Arizona State faltered at home last night, dropping a close game to Stanford and falling to 3-4 overall. Despite a promising start to the season, the Sun Devils offense has struggled in the last couple of weeks. With outputs of 21 and 13 points against Colorado and Stanford respectively, coach Herm Edwards needs more from his offense if they are going to win these closely contested PAC-12 games.
The lack of offense is a bit of a surprise, as Arizona State actually has one of the most imposing playmakers in college football with wide receiver N’Keal Harry. A promising draft prospect, Harry stands at 6-foot-4 and 213 pounds. As a sophomore last season, Harry produced over 80 receptions and 8 touchdowns.
Many expected a step forward as a draft-eligible Junior, but his production has mostly just held steady so far this season.
Here’s the thing: the way Harry is being used in the offense is doing him no favors.
Harry was a bit raw entering the season, but he was at his best as a sophomore when asked to make receptions in contested situations. He didn’t necessarily have peak ball skills, but Harry undoubtedly has a knack for positioning his frame and using his size to fend off defensive backs.
His downfield playmaking ability unlocked a new aspect of the Sun Devils offense last season, as he was a reliable target outside the numbers.
Under new offensive direction his season, Harry has almost become a prisoner of his own talents.
The scary thing about Harry is that he’s equally as good with the ball in his hands as he is down the field. Against Stanford, the majority of Harry’s usage came in the underneath portions of the field. Catching passes behind the line of scrimmage while being an option in the RPO game, running slants to expose off coverages, and blocking on the edge for swing or bubble passes.
Harry is effective in this role, but Arizona State has seemingly forgotten how valuable Harry can be as a deep threat.
Three weeks ago against Washington, Harry had 5 receptions for only 20 yards. These were all of his catches that game:
What are we doing here, people?
Harry’s versatility is seemingly playing against him, as he can be productive in the screen game. The issues with Arizona State’s offense arise when they begin to use Harry predominantly in this role.
Last night, seemingly the only time Harry was working downfield was during four vertical plays, as the backside deep crosser on rollout passes, or on fade routes in the redzone. Rarely was he the primary deep man.
When Harry was given the opportunity to work in the intermediate, he produced and showed the traits that has so many excited about him as a pro prospect.
Harry is too valuable to pigeon-hole into one role, but his usage needs to begin to be less predictable. Taking downfield shots could soften the safety play and open up those underneath and second-level RPO’s that Arizona State has begun to use frequently.
Additionally, it would give a playmaker like Harry the opportunities to bust games open. Consistent, methodical offense is valuable, but big plays can make make an offense dynamic if they occur with enough frequency. This is a premise that Arizona State needs to adopt with Harry, and open up his route tree to get the most out of their best playmaker.