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the Gekko Files: ASU 2014 Preview

Ah, Tempe. My favorite Pac 12 town not named Seattle. Let's open up today's Gekko File and see how 2014 is shaping up for the boys in the desert.

Todd Graham is looking forward to a 2014 with a revamped D and a darkhorse Heisman candidate at QB.
Todd Graham is looking forward to a 2014 with a revamped D and a darkhorse Heisman candidate at QB.
Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Yay!  It's time to preview ASU.  I love previewing ASU.  It is my favorite non-Washington school in the Pac 12.  This picture has nothing to do with that:


That photo never gets old.

The Sun Devils defied all expectations in 2013 by going out and flat out winning the Pac 12 Southern division.  They did it by running up the tempo on offense, playing high risk/high reward defense and slaughtering Steve Sarkisian in the desert.

This year is a whole new ball game for Todd Graham.  Gone are key playmakers like Will Sutton, Marion Grice and Carl Bradford.  Also departed is the slippery and somewhat notorious AD who hired him, Steve Patterson.  What remains is Taylor Kelly and a whole bunch of JUCO transfers.  Is it enough to defy the odds and pull a repeat performance in the South?  Only the Gekko knows.

2013 Recap - What I Said

In 2013, the Gekko File was bullish on ASU ... just not bullish enough.  Here are the facts:

Predicted Div Finish 2nd
Actual Div Finish 1st
Predicted P12 Record 6-3
Actual P12 Record 8-1

Not horrible, but you never want to miss picking the divisional champion.  It is kind of like taking the hottest girl in school to the prom only to watch her take off with the chief of the skater-punk crew as soon as you walk in the door.

Okay, it's nothing like that.  I just had to get that out.  Wow, that's been sitting there for a while.  That was kind of cathartic.

Anyway, here was what I actually said about ASU last year:

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.... But, something is just a little off...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...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.

After a tremendous season in 2012, I really didn't think things could go better for Graham and his Devils.  But the season got off to a tremendous start with a 55-0 shellacking of Sacramento State followed by a wild (and lucky?) victory over #20 Wisconsin in a game where the refs, despite calling the ball "dead", did not give the Wiscy QB credit for downing it and let the time clock expire as a result.  Regardless it was a big win for an ASU team that needed momentum.

That momentum was short-lived as Stanford, who proved to be Todd Graham's kryptonite twice in the season, crushed the Devils in what would be their only P12 loss of the season up until the Pac 12 Championship game.  Graham's Devils ran off an impressive 8-game win streak that included a dire whipping of our Dawgs in Tempe in a game that many believed marked the end of Steve Sarkisian's tenure - at least in his own mind - as UW head football coach.  Of course, we all know that Stanford would go and whip ASU again sending them to the Holiday Bowl demoralized and unmotivated to meet a Texas Tech team that beat them handily.

Despite the downward trend to close the season, it was a remarkable one for the Sun Devils - clearly one of the best in program history.  In addition to Will Sutton winning his 2nd DPOY award, Graham won the prize as the Coach of the Year.  The Sun Devils boasted nine players across the All Pac 12 first and second teams.  Their offense scored 556 points - just ahead of Washington and just behind Oregon to finish #2 in the Pac 12.  They ranked second in the conference in Total Defense.  They were the only team in the Pac to have a turnover margin greater than one.  It was a classic Todd Graham kind of season.

Previewing 2014:  The Sun Devils

Many pundits take a look at Arizona State and immediately begin to pontificate on Taylor Kelly's status as a national QB awards contender.  Todd Graham takes a look at his Sun Devils and, with his defensive pedigree, wonders what the overall state of his aggressive, ball hawking defense is going to be like.  In helping him to stay true to his roots, we start with the Sun Devil D.

I mentioned above that the Sun Devil D is going through a massive overhaul.  Ordinarily, replacing 10 starters is a task that few teams could accomplish without missing a beat.  We are literally talking about the Alabama's, Ohio State's, LSU's and USC's of the world in such situations.  But this is no ordinary situation.  Todd Graham isn't just replacing 10 starters, he's replacing some of the best defenders to have ever donned ASU uniforms.  DT Will Sutton was a two-time All-American and two-time Pat Tillman DPOY award winner in the Pac 12.  He'll be playing Sundays this fall for the Chicago Bears.  OLB Carl Bradford was a two-time All-Pac 12 selection.  He'll be playing Sundays with Green Bay.  Former UW commit, MLB Chris Young, started all 27 games he played in for ASU and was an All Pac 12 selection last year.  Safety Alden Darby had 10 career picks and 54 tackles in 2013.  The entire middle of the ASU Defense plus it's top pass rush threat is gone.  Oh, what to do?

