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1. Todd Graham is home (no, really!) (probably!)
Arizona State head coach Todd Graham is a man in a hurry. His off-the-field caricature tells you that, as does the team he puts on the field. In an effort to find the right job (for the right salary), Graham jumped from Rice (2006) to Tulsa (2007-10) to Pittsburgh (2011) to Arizona State (2012). Including high schools -- Midwest City (OK), Carl Albert and Allen (TX) -- he has been a head coach in six places, and in three of them, he stayed just one season. He earned his opportunistic reputation.
His moves, however, have parallels with his coaching personality. He moves quickly and aggressively, and so does his team. Arizona State played at a fast pace on offense and racked up more than nine tackles for loss per game, most in the country.
Really, it isn't hard to see what he saw when he jumped to ASU, which appears to have survived a year with him still employed. Graham inherited a roster faster than any he had inherited before (and let's face it -- he's inherited a lot of rosters in his career), and he was able to quickly put an entertaining product on the field. He took Dennis Erickson's recruits and added just enough order in the system for them to thrive (and almost thrive quite a bit more). A midseason funk limited both the team's ranking and achievement levels, but Graham's Sun Devils still came within two points of the Pac-12 South crown in his first season. And in 2013, they should have the experience and familiarity they didn't have this time last year. Survive perhaps the most brutal early slate in the country, and ASU could win a lot of games over the final two months of the season.
It's easy to mock Graham for his propensity for lilypad jumping. Hell, I based last year's preview around bad karma. And for all we know, he'll have jumped to another job by this time next year. But everything about the Arizona State program -- the heat, the proximity to fast, angry players, the personnel he inherited -- fit perfectly with Graham's football ideals. This probably won't be Graham's last job, but it's hard to imagine a better fit.
2012 Schedule & Results
|Record: 8-5 | Adj. Record: 11-2 | Final F/+ Rk: 41|
|Date||Opponent||Score||W-L||Adj. Score||Adj. W-L|
|30-Aug||Northern Arizona||63-6||W||41.6 - 18.0||W|
|8-Sep||Illinois||45-14||W||46.4 - 24.6||W|
|15-Sep||at Missouri||20-24||L||23.6 - 19.9||W|
|22-Sep||Utah||37-7||W||40.0 - 19.0||W|
|29-Sep||at California||27-17||W||20.3 - 15.8||W|
|11-Oct||at Colorado||51-17||W||32.2 - 18.6||W|
|18-Oct||Oregon||21-43||L||28.7 - 19.6||W|
|27-Oct||UCLA||43-45||L||33.2 - 32.3||W|
|3-Nov||at Oregon State||26-36||L||21.9 - 24.2||L|
|10-Nov||at USC||17-38||L||16.7 - 25.1||L|
|17-Nov||Washington State||46-7||W||33.5 - 12.8||W|
|23-Nov||at Arizona||41-34||W||27.3 - 22.4||W|
|29-Dec||Navy||62-28||W||50.2 - 22.7||W|
|Points Per Game||38.4||15||24.3||41|
|Adj. Points Per Game||32.0||38||21.2||15|
2. A brief slump and a perfect vision
In the end, Arizona State was basically just a top-40 team. The Sun Devils ranked 41st in the F/+ rankings, three spots behind Arizona and one spot ahead of one of Graham's former teams (Tulsa). That's certainly decent for a first year on the job, but it was only a marginal improvement over ASU's No. 44 ranking in 2011, Dennis Erickson's last season in charge. The drag in the rankings came mostly from an early-November slump, however ASU spent much of the season playing at a top-30 level.
Adj. Points Per Game (first 7 games): ASU 33.3, Opponent 19.4 (plus-13.9)
Adj. Points Per Game (next 3 games): Opponent 27.2, ASU 23.9 (minus-3.3)
Adj. Points Per Game (last 3 games): ASU 37.0, Opponent 19.3 (plus-17.7)
Like UCLA, ASU fell into a funk then surged out of it. But thanks to a two-point home loss to the Bruins in one of the season's most entertaining games, ASU finished 5-4 in conference, one game away from the division crown. Following the loss, the Sun Devils played their only two truly poor games of the season: losses at Oregon State and USC. But they responded in style, destroying Washington State, holding off Arizona in Tucson, and absolutely humbling Navy in a name-your-score game (as in, ASU could have scored 90 if it wanted to). And in the end, they were basically a Missouri goal line stand and a late UCLA field goal away from 11-2.
