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the Gekko Files: Previewing Arizona State Football in 2015

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The Sun Devils are hot ... and we aren't just talking about their cheerleaders. Is 2015 the season that Todd Graham finally breaks through?

Todd Graham is looking to take the next step with his ASU Sun Devils in 2015.
Todd Graham is looking to take the next step with his ASU Sun Devils in 2015.
Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

...Ok.  I admit it.

If I were not a UW fan, I'd be a Sun Devil fan.  I like pretty much everything that ASU has going on down there in the mean streets of Tempe.

Golf?  Yup.

asu golf

Karsten Golf Course on the ASU campus

Nature?  Of course.

tempe town lake

Paddle-boarding on Tempe Town Lake at ASU

Spectacular views?  You know it.

asu girls

ASU Fans are a bedeviling sort.

The only thing missing from Arizona State's portfolio of attributes is the sustained success with periods of true breakthrough that all college football fans yearn for.   It's not for a lack of trying.

Since joining the PAC in 1978, the Sun Devils have constantly hovered near the mid to upper tier of the conference.  Their total wins over that period of time is 256 - just behind USC (301), Oregon (275), UW  and UCLA (270 each).  In fact, if you were to draw the line between the top and bottom of the PAC since 1978, you'd draw it right after ASU seeing as the next team on the list (Arizona) has only 235 wins.

That's pretty good company that ASU is keeping.  I imagine that most of you hadn't really seen ASU in that light.

That might be because all of those wins have translated into very little championship success.  The Sun Devils have only managed two Rose Bowl appearances - in 1987 and 1997 - with only one win.  Their Bowl record over that same time is 9-9.  For whatever reasons, ASU just hasn't been able to garner much momentum when it comes to posting the occasional mini-era of success.

I'm sure it has nothing to do with ASU's legendary party school status or their annual "Undie Run".  I mean, that can't be distracting at all, could it?

asu undie run

ASU's annual "Undie Run" is a party school tradition.

The good news for ASU fans is that momentum has been building in the program since Todd Graham was brought on board.  Don't be fooled by his Wonder-Woman wrist bands or his Madonna-inspired headset.  Graham is no diva.  He's a serious football coach with a vision and a plan to get there.  He's got the Sun Devils threatening the top of the division.  But are the Devils ready to take the next step?

Be careful opening today's Gekko File - its hot, hot, hot!

2014 Recap - What I Said

Predicted Div Finish 3rd
Actual Div Finish 2nd
Predicted P12 Record 5-4
Actual P12 Record 6-3

Here were some of my verbatims:

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...

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

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 ...

...they are a 2nd or 3rd place finisher in the South.

Though my projection was pretty close from a W/L standpoint (and, let it be known that I predicted the OSU upset before the season started), the truth is that ASU had a much better season than I had expected.

It almost wasn't.

The Sun Devils cruised to a pretty easy start to 2014 with three easy wins against Weber State, New Mexico and Colorado before running into a buzz saw against UCLA.  ASU got crushed on national television in what had to be the most embarrassing loss in the Todd Graham era.

In the next week, the rails almost came off the train completely as Sark and his Trojans looked to have their matchup in LA pretty well under control.  Well, at least until the world became acquainted with the term "Jael-Mary".

Thanks to the heroics of Jaelen Strong and backup QB Mike Bercovici, the Sun Devils were able to avert disaster and string together a pretty effective run (a run that would be continued by QB Taylor Kelly once he returned from his injury).  A WTF loss to the Beavers and a heart-breaker in Tucson were the only other blemishes on Graham's record for the season.  Unfortunately, both of those losses would come back to bite as the Sun Devils were ousted from the PAC 12 South Division champinoship by a game to the Arizona Wildcats.

Despite the disappointing end, the Sun Devils proved that they are a program on the rise.  The offense, even with a few blemishes, took a step forward by finishing third in the conference in scoring.  However, their overall S&P rank wasn't quite as impressive - ranking 70th in rushing and 45th overall.  In hindsight, ASU's success on offense in 2014 really hinged on great starting field position for drives, the second best turnover margin in the conference and the heroics of Jaelen Strong.

While the mediocrity of the offense was a bit of a disappointing surprise, the play of the defense was anything but. Keep in mind that Graham, who calls of the defensive plays, replaced 10 starters from 2013.  The fact that ASU wasn't a dumpster fire is a surprise by itself.  The fact that they finished a respectable 37th in overall S&P should remind us all that Todd Graham knows what he is doing.

That fact, alone, is what emboldens Arizona State fans as they collectively turn their attention to a championship run in 2015.

Previewing 2015: The Arizona State Sun Devils

The Offense
Offensive Coordinator Strengths Weaknesses Key Players Newcomers to Watch
Mike Norvell Deep Ball Attack
Tempo
Turnover Prone
OL Depth
Pass Protection
QB Mike Bercovici
WR DJ Foster
OL Christian Westerman

ATH Jason Lewis 
WR Tyler Whiley (RS)

Fraternizing with the cheerleaders is a bit cliche, don't you think Mike Bercovici?

