2023 Pac-12 Football Preview: Devils Retooled to Surprise

Arizona State has a chance to reach bowl eligibility in Kenny Dillingham’s maiden season

Posted on July 3, 2023

  By Dane Miller, SuperWest Sports

This Arizona State preseason football preview is the fourth of 12 to appear over as many weeks as we count down the days to the start of the Pac-12 season on August 26th.

Pac-12Each preview consists of nine sections: OverviewBest-Case ScenarioWorst-Case ScenarioWhat Should HappenWhat Must HappenGreatest StrengthBiggest ConcernDeciding Factors, and Schedule Analysis.

Nothing is set in stone, however, as rosters and depth charts continue to evolve over the summer.

Arizona State Sun Devils Fast Facts

2022 Record: 3-9
Head Coach: Kenny Dillingham (0-0 at ASU)
Offensive Coordinator: Beau Baldwin
Defensive Coordinator: Brian Ward
Home Stadium: Sun Devil Stadium (53,599), Tempe, Arizona
Last Conference Title: 2007, Pac-10

Arizona State enters the season with a clean slate.

The Sun Devils went 3-9 last year, posting their worst season by win percentage since 1942.


The three victories were the fewest in a full season since 1994 and the seven conference losses were tied for the most in program history.

But first-year head coach Kenny Dillingham has been brought in from Oregon to right the ship.

Dillingham lured former Washington State defensive coordinator Brian Ward to Tempe, too, which should help revitalize a defense that was No. 107 in the FBS in points allowed per game.

In his first offseason, Dillingham secured the nation’s No. 15 transfer class and No. 34 recruiting class, per 247Sports.

With depth at quarterback, a strong secondary, and a proven offensive scheme, the Sun Devils have a chance to reach bowl eligibility in Dillingham’s maiden season.

Best-Case Scenario
The quarterback battle is resolved near the beginning of fall camp and the team rallies behind the starter.

Notre Dame transfer Drew Pyne, returning starter Trenton Bourguet, and five-star freshman Jaden Rashada are each vying for the role.

In some ways, figuring out who’s the starter early in the fall matters more than the player actually chosen.

In other words, naming the starter early in camp will benefit the team, and any prolonged quarterback battle will hold the program back.

Rotating three quarterbacks with the ones and twos in practice does nothing but hinder the development of chemistry and prevents the other position groups from reaching their potential.

Dillingham knows that and will likely choose his quarterback sooner rather than later.

Notre Dame transfer QB Drew Pyne | USATSI

The result should be a defined leader that builds chemistry with his receivers, tight ends, and more importantly, the offensive line.

The Sun Devils were 80th in the FBS in sacks allowed per game last a year and 70th in tackles for loss allowed per game.

Getting the quarterback battle resolved early will allow the O-Line to learn the stater’s tendencies and preferences much sooner.

Dillingham brought in six transfers along the offensive line.

The group is headlined by four-star Nevada transfer Aaron Frost, three-star California transfer Ben Coleman, three-star UNLV transfer Leif Fautanu, and high three-star Oregon transfer Bram Walden.

With the quarterback fight resolved early and the transfer additions along the line, ASU battles to a 6-6 season with victories over Southern Utah, Fresno State, California, Colorado, Washington State, and Arizona.

Worst Case Scenario
Ward’s defense struggles to contain opposing offenses in the first season implementing the 4-2-5 scheme.

Highly dependent on a strong front seven, the Sun Devils get exposed at the linebacker position and don’t have the depth along the defensive line to effectively run the system.

B.J. Green, Anthonie Cooper, and Michael Matus return up front, and Ward brought in high three-star transfers in Dashaun Mallory from Michigan State and Clayton Smith from Oklahoma.

But that leaves an entire second string that is questionable and unproven at best.

Yet, that’s not the worst of it.

The linebackers corps is a glaring red flag that must trouble the ASU staff. The 4-2-5 is highly reliant on elite linebacker play, and without strong LBs the system is at risk of getting exposed.

Sun Devil DL Anthonie Cooper | Mark J. Rebilas/USA TODAY Sports

That’s a problem for Arizona State.

