(Photo: Nicholas Badders/WCSN)
From one of the most inefficient units in the country last year, Arizona State’s offense has transformed into one of the nation’s sharpest attacks so far this season, a crucial development in the team’s pursuit of bowl berth.
The Sun Devils ranked 87th in offensive efficiency among all FBS teams last season, according to ESPN. Despite jumping out to a 4-0 start, ASU’s record began to tumble as the offense suffered from a myriad of injuries, most notably to quarterback Manny Wilkins.
ASU has caught fire offensively early again this year, lifting its efficiency ranking to 25th in the country. Last year’s second half drop off is becoming a distant memory.
“I think the biggest point would be that guys are getting week by week, more and more familiar with who we are and what we do,” Wilkins said. “We have a really good feel for what we are doing.”
As Wilkins health has improved over the last year, so too has his play. With the redshirt junior having started every game this fall, the Sun Devils’ pass attack has flourished.
ASU is completing more passes for more yards now than it did in 2016; the team’s pass completion percentage has risen from 60.5 percent last year to 66 percent this season while also averaging a better 8.85 yards per attempt, 17th most in the country.
The emergence of a deep receiving core deserves a sizable share of the credit for those upgraded stats. Wide outs like Jalen Harvey, Kyle Williams and Frank Darby have supplemented standout N’Keal Harry. The group has blended together to create dynamic concoction for ASU. There could still be more to come too.
“[We are] on point with each other,” Harvey said. “Even when we do make a mistake in practice we have got to make sure we come back and talk about it, so the next time we come to that play it will just be an easy grove.”
Translation: they are still working on getting better.
Senior running back Demario Richard has been in Tempe long enough to have seen the heights reached by the Taylor Kelly and Mike Bercovici engineered offenses of years past. He sees similar potential in this year’s budding group.
“We are putting together the pieces,” he said. “I see flashes of it, but we are not even close to the ceiling.”
How do they reach that ceiling?
“Starting out fast. A lot of people can’t handle coming here, playing in the sun [when] it’s 90 degrees, 100 degrees, and you are playing fast and you have athletes on the field,” Richard said.
Quick starts have correlated to success this campaign for the Sun Devils. Both of their wins were spurred by two-touchdown first quarters. In their three losses, the team was limited to seven points or less through the first 15 minutes.
“First drive of the game if you get the first third down of the game, that gets things rolling a lot faster and guys get more comfortable,” Wilkins said. “It’s just little things like that; get the thing rolling early and guys gain confidence from that and that’s how it should be.”
Another key area of improvement has been in third downs. ASU was in the bottom third of college football last year in converting on third down.
Its 43.2 conversion rate this year is 43rd in the nation according to teamrankings.com.
“We spend an awful lot of time, more time than anywhere I’ve ever coached or been preparing, watching film,” receivers coach Rob Likens said. “We meet, I can’t tell you how long; hours and hours on just third downs me and [Billy] Napier (ASU’s offensive coordinator) because that’s a big part of winning the game.”
The team spends most of its Wednesday practices perfecting the high stakes situations. It’s a top priority that has helped feed the overall improved efficiency. The time hasn’t been spent in vain.
“I don’t like going three and out during a drive or knowing we could have scored,” Harvey said.
Not scoring is becoming rarer for ASU. The team thinks its offense looks better this year; the stats concur.
A season ago, the second half of the schedule saw an auspicious offense crumble and send the Sun Devils into a six game losing streak spiral. This season however is set up to be a total reversal: a sharp and efficient offense might be the catalyst for a back end full of wins. All of the time they have spent together is translating to a notable evolvement on the field.
“I think that as a quarterback, as a group, as a team, we are a little more seasoned,” Wilkins said. “We are a little bit more comfortable with each other.”