Mike Bercovici was a part-time starter for ASU in 2014 thanks to the injury struggles of star QB Taylor Kelly.  In the 2015 version of the PAC 12, that qualifies him as one of the most experienced QBs in the conference.

Thanks in part to name-brand recognition coming from those starts, Bercovici is being tabbed as a dark-horse to challenge Jared Goff and Cody Kessler as the top QB in the PAC.  There is good reason for this.  Bercovici had success as a backup starter a year ago.  In three starts plus significant relief duty versus Arizona, he racked up a 15/4 TD to interception ration, 1500 yards and nearly 8 YPA.  Not too bad.  However, ASU only went 2-2 in those games with the USC game almost a loss but not for Jaelen Strong's heroics on the final Hail Mary play.

Personally, I"m not 100% sold on the senior.  He's a gunslinger who shows issues with accuracy and turnovers when you watch him on tape.  In addition, he's not particularly mobile which, in Todd Graham's offense, is an issue.  It isn't unfair to wonder how Bercovici will fare without receivers like Strong and TE De'Marieya Nelson - long receivers who had the catch radius to rescue some of his errant passes a season ago.  I expect it'll be feast or famine with Bercovici all season and it wouldn't shock me at all to see the talented sophomore QB Manny Wilkins get a shot.

The wide receiver situation is one of the factors that have me skeptical about Bercovici.  Without Strong, it is a somewhat pedestrian unit in terms of sheer star power.  The headliner is former RB DJ Foster.  Now as a full time receiver, think of Foster in the same light you might a James Rodgers or a Jaydon Mickens.  He's got great speed, good hands and a slipperiness that ensures he will be making plays for the Devils.  He's also no stranger to the passing game having caught 62 balls for nearly 700 yards a year ago.  Junior Cameron Smith is the only other guy here that has substantial experience, although UCLA transfer Devin Lucien - a grad transfer - certainly knows about PAC defenses.  Beyond this, you are looking at a few players who are redshirts, transfers or who only played sparingly a year ago.  I'm looking for 6'4" RS sophomore Ellis Jefferson to really break out this year.  Two of his eleven catches a year ago were for TDs.

Don't worry, ASU fans.  While I don't love their passing attack, I do like their rushing game - even with Foster and his 1000 yard season not part of the equation.  Foster's move outside opens the door for sophomore's Kalen Ballage and Demario Richard to take over the run game.  The goal in featuring the bigger, younger players is to bring more power to a run game that was mediocre - in particular in in-conference games - a year ago.   Richard will be the first guy off the bench.  The 210 lbs slasher has a surprisingly quick first step and showed great ball protection on his way to a 5.8 yard average as a freshman.  Ballage is the bigger back - more of a bruiser style - who shows a lot of willingness to initiate contact (or, at least, not to avoid it) but not yet much of an ability to break through it.  If he doesn't fill the big-back role adequately, don't be surprised if the Sun Devils tap one of their true frosh in either 230 lb Jason Lewis (assuming he plays RB) or Nick Ralston (an early enrollee out of Texas).

The ASU O-line projects with a bit of "show me" attached to it given how pedestrian they were a year ago.  One of the least talked about o-linemen in the league a year ago was ASU's senior OG Christian Westerman.  Now with a full season of starts under his belt, Westerman along with fellow senior Vi Teofilo are being talked about as perhaps the best guard tandem in the PAC.  The bigger questions surrounding this unit revolve around edge protection.  All PAC 12 first teamer Jalil Douglas and fellow starting RT Tyler Sulka (28 starts) have both graduated.  This leaves a huge hole on both edges for a team that was already poor in pass protection to begin with.  I like the fact that there are experienced players - such as junior Evan Goodman and senior William McGehee - competing for these jobs.  The truth, however, is that pass protection will be a key vulnerability for this unit no matter what, especially with a particularly immobile guy like Mike Bercovici to protect.

The Defense

Defensive Coordinator Strengths Weaknesses Key Players Newcomers to Watch
Keith Patterson Team Speed
Biltz Attack
Pass Defense
Big Play Prevention
4th Quarter
DL Viliami Latu
FS Jordan Simone
LB Antonio Longino
DE Joseph Wicker
S Jay Jay Wilson

They don't come much bigger than ASU's 380lb DL Mo Latu.

ASU has the most unique defensive philosophy in the PAC 12.  The plays are called by Todd Graham himself - a somewhat unique situation to begin with - and involve the heaviest percentage of blitzing in conference.  Last season, Graham blitzed opposing offenses more than half the time (stats I researched varied between 60-70% of the time) and resulted in an adjusted sack rate (sacks divided by sacks plus pass attempts) that ranked ASU ninth in the nation overall.  Of course, the flip side of this is that when ASU didn't get you with the sack, they tended to give up big plays.  In fact, the critical loss to OSU was a result of three long TD passes all completed against aggressive blitzes.

