No team in college football rolled into the offseason with more confidence – well, no team outside of Alabama, that is. Arizona State capped a successful debut for coach Todd Graham with one of the most dominating performances in Pac-12 postseason history, stampeding through overmatched Navy and setting seven conference bowl records in a 62-28 win.
The Sun Devils’ 36 first downs were the second-most in FBS bowl history, trailing the 39 gained by Nevada in its 48-45 loss to Arizona in the 2012 New Mexico Bowl. The 62 points were the most by a Pac-12 team in postseason history. ASU also set 20 Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl records, including those for most yards (648) and largest margin of victory (34 points). The Sun Devils’ punter made the trip, though he wasn’t needed.
That win, along with a rivalry victory against Arizona to cap the regular season, buoyed ASU’s spirits heading into its first full offseason under Graham and his staff. They also helped offset one lingering concern: Prior to Arizona and Navy, the Sun Devils had tried and failed to beat any team of consequence. Where did ASU find its five remaining wins? From Northern Arizona, Illinois, Utah, California, Colorado and Washington State. The Sun Devils proved themselves against the Wildcats and Midshipmen; that doesn’t mean there isn’t more to prove.
The good news, simply put: Graham, for all the negativity tossed in his direction, has a blueprint for bringing the Sun Devils into annual Pac-12 contention. His system has worked elsewhere, would have worked at Pittsburgh and will work in Tempe. The program’s baseline under Graham will be annual bowl play. If he remains focused on the task at hand, it’ll be exciting to see what Graham can achieve with this sort of support system. For now? ASU is going to hit some speed bumps. But as noted above, this team will play its best football in November – at least a few weeks before the season finale against Arizona, I would think. I don’t think that the Sun Devils are reaching the postseason, but this team should win five games in Graham’s debut.
— In a nutshell: One way to circumvent miles of negativity is to go out and remind folks just why it is that you’re on your fourth FBS job in seven years – leaving detractors bemoaning the process but not the results, if you know what I mean. The Sun Devils won eight games in 2012, finishing one game behind UCLA in the Pac-12 South Division, and clearly played their best football during the season’s home stretch. That ASU rebounded from a dreadful midseason run – losses to Oregon, UCLA, Oregon State and USC – to beat Washington State, Arizona and Navy speaks to two factors: one, that the coaching staff clearly reached a program notorious for lengthy lulls, and two, that the roster slowly gained a stronger comfort level in the staff’s new schemes. What happens when you finish strong under a new staff? Well, you head into the next season with an enormous degree of confidence and outsized expectations.
— High point: The 41-34 win against Arizona – of course. A rivalry once played mainly for bragging rights seems destined to be played for divisional and conference championships, if not even more impressive hardware.
— Low point: Any one of the five losses, from the avoidable (Missouri) to the ugly (Oregon) to the close-but-no-cigar (UCLA), with the latter doubly painful for the fact it essentially eliminated the Sun Devils from the South race. In the present and the future, there’s simply no way ASU wins the division without beating UCLA or USC, if not both teams.
— Tidbit: Only 14 teams have scored 60 or more points during the postseason. Todd Graham is responsible for three of those games, the most by a college in FBS history. One came last December, during the Sun Devils’ 62-28 shellacking of Navy. Graham also cracked the 60-point mark twice as the coach at Tulsa, beating Bowling Green 63-7 in 2008 GMAC Bowl and Hawaii 62-35 in the 2010 Hawaii Bowl.
— Tidbit (penalties edition): Arizona State finished last in the FBS in penalties (8.0) and penalty yards per game (79.8) in 2011, the program’s final year under former coach Dennis Erickson, and no one was surprised: ASU had on-field discipline issues throughout Erickson’s five-year tenure, finishing last in the country in accumulated penalty yards in 2009 (85.6 yards per game), 113th in 2010 (69.6 yards per game) and 109th in 2008 (66.8 yards per game). How did the Sun Devils fare under Graham? ASU finished 12th nationally in penalties per game (4.3) and tied for seventh in penalty yards per game (35.3), leading the Pac-12 in both categories.
