2012 Arizona State Football Preview: Proactive Karma

TEMPE, AZ - SEPTEMBER 24: Cameron Marshall #6 of the Arizona State Sun Devils celebrates a touchdown with the fans against the University of Southern California Trojans at Sun Devil Stadium on September 24, 2011 in Tempe, Arizona. Arizona State won 43-22. (Photo by Norm Hall/Getty Images)

Todd Graham took the Arizona State job under odd circumstances and didn't handle his move in the most professional manner, but he is a good coach who inherits personnel that should take well to his schemes. Can he maneuver around a tricky schedule and an iffy schedule to get ASU back to the postseason? (And who knew that karma worked in preemptive fashion?) Related: Arizona State's complete 2012 statistical profile, including projected starters, year-to-year trends and rankings galore.

For more on ASU football, visit Arizona State blog House Of Sparky, plus Pac-12 blog Pacific Takes and SB Nation Arizona.

Team fires underachieving coach, then plucks new coach from another school. It happens many, many times every offseason. There is typically nothing notable about it unless your school is one of the two involved. But Arizona State's coaching change mutated into something more. It pulled a third school into its vortex, it eventually helped get an athletic director fired, it convinced a lot of neutral third parties to root quite hard against ASU, and it proved that karma is very, very prescient.

The timeline:

And here we are. Graham is a supremely competent coach, a young guy with a mostly young staff and a bright future. And, like Petrino when he left the Falcons in the middle of the season, his school-to-school dalliances may have limited his employment options to the point where he is likely to stay at ASU for quite a while if he wins. (And lord knows Petrino suffered no on-field karmic retribution for his jumping from lilypad to lilypad. Karma struck him in a different way.) Despite what might be a step backwards in 2012, and despite the mess that ensued in getting to this point, the future might be relatively bright for Graham and company in Tempe, once the bad smell wears off, anyway.


Related: Check out Arizona State's statistical profile.

Last Year

Here's what I said about the Sun Devils last summer:

But ... do you believe in karma? Because if so, you're getting a pretty bad vibe from an Arizona State program that, this offseason alone, saw...

Now ... Threet's replacement, massive Brock Osweiler, is solid enough ... and Lewis is but a backup Cameron Marshall (and is expected to be ready for the season anyway) ... and only Bolden is probably a true difference-maker among the players lost. But virtually every Sun Devil-based highlight this offseason centered around another player getting hurt. Is Sun Devil Stadium built on an ancient Indian burial ground? Did Dennis Erickson refuse a kiss under the mistletoe last December? Has Burfict taken too many cheapshots? Something has brought ASU some seriously bad juju, and a team that was already volatile and unpredictable, probably became a bit more so this offseason. [...]

With USC banned from the postseason, it does look like we're facing an interesting battle for the inaugural Pac-12 South title between three interesting-but-flawed teams: Arizona, Arizona State and Utah. The Sun Devils have the most experience, the most upside and the most volatility of the three. … Predicting what such a volatile team is capable of doing (and sustaining) from week to week is damn near impossible, but whatever happens to Arizona State in 2011 should be entertaining.

Well, it was certainly entertaining. Between the injuries and an incredible late-season fade, Arizona State managed to fall short of the Pac-12 South crown despite a wealth of opportunities. So maybe karma's retribution for the Todd Graham incident was proactive?

For the most part, things started well. Arizona State finished 2010 strong and hit the ground running in 2011. It entered November 6-2 overall and 4-1 in conference, but its Adj. Scores suggested that the offense was beginning to fade. In November, the defense fell apart.

First Four Games: ASU 31.9 Adj. Points per game, Opponents 26.8 (plus-5.1)
Next Four Games: ASU 28.4 Adj. Points per game, Opponents 27.0 (plus-1.4)
Next Four Games: Opponents 31.1 Adj. Points per game, ASU 28.4 (minus-2.7)

The result: an 0-4 finish to the regular season and a 4-5 finish in conference. A one-point loss at UCLA on Nov. 5 would eventually cost them a spot in the inaugural conference title game, but it was one of many frustrating defeats. The Sun Devils lost at Washington State (!) by 10 on Nov. 12, somehow fell at home to Arizona by four on Nov. 19, then wrapped up the season with another home loss (47-38 to California) and a bowl pasting at the hands of Boise State (56-24).