The strength of the ASU defense lies in the back seven.  The linebacking corps are the key.  The DEVIL position - similar to UW's BUCK - is rotated between senior Demetrious Cherry and junior Ed Boateng.  Neither is as efficient as Carl Bradford was two years ago, but both have been effective as blitzers.  Senior Antonio Longino  mans the middle of the unit and he is backed up by the light but athletic sophomore DJ Calhoun - a possible breakout candidate in 2015.  Junior Salamo Fiso took a big step last season with 83 tackles and is often cited for his precision and headiness.  The rest of the unit is comprised of a nice mix of athletes and depth that has come from some excellent recruiting.  They are all characterized by their speed, although they do tend to give up some on size compared to other teams in the PAC.

ASU's secondary returns three starters that all have their qualities.  Boundary CB Lloyd Carrington is one of my favorites.  While he didn't have eye-popping stats, he always seemed to me to be in good positions and to have an intuition for how plays developed.  Next to him is the reliable senior S Jordan Simone - an experienced if not flashy free safety who is the top returning tackler on the defense.  The other CB is returning starter Kweishi Brown.  Beyond those guys, depth gets skimpy pretty quick.  The Devils will be relying heavily on JC transfers and true frosh to help reinforce the unit.  I'll be keeping a close eye on freshman Jay Jay Wilson - a 6'3" strong safety out of Ventura.  He along with the gritty Ronald Lewis - a RS freshman making the conversion from WR - could instantly give ASU a new kind of physicality in that secondary that the current group seems to lack if they can break through this fall.

If there were an area of real concern with the ASU defense, I'd point to the d-line.  This unit was decent but not great against the run a year ago and not effective in any way in mounting its own pass rush.  It is a very small unit overall.  Junior Vili Latu anchors the unit at NT.  But at 260 lbs, he isn't as effective in absorbing blocks as much as he is in moving around the line and creating mismatches and blitz opportunities.  The two players on either side of him - Chans Cox and Tashon Smallwood - are both sophomores who have some upside but are not really experienced.  When ASU wants to get bigger, they rotate in big Mo Latu.  At roughly 380 lbs, Latu changes the look of the defense, especially when he lines up in the 3T.

When you project the ASU defense in 2015, you can't help but to be impressed with the combination of speed and aggressiveness that has been assembled.  This is a unit that will make plays.  But a lack of secondary depth and a lack of distinction in generating an organic pass rush leads me to believe that this is a team that will get burned by more than its fair share of big plays.  If ASU can't replicate its somewhat lucky feat of accomplishing a top-of-conference turnover margin, you might have a few more instances of the 2014 Oregon State game.

Predicting 2015: The Sun Devils

After two straight seasons of 10+ wins and a close call with the PAC 12 South Divisional Championship a season ago, people in and outside of Tempe are bullish on the ASU Sun Devils.  There is little doubt that Todd Graham has completely rejuvenated a program that has always been good but never been good enough.  Now with three years under his belt and his recruits all in place, it seems natural that this should be the year.

I'm not so sure about that.

ASU definitely has its strengths.  They should be a better running team than they were a year ago and I think that they have a lot of interesting pieces on defense - in particular in the linebacking corps.  But, to me, this still seems like an imbalanced team.  Their secondary depth concerns me and I don't think that they will easily be able to get away with that small defensive line as they did a year ago.  In addition, the sorting out of the offensive tackle positions is a major concern for me, especially given Bercovici's general lack of mobility.

You should also count me among those that are skeptical about Bercovici excelling as a PAC QB.  I like his experience and his arm strength, but I don't see him being as careful or efficient with the ball over the course of a season as his predecessor, Taylor Kelly, proved to be.  That's a bad look for a team that is geared to really press on turnover margin as a competitive advantage.

If there were two reasons to remain optimistic, those would be a) that Todd Graham has proven to be a great tactician and motivator and b) ASU's favorable schedule.

In fact, that ASU schedule may be the most favorable of all teams in the PAC 12.  When you look at it, the Devils only play four games on the road all season - not counting their neutral site opener versus Texas A&M.  The Sun Devils miss both Stanford (yay!) and Oregon State (shucks!) and, importantly, are one of only a few teams to have an October BYE week on the calendar.  I especially like that they'll get to play their two biggest threats for the South - USC and UCLA - at the beginning of the season when they should theoretically be at their strongest.

ASU should be a threat in the South in 2015.  I don't think that they have enough of the right pieces in place to win it outright, but I think that they will compete neck-and-neck with the SoCal schools in the race.  I expect that five or six conference wins and a second or third place finish in the South is the most likely outcome for Todd Graham and his Sun Devils.