— 28: CB Omar Bolden (Denver), LB Vontaze Burfict (Cincinnati), CB Deveron Carr (Tampa Bay), OT Paul Fanaika (Arizona), C Garth Gerhart (Green Bay), LB Travis Goethel (Oakland), DE Lawrence Guy (Indianapolis), WR Derek Hagan (Tampa Bay), LB Robert James (Atlanta), TE Brian Jennings (San Francisco), S Keelan Johnson (Miami), OG Shawn Lauvao (Cleveland), LB Brandon Magee (Dallas), RB Cameron Marshall (Miami), WR Jamal Miles (Jacksonville), TE Zach Miller (Seattle), QB Brock Osweiler (Denver), LB Colin Parker (Arizona), OG Mike Pollak (Cincinnati), WR Gerell Robinson (Denver), WR Rashad Ross (Tennessee), OT Brice Schwab (Tampa Bay), CB Brandon Smith (Green Bay), LB Terrell Suggs (Baltimore), WR Kerry Taylor (Arizona), RB Ryan Torain (New York Giants), WR Kyle Williams (San Francisco), WR Mike Willie (San Diego).
— Starters on Nebraska’s 1997 defense.
1. DE Grant Wistrom2. S Mike Brown3. DT Jason Peter4. DE Mike Rucker5. CB Eric Warfield.
— Todd Graham (East Central University ’87), 8-5 after his first season. Graham, in brief: Rice, Tulsa, Pittsburgh, Arizona State. You know the story. Arizona State marks Graham’s fourth FBS head job in the past seven years. He’s led each of the first three programs to bowl play at least once – and he only had one chance for the postseason at Rice and Pittsburgh, two hit-and-quit stops on his way to Tempe.
Graham’s most extensive experience came at Tulsa, where he compiled a 36-17 mark from 2007-10, winning at least 10 games three times and playing for the Conference USA title twice, in 2007 and 2008. He left for Tulsa after one year at Rice, a season that couldn’t have gone much better: the Owls went 7-6, earning the program’s first bowl bid in 45 years. A 10-win 2007 campaign marked a triumphant return to Tulsa for Graham, who served as Steve Kragthorpe’s assistant head coach and defensive coordinator from 2003-5. The Golden Hurricane defense made a distinct improvement in each of Graham’s seasons, improving from 109th nationally in total defense in 2002 to 60th in 2003 and 40th in his final season. The pass defense ranked among the top 25 in each year, perhaps a result of Graham’s experience as a two-time all-NAIA defensive back at East Central University in the mid-1980s.
Before arriving in Tulsa in 2003, Graham coached under Rich Rodriguez at West Virginia from 2001-2, first as linebackers coach before taking on the co-defensive coordinator job during his second season. Yes, Graham is a wanderer. And yes, he’s left two programs in a lurch since 2006. Arizona State didn’t care that Graham had been a one-and-done coach two times during the previous six years. All ASU cares about: Graham wins games, pure and simple; has won games at ASU, as he did in 2012; and will continue to win games for the foreseeable future.
— Offense: ASU has a new offensive line coach, former Texas Tech assistant Chris Thomsen, and a new right side of the line. Here’s a nice point to consider: While ASU lost a pair of stalwarts, this offense can score on any team in the FBS if the line plays like it did against Navy – a weaker opponent, obviously, but the group really seemed to gel in preparing for the postseason. The most noteworthy personnel move since the end of last season saw junior Jamil Douglas transition from left guard to right tackle, where he’ll replace Brice Schwab. At right guard, where the Sun Devils lost Andrew Sampson, ASU will initially turn to sophomore Vi Teofilo, who started three Pac-12 games last fall – all losses, though that’s a coincidence. Another option at guard is former Auburn transfer Christian Westerman, once a top-100 recruit, soon a contributor for the Sun Devils. With senior Evan Finkenberg back at left tackle and senior Kody Koebensky at center, ASU will move junior Sil Ajawara into Douglas’ former spot at left guard. Again, the Sun Devils must carry last season’s strong finish over to 2013. Whether that’s a possibility hinges on how quickly the new faces meld with the returning starters, not to mention how quickly the entire group gels under Thomsen’s tutelage. The line is fine, though obviously not the strength of this offense.
