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Arizona State Sun Devils

ASU vs. Southern Utah strengths, weaknesses and uncertainties

© Patrick Breen/The Republic / USA TODAY NETWORK

Take a look at the strengths, weaknesses and uncertainties of Arizona State and Southern Utah ahead of tonight’s season opener.

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Note: There will be a lot of uncertainties for both teams in Game One with how many new players and coaches each team features.

First let’s examine the visiting opponent, the Southern Utah (SUU) Thunderbirds.

Southern Utah (5-6 last season, coached by DeLane Fitzgerald – 2nd year)

Strength: Strong Passing Game

  • Since coming over to SUU from Snow College in 2019, quarterback Justin Miller (senior) has started all 28 games he’s played in for the Thunderbirds.
    • Last season, he completed 240/367 passes for 2,821 yards, 20 touchdowns and eight interceptions
    • Miller is strictly a passing quarterback, as he netted -62 yards rushing last year
  • In addition to Miller, the Thunderbirds also return last season’s top two receivers, Isaiah Wooden (senior) and Timothy Patrick (senior)
    • Wooden had 40 catches for 832 yards and six touchdowns last season. He also carried the ball 21 times and accumulated a remarkable 253 rushing yards
    • Patrick had 39 receptions for 341 yards and one touchdown last season
  • Last season, SUU averaged 30.9 points and 261 passing yards per game.

Strength: Returning QB and RB

  • As mentioned above, Miller will highlight the team’s returning players. SUU also returns last season’s leading rusher, Braedon Wissler (sophomore)
  • Wissler’s 2022 stats: 74 carries for 422 yards and 1 TD, 33 receptions for 240 yards

Strength: Formidable LB duo

  • Perhaps the best player on this SUU team is LB Kohner Cullimore. Cullimore was a first-team WAC and freshman All-American last season.
    • Cullimore’s 2022 stats (10 games): 76 tackles (team high), 10 TFLs, 2.5 sacks, 4 QB hurries, 1 FF, 1 FR
  • They also return LB Aubrey Nellems (senior), last season’s second-leading tackler.
    • Nellems’ 2022 stats (11 games): 52 total tackles, 10 TFLs, 1 PD, 1 FF, 1 FR

Weakness: Interceptions thrown

  • Last season, Miller threw eight interceptions in 11 games. In 2021, he threw 13 interceptions in 11 games and in 2020, four interceptions in six games.

Weakness: Lots of departures in the secondary

  • The position most damaged by the transfer portal this offseason for the Thunderbirds was the secondary, only returning three players with double-digit tackles from last season.
  • Last season, the Thunderbirds were tied for 16th in the FCS with 14 interceptions

Uncertainty: New offensive system

  • The Thunderbirds welcome a new offensive coordinator in Tye Hiatt
  • From their website: “Under the guidance of Coach Fitzgerald, who is returning for his second year at the helm, Southern Utah has undergone positive changes. With the addition of new offensive coordinator Tye Hiatt, the Thunderbirds are poised to unveil an even more dynamic and potent offensive strategy. Their strong performance during training camp has set the stage for what could be a breakout season.”
  • ASU CB Jordan Clark commented on their offense: “They do a lot of motions, a lot of shifts, a lot of stuff to get your eyes wrong. OC just came from Eastern New Mexico, so it’s a new system for everybody not really sure what they’re gonna throw at us. But from what we’ve seen, they do a lot of shifts and motions and stuff. So it’s just making sure we get adjusted ourselves and play with clean eyes. Ultimately, I think we got a good gameplan for them.”

Uncertainty: How will run game fare

  • The Thunderbirds are known for having a stronger passing game than run game, but with Wooden and Wissler returning, they could make some noise on the ground
  • ASU’s front seven, which is facing some injuries, needs to step up to stop these runs, as their secondary has proven to be good against the pass

Uncertainty: SUU had dominant DL last year, but lost lots of pieces

  • Southern Utah averaged 2.5 sacks per game as a team in 2022 (25th in FCS), but lost two of its leaders in sacks
  • Can its strong linebacker duo make up for the losses?