Navy's defense was absolutely awful, but rarely will you see a game in which an offense can almost literally do whatever it wants like ASU did in the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl. The Sun Devils scored on their first nine possessions of the game with drives of eight plays for 75 yards, eight for 60, nine for 69, four for 55, two for 80, four for 66, nine for 93, three for 64 and one for 33. ASU averaged just 4.1 yards per play over its final three garbage-time drives and still averaged 9.5 for the game. Absurd.
The Navy game took place against an overmatched defense, but it also gave us a perfect hint at what ASU wants to accomplish. The Sun Devils used run-and-catch threats, lined anybody up anywhere, and ran their offense with an interesting, efficient run-pass threat in Taylor Kelly. Meanwhile, they sacked Navy quarterback Keenan Reynolds four times in 15 pass attempts and logged 11 tackles for loss in 67 plays. (Two garbage-time TDs and a kick return touchdown prevented what could have easily been a 62-7 final score.)
Most Pac-12 teams are better than Navy, but the game showed us Graham's vision. And in 2013, with such an experienced squad, we could see more of it.
|Q1 Rk||15||1st Down Rk||52|
|Q2 Rk||75||2nd Down Rk||39|
|Q3 Rk||57||3rd Down Rk||51|
3. A little bit of passing downs magic
The offensive vision of Graham and offensive coordinator Mike Norvell is an interesting one. There were dual threats everywhere in 2012, and we should see more of this in 2013. Marion Grice had 103 carries and 54 pass targets; D.J. Foster had 102 and 51. Jamal Miles had 52 targets and 14 carries. Taylor Kelly attempted 390 passes (including sacks) and 103 carries.
For much of 2012 though, the vision for this offense was more interesting than the product. With an almost perfectly average run-pass split, ASU was also almost perfectly average on standard downs. It was up to Kelly to bail the Sun Devils out on passing downs quite a few times per game, but he usually managed to do just that. Barely a top-60 offense on standard downs, ASU was almost top-30 on passing downs. Kelly either threw longer passes to Rashad Ross, dumped to a running back, or took off running. And it frequently worked.
It's difficult to rely on passing downs success for too long however, so it would certainly behoove ASU to improve on first-and-ten and avoid too many second and third-and-longs.
Note: players in bold below are 2013 returnees. Players in italics are questionable with injury/suspension.
|Taylor Kelly||6'2, 203||Jr.||** (5.4)||241||359||3,039||67.1%||29||9||31||7.9%||7.3|
|Michael Eubank||6'6, 246||So.||**** (5.8)||34||54||330||63.0%||4||3||7||11.5%||4.4|
|Mike Bercovici||6'1, 202||So.||*** (5.7)|
|Marion Grice||TB||6'0, 204||Sr.||**** (5.9)||103||679||6.6||5.2||11||+19.5|
|Taylor Kelly||QB||6'2, 203||Jr.||** (5.4)||103||689||6.7||4.8||1||+14.9|
|D.J. Foster||RB||5'11, 199||So.||**** (5.9)||102||493||4.8||4.0||2||-2.8|
|Michael Eubank||QB||6'6, 246||So.||**** (5.8)||56||283||5.1||3.9||4||+0.7|
|Deantre Lewis||RB||5'11, 188||Jr.||**** (5.8)||11||39||3.5||3.0||0||-1.7|
|Richard Smith||WR||5'9, 165||So.||*** (5.7)||5||29||5.8||4.0||0||+0.3|
4. The value of a grinder
We hear a lot about the value of a runner who can absorb and inflict contact between the tackles, a guy who can soften up the interior of a defense. In theory, if you can force a defense to pay attention to the middle of the field, you can catch it a little flat-footed and get an extra half-step when you go outside.