Fortunately for Todd Graham, low admission standards, hot coeds and a jumping campus smack dab in the middle of Tempe makes ASU a dream come true for JUCO transfers.  As the Sun Devils reload for 2014, they'll be leaning on a few returners and a boatload of JUCOs to bolster the D.

Working backwards forward, the ASU secondary actually has a few returning players to lean on.  Sr. Damarious Randall, who had 17 tackles in the ND game, will be a leader on the 2014 D.  Lloyd Carrington, a JR CB, was a key reserve in 2013 and will be counted on big time this season.  A pair of RS Freshman safeties, Marcus Ball and James Johnson, are staking out playing time this offseason.  There are bodies and talent here, but all of the "untested" variety.

The front seven feature the one player ASU fans are probably most excited to see play:  LB DJ Calhoun.  While just a true freshman, many ASU fans have already penciled him in to replace Bradford's production.  Actually replacing Bradford's position, the so-called "Devilbacker" could fall to the up-and-coming Soph. Viliami Latu.  Latu is a physical specimen at 265 lbs who saw action last year as a true freshman and, given his size, may be a better option as an ILB.  The other key piece is Soph Salamo Fiso who played in every game last season and recorded 71 tackles.

In front of those guys will be a patchwork line that will feature a host of JUCO transfers that Nick Krueger of House of Sparky describes below.  One name to watch is RS Jr Mo Latu -  a massive guy at 350 lbs who is a quintessential run-stuffer.  Another name to watch is Demetrius Cherry - a Jr DE who checked in this spring at 300 lbs.  Interesting to note here that the most recognizable name among the DL's, Jaxon Hood, is actually fighting for a starting spot.  The fact that he doesn't have one sewn up should speak to the potential of Graham's new recruits.

On the offensive side of the ball, the Sun Devils lose a few key pieces - in particular two offensive lineman and RB Marion Grice.  The offensive line warrants special attention here given the fact that they were not, in my estimation, a very effective unit overall in 2013.  Replacing two cogs on the line may actually be an upgrade for a unit that was only able to open up 4.4 YPC for a pretty talented RB tandem.  OT Jamil Douglas is their best player, though he may be playing out of position at Tackle.  Another name to watch:  Christian Westerman, a transfer from Auburn.

If the running game, now sans Grice, is going to have a chance then a lot is going to fall on the shoulders of DJ Foster.  Foster is a multi-tool back who, frankly, I think is a better overall threat then Grice.  Beyond Foster, who will play some slot receiver, the situation gets murky.  A pair of relatively talented but heretofore unproductive seniors sit behind Foster.  If I were a betting man, I'd focus my attention on two younger players in Kalen Ballage and Demario Richard.

Regardless, the name of the game for Todd Graham's offense will be it's passing game.  And, with first-team TE Chris Coyle off to the NFL, there are only two names that you really need to know:  QB Kelly and Senior WR Jaelen Strong.  Kelly, of course, is a super heady and more-mobile-than-you-think signal caller who is absolutely the heart and soul of this ASU offense.  He will be a three year starter this year and has demonstrated his ability to hit outs, fades and wheels.  Getting his game to the next level is all about hitting those big fly and post patterns.  Strong took the Pac 12 by storm last season as a JUCO transfer by posting 75 catches for 1,122 yards.  He's a strong man with playmaking ability.  Beyond him, the experienced depth dwindles fast.  The Sun Devils are going to be counting on Sr TE De'Marieya Nelson, Fr Ellis Jefferson and Soph Cameron Smith, to contribute big.  Smith, in particular,  flashed his wheels with some big plays last season and could be a true breakout candidate in 2014.