The top three linebackers from last year’s squad are no longer with the team and the replacements are largely unproven.

Dillingham brought in three transfers at the position, all three stars and only one of them with significant production on his former team.

Washington State transfer Travion Brown put up strong numbers last year, is familiar with the scheme, and should hold down one of the starting roles.

But that still leaves plenty of question marks at linebacker that remain to be answered.

If the other starter and backups aren’t producing, the Sun Devils stumble their way to a forgetful 3-9 season with key defeats to Fresno State, California, Washington State, and Arizona.

What Should Happen
Ward should effectively implement his 4-2-5 scheme and Dillingham’s offense should put up points.

All three of the quarterbacks are skilled enough to win games and the offensive scheme should put them into ideal positions.

Dillingham has one of the top tight ends in the Pac-12 to utilize in Jalin Conyers and one of the top returning wide receivers in Elijhah Badger.

Combined with the additions of four-star Colorado wide receiver transfer Jordyn Tyson and high-three-star WR Idaho State transfer Xavier Guillory, Dillingham should have the necessary weapons to move the ball through the air.

On the ground, Sacramento State running back transfer Cameron Skattebo should combine well with California transfer DeCarlos Brooks and returning sophomore Tevin White.

Arizona State WR Elijhah Badger | Sun Devil Athletics

And the portal additions along the offensive line should produce an improved unit that gives its quarterback more time to make plays within Dillingham’s scheme.

The result should be a respectable offense that is able to win games.

On defense, the secondary should carry the day. The defensive back group in Tempe is the strength of the team.

Chris Edmonds, Jordan Clark, Ro Torrence, and Ed Woods highlight the returning players while USC transfer Xavion Alford and Austin Peay transfer Demetries Ford have been added to the mix.

Edmonds, Clark, and Torrence combined for six interceptions last year while Ford is touted as one of the top corners in the FCS. Alford has three career interceptions to his name, too.

The result should be a secondary that produces INTs and makes the difference in close games.

What Must Happen
The front seven on defense must have productive seasons.


Dillingham and Ward brought in impact players that should start in each position group. But depth issues remain at both the linebacker spot and along the defensive line.

Brown should thrive in his starting role at LB, but the second option needs to emerge and quality depth must be built.

Along the D-Line, Green, Cooper, Matus, Mallory, and/or Smith form a respectable expected starting unit. But the group can’t play every down and the second string is a concern.

The backups must emerge as a real threat. Otherwise, ASU will be exposed by teams on the ground.

Greatest Strength
Apart from the defensive backs which are far and away the greatest strength of the team, the depth at quarterback is a significant strong point.


All three players fighting for the starting role have the skill to effectively lead the team. If one is injured, the next man up can pick back up where the other left off.

There are not many teams in the nation that have the quarterback depth that ASU has, let alone in the Pac-12.

It’s a double-edged sword that might result in a transfer early in the year from a disgruntled player. Yet, the three-deep quarterback room is undoubtedly one of the Sun Devils’ top strengths heading into the year.

Injuries happen, and Dillingham is fully prepared.

Biggest Concern
The linebacker unit and offensive line are the top concerns for ASU entering the season.

Aside from Brown who has experience running Ward’s system and posted significant numbers last year for Wazzu, the LB room is unproven and worrisome.

The questions in the unit shine even brighter considering the strength in the secondary and the potential impact transfers brought in along the line.

WSU transfer Travion Brown | Patrick Breen/The Republic

It’s a somewhat unfamiliar situation for the Sun Devils who have had several years of consistent and strong linebacking play from experienced starters.

It’s a rebuild that’s not all that surprising considering the coaching change. But it’s still a major concern.

On the other side of the ball, Dillingham has the weapons at the skill positions but there are questions along the line. The Sun Devils were simply bad in the trenches last season and it showed.

Frost, Coleman, Fautanu, and Walden have been brought in to address the issues. Yet, until they provide it on the field, the O-Line remains a concern.

Deciding Factors
Arizona State’s efficiency running the ball is an under-the-radar key to its success in 2023.