The strength of this offense is the backfield – whether we’re discussing quarterback Taylor Kelly or the two-headed monster of senior Marion Grice and D.J. Foster. Let’s start with the latter, a beautiful combination of size, speed, agility and dual-threat ability: ASU is blessed with a terrific one-two punch, not to mention the depth to thrive even if either misses time due to injury. Grice (679 yards, 11 touchdowns) blossomed during the home stretch of 2012, rushing for 315 yards and five touchdowns in wins against Arizona and Navy; Foster (493 yards), while only a sophomore, has already proved himself as one of the best do-everything skill players in the Pac-12. What separates this pair from most of the league’s competition is how each supplies an impact in the passing game: Foster (38 receptions for 583 yards) and Grice (41 for 425) are major weapons either coming out of the backfield or in the slot, multiplying their impact within this offense. In all, and when including solid depth, ASU’s backfield rivals Oregon’s for the best in the Pac-12.
Kelly’s potential in this offense is nearly unfathomable. What did he do as a first-year starter? Oh, nothing much: 3,040 yards through the air, 520 yards on the ground, 30 touchdowns – pretty good, I’d say. And Kelly produced at this level despite the expected bouts with inconsistency, as is the case with nearly all rookie starters; he battled mental and physical errors early and again during the Sun Devils’ midseason swoon, but rebounded to play his best football during the year’s final month. Like this entire team, it’s hard to gauge just how vital an impressive postseason performance can be for Kelly’s confidence and overall development. While overshadowed by Marcus Mariota, Brett Hundley and others, Kelly must be taken seriously as one of the top two quarterbacks in the Pac-12. ASU also has a nice secondary option in sophomore Michael Eubank (223 yards rushing), who gave this offense some mop-up duty as a passer while adding another dimension in the running game.
— Defense: ASU also has a new defensive line coach in former Oklahoma assistant Jackie Shipp. Unlike Thomsen, who inherits a bit of a mixed bag on offense, Shipp gets the keys to the kingdom – well, he gets to coach an All-American like senior Will Sutton (63 tackles, 23.5 for loss, 13.0 sacks), one of the nation’s top down linemen and quite easily the most disruptive defender in the Pac-12. Sutton is the foundational piece for this defense; any defense built around Sutton is in a good place, one could say. Sutton’s standout play in 2012 helped create the Sun Devils’ harassing defensive mentality: ASU finished in the top four nationally in tackles for loss, sacks and interceptions. Put simply, Sutton is a menace.
That he’s fresh off his strongest spring yet – and that he did so after an All-American season – set the tone for this entire group. Joining Sutton inside is sophomore Jaxon Hood (26 tackles, 3.0 sacks), a surprisingly effective interior presence as a rookie; behind Sutton and Hood stand senior Jake Sheffield and sophomores Sean O’Grady and Mo Latu, with another three options arriving from February’s signing class. One addition, JUCO transfer Marcus Hardison, has the athleticism to play outside and the size to line up along the interior – so he looks like an immediate asset. Hardison and fellow JUCO transfer Demetrius Cherry will join a crowded situation at end, where ASU has seniors Gavin Conway, Davon Coleman (66 tackles, 5.0 sacks) and Junior Onyeali (17 tackles, 6.0 sacks). While Coleman is a returning starter, he was sent back into a situational role during spring drills; this could be a motivational ploy, however, as Coleman is too productive to limit to pass-rushing duties. Onyeali, meanwhile, is an all-conference contender when healthy and motivated – an admitted concern through his first three full seasons.
At its most basic definition, ASU runs a flexible 3-4 defense. The second level contains two hybrids, however, one best described as a fourth linemen and the other as a de facto fifth defensive back – each spot moves between both levels, and each demands an athletic, do-everything, aggressive option. Meet senior Carl Bradford (81 tackles, 20.5 for loss, 11.5 sacks), the forgotten man: Bradford quietly put together an all-conference junior campaign while playing in Sutton’s shadow, making a strong case for the Pac-12’s most dangerous rush linebacker. Bradford’s diverse skill set allows him to run in space, provide adequate coverage and, most of all, plague opposing quarterbacks. While Bradford gives this second level a sense of danger, the Sun Devils need to address a few personnel concerns.