The 2011 season continued what previous Erickson teams had already put into motion. The Sun Devils went 1-3 in one-possession games, beating Missouri in overtime in September and losing to Illinois, UCLA and Arizona by a combined eight points. From 2008-11, ASU went 3-13 in such games. With only a .500 record in those games, Erickson is still the coach. But late-game execution cost them repeatedly. Well, that and the preemptive karma, of course.

Offense

From a national perspective, most of the words written about Todd Graham in the last six months have been focused on a narrative that has little to do with his actual coaching ability. That's both self-inflicted and a shame, as he has put together a stellar run of offensive, and overall, success. His 12 months in Pittsburgh were not particularly impressive, but despite his background as a former defensive assistant (defensive coordinator at West Virginia in 2002 and Tulsa from 2003-05), he has put mostly strong offenses on the field. In his only year as Rice's head coach, his Owls improved from 92nd to 61st in Off. S&P+, then regressed to 73rd in his absence; and in four years at Tulsa, only one of his offenses ranked worse than 26th in Off. F/+. He found a square-peg-round-hole issue at Pitt, but his offensive philosophy, and that of his young coordinator Mike Norvell, should fit well with the personnel they have found in Tempe.

Though he will still wing the ball around when he has to, Graham's version of the spread has focused more on the run than other versions. Tulsa's 2008 offense was spectacularly weird in this regard: the Golden Hurricane ran the ball 71 percent of the time on standard downs (ninth-most in the country) but ran just 27 percent of the time on passing downs (84th); in 2009, the script flipped -- Tulsa ran 57 percent on standard downs (77th) and 35 percent on passing downs (45th). It seems he and young offensive coordinator Mike Norvell will attempt whatever the personnel allows them to attempt. If so, expect a heavy dose of standard downs rushing from ASU in 2012. Because the Sun Devils might have the best backfield in the Pac-12 (this side of Eugene, at least), and one of the best in ASU history.

At the running back position, Graham and Norvell inherit senior Cameron Marshall (1,050 rushing yards, plus-18.3 Adj. POE, 24 receptions), four-star sophomore Deantre Lewis (who missed last season after his gunshot injury), shifty junior Kyle Middlebrooks, powerful late-bloomer James Morrison and, perhaps most intriguing, two four-star newcomers: junior college transfer Marion Grice and freshman D.J. Foster. Only Marshall has truly proven himself over the long haul, but if just two of the aforementioned five other backs are ready to play featured roles this fall, that's all ASU will need. Of course, a shaky line could negate backfield advantages. Of the seven linemen who had started more than one career game by the end of last season, only two return: guard Andrew Sampson (22 starts) and tackle Evan Finkenberg (20). Sophomore tackle Tyler Sulka started one game last season and leads an interesting batch of youngsters, but youngsters are, by definition, young. We'll see if they can get up to speed and get out of Cam Marshall's way.

A good running game would help immensely, as there is a rush of new blood in the passing game. Quarterback Brock Osweiler left early for the pros (here's where I make my final "Hey, did you know he is 6'8?" joke), and a foursome of prolific receivers are gone as well -- Gerell Robinson, Mike Willie, Aaron Pflugrad and George Bell combined to catch 175 passes for 2,728 yards last year. Like UCLA, ASU underwent a three-way competition for the starting quarterback job this spring, and like UCLA, the spring ended with no winner. It appears that sophomore Mike Bercovici has a slight edge, but redshirt freshman Michael Eubank is the future.

Gerell Robinson was one of college football's more underrated receivers last year (12.4 yards per target is ridiculously good). So who returns? We start with kick returner extraordinaire Jamal Miles, an interesting talent who just couldn't find a good role in the passing game last fall. ASU used him in a sideline-to-sideline role, attempting to leverage his quickness into big gains; but he averaged only 6.0 yards per catch, which would be pretty poor even if combined with a 100 percent catch rate (Miles' catch rate was only 71 percent). That he scored touchdowns on two kick returns and a punt return show his potential, but it has not translated to offense yet. Beyond that, upperclassmen like senior A.J. Pickens, juniors Rashad Ross and J.J. Holliday, former walk-on Kevin Ozier and junior college transfer Alonzo Agwuenu will attempt to in some way replicate last year's seniors' lost production.