The Sun Devils lost their top two running backs in Xazavian Valladay and Daniyel Ngata. The duo combined for 19 touchdowns and 1,806 total yards.

Replacing their production won’t be easy, but it’s vital to ASU’s season.

Sacramento State transfer Skattebo rushed for 1,372 yards last year and is the apparent replacement for Valladay. Still, if his game doesn’t transition well to the FBS level, Dillingham and Company could be in trouble.

Cal transfer Brooks is a proven second option, though. And returning sophomore White is rearing for more touches.

At the end of the day, Dillingham needs his backs to produce or his offense is at risk of becoming one-dimensional.

Schedule Analysis
2023 Arizona State Sun Devils Schedule

Aug. 31 vs Southern Utah
Sept. 9 vs Oklahoma State
Sept. 16 vs Fresno State
Sept. 23 vs USC
Sept. 30 at California
Oct. 7 vs Colorado
Oct. 21 at Washington
Oct. 28 vs Washington State
Nov. 4 at Utah
Nov. 11 at UCLA
Nov. 18 vs Oregon
Nov. 25 vs Arizona

Handicapping a first-year head coach with a roster highly dependent on transfers is a challenge. Objectively speaking, Arizona State could realistically win as many as six games and as few as three.

The year starts with a tune-up against Southern Utah that should end in a blowout.

Oklahoma State comes to Tempe in Week Two for a pivotal showdown. The Cowboys are projected to win around six games this season and could struggle in the desert.

It will be Dillingham’s first test as a head coach and it’s a fascinating matchup. Still, the Sun Devils probably walk away with a close loss that comes down to the Fourth Quarter.

Fresno State comes to town in Week Three for a matchup that is arguably a must-win for ASU’s bowl eligibility aspirations. Jeff Tedford runs a prolific offense and the Bulldogs figure to have a strong defense once again.

But Fresno State will be breaking in a new quarterback and ASU has a strong secondary. At this point in the year, the matchup is a toss-up.

The Sun Devils stay at home for their Week Four matchup against USC. The Trojans are one of the top teams in the nation and should handle their business in Tempe.

Week Five features ASU’s first road game of the year. The team travels to California to face the Bears in what is arguably another must-win for bowl eligibility purposes.

If the Sun Devils lose to Cal, there’s arguably little chance of making a bowl game.

Colorado then comes to Tempe for an interesting matchup. Dillingham’s team should secure the win, but the Buffs might be a trendy upset pick.

Washington football pac-12A game at Washington follows that likely ends in a loss. Arizona State has a strong secondary to counter UW’s passing attack.

But the questions at linebacker are too concerning facing Kalen DeBoer’s offense, which is designed to get players into open space across the middle of the field.

And facing the Huskies on the road in Seattle, the game could end in a relative blowout.

Washington State then comes to Tempe in another must-win game. It’s a matchup between Ward and his old team, with Wazzu’s offense integrally familiar with the defensive scheme.

It’s another questionable toss-up, but the Cougars should find a way to win.

A game at Utah follows that will likely end in defeat.

The Utes are one of the most complete teams in the Conference and Arizona State doesn’t have the firepower on both sides of the ball to walk away from Rice-Eccles with a win.

A winnable road game follows, though, against UCLA. The Bruins historically drop a game they should win at the Rose Bowl and the matchup with the Sun Devils is a prime candidate.

Dillingham should have the offensive firepower to score enough points to win, but the question is whether his defense can adequately slow down Chip Kelly’s offense.

A home game against Oregon is next. The matchup has upset potential considering the history of the series and UO’s overall struggles in the State of Arizona.

Still, the Ducks will be strong on both sides of the ball and ASU has too many questions in key position groups to expect a win.

Arizona football Pac-12The year ends with the Territorial Cup in Tempe. Depending on how the season goes, the game could decide both programs’ bowl eligibility fate.

The Wildcats ran all over the Sun Devils last season and are returning a super-majority of their offensive production. It’s another toss-up game at this point in the offseason.

All told, six wins is a reasonable ceiling with three as a potential floor. Giving Dillingham the benefit of the doubt, a five-win year is a fair high-end projection.

—More from Dane Miller—