Uncertainty: Can Miller rebound against ASU?

  • When these teams met in 2021, Miller went 19/30 for 146 yards, three interceptions and 0 TDs in a 41-14 loss.
  • Now with more experience and veterans around him, can he bounce back against the Sun Devils?

Arizona State (3-8 last season, coached by Kenny Dillingham – 1st year)

Strength: Preventing aerial attack

  • The strongest position group on this ASU team is its secondary with returning veterans CB Jordan Clark (R-Sr.), CB Ro Torrence (R-Jr.), S Chris Edmonds (Sr.) and CB Ed Woods (R-Jr.) all set to play significant roles. Other key contributors will be FCS veterans in CB Dee Ford (R-Sr.) and S Shamari Simmons (R-Sr.) who transferred to the Sun Devils this offseason
  • Last season stats: Allowed 233.4 passing yards per game
  • ASU has 57 interceptions since 2018 – Top-30 in the FBS in that time despite playing significantly fewer games than most teams in 2020

Strength: Dynamic offensive playmakers

  • In Rashada’s first collegiate game, he will get to show off his playmaking skills to other dominant playmakers in the ASU offense. Some players that will aid Rashada are TE Jalin Conyers, WR Elijhah Badger (out for first half), WR Xavier Guillory, WR Melquan Stovall, WR Gio Sanders and RB Cameron Skattebo
  • All of the players mentioned above will make it much easier for Rashada to settle in because of how dynamic each of them are

Strength: Big play potential

  • Part of the reason Dillingham chose Rashada to be the team’s starting quarterback is his big play potential. That could especially come to light against an FCS opponent in Southern Utah. As mentioned above, all of the playmakers at the skill positions will aid Rashada in creating these big plays.

Strength: Special teams familiarity

  • After spending four seasons together at California in the past, special teams coordinator Charlie Ragle, kicker Dario Longhetto and long snapper Slater Zellers all reconnect on the Sun Devils.
  • Longhetto has been very consistent throughout fall camp in making field goals

Weakness: Stopping the run

  • Last season, ASU allowed a not-so-good 188.1 rushing yards per game. This season, they have strengthened their edge rushers, moving junior B.J. Green to the outside and gaining Oklahoma sophomore transfer Clayton Smith.
  • However, Green is the only returning starting defensive lineman or linebacker on the depth chart, so we will see if the Sun Devils can change this number around
  • Defensive line starters listed:
    • DE: B.J. Green
    • DT: Tristan Monday (Wisconsin transfer, R-Fr.)
    • DT: Dashaun Mallory (Michigan State grad transfer)
    • DE: Clayton Smith

Potential weakness: Weak offensive line

  • The offensive line is another position where the Sun Devils have a lot of new faces. Junior Isaia Glass and grad Emmit Bohle are the only two listed starters who received a significant amount of snaps for the Sun Devils last season.
  • The Sun Devils do have eight players that could be contributors on this offensive line, but it seems to be a position group they are still working to figure out
  • Offensive line starters listed:
    • LT: Isaia Glass (Jr.) or Bram Walden (R-So., Oregon transfer)
    • LG: Sione Finau (R-Sr., Purdue transfer)
    • C: Leif Fautanu (R-Jr., UNLV transfer)
    • RG: Joey Ramos (Sr.) or Cade Briggs (R-Jr., Texas Tech transfer)
    • RT: Emmit Bohle (Gr.)

Potential weakness: Depth on interior of defensive line

  • The Sun Devils are facing two key injuries on the defensive line with Anthoine Cooper (projected starter) and C.J. Fite listed as such on the team’s depth chart. This was already a weak position group, so expect a healthy rotation and some shuffling around of players on the defensive front as the Sun Devils work to figure things out.

Uncertainty: Jaden Rashada

  • How will Jaden Rashada perform in his first game? There are some freshman mistakes that Dillingham and everyone else expects him to make. Will his talent be enough in this game? Is he going to not only perform well but dominate in his first game? These are all questions that will be answered tonight.

