Monday Morning Sun Devil: ASU builds for 2021 as line play shows program’s growth

Arizona State tailback Rachaad White (3) said he is impressed with the running skills of quarterback Jayden Daniels, saying, “He’s teaching me things.” (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

PHOENIX – Arizona State’s offense has come a long way since 2019.

Though the 2019 season was a normal one by 2020 standards and featured a full set of spring and fall practices, the Sun Devils offense was stuck in neutral for much of the year.

ASU’s passing game was inconsistent as then-freshman quarterback Jayden Daniels rarely had a clean pocket from which to throw and maneuver. The running game, despite the presence of celebrated running back Eno Benjamin, struggled all season as the young and inexperienced offensive line rarely opened navigable holes for runners.

But Saturday at Oregon State exemplified why coach Herm Edwards hired offensive coordinator Zak Hill after the 2019 season.

The Sun Devils ran all over the Beavers, compiling 375 yards on 42 carries. In 2019, ASU managed just 74 yards rushing on 25 carries in Corvallis.

Daniels had a particularly impressive 53-yard touchdown scramble that made running back Rachaad White reevaluate his place in ASU’s backfield.

“J.D., yeah, he might be a better runner than me,” White said. “He’s teaching me things, you know what I’m saying?”

Edwards said Daniels’ elusiveness as a runner confuses him on the sideline when the sophomore scampers out of the pocket.

“He fools me when he runs. When he starts running, I say, ‘They’re gonna tackle him.’ And all of a sudden he keeps going, I keep looking up and he’s still running,” Edwards said. “But then he always comes to me when he’s on the bench, he says, ‘You didn’t think I could do that.’ I say, ‘Stop showing off.’ Because he knows in the back of his head, when he starts running, I’m hollering, ‘Get down!’ He just kept going, so good for him. That’s one he got on me today.”

The running game was complemented by an efficient, if little-used, passing game that generated 139 yards on 15 attempts, including a 63-yard touchdown to receiver Geordon Porter.

Paving the way for the backs and Daniels was the offensive line, which has shown marked improvement as the season has gone on. Daniels had an excellent pocket to throw from on the touchdown to Porter, and the backs were able to find holes consistently, including when White one-upped Daniels with an untouched 55-yard touchdown run.

Daniels, who frequently ran for his life behind 2019’s patchwork offensive line, thought the 2020 edition’s cohesiveness played a key role in its success.

“Just the camaraderie, the chemistry that we’re building over this time,” he said. “Everybody’s playing for each other, and I feel that’s how the O-line is working.

Building the roster for 2021

Because the Sun Devils only played four games in 2020, many players focused on the promise of 2021 after the game. They noted that many key contributors would return, including Daniels, the running back trio of White, Chip Trayanum and Daniyel Ngata, and most of the receiving corps.

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With the NCAA offering players a free year of eligibility for 2021, seniors like cornerback Chase Lucas and receiver Frank Darby could choose to return and try to boost their NFL Draft stock.

The Sun Devils focused on fortifying the offensive and defensive lines of scrimmage in their 2021 recruiting class, signing two offensive tackles in Isaia Glass (Queen Creek) and Austin Barry (Riverside, California) and two weak-side defensive ends in Eric Gentry (Philadelphia) and Gharin Stansbury (Franklin, Louisiana).

Recruiting director Antonio Pierce cited the need to bring in more “hog mollies” to anchor the lines as a foundational strategy of the 2021 recruiting class.

“We got an outstanding quarterback in Jayden Daniels. We surrounded him last year with a bunch of skill guys,” Pierce said. “You surround him now with a bunch of hog mollies, big bodies up front. And then defensively, as you’ve seen what we’ve done over the last three games, want to get after the quarterback. And that starts up front with D-line.”

ASU’s defensive line generated pressure more consistently in 2020, something that Pierce’s son, safety DeAndre Pierce, said helps the secondary cover and create interceptions. Pierce attributed his pick against Oregon State to the line’s pressure on Beavers quarterback Chance Nolan.

“I mean, it’s huge for us. I think even on my interception, one of the D-linemen told me that they was right in the quarterback’s face, and they actually said when the quarterback threw it up, the quarterback said he didn’t even see me there,” Pierce said. “So, really I give my credit for my pick to the D-line because they was able to get in his face, force a bad throw, really just throw an easy ball for me and it was just up to me from there just to catch it, capitalize on the opportunity.”

Speaking of the secondary, the Sun Devils’ top-rated 2021 commitment and the No. 136 player in the country, cornerback Isaiah Johnson (Playa Del Rey, California) opted not to sign during the early signing period. Johnson’s signing would help significantly with potentially replacing Lucas in 2021, as well as Jack Jones, a redshirt senior corner who started the year as an NFL Draft prospect but has been suspended for the Sun Devils’ last three games. Safety Aashari Crosswell, another draft prospect who was suspended along with Jones, has already declared for the draft.

But some help is on the way from Tommi Hill (Orlando, Florida), the No. 264 player in the country and the highest-rated player ASU signed during the period. Hill is listed as an athlete (without a position designated), but Edwards said Wednesday that Hill will enter the program as a corner.

“He’s a talented player now,” Edwards said. “I mean, he’s very talented. I think in one game that they showed me the highlights, he scored like five or six touchdowns. Some of them are offense, some of them are defense. But he’s gonna be a corner, he’s gonna play corner for us.”

Arizona State safety back DeAndre Pierce believes the defensive line generated pressure more consistently this season and helped the secondary cover and create interceptions. (Photo by Kevin Abele/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Offseason development of passing game

ASU didn’t have to pass the ball much against Oregon State. Much like in their game against Arizona, the Sun Devils built an early lead and ran the ball successfully, so they didn’t deviate much from it.

When they did, though, Daniels took advantage, especially on the deep throw to Porter that put ASU up 19-7.

Hill said after the game that capitalizing on those shot plays opens the entire field up for the Sun Devils offense and gives Daniels and the running backs room to find gaps around the line of scrimmage.

“We tried to keep them off balance a little bit,” Hill said. “Hitting that one shot early with (Geordon Porter) over the top loosened them up a little bit. And like I said before, in those games, if you hit the shots that you intend to hit, that really helps. Those explosive plays are huge for us. And then, you know, I’ve been in those games where you don’t hit a few of those, now it becomes a battle. So that was a big early one to hit Porter.

“Jayden put it right on him. … The last two games were in a game where you’re not throwing it a lot, but the guys handled it well and we finished with the win, and that’s the most important thing.”

Edwards said after the game that he hoped the passing game would continue to develop into 2021 with Daniels able to get more comfortable and spend the entirety of spring practice with the young receivers.

“I think next year, hopefully as this offense develops and the defense develops, Jayden is a guy that, he has a talented arm,” Edwards said. “He has arm talent, and I think the more he familiarizes himself with his wide receivers, we can do some more in the passing game. We’re gonna need to do some more in the passing game. So I think that’s something that we’re looking forward to when we start back up.”

A balanced offense will be key in 2021 for ASU to be able to outlast a full slate of Pac-12 opponents.

“We’re excited about the future, and we’re excited about the players that we have,” Hill said. “I think we got a bright future and the guys know that. So we got a big offseason ahead of us after this little break, and we’ll get back to work and strive for that championship.”

Sports Reporter, Phoenix

Christian Babcock expects to graduate in spring 2021 with a bachelor’s degree in sports journalism and a related area in sustainability. Babcock, who has interned with The Arizona Republic, is a digital reporter for Cronkite Sports this spring.