Ever been to Tempe? It's a great town, at least as far as desert towns go. It has style. It has history. It has heat. And, every once in a while, it has a football team. Remember this?
That was Arizona State's one and only Rose Bowl victory led by the great Jeff Van Raaphorst, now a color commentator for the ASU radio broadcast team.
The problem with ASU is that it doesn't decide to have a football team every season. And when it does, it often stumbles over its own ... errr .... pitchfork on its way to missing whatever greatness it seemed destined to capture. But things are different these days in Tempe. There is a fresh new coach named Todd Graham - think of Chip Kelly minus the curse words, man boobs and propensity to cheat - who opened some eyes in his first year with the Sun Devils. There is a new AD who seems to have forgotten his difficulties as an NBA General Manager (he fired the man that did this...really? How cold-hearted can you get?). And, most importantly, there is a talented crew of players who seem bought in to the notion that they can bring the heat to the P12 South.
Can they? Let's open the Gekko File and see.
Gekko File Accountability - What I Said Last Year
I honestly don't remember what I said. But I do recall this picture:
Ok. Ok. I'll cop to it. I didn't think that highly of ASU going into 2012.
I think ASU still has some attractive talent and it is hard not to believe that Todd Graham, as maligned as he has been, isn't a good fit for that environment. However, I see a lot of growing pains in the near future as this team adapts to a new staff, breaks in a new QB, and replaces key veterans in the secondary at receiver. The schedule won't do them a lot of favors as they play both Illinois AND Missouri in the first three weeks of the season...I still see this as a four, maybe five, win football team this season. Look for the Devils to struggle making Graham's offense click in the first half of the season and expect them to completely under-utilize their stud RB.
In fairness, I got a few things right. I did predict that Graham would "under-utilize" 1,000 yard rusher Cameron Marshall. I got that right (kinda). I did say (if you read the article) that I expected a DT Will Sutton - not yet a breakout player - and LB Brandon Magee to turn around the ASU defense. I also predicted a young Taylor Kelly to win the QB job at a time when almost everybody was predicting Mike Bercovici. And, well, I may have predicted something like a four or five win season. Sorry 'bout that. Can't get 'em all right.
It doesn't often rain in Tempe because, you know, it is in the middle of the desert. That didn''t seem to bother Todd Graham who swooped into town to replace the venerable Dennis Erickson and literally made it start raining points and defensive sacks from Game 1. Graham attacked the revamping of his program like he attacks the line of scrimmage ... definitive and fast. He installed a brand new spread scheme that looked like Oregon and smelled like chicken. He swapped feature running backs and exploited the talents of Marion Grice despite having a 1,000 yard rusher teed up in Cameron Marshall. He overhauled a receiving unit that had lost three seniors to graduation. He laid out a new attacking style on defense that led to big plays and turnovers the likes of which haven't been seen since long before I ever even knew what the initials A-S-U stood for. In short, Graham rejected the idea of a rebuild and flat out went for it ... and he got results.
ASU first caught the attention of P12 fans in game 1 where an unlikely starter at QB - Taylor Kelly had beat out the bigger armed Bercovici and the more athletic Michael Eubank in a compelling 3-way offseason battle - showed his tendency for passing efficiency by going 15/19 against N. Arizona. It continued in an impressive victory over Illinois that highlighted the versatility that Graham commanded on offense. The formula went like this: two QBs (Kelly and Eubank), three RBs (Grice, Marshall and D.J. Foster) and a kick-ass approach on defense that featured the coming of age of a young, dominant DT in Will Sutton (1 sack, 3 TFLs). A hiccup on the road against Missouri was quickly discarded as the Sun Devils would take advantage of three early season matchups against the softest of the P12 with easy wins over Cal, Colorado and Utah. But then the wheels fell off as a few guys - including Sutton - got banged up. The Sun Devils paid the price for their three early wins by losing four in a row in a gauntlet that featured USC, Stanford, UCLA and, of course, Oregon. The Devils would bounce back to win their final three including a thriller against rival Arizona in Tuscon in which they scored 24 in the fourth to seize the Territorial Cup and a blowout victory over Navy in the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl.
