The Sun Devils have a preseason All-American at wide receiver, a third-year starter at quarterback and a young cornerback that fits Edwards' style.
So to get a better idea of No. 15 Michigan State's Saturday night opponent, The State News talked to Sebastian Emanuel, football beat reporter for The State Press — the student-run newspaper at Arizona State.
Editor's note: This Q&A was lightly edited for clarification.
Q: So first off, Arizona State demolishes UTSA last week, 49-7. What did you see from Arizona State you weren't expecting going in?
A: I think something a lot of people were skeptical from the end of last season going into this season, was the offensive line. Quarterback Manny Wilkins has been sacked so many times. ASU as a whole ended up 123rd in the country in sacks allowed. So that was a surprise, (Wilkins) not getting sacked at all. Another big thing, obviously N'Keal Harry, being one of the top two wide receivers, him putting on a show. And showing he's a potential first-round draft pick this coming year.
Q: N'Keal Harry, he's obviously a preseason second-team All-American. What makes him so special? What makes N'Keal Harry, N'Keal Harry?
A: From what the coaches have talked about, obviously with his frame being 6-foot-4, 200-plus pounds. Coach Charlie Fisher, wide receivers coach, has talked about "he has such strong hands, that it's really almost impossible to knock the ball out of him." The offensive coordinator, Rob Likens, issued new formations for him to really move him around from the Z position to the Y, or slot position, to get him moving so the defense has to really pay attention towards him. And so him being a focal point really allows his teammates to showcase themselves as well.
Q: And then of those teammates, running back Eno Benjamin, what have seen from him? And then obviously what have you seen from Manny Wilkins, you know being the experienced quarterback that he is? How of those two kind of been able to compliment or improve Harry?
A: So Eno Benjamin sat last year. I mean he played last year, but he sat behind Demario Richard and Kalen Ballage, who were both senior running backs so they were going to get all the carries. So he really got to learn from those two guys. And the way he plays, he'll bounce off of tackles and he'll get three or four yards after contact and actually this last game, he ran for 131 yards and he had 100 yards in the first half. So I mean he's bouncing off of everybody, really opening the field giving Manny an opportunity to open up the passing game, which he's become more and more comfortable with this being his third year (as a starter).
Something that was talked about was Rob Likens being his quarterback coach and OC and being there last year, so understanding Manny and to give Manny another chance of working with him. So they have really stepped up Manny's game. And he registered a lot of having a lot of time in the pocket to where he can make decisions of finding — last game he found nine receivers. So that was obviously something that's huge because obviously the O-line presence is the biggest thing, and now he has more confidence and it allows him to become the dual-threat quarterback that he is.
Q: Going on the defensive side, Brian Lewerke was talking a little bit Tuesday about Chase Lucas, whom Lewerke played against a little bit back when Lewerke was playing high school. So what does Chase Lucas do? And how does this defense work as a whole?
A: Well the defense is now a 3-3-5 formation. So the defensive backs are gonna have a lot of work to do, but they obviously showed that against UTSA. Yes, UTSA is not one of the best opponents, but it's an opponent you get to showcase what you work on in practice. And so Chase Lucas, he's having a spectacular season. He already has three tackles for loss and five tackles total. So he really gets in there every play, he's trying to punch the ball out, he's trying to help his teammates. And he's really the vocal leader of the defense.
Q: Obviously, big name on campus with Herm Edwards. How has he reshaped this program to what he wants it to be, and how has the Edwards effect been at ASU so far?
A: Obviously the hiring was something that was talked about on social media. A lot of people were like, "Oh, why this guy? He hasn't coached in 30 years and you know, been at ESPN." But I think, what he talked about, he's never been away from the game. He's always watched film, he's always put himself through that preparation of, "Oh you know, one day I'll be back." And this was the best opportunity. Ray Anderson, the athletic director, was actual Herm Edwards' agent at one point, so that connection was really strong. I mean being a Pac-12 team, Herm talked about he was once recruited by (former Arizona State coach) Frank Kush before he went to Cal, so that was another big thing.
Herm is a lot more vocal I'm finding out this year. He's really helped with the defensive backs, so he's really on Chase Lucas making sure he's living up to the potential. So you'll see the defensive backs are really playing a lot better than you would expect from last year, because Herm Edwards has focused himself being a defensive back when he played around those guys.
And from the standpoint of media, ESPN has come through here, I think the Pac-12 after drive or one of those shows were here today filming. So he's used to the media. The players really seem to like to talk now. Chase Lucas talked about, I think it was after the first game, he talked about, "Herm is giving us a lot more freedom. But we shouldn't take advantage of that freedom. We should really work on it every day to showcase why we deserve this freedom."
Q: We've been talking a lot here in East Lansing, asking Dantonio, coaches and players, about that Arizona dry heat and how MSU is going to prepare for it. And then Arizona State is undefeated against Big Ten teams in Tempe. So what makes Tempe such a hard place to play?
A: Tempe is a very interesting place to play. It's 50,000 people, the students will really showcase how much they love ASU sports, ASU football in general. The fans will really get into it. I think the biggest thing with playing in the heat, is that ASU has done it since the spring. All these guys are getting conditioned, they're practicing two to three hours a day, mornings, nights. Nights obviously during the summer, mornings now. So it's not a big drop off of heat from 100-degrees to 80 in some places. It's 93, 94 everyday. The coaches have really conditioned them well to be able to play a certain amount of plays, take a rest, and then go back out. So they really rotate everybody.
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And from the standpoint of Big Ten teams just not playing well here, I think it's just one of the things of playing on the road seeing the whole Pac-12 after dark feeling. With the Wisconsin game a few years ago, that showcases it right there. That the Pac-12 and playing at ASU can sometimes be scary and a lot of people can overlook that point. That's why ASU has been able to knock off a few Big Ten teams.
Q: Game prediction. Who wins, what's the score and why?
I think it's going to be a lot closer than what people thought it was going to be a few months ago. Michigan State struggled a little bit. But I think ASU will pull it out, 28-24. It's going to be a touchdown, field goal kind of game. And I think the main reason is, the history that ASU has played against Big Ten teams. They always look at the opponent they play as the No. 1 team, they don't look ahead, and I think it's that thing of having coaches like Herm Edwards, who played at one point in the NFL — and (linebacker coach) Antonio Pierce as well. They keep the focus strong every game, and I think either way it's going to be a close game, but I think ASU is going to pull it out in the end.
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