But what if that grinder is only decent at grinding? Cam Marshall led ASU in carries despite the fact that he was easily the least productive runner carrying the ball. A stout dude at 5'11, 215, Marshall was indeed decent between the tackles, but his value is dependent on your view of symbolism versus production.
On paper, Marshall was only decent, but did the threat of Marshall between the tackles positively affect ASU's production elsewhere? Did his ability to draw contact help to wear down a defense late? (Since ASU's most productive quarter was by far the first, and since ASU was barely top-60 in the final 45 minutes, I lean toward "no.")
This is a relevant topic, simply because Marshall is now gone. Marion Grice and D.J. Foster, far more explosive backs, will get more carries in Marshall's absence, and on a pure per-carry, on-paper basis, this is a good thing. Plus, at 205, Grice isn't demonstrably smaller than Marshall. Throw in running back-turned shooting victim-turned cornerback-turned running back Deantre Lewis, and you have a backfield that could rather easily be as good or better than last year's. Unless there is extra value in a grinder.
|Chris Coyle||WR-H||6'3, 240||Sr.||*** (5.5)||72||57||696||79.2%||9.7||18.4%||70.8%||9.7||85.2|
|Marion Grice||TB||6'0, 204||Sr.||**** (5.9)||54||41||425||75.9%||7.9||13.8%||48.1%||7.8||52.0|
|D.J. Foster||RB||5'11, 199||So.||**** (5.9)||51||38||533||74.5%||10.5||13.0%||58.8%||10.5||65.3|
|Kevin Ozier||WR-Y||6'2, 200||Sr.||NR||33||21||324||63.6%||9.8||8.4%||69.7%||9.5||39.7|
|Richard Smith||WR-Z||5'9, 165||So.||*** (5.7)||19||14||141||73.7%||7.4||4.8%||73.7%||8.3||17.3|
|Alonzo Agwuenu||WR-X||6'4, 212||Sr.||*** (5.6)||13||11||115||84.6%||8.8||3.3%||53.8%||9.0||14.1|
|Kyle Middlebrooks||WR-Z||5'9, 186||Sr.||*** (5.6)||4||1||6||25.0%||1.5||1.0%||75.0%||1.2||0.7|
|Darwin Rogers||TE||6'4, 244||Sr.||** (5.4)||3||3||31||100.0%||10.3||0.8%||100.0%||6.2||3.8|
|Gary Chambers||WR-Y||6'3, 200||So.||** (5.2)|
|Marcus Washington||WR-H||6'0, 208||Jr.||*** (5.7)|
|Blake Covey||WR-Y||6'0, 177||So.||NR|
|Billy Davis||WR-H||6'4, 215||So.||NR|
|Frederick Gammage||WR-Z||5'10, 168||RSFr.||NR|
|Kody Kohl||TE||6'3, 251||RSFr.||** (5.4)|
|Joseph Morris||WR||6'4, 200||Jr.||*** (5.5)|
|De'Marieya Nelson||TE||6'3, 240||Jr.||** (5.4)|
|Jaelen Strong||WR||6'4, 205||So.||*** (5.6)|
|Ronald Lewis||WR||6'0, 180||Fr.||*** (5.7)|
|Jordan Gaston||WR-X||6'1, 185||Fr.||NR|
5. The value of a field stretcher
We hear a lot about the value of a receiver who can stretch the field, a guy who can test the perimeter of a defense. In theory, if you can force a defense to pay attention to the long ball, you can open up the middle of the field for easier passes.
But what if a deep threat is only decent at being a deep threat? Rashad Ross led ASU in targets despite the fact that he managed only a 51 percent catch rate. His per-target average of 8.4 yards was decent for a No. 1 receiver, but take out two games (he caught 9-for-11 passes for 226 yards and four touchdowns versus Utah and Navy), and his production drops to an unacceptable 6.2 yards per target with a 45 percent catch rate.
On paper, Ross was only decent, at best. But did the threat of Ross over the top positively affect ASU's production elsewhere? Did his ability to draw attention from the safeties help to open up opponents to bigger gains with other players? (Since ASU's passing downs production was decent, I lean toward "yes." Or at least maybe.)
