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Arizona State’s Todd Graham can build coaches, but what about a program?

The Sun Devils themselves aren’t as impressive as Graham’s coaching tree.

NCAA Football: Texas Tech at Arizona State Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

This preview originally published May 25 and has since been updated.

Some guys are great facilitators.

  • Hayden Fry took Iowa to 14 bowls and engineered two top-10 finishes but is known for a coaching tree that features Bill Snyder, Barry Alvarez, and a wide array of Stoopses.
  • Hal Mumme took Kentucky to back-to-back bowls for the first time in 15 years but is remembered for his air raid disciples: Mike Leach, Dana Holgorsen, etc.
  • Former Miami and North Carolina head coach Butch Davis hired a host of future head coaches — Chuck Pagano, Greg Schiano, Rob Chudzinski, Randy Shannon, Mario Cristobal, Curtis Johnson, Everett Withers — but oversaw just one top-10 finish and one NFL playoff bid himself.
  • Mike Bellotti won 116 games with three top-10 finishes at Oregon, but his coaching tree shows he might have been better at prepping others than helping himself. He hired Washington’s Chris Petersen as his receivers coach, he named future Tampa Bay Bucs head coach Dirk Koetter as his offensive coordinator in 1996, and he brought in a New Hampshire assistant named Chip Kelly in 2007.

Graham has had a fine career for himself. The 52-year-old has been a head coach for 11 seasons, and while he had the reputation of a mover — his first four seasons took place at four different schools — he has won 88 games, generated three ranked finishes, and won at least 10 games five times. He has had only three losing seasons.

At some point, however, he might become more known for the coaches he hired than for the games he won.

  • At Rice, he hired Major Applewhite (now head man at Houston) as his offensive coordinator and David