Uncertainty: Playing through adversity

  • The Sun Devils were blindsided by a self-imposed bowl ban announced on Sunday. They have also dealt with arguably the most news in all of college football this offseason. On top of this, they are trying to blend a lot of new faces together.
  • Will they be able to overcome it all in their first game? Will the leaders of the team step up to help them get through their emotions?

Did Arizona State have the craziest last month of news in all of college football?

Uncertainty: New offensive and defensive systems

  • The Sun Devils, who went 3-9 last season, have only one returning position coach in running backs coach Shaun Aguano, who was last year’s interim coach following Herm Edwards’ dismissal.
  • The coaches are highlighted by defensive coordinator Brian Ward and offensive coordinator Beau Baldwin.
    • Ward comes to ASU from Washington State, where the Cougars allowed the third-fewest points in the Pac-12 (22.3). Ward is known for mixing up a lot of pressures and bringing chaos to confuse offenses. He also is very good at getting his players to make sure tackles. Expect a much different look from ASU’s defense, even with four leaders returning as starters.
    • Despite Dillingham being an offensive-minded coach, Baldwin will be calling the plays for the Sun Devils. Baldwin spent the last three years as head coach at Cal Poly, where his teams were among the least penalized in the FCS, ranking in the top-20 in fewest penalties and fewest penalty yards per game this past season, according to ASU’s game notes. “His passing offense ranked fifth in the FCS in 2022, averaging 313.4 yards per game and showing the gradual improvement over an offense that averaged just 218.8 passing yards per game in 2021 and 183.7 yards per game in the COVID-19 shortened 2020 season. Prior to Baldwin’s arrival, the Cal Poly passing offense ranked 117th in the FCS in 2019 with just 121.8 passing yards per game and 121st in 2018 at a paltry 90.8 passing yards per game.”
  • With Dillingham and Baldwin teaming up, expect a highly explosive offense from the Sun Devils. “Under Dillingham’s guidance in 2022, Oregon saw its points per game jump from 31.4 to 38.8 and offensive yards per game from 423.6 to 500.5.”

Uncertainty: 78 newcomers

  • According to ASU’s game notes, they have 78 newcomers on their roster, which is second in the FBS behind only Colorado.
  • 18 newcomers are listed as potential starters on ASU’s depth chart
  • With all the adversity the Sun Devils have dealt with already and a bowl ban in place, will the new players come ready to play?

Prediction and key questions to answer for ASU’s season opener vs. Southern Utah

My Prediction (from article above)

I predict ASU will win this game 45-17.

Both ASU’s defense and Southern Utah’s offense, particularly its QB, are experienced, but the Sun Devils should be able to get the best of them. I would predict their front seven to have 5+ sacks, led by Green, and for them to force a few takeaways this game.

I’m expecting a big first performance from Rashada from what we’ve seen in practice lately, specifically with how composed he’s looked and the quick development of chemistry with his targets. Against an FCS team, his big play ability will be well-suited, and there could be several long touchdowns thrown throughout the game.

Conyers should lead the game in receiving yards with Badger out for the first half. He’s established himself as the most reliable target on the team with his ability to catch almost every 50/50 ball thrown his way, so Rashada will likely look his way plenty of times.

Skattebo should also have a big game. I would think ASU would rotate more running backs in this game against an FCS opponent because they run five deep and all have proven to be reliable, but Skattebo will get the bulk of carries.

Overall, I would expect this game to be over with after the third quarter and for Bourguet to come in at QB then to get reps.

This could be wrong depending if ASU comes out flat and still affected by the bowl ban, but I think the veteran leadership the Sun Devils have is perfectly suited for the pressure they will face this game and will guide them to victory.

Fans should be looking forward to getting their first look at the new era of Sun Devil football under Dillingham, and I think the players will give them a reason to be excited with their performance in this game.

What to know about ASU football’s season opener

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Brendan Mau is a college sports insider and general assignment reporter for Burn City Sports. You can follow him on X via @Brendan_Mau

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