This is a relevant topic, simply because Ross is now gone. And unlike the running back position, there is not a wealth of obvious replacement options. Drops (both by Ross and others) hurt this unit a decent amount, and of the returning wideouts, only one (Kevin Ozier) averaged better than even 12.2 yards per catch last year. They have efficiency options in tight end (and standard downs favorite) Chris Coyle and the running backs. And if at least one of the three incoming junior college receivers is quickly ready to fit into the rotation, they have a receiving corps that at least has the potential to be as good or better than last year's. Unless there is extra value in a field stretcher.
|Evan Finkenberg||LT||6'4, 293||Sr.||*** (5.6)||33 career starts|
|Andrew Simpson||RG||32 career starts|
|Jamil Douglas||RT||6'4, 303||Jr.||*** (5.5)||13 career starts|
|Kody Koebensky||C||6'3, 290||Sr.||*** (5.5)||13 career starts|
|Brice Schwab||RT||13 career starts|
|Vi Teofilo||RG||6'3, 314||So.||*** (5.5)||3 career starts|
|Tyler Sulka||RT||6'5, 277||Jr.||** (5.4)||1 career start|
|Sil Ajawara||LG||6'4, 297||Jr.||*** (5.7)|
|Evan Goodman||LT||6'4, 306||So.||**** (5.8)|
|Devin Goodman||LG||6'1, 279||So.||*** (5.5)|
|Christian Westerman||RG||6'4, 298||So.||**** (6.0)|
|Stephon McCray||C||6'3, 299||RSFr.||*** (5.6)|
|Nick Kelly||C||6'3, 274||So.||*** (5.5)|
|Q1 Rk||8||1st Down Rk||13|
|Q2 Rk||33||2nd Down Rk||21|
|Q3 Rk||45||3rd Down Rk||29|
6. A drastic change
In 2011, ASU opponents were more than happy to throw on a Sun Devils defense that ranked 63rd in Adj. Sack Rate and 40th in Passing S&P+. In 2012, opponents found the going much, much more difficult in that regard. With a reasonably undersized front line, ASU was still only decent against the run (66th in Rushing S&P+ in 2011, 54th in 2012), but the pass defense improved dramatically, primarily because of extreme disruption up front. ASU improved to ninth in Adj. Sack Rate and recorded a sack about once for every seven passing downs pass attempts. With flexibility in their approximate 3-4/3-3-5 system (the Devilbacker position will line up as a fourth lineman sometimes, and the SPUR linebacker is often a fifth defensive back), the Sun Devils were able to attack from anywhere, but they were also able to generate significant pressure with just their front three. All but one starter in the front seven returns, as does the entire second string. There are some losses to account for in the secondary, but this defense's personality isn't going to change at all. It was fast, aggressive and fun last year, and it will be again this year.
|Rivals||GP||Tackles||% of Team||TFL||Sacks||Int||PBU||FF||FR|
|Davon Coleman||DE||6'2, 276||Sr.||*** (5.6)||13||54.0||7.2%||11||5||0||0||0||1|
|Will Sutton||NT||6'1, 288||Sr.||*** (5.7)||12||52.0||7.0%||23.5||13||0||5||3||0|
|Jaxon Hood||DT||6'0, 287||So.||*** (5.5)||13||19.5||2.6%||4||3||0||0||0||0|
|Junior Onyeali||DE||6'0, 241||Sr.||**** (5.8)||13||13.5||1.8%||8||6||0||2||1||1|
|Gannon Conway||DE||6'4, 261||Sr.||NR||10||7.5||1.0%||1||1||0||0||0||0|
|Jake Sheffield||NT||6'3, 272||Sr.||*** (5.5)||9||7.5||1.0%||0||0||0||0||0||0|
|Mo Latu||DT||6'3, 338||So.||**** (5.8)|
|Sean O'Grady||DT||6'3, 244||So.||** (5.4)|
|Brayden Gazlay||DT||6'1, 280||So.||NR|
|Marcus Hardison||DE||6'5, 290||Jr.||**** (5.8)|
|Demetrius Cherry||DE||6'6, 275||Jr.||*** (5.5)|
|Corey Smith||DE||6'7, 260||Fr.||*** (5.7)|
|Kisima Jagne||DE||6'5, 251||Fr.||*** (5.7)|
7. Swarm, swarm, swarm
Tackle Will Sutton was an outright revelation in his first season under defensive coordinator Paul Randolph. In his first two seasons, he had recorded 8.5 tackles for loss. In 2012, he had seven against Colorado and California alone. Instead of occupying blockers like a nose tackle in a three-man line is usually expected to do, Sutton was too busy blowing by them. He had more tackles for loss (23.5) than BYU's Kyle Van Noy (22.0), more than UCLA's Anthony Barr (21.0), more than Texas A&M's Damontre Moore (21.0). He had the same number as Jadeveon Clowney. Again, he's a nose tackle.
