UNLV Football: First Look at the Arizona State Sun Devils
The Rebels will head to Tempe to take on Arizona State in non-conference play. Here’s our preview of what to know about the Sun Devils.
A duel in the desert, or a romp in the making?
UNLV Football: First Looks at Non-Conference Opponents
After opening the 2021 football season at home against Eastern Washington, the UNLV Rebels square off at Sun Devil Stadium with Arizona State on September 11. It hasn’t been the smoothest off-season ever for ASU, what with an investigation into recruiting violations still ongoing, but the talent they’ll bring to the field this fall is undeniable. A true upset bid might be a bridge too far for Marcus Arroyo and company, but the Sun Devils can still be a useful measuring stick for how far UNLV has progressed in such a short time.
Location: Tempe, Arizona
2020 Record: 2-2 (2-2 Pac-12)
Head Coach: Herm Edwards (fourth year, 17-13 overall). Arizona State definitely had themselves a wild 2020: A blown 13-point fourth-quarter lead against USC, a trio of COVID-related cancelations, a blown lead against UCLA with a minute to go, a monster victory over rival Arizona, and an offensive outburst against Oregon State comprised one of college football’s wildest rollercoasters last year.
The Sun Devils still have a core, however, which could win the South division and compete for a Rose Bowl berth. A few things will have to go right, though, for this team to get over the hump and become a top-tier contender in the Pac-12.
QB Jayden Daniels
USC’s Kedon Slovis might be commonly considered the top quarterback in the Pac-12, but Daniels isn’t far behind and the Sun Devils will go as far as he takes them. He wasn’t quite as sharp in his sophomore campaign as in his freshman year, completing just 59.3% of his passes, but his yards per attempt didn’t drop by much (from 8.7 in 2019 to 8.3), he contributed more to the offense with his legs (6.8 yards per carry and four rushing touchdowns), and he continued to avoid killer mistakes (his career interception rate is a meager 0.7%). With a normal off-season to get back on track, Daniels is as dangerous as anyone in the west.
"QBs aren't supposed to do that."@JayD__5. a different breed.
— Sun Devil Football (@ASUFootball) December 20, 2020
RB Rachaad White
You’d have a hard time finding anyone in the country who did more than White with limited touches in 2020. In just 42 carries and eight catches, White averaged 11.4 yards per play — including five plays that went for 50 or more yards, the most in the Pac-12 — and scored six touchdowns. Imagine what he could do with a bigger workload in 2021.
DLs Jermayne Lole and Tyler Johnson
Arizona State definitely has the presence in the trenches to make life difficult for UNLV’s offense and it all starts with Lole and Johnson. Last year, Johnson led the team in 2020 with 7.5 tackles for loss and five sacks but Lole, a preseason first-team all-conference selection this week, might have the higher ceiling. Pro Football Focus has graded him as one of the country’s top defensive lineman for the past two years, so the Rebels could be in for a bit of double trouble if they aren’t prepared.
CB Chase Lucas
Lucas might be the best cornerback in the Pac-12 but, at a minimum, he’s definitely one of the most seasoned. He was a freshman All-American in 2017 and, 43 games later, ended up as the conference’s highest-graded cornerback in coverage (per Pro Football Focus) last season. If he gets locked up with Kyle Williams on most plays, it’ll be an individual battle worth watching.
In spite of last year’s ups and downs, this was an offense that knew how to move the ball and put it in the end zone. Last season, Arizona State ranked 15th in offensive available yards percentage, 13th in points per drive, eighth in yards per play, and fourth in converting red zone opportunities into touchdowns. There aren’t a lot of reasons to expect they won’t be in that same neighborhood again.
When Daniels is on his game, he might as well be a Heisman contender but with the likes of White around him, he won’t have to do it all. With Frank Darby off to the NFL, however, the major question is who he’ll throw to in 2021.
Edwards and offensive coordinator Zak Hill have an embarrassment of riches, though, through which they can shift. As The Athletic’s Chris Vannini notes, five different wide receivers were former four-star recruits. Combined with big-time transfers like tight end Jalin Conyers (Oklahoma) and Bryan Thompson (Utah), the Sun Devils should be in good shape.
When they weren’t suffering late-game breakdowns, the Sun Devils were actually pretty good overall on this side of the ball, too, ranking 42nd by yards per play and 34th by points per drive allowed. Lucas, Lole and Johnson have plenty of veteran company, too, so there’s room for improvement.
If there’s one potential weak link, it’s at linebacker. Kyle Soelle, Merlin Robertson and Darien Butler are good but not great defenders who will need to do their part in order to keep the talented defensive line from giving up too many explosive plays, and their contributions to the overall havoc rate will need to improve for the defense as a whole to take a step forward.
Regrettably, this game is bound to be as lopsided as any non-conference game will get within the Mountain West this year… and not in a good way. UNLV is still in the early stages of its rebuild so while they might be able to make a play or two, it’s hard to see how they’ll keep the Sun Devils from imposing their will.
Arizona State 42, UNLV 14