ASU brings back senior Steffon Martin – a former JUCO transfer – on the strong side while adding JUCO transfer Eriquel Florence, who could push Martin during fall camp. The biggest hole is on the weak side, where ASU will struggle replacing Brandon Magee’s leadership qualities. Two options: one, the Sun Devils can hand the job to JUCO transfer Antonio Longino, should he prove willing and able; or two, ASU can shift senior Chris Young (82 tackles, 14.0 for loss) to the weak side from the spur position, the second hybrid spot. To me, Young played so well for a substantial portion of last season – he faded late – that ASU would be wise to keep him at the spur. However, whether the Sun Devils can do so does hinge on several factors, such as Longino’s ability to grasp the defense during fall camp and whether senior Anthony Jones can supplant Young’s production at the spur. ASU doesn’t merely need production on the weak side; it needs a new leader, someone who can step in and provide the brains and smarts Magee brought to the table as a senior.
The secondary has gone from a concern to an asset back to a concern, thanks to the loss of two starters and a key reserve from a year ago. However, that the 2012 secondary fared so well despite entering the fall as a question mark bodes well for the Sun Devils’ pass defense this season, I would think – and also reflects very well on co-defensive back coaches Chris Ball and Joe Lorig, who did a terrific job with last year’s secondary. ASU can feel secure in two positions: boundary safety, where Alden Darby (80 tackles, 3 interceptions) returns, and boundary cornerback, where the Sun Devils bring back senior Osahon Irabor (37 tackles). My question: Is Irabor, now entering his fourth season in the starting lineup, ready to assume the mantle as ASU’s stopper? Well, after the way Irabor played for much of last season – pretty well, under the radar – it’s probably fair to give the senior some all-conference consideration.
The field side is a concern, not to mention entirely unsettled as the Sun Devils enter fall camp. At safety, ASU will wait for three incoming recruits – including JUCO transfer Damarious Randall – before making a final decision; for now, redshirt freshman Laiu Moeakiola and sophomore Ezekiel Bishop lead the way. At cornerback, senior Robert Nelson holds a slight lead over sophomore Rashad Wadood and former Pittsburgh transfer Lloyd Carrington, though another few recruiting additions could alter the race in August.
— Special teams: The good new first: ASU will land more consistency from the kicking game. Last season was a wash for junior Alex Garoutte, who was a nice surprise as a freshman but fared extremely poorly as a sophomore. At best, Garoutte bounces back and reclaims his prior form; at worst, ASU hands place-kicking duties to junior Jon Mora or incoming recruit Zane Gonzalez while Garoutte serves as a huge asset on kickoffs. Now, the bad news: ASU must replace a boomer at punter, Josh Hubner – he was simply awesome in 2012 – and its top returner. With junior Dom Vizzare and true freshman Matt Haack set to battle it out at punter, ASU can turn its focus to the return game. Foster and Grice are options, but I wonder if the Sun Devils might want to keep both fresh due to their huge workload on offense.
— Wide receiver: Foster and Grice do so much work in the passing game that it’s only fair to include them among the Sun Devils’ top targets, alongside all-conference tight end Chris Coyle (57 receptions for 696 yards), senior Kevin Ozier (21 for 324), sophomore Richard Smith (14 for 141), senior Alonzo Agwuenu (11 for 115) and sophomore Gary Chambers. In terms of pure receivers – counting Coyle, who is a mismatch nightmare – this is ASU’s top five. Obviously, the lack of prototypical production from the receiver corps is a bit of a concern: ASU schemes beautifully to offset the lack of experience and next-level talent out wide, but the dearth of attention-grabbing options must be addressed over the next two recruiting cycles. Help is on the way heading into August, with five recruits set to join the program and battle for playing time during preseason camp. Two are JUCO transfers: Jaelen Strong and Joseph Morris have been plugged as immediate-impact additions, with Strong a flexible, move-in-space weapon and Morris, per Graham, one of the more physical JUCO receivers in this winter’s class. This pair is joined by true freshmen receivers Ronald Lewis, Ellis Jefferson and Cameron Smith, along with a potential backup behind Coyle in freshman De’Marieya Nelson. Based on what ASU returns, this offense will need both of the JUCO transfers and at least one true freshman to step right into the rotation.
