No run game? Big problem.
While sophomore wide receiver Jaelen Strong and junior quarterback Taylor Kelly have been putting on a show for Arizona State, without production from the running game early in games, the end result almost never goes ASU's way.
"We're not a team that can be one-dimensional," offensive line coach Chris Thomsen said. "We can't line up and throw it fifty times during a game. If we do, like against Stanford I think we threw it 56 times, that's not us. We're not geared for that, but at the same time we got weapons on the outside like Jaelen, like (senior tight end Chris) Coyle, like (senior wide receiver Kevin) Ozier, like (sophomore running back) D.J. (Foster) that can make plays on the perimeter throwing the ball, so you have to get the ball to those guys. However, the bottom line is if you can be balanced and establish a good solid run game and then throw the football, you have a better chance to win and it doesn't matter who it is."
Playing a handful of big and athletic defensive fronts so far, ASU has had its share of troubles balancing the passing and running attack.
Senior running back Marion Grice is leading the nation with 10 rushing touchdowns and 15.0 points per game but is behind the curve among his peers in the Pac-12 at just 4.4 yards per carry, significantly down from last season's average of 6.6. Overall, the Sun Devils are eighth in the league in rushing.
Under Graham, the Sun Devils are 11-1 when they lead after the first quarter, and it is typically in part because they established a balanced offensive attack early and are able to play in a rhythm.
"Ideal game is like USC, the game was close and we got in the fourth quarter and we were able to run the ball more," Thomsen said. "Last week, our second team came in and we were able to run the ball more, so that's ideally where we want to get it."
In contrast, when facing Stanford, ASU had one rushing yard in the first quarter of a 13-0 deficit and six yards on the ground by the time it trailed 27-0 late in the second quarter.
Against Notre Dame, ASU again had trouble establishing the run and after a scoreless first quarter, had just six rushing yards though it was also dominated in the time of possession category.
Offensive coordinator Mike Norvell said he believes in the need for a balanced attack and stresses the effort given to make the run game a priority.
"I think it's coming along," Norvell said. "You look at the year, there has been teams that have tried to take away the inside run and force us to the perimeter. You know we haven't done a good job with the inside run to start off the season, but we've definitely progressed the last two or three games. Done a great job in the USC game and then the Colorado game getting the run game established. That's something big as the season goes on. We want to be balanced and establish that we want to be a power football team and knock people off the ball."
Other than the traditional running game, the Sun Devils have found some creative ways to run the ball. For instance, ASU has been running quarterback power outside with a running back lead blocking in order to achieve that balance.
"We got a lot of different playmakers," Norvell said. "Being able to show different looks and different things that teams have to defend helps us create angles and establish that run game. I don't care where it comes from. I just want to establish that and force teams to play an extra hat down in the box and open up things in the passing game."
One concern on the ASU sidelines has been playing from behind, as when trying to come back, the passing game seems to be the only viable option.
"If we have to do that, it's fine but it's not best," Norvell said. "If you want to be efficient at quarterback you need to have balance and I think that's why you see in the games that we've been successful, we've been able to do a great job at that and his (Kelly's) efficiency has been really high. That's one of the things that I think is a contributing factor to that."
While Kelly's numbers are up, his passing efficiency has dropped from 159.9 last season to 148.9 at the halfway mark this year, partially due to the offensive challenge given the lack of balance at times.
"I think we got to establish the run a lot more," Kelly said. "We're continually growing off of that and that momentum."
ASU head coach Todd Graham has repeatedly said there will be no change to the team's identity as a run, play-action pass team.
"At the end of the day, you got to find ways to run the ball," Tomsen said. "Against Wisconsin and USC we did and Stanford and Notre Dame we really didn't. Colorado we did. We've got to get that consistency going in the second half."
Nelson role could expand
In high school, it's not unusual to see someone play two different positions, usually on opposing sides of the ball. Where it gets more atypical is at the collegiate level.
ASU junior tight end De'Marieya Nelson may get a chance.
At 6-foot-3, 230 pounds, Nelson has an innate versatility that isn't typically found in other players.
"De'Marieya (Nelson) has that special talent which is that he's simply an unbelievable football player," tight end coach Chip Long said. "Things just come natural to him. The ball, he's always around the ball because he's got a great nose for the ball. He's got great instincts. Now obviously it's always a learning deal with him getting adjusted but he's very athletic and has a high, high motor. He just loves to play the game and when you have those combinations you're going to have a great player. His ability to do all of those things, while keeping it simple for him, is great and you can just see how he's getting better and better every day."
Halfway through the season, coaches are now asking Nelson to further utilize his versatility and step across the ball to play rush end, a position that as a tight end, Nelson is clearly familiar with.
"It's just third down for the most part," Nelson said. "I'm in pretty much for rushing downs when it's third and long. Depending on how many times we get in that situation will determine how much I'm out there but I just know when we get into that situation I'm going to be there and be ready to go out and give my best effort."
Nelson played Wildcat quarterback at the junior college level and moves like a bigger running back, characteristics he said he doesn't take for granted.
"I was really blessed with the size that I got," Nelson said. "It's allowed me to play all these different positions in my life. I have a lot of speed on me as well. Above all though I play very physical. I think me playing very physically along with everything else and the effort that I give has taken me a long way."
In his first season at ASU out of San Joaquin Delta Community College in Stockton, Calif., Nelson isn't a starter as he plays behind productive senior Chris Coyle, but even so has amassed four receptions for 63 yards and two touchdowns.
"[The adjustment] was pretty hard for him, I know fall camp was tough on him," Long said. Those first couple weeks he was never used to my style of coaching and the tempo we run at but he's tough and he fought through it. The way he's coming along is about what we thought. We always knew he was very athletic, could do a whole variety of things and he's proven that and done even better. Now the fact that he's just learning to play the game makes him even faster. Things are slowing down for him which makes it even more exciting. The sky is the limit for him. His ability, love, passion for the game and the motor he plays is going to make him a great player."
While it's yet to be seen how effective Nelson will be in the pass rush role, he has shown signs of someone who could be an effective weapon for offensive coordinator Mike Norvell and the Sun Devils down the road.
"I believe I've improved tremendously on all fronts," Nelson said. "There's still a lot of work for me to do though. My main thing now is there's still a lot of work for me especially to do with [junior quarterback Taylor Kelly] and continue to gain his trust. I'm just trying to take advantage of every practice in order to perfect my technique or fundamentals."
Junior Devil backer Carl Bradford no longer had what looked to be a cast on his left wrist during practice Thursday. He wore it for just one day, Wednesday.
Redshirt freshman Viliami Moeakiola (Spur), junior cornerback Lloyd Carrington and sophomore defensive tackle Jaxon Hood all mixed in with the first team during the 11-on-11 period media observed.