But what made ASU so intriguing last year was that the shop-wrecking went beyond Sutton. Remove Sutton's 23.5 tackles for loss from the mix, and ASU still had more TFLs than 100 of 124 FBS programs. Devilbacker Carl Bradford had 20.5, SPUR linebacker Chris Young had 14.0, weakside linebacker Brandon Magee had 12.5, end Davon Coleman had 11.0, and rush end Junior Onyeali had 8.0. ASU was in the backfield at will last year.
Now, if you got out of your own backfield, then you could find some room to run against ASU, especially on the ground. The Sun Devils ranked just 67th in Rushing PPP+, after all. And like the offense, they struggled mightily in the red zone. There is a downside to trading size for speed. But the upside was worth it for ASU in 2012.
|Rivals||GP||Tackles||% of Team||TFL||Sacks||Int||PBU||FF||FR|
|Carl Bradford||DEVIL||6'1, 241||Jr.||*** (5.7)||13||69.5||9.3%||20.5||11.5||1||4||3||2|
|Chris Young||SPUR||6'0, 233||Sr.||*** (5.5)||13||67.5||9.0%||14||2||1||4||1||0|
|Steffon Martin||SAM||6'1, 236||Sr.||*** (5.7)||13||21.5||2.9%||6.5||1||0||0||0||1|
|Anthony Jones||SPUR||6'1, 212||Sr.||*** (5.7)||11||20.5||2.7%||1||0||1||1||0||0|
|Grandville Taylor||WILL||6'0, 221||Sr.||NR||13||15.5||2.1%||1||0||0||0||0||0|
|Carlos Mendoza||WILL||6'1, 219||RSFr.||*** (5.6)||3||6.0||0.8%||1||0||2||0||1||0|
|Kipeli Koniseti||DEVIL||6'2, 235||Sr.||** (5.1)||12||5.0||0.7%||0||0||0||0||0||0|
|Deantre Lewis||SPUR||5'11, 188||Jr.||**** (5.8)||9||3.0||0.4%||0||0||0||0||0||0|
|Lucas Revelle||SAM||6'2, 222||So.||NR|
|Salamo Fiso||SAM||6'0, 228||RSFr.||*** (5.7)|
|Matthew Rowe||WILL||6'1, 219||RSFr.||*** (5.6)|
|Eriquel Florence||LB||6'1, 235||Jr.||*** (5.5)|
|Antonio Longino||LB||6'3, 225||So.||*** (5.7)|
|Chans Cox||DEVIL||6'3, 225||Fr.||**** (5.9)|
|Viliami Latu||LB||6'2, 225||Fr.||**** (5.8)|
|Rivals||GP||Tackles||% of Team||TFL||Sacks||Int||PBU||FF||FR|
|Alden Darby||BS||5'11, 192||Sr.||** (5.2)||13||66.5||8.9%||5.5||2||3||4||1||1|
(E. Michigan 2011)
|CB||6'0, 169||Sr.||**** (5.9)||11||45.5||7.3%||2||0||1||7||0||0|
|Osahon Irabor||CB||5'11, 181||Sr.||**** (5.8)||13||33.5||4.5%||0||0||1||13||1||0|
|Robert Nelson||CB||5'11, 169||Sr.||** (4.9)||13||14.5||1.9%||1||0||3||3||0||0|
|Ezekiel Bishop||FS||5'11, 194||So.||*** (5.6)||9||8.5||1.1%||0||0||0||0||0||0|
|Shane McCullen||BS||6'2, 200||Sr.||*** (5.6)||13||7.0||0.9%||1||0||0||0||1||0|
|Viliami Moeakiola||FS||6'0, 209||RSFr.||*** (5.6)||4||3.5||0.5%||0||0||1||0||0||0|
|Lloyd Carrington||CB||6'0, 188||Jr.||*** (5.5)|
|Rashad Wadood||CB||5'11, 186||So.||*** (5.5)|
|Luke Williams||FS||6'3, 198||So.||NR|
|Damarious Randall||DB||6'0, 185||Jr.||*** (5.5)|
|Solomon Means||DB||6'1, 170||So.||** (5.4)|
8. Seniors everywhere
