s likely to be one of five seniors across the line, with Zach Robertson, Steven Miller and Alex Losoya all having ample starting experience.
Previewing Arizona State's Defense for 2019
Edwards and coordinator Danny Gonzales set a great foundation last season despite an experience gap that led ASU to play as the youngest defensive unit in major college football. The Sun Devils are feeling a lot better heading into the second year of their build out, having lost only three regular starters. They'll return their top two tacklers, linebackers Merlin Robertson and Darien Butler, both of whom were true freshmen last season, with Robertson named the Pac-12 Defensive Freshman of the Year. A third freshman linebacker, Tyler Johnson, may have shown the most NFL potential of the group due to his remarkable size and athleticism.
Led by returning cornerbacks Kobe Williams and Chase Lucas and safety Aashari Crosswell, a secondary that was a laughingstock just two years ago could now be one of the most intimidating in the conference. Williams was rarely beaten on big plays last season, and Lucas and Crosswell have first- or second-day NFL Draft potential.
Senior safety Tyler Whiley looked great in preseason camp last year before suffering a season-ending ankle injury. After receiving a sixth year of eligibility, he hasn't lost a step. Cam Phillips should battle incoming freshman Kejuan Markham for a starting nod at the team’s other safety spot, with Edwards encouraged by the overall speed being added to the secondary.
The biggest challenge will be up front, where the Sun Devils must replace Renell Wren in the middle. Nose tackle, where big sophomore D.J. Davidson will battle experienced junior Shannon Forman, is more of an unknown than the two end positions in the 3-3-5 scheme. Senior George Lea played inside for much of last season before shifting outside and excelling as a starter, and Jermayne Lole looked like a future all-conference player as a freshman in 2018. The additions of Rice graduate transfer Roe Wilkins, junior college transfer T.J. Pesefea and touted freshman Stephon Wright should round out the group.
Previewing Arizona State's Specialists for 2019
Junior Brandon Ruiz is one of the best kickers in the Pac-12 after making 18-of-22 field goal attempts as a sophomore, including 4-of-5 from 40-49 yards. The Sun Devils believe they’ve upgraded at punter with the addition of Michael Turk, a transfer from Lafayette. Aiyuk has a chance to be very good as a punt returner if his workload isn’t too great at receiver, with Crosswell and Lucas other options. Porter appears in line to be the kick returner.
With a veteran offensive line blocking for an elite running back, and with an improving defense, the Sun Devils have the makings of a team poised to surprise. Edwards had a better first season than most pundits expected, and there’s reason to believe it could happen again if the Sun Devils get serviceable quarterback play.