ASU Football: Review of Sun Devils’ new coordinators

Herm Edwards (Photo by Jennifer Stewart/Getty Images)
Herm Edwards (Photo by Jennifer Stewart/Getty Images) /

After a 3-3 start to the Herm Edwards era, there are still plenty of questions surrounding the ASU football team. Some of these questions include the performance of the coordinators on both sides of the ball.

On the offensive side of the ball, it’s been questions surrounding the ability of offensive coordinator Rob Likens to use the plethora of offensive weapons the Sun Devils possess to be able to effectively move the ball.

ASU’s offense currently ranks No. 40 in the nation after finishing last season four spots above at No. 36. While the offensive numbers are similar, the lack of usage for playmakers including N’Keal Harry and the arm of experienced quarterback Manny Wilkins has some questioning the ability of Likens to properly use the weapons before him.

On the defensive side of the ball, it’s Danny Gonzales who is under fire after what was an exceptional start to the year for the Sun Devils defense.

ASU came in as the top rush defense in the nation early in the season and after now comes in ranked at No. 83 in rush defense, No. 81 in pass defense, and No. 86 in total defense.

Gonzales installed a complex 3-3-5 scheme that has had its growing pains after what was a surprisingly phenomenal start for what has been an extremely young defense.

As both Likens and Gonzales have experienced ups and downs already in their coaching tenure, here is a deeper look into how each coordinator is performing and how it’s impacting Arizona State.

Rob Likens

Likens entered the season as the offensive coordinator in an offseason that saw former OC Billy Napier leave for the head coaching position at Louisiana Lafayette. After spending last season as wide receivers coach, Likens was promoted to fill the void by newly hired Edwards.

While Likens entered with experience as an offensive coordinator at Kansas, his time was very limited as he spent only the 2015-16 season as the OC before coming to ASU as the receivers coach.

Likens also coached at California during the 2013-14 season where he was the assistant head coach and passing coordinator. During his time at Cal, Likens worked with the No. 1 overall pick in the 2016 NFL draft Jared Goff in route to season records in both passing yardage, competitions, and attempts.

This record may be impressive on paper, but his history doesn’t exactly align him to be an OC under the run-heavy Edwards. So far this season, Likens struggled to incorporate the run on early in the year as he heavily relied on the pass in his play selection.

More from Devils in Detail

These instances include a mere 29 rushing attempts to 48 pass attempts in a 16-13 upset over then No. 15 ranked Michigan State. The run game could not get anything going on the ground as they ran for a total of 44 yards for an average of 1.5 yards per carry.

While the end results of the game ended in the Sun Devils favor, the team was ultimately bailed out by a 27-yard touchdown by future first-round selection N’Keal Harry late in the game to give a lifeless offense just enough production to seize the victory.

The run game faltered once again a week later in what was a reverse of upsets as the No. 23 ranked Sun Devils fell to an unranked San Diego State team led by a backup quarterback. ASU totaled 36 rushing yards on 24 carries and could once again not establish a running attack against the Aztecs.

While quarterback Manny Wilkins thrived in both games with 721 yards and three touchdowns in the two games combined, the lack of a balanced attack has been the main issue.

This trend has continued in other games including a 27-20 loss at Washington as ASU was able to establish a run game with 164 yards on the ground but failed to do so through the air finishing with 104 passing yards.

While there can be a multitude of factors that can play into this including other team’s strengths just as Washington having NFL talent in their secondary, or team’s like MSU having a stout run defense, we have simply not seen enough from Likens.

When surrounded with playmakers with talents such as Harry at the receiver position, sophomore Eno Benjamin at running back to name a few, as an offensive coordinator you must find ways to get these playmakers the ball to make plays in space.

Harry has only scratched the surface of his potential this season as he has been held under 100 yards in all but one game this season including a 20-yard performance against Washington. The receiver has been underused after a breakout 1,142 receiving yard season his sophomore year.

Benjamin has been limited multiple times on the year evident to the rushing stats to begin the season before steadily picking up the pace against weaker rush defenses. These defenses include that of Oregon State where he tallied a school record 312 yards on the ground.

This game might have been a turning point as Likens was able to get Benjamin into situations where he was able to get into space and break tackles for long gains.

In order to sustain this success, Likens will have to continue to find creative ways to create running lanes for Benjamin while getting the ball in Harry’s hands any way possible.

Danny Gonzales

While Likens struggles to put his pass-heavy past behind him in favor of a more balanced run-first offense, on the defensive side of the ball Gonzales has looked to implement a complex scheme.

In only his second season as a defensive coordinator, Gonzales will look to take the scheme he learned under Rocky Long at San Diego State and run the scheme under Edwards.

Gonzales worked for seven years under Long as the team’s safeties coach for the first six seasons before being promoted to defensive coordinator in his final season.

During his time at SDSU, the team produced one of the school’s all-time great defenses as they finished in the Top 20 nationally in both scoring defense at No. 13 and total defense at No. 16.

As DC during the 2017 campaign, Gonzales helped lead the Aztecs to a 10-3 record on the year with a commendable defense.

While Gonzales boasts an impressive resume just like Likens, the change to the 3-3-5 defensive scheme hasn’t been perfect.

The defense began the season on a very impressive note limiting the much under talented UTSA Roadrunners to a total of two yards on the ground on a total of 34 carries. The dominant run defense carried on to the following week against Michigan State.

ASU limited a talented Spartan rushing attack to 63 yards on 27 rushing attempts in the upset victory over MSU. The passing defense was almost just as effective as they bent against Michigan State in tune to 314 passing yards allowed but did not break when it came down to important downs.

The unraveling of the defense began against SDSU where the Aztecs lined up in the I-formation for the majority and handled the ball off a total of 58 times for 311 yards.

This was only the beginning for the struggles of the rushing defense that entered the matchup against SDSU ranked first in the nation while defending the run.

After the upset, the Sun Devils would follow up the disappointing rush defense with two more let downs as they allowed 432 rushing yards in the following two games against Washington and Pac-12 bottom dweller Oregon State.

We have seen both extreme positives from this Gonzales-led defense as evident in the team’s No. 1 ranking in rush defense after two games to begin the year, and of course the flip side of it in the SDSU game.

So what ASU defense will we see the rest of the year? While the question remains an unknown, what we do know is Arizona State has relied on a young core that will only improve. The duo of freshman linebackers in Merlin Robertson and Darien Butler have been key players for the Sun Devils in their first season.

The pair has combined for 66 tackles, nine tackles, and four sacks on the season. The two will look to continue to improve as they continue to gain experience and learn the ins and outs of the 3-3-5 scheme.

When Gonzales took over a season ago as DC of SDSU, he was inheriting players who had run the 3-3-5 defense their entire collegiate career and had a much better understanding of the defense that the Sun Devils trying to learn it this season.

Throughout the year, and especially during the team’s bye week, Gonzales will have to continue to teach this team in order to be able to expand the playbook and be able to more effectively limit the run.

Next. ASU Football: The Sun Devils path to bowl eligibility. dark

If both Gonzales and Likens are able to take the positives and the negatives from the first half of the season and tweak their schemes heading into the second half, the Sun Devils will still have a chance to win the Pac-12 south.