Graham signed ten junior college transfers -- including six defenders -- in his 25-man recruiting class. That might be a little forward-thinking on his part, because while ASU might not need much help in 2013, it might need quite a bit in 2014. The Sun Devils could start as many as eight to nine seniors on defense this fall, with seniors playing key backup roles as well. Senior corners Robert Nelson and UCLA-by-way-of-EMU transfer Marlon Pollard should help to replace Deveron Carr (Rashad Wadood, who missed last season with injury, could play a larger role in that regard), senior pass rush specialist Junior Onyeali will feature in the rotation (as long as off-the-field issues don't prevent him from doing so), senior linebacker Kipeli Koniseti had a lovely spring, etc. Junior college transfers are usually quick-fix guys, but in this case, there might be a one-year delay on that quick fix.
|Taylor Kelly||6'2, 203||Jr.||8||37.9||2||0||7||87.5%|
|Alex Garoutte||6'1, 195||Sr.||90||61.2||35||38.9%|
|Alex Garoutte||6'1, 195||Sr.||59-60||5-8||62.5%||1-3||33.3%|
|Jon Mora||6'1, 192||Jr.||1-2||9-11||81.8%||0-1||0.0%|
|Richard Smith||PR||5'9, 165||So.||3||3.3||0|
|Special Teams F/+||66|
|Field Goal Pct||82|
|Kick Returns Avg||50|
|Punt Returns Avg||71|
9. The king of the short-yardage punt
Technically, Taylor Kelly is ASU's returning punter, and at 37.9 yards per punt, I feel comfortable in saying he was the best quarterback-punter in the country last year. (There should be an award for that.) But primary punter Josh Hubner's absence could be felt on a special teams unit that relied heavily on net punting. For that matter, Rashad Ross' absence could hurt in the kick return game more than the passing game. And the place-kicking could certainly stand to improve a bit.
2013 Schedule & Projection Factors
|5-Oct||vs. Notre Dame||8|
|31-Oct||at Washington State||97|
|Five-Year F/+ Rk||48|
|Two-Year Recruiting Rk||32|
|TO Margin/Adj. TO Margin*||+6 / +3.2|
|Approx. Ret. Starters (Off. / Def.)||14 (6, 8)|
10. I'm buying
Obviously both the run offense (a little) and run defense (a lot) could stand to improve in 2013. And I want to be careful about heaping too many platitudes on a team that ranked 41st last year, even if it was tremendously fun to watch. But if you couldn't tell, I'm buying ASU stock right now, at least for 2013. Taylor Kelly is efficient and fun, the running backs are strong, Chris Coyle is efficient, and the defense is ridiculously aggressive and entertaining. Plus, there is an overall level of experience this year that ASU simply didn't have 12 months ago.
But wow, that schedule.
In a four-week span early in the year, Arizona State will play both of last year's Rose Bowl participants, host USC, then head to Texas to face defending BCS runner-up Notre Dame on a neutral field. That's ridiculous. ASU could be a legitimate top-25 or top-30 team and start the season either 1-4 or 2-3.
Survive that stretch, and there are wins aplenty available: Colorado, the Washington schools (the better one at home), Utah, Arizona at home, Oregon State at home ... wins aplenty. Start 2-3, and we could eventually see ASU's first nine-win or better season since 2007. And with the bloodbath that could be the South division race, a 6-3 conference record could be enough to win the South for ASU this time around.