— Arizona: Perhaps dates with UCLA and USC have more importance in the South Division race. That doesn’t change the fact that the Territorial Cup will again impact not only the final standings but also recruiting inside the state, where ASU is currently lagging behind Rich Rodriguez and the Wildcats – though that might not last for long, especially once the season begins. The biggest key for ASU will be avoiding a sluggish start, a realistic possibility due to the first-half schedule: Wisconsin, at Stanford, USC, Notre Dame at a neutral site and Washington. While unlikely, the Sun Devils could be 2-5 heading into the final Saturday in October.
— In a nutshell: Arizona State is quite clearly a Pac-12 South and Rose Bowl contender, a team with athleticism to burn on both sides of the ball, increased familiarity with the second-year coaching staff and the sort of next-level talent – Sutton, Bradford, Kelly, the backs – any national challenger needs to weather the storm in one of the deepest leagues in the FBS. Looking at this team, the potential is there for as many as 10 wins during the regular season; this would suggest losses to Stanford and one other, whether Notre Dame or another Pac-12 opponent, and a first-place finish in the South – and a date with Cardinal or Oregon for a trip to Pasadena. Any discussion of ASU’s chances must include this possibility.
But I think the Sun Devils are not quite there. To me, ASU must address its offensive line, receiver corps and back seven before being included alongside Oregon, Stanford and UCLA as the best teams in the Pac-12; while certainly in that conversation, the Sun Devils’ areas of concern – protection, big-play ability out wide, coverage – are highlighted when held against the league’s best. To take a leap out of the shadows and into the national discussion, ASU must beat teams like Stanford, Notre Dame and UCLA away from home. For now, I’m still a little skeptical. While a team with the potential for nine wins, I believe the Sun Devils will not run at full capacity until Graham and his staff have the time to address the roster’s lingering personnel issues.
For now, ASU should not hang its hat on an ultimatum – Pac-12 South or bust. It’s foolish, for one, to place undue expectations upon a program still learning the ropes under this staff. Secondly, and even if the Sun Devils look great on paper, this program has yet to prove itself in any meaningful fashion: Graham’s first team topped only one noteworthy league foe, Arizona, and will face a perfect storm of qualified opposition during the year’s first half. What’s the worst-case scenario? That ASU stumbles early, dropping to 3-4 or 2-5 heading into a date with Washington State, and is never taken seriously in the South race. The best-case scenario, on the other hand, could see the Sun Devils win 10 or more games during the regular season and take a giant leap ahead of schedule. To me, the former is more likely than the latter.
— Dream season: Arizona State loses only twice, to Notre Dame and Stanford, and ends the year atop the South Division with a shot at the Rose Bowl.
— Nightmare season: The Sun Devils start 2-5 and lose to UCLA and Arizona down the stretch, dropping from eight wins to 5-7 in Graham’s second season.
— All-name team nominee: OT Jack Powers.
— Who is No. 42? This university’s head baseball coach had 2,500 Twitter followers as of noon Eastern Tuesday.
— Conference: Pac-12, South.
— Location: Tempe, Ariz.
— Nickname: Sun Devils.
— Returning starters: 14 (6 offense, 8 defense).
— Last year’s ranking: No. 71.
— 2012 record: 8-5 (5-4).
— Last year’s re-ranking: No. 39.
— 2013 schedule:.
Sept. 5 Sacramento StateSept. 14 WisconsinSept. 21 at StanfordSept. 28 USCOct. 5 vs. Notre Dame (in Arlington, Texas)Oct. 12 ColoradoOct. 19 WashingtonOct. 31 at Washington StateNov. 9 at UtahNov. 16 Oregon Stateov. 23 at UCLANov. 30 Arizona.
Paul Myerberg, a national college football writer for USA TODAY Sports, is on Twitter @PaulMyerberg.