The Devils closed the season 8-5 overall and 5-4 in the P12 - good enough for third place in the South. The offense, of course, got most of the credit ... and rightfully so. ASU finished 14th in the nation in points scored, 25th overall in rushing and 44th overall in passing. Despite splitting time, Kelly was a revelation. In his first season a starter, he finished 8th in the nation in passing efficiency and showed a remarkable level of dependability in both delivering on deep passes and protecting the football. The emergence of the rushing attack was equally as impressive. ASU had four guys rush over 493 yards (including Kelly) and each of their three featured RBs rushed for at least 4 TDs (Foster ... Grice had 11, Marshall had 9).
But it wasn't just the offense. The Devil D was a much tougher out in 2012. Everything for them was built around their ability to rush the QB. Against solid competition, they sacked the QB 51 times in 2012 - good for 2nd best sack total in the nation. Only Fresno State gave up fewer than ASUs 2183 pass yards surrendered. Their 4.78 yards per play was 17th best in the nation. Not exactly Alabama, but pretty good in a P12 that featured Oregon, Stanford, Arizona and UCLA as elite offenses to compete against. If there were any weakness, it was in its run defense. ASU was 94th in the nation in Rush Yds surrendered, reflecting both the talent they faced and their preference for risk taking.
It was a great 2012 debut for Todd Graham, who saw his team improve by two wins over the previous year and return the Devils to the winning side of the post-season ledger.
2012 Rewind: UW vs ASU
Thankfully, UW missed this fast, spread team in 2012. I would not have liked our chances.
2013 Preview: Arizona State
There really isn't much to not like about ASU going into 2013. Graham has established his routine and his playbook. His players have bought in. He's returning a ton of players from last year. He's clearly got the attention of the rest of the P12.
It may sound odd to hear, but everything about this ASU team starts with the Defense. The DL for this team is unheralded, but excellent. Will Sutton is back for his senior year and he is the odds on favorite to win the P12 Defensive Player of the Year award. The reigning Morris Trophy winner, Sutton is an explosive pass rusher who can shift around gaps and cause chaos with both his physcial attributes and his versatility. Sutton is a little small for his position (280 lbs) but makes up for it with his quickness and is a factor that every opponent has to contend with. Davon Coleman (11 TFLs), Jaxon Hood (All-Freshman first team) and Junior Onyeali (5 sacks) round out a balanced and talented group. The linebacking unit that is also very experienced and very deep. The star of the unit is the SR Carl Bradford. He is a legit flex-style stud who will have his named called throughout the season. Husky fans will recognize the name Chris Young. An athletic outside backer, Young will be shifting to Brandon Magee's WLB position this season. Along with Steffon Martin, the three of these LBs, together, had 41 TFLs and 14.5 sacks in 2012. In all, the Devils return 8 starters on a Defense that only knows one speed (fast) and one strategy (attack). They'll be prone to give up the big plays and are still undersized against stout rushing teams, but these guys are going to make plays and force turnovers across the league.
If the Defense doesn't get your attention, ASU's offense should. I'm not sure that there is a P12 team in the league that can match ASU's depth at QB (Kelly, Eubank and Bercovici are all back) or at RB (Grice and Foster). The O-Line may be light on "names" but is deep in experience as it is expected to start two Seniors and two Juniors, at the least. If there is a weakness, it is with the receiving corps. Rashad Ross was the top big play threat for the Devils in 2012. He's gone now and his ability to go deep will be missed. ASU does return Chris Coyle - a big WR/TE hybrid at 6'3" and 240 and the leading receiver from a year ago. The Devils will also get a lot of mileage in the pass game out of their RBs as both Foster and Grice are accomplished receivers. It will be interesting to see if those two will get room to work now that Ross and the versatile Jamal Miles are gone. Until a reliable deep option emerges, they may find it a little more difficult to operate like they did last year. Still, this is a run-first offense that is fast, efficient, and experienced. There really isn't any reason not to expect a top 5 finish on the P12 offensive stats board in 2013.