Three Questions and a Comment:  Nick Krueger, House of Sparky

1.  Replacing 10 starters on one side of the ball is a challenge. Who are the players to watch on the ASU D in 2014?

DJ Calhoun was a freshman early enrollee and turned a lot of heads at the WILL linebacker spot. Kweishi Brown is a junior JUCO transfer cornerback and was ranked in the top 50 JUCO players in the country last year so he should help a very depleted group of defensive backs which only returns Lloyd Carrington. Dalvon Stuckey is the odds on favorite to replace Will Sutton, he's another JUCO transfer who was the eighth best JUCO player in the country last season and turned down Alabama and Auburn to come to Arizona State. Finally the last name I would remember is Darrius Caldwell, another JUCO transfer from the same school as Stuckey. He's currently the odds on favorite to replace Carl Bradford at the hybrid lineman- linebacker spot that Todd Graham calls the "Devilbacker."

2.  Should P12 fans consider Taylor Kelly an elite QB? Why or why not?

That is a huge storyline coming into this season. Can Kelly make the jump from a very skilled Division I starter to Heisman Trophy candidate? No, I would not give Kelly the "elite" moniker yet. Given Kelly's prowess with his feet as well as his arm I would put Kelly at the top of the second tier Pac-12 quarterbacks behind Brett Hundley and Marcus Mariota. He's actually on the verge of breaking a lot of school records at Arizona State this season and is already among the top five quarterbacks in school history in passing yards, passing yards per game, completions, attempts, total offense, total offense, yards per game, and points responsible for. It's also important to remember that Deputy Head Coach and Offensive Coordinator Mike Norvell has designed the Sun Devils offense around Kelly and his skills so that he has the best chance to succeed. I'm not sure how great he would be if the Sun Devils didn't run such a hurry-up offense.

3. Trap game: what one game on the schedule has you most worried and why?

I've thought about this question a lot recently and it's a tough one to answer because I'm anticipating a lot of parity in the Pac-12 next season. I'm not sure any win will come easily for ASU in the conference but if I had to pick one I would say Utah at home. They'll be looking ahead to a huge matchup with Notre Dame and no doubt they will be tired from facing the Huskies in Seattle the week prior. The Utes are a beatable team for ASU but will be looking to avenge a tough 20-19 loss to the Sun Devils in Salt Lake City last season.

ASU will win the P12 South if ...

Brett Hundley and Myles Jack have season-ending injuries in the first game of the year...

Seriously,  I think the first thing that would need to happen is that this defense, which isn't young by the way, just inexperienced, needs to prove itself against tough competition. They need to play with the same physicality as last year's group did. After that they will need to defend home field again, the only acceptable loss might be Stanford. Every other game in the conference is a must win for the Sun Devils because I don't forsee UCLA slipping up at all so it will start with beating them at home on Sept. 25.

Predicting 2014:  The Arizona State Sun Devils

Predicting ASU in 2014 is a difficult task for me.  I've been burned by underestimating Todd Graham twice in a row now ... and that is on the heels of a season where I picked the Sun Devils to finish second.  The fact is that I love the Sun Devils.  I like everything about what they are doing down there with the pieces that they have.  I like that they are not shy about building the program on the backs of JUCO transfers and otherwise rejected players.  I like that their fans have a "what the hell" attitude and take their success in stride.  I like that their coach does not entertain excuses.

Well, I don't like the diva headset or the retro NBA wrist/sweatbands.  But, still...

The truth is that my gut tells me that ASU is better than UCLA right now and that they are the team most likely to be racing with USC in the South.  Sometimes (and I wish it were more often), my gut needs to give way to my brain.  In this case, my brain is telling me that replacing 10 starters on D is too big a task in a loaded P12.  My brain is telling me that Taylor Kelly is a good-not-elite P12 quarterback.  My brain is telling me that the RB depth and the o-line may be more troublesome for the Devils as the season progresses.

As far as their schedule goes, the path to the Pac 12 South isn't too grueling for the Devils.  True, they play five P12 games on the road this season, but they'll only be a decsive dog in one of them (@USC on Oct 4th).  They get both Stanford and UCLA at home AND they miss Oregon.  If there were ever a P12 schedule to reload on, this is about as good as it gets.

The bottom line is that this is still a makeover season for Todd Graham and co.  While I like the moxy of this team and I think they have intriguing pieces, I think that this is a five maybe six win team in the P12 with key matchups against UW and UCLA being toss ups.  At that output, they are a 2nd or 3rd place finisher in the South.