One other change to the ASU offense should become visible immediately: For the first time in quite a while, tight ends and H-backs will play a prevalent role. That could be very good news for, among other players, junior Chris Coyle, who has given hints of strong blocking, catching and running capabilities.

Defense

The 3-4 defense has been around for quite a while, obviously, but it has seemingly picked up steam at the college level in recent seasons. Todd Graham was a bit ahead of the curve in that regard, adopting the 3-4 as part of a multiple front at Tulsa. He employs what is now called the Devilbacker -- the DE/OLB hybrid often featured in a 3-4 front, which he called a Pantherbacker at Pitt, naturally -- in diverse ways and switches from a 4-3 to 3-4 look from play to play. The defense is designed to attack and confuse, something ASU did not do very well in 2011.

ASU's defense was at one point a strength of the Erickson regime. The Sun Devils ranked between 24th and 32nd in Def. F/+ between 2007-09 (which was good considering the offense fell to 102nd in Off. F/+ in both 2008 and 2009) but fell to 40th in 2010 and 58th in 2011. The defensive line couldn't generate a pass rush without blitzing, the supposed anchor of the defense (middle linebacker Vontaze Burfict) was unstable and inconsistent, and the secondary encountered a few too many glitches. With the loss of two starting linemen and last year's top four linebackers (including Burfict, who left a year early), now is a good time to do some rearranging in the front seven, but a couple of old names might determine whether ASU is able to avoid further (temporary) regression in 2012.

Linebacker Brandon Magee returns after missing the 2011 season with injury. He was solid, if unspectacular, in 2010, and he will be counted on to make some plays and lead the defense while Graham figures out what he has in former reserves like Kipeli Koniseti and Grandville Taylor, each juniors. Meanwhile, a healthy Junior Onyeali could be perfect in the Devilbacker role. A severely undersized end in a 4-3 (5'11, 245), Onyeali came out of nowhere to record 6.5 sacks in 2010 but fought injuries for most of 2011. If he and Carl Bradford (3.5 tackles for loss in 2011) can do damage, the defense could at least survive the transition. Even without Onyeali and Bradford serving as full-time linemen the line is certainly experienced but will need solid production from tackles Will Sutton and Corey Adams and end Davon Coleman.

If nothing else, the secondary should be decent. A relative, if inconsistent, strength last year, it features a pair of playmaking corners (Osahon Irabor and Deveron Carr combined for one pick and 16 passes broken up in 2011), though Carr still has some work to do in fending off junior Robert Nelson for a starting job. Both starting safeties are gone, but in junior Alden Darby and seniors Keelan Johnson and Kevin Ayers, co-cordinators Paul Randolph and Ron West have some experience with which to work.

Defining Success

Setting expectations in the first year of a new coaching regime is always difficult, but the schedule may have set the bar for ASU fans in 2012. ASU is initially favored in just a single game this fall, with one other game a pick 'em and three others with a spread of 2.5 points or fewer. Some of the lines (plus-1.5 at home versus Washington State, plus-2.5 at home versus UCLA, and plus-1.5 at Colorado, to name three) are questionable, however. A bowl game might be a stretch, but I'll set the bar at five wins instead of, you know, one.

Prognosis

Todd Graham is quickly making his mark on the Arizona State program. Almost every Arizona State defender lost weight this offseason, which melds well with the thought of him bringing more speed to the table on the defensive side of the ball; plus, Graham signed eight junior college transfers. He has no interest in taking on a three-year (or more) rebuilding project, and that's good because Arizona State doesn't need that much rebuilding. Despite low 2012 expectations, the Sun Devils should still have a strong run game and a solid pass defense. If karma takes it easy on the Sun Devils, a bowl in 2012 is still a reachable goal, a 2013 squad that returns about 15 starters or so could do very good things.

For more on ASU football, visit Arizona State blog House Of Sparky, plus Pac-12 blog Pacific Takes and SB Nation Arizona.

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