- Will Sutton, who kept ASU faithful guessing before the last NFL Draft, is considered by most scouts as a sure-fire 1st Round pick despite being small for his position.
- As it turns out, the Sun Devils had no players taken in the 2013 NFL Draft.
- In his preview magazine, Phil Steele ranked the Rushing Attack of ASU as the projected fourth best in the nation in 2013.
- I noted earlier that the Sun Devils recorded 51 sacks in 2012. They return 44.5 of those sacks in 2013 - the most of any team in the nation.
- Taylor Kelly threw 9 INTs in 2012. ASU lost every game where Kelly threw at least one. There is your secret to beating the Sun Devils.
- Coach Graham is all about discipline and is the anti-Erickson. Consider this: In 2011, ASU was 120th of 120 in the nation in penalty yards per game (79.8) and were the only team in the nation to go over 1,000 total penalty yards for the season. Out goes Erickson, in comes Graham and *boom* instant turnaround. In 2012, ASU finished eighth in the nation in fewest penalty yards per game with 35.3 resulting in a net gain of over 600 yards for the Devils in 2012.
- Odd recruiting stat: Graham signed 10 JCs in his 25 man recruiting class this year. I guess ASU accepts PE units.
- Despite a tough schedule, ASU scored less than 20 points in a game only once last year - a 38-17 loss to USC. They scored over 40 points in 8 games. They scored 36 or more in 11 games.
- ASU is set to start a home and home series with the Irish this year. However, it almost didn't happen. After joining the ACC, ND tried to back out of its deal with ASU. Steve Patterson, ASU AD, called out the Irish and pointed to the fine print of their contract which stipulated that the series could not be canceled but for "an act of God". Apparently, God does not favor the ACC. Good thing for ASU fans that ND didn't join the SEC.
- Every once in a while, we need to all stop and take a second to recognize that every player is first a person. And, like most people, they have family. Take a moment to read about the tragedy that happened to Marion Grice, whose brother was killed, in an unbelievably stereotypical manner, over sneakers.
2013 Predictions: Arizona State
On paper, ASU looks poised to have a big season and to build on their 8 win campaign of 2012. All the pieces are there. The QB (or QBs). The rushing attack. An experienced O-Line. An All-American D-Lineman. An attacking, playmaking LB corps. A senior-laden roster comprised of experience in just about every area of the two deeps. A deep rooted faith and commitment to what Todd Graham is preaching. A no cursing policy.
Everything you could ask for. But, is it enough? I'm not sure.
The first thing you notice when trying to forecast the Devils is an unforgiving early schedule. After a warm up against P12 giant killer, Sac State, the Devils come right up on a gauntlet that goes like this:
v. Notre Dame (neutral site)
They get a weekly BYE (vs Colorado) and then they roll right up on the Huskies in Tempe. Even as good as they are, ASU could easily emerge from that gauntlet with a hard fought 3-4 record. On the flip side, they do get 5 conference games at home, their schedule is backloaded with softer teams and they do get to miss Oregon this year. So, a 3-4 record could still turn into 8-4 going into a bowl game. It is hard to say.
The other thing that bugs me is the law of "what comes around...". ASU was great last year. Almost too great (despite their losing streak). It seems that there were a lot of guys who played slightly over their skis or who were otherwise helped out by the exploits of an innovative coach who was relatively unknown to the rest of the coaches in the league. It feels like a correction is due and I find myself wondering how it will come.
In the end, I'm going to hedge my bets. While I like ASU the most of the Southern teams, I still see this as an 8ish win type of season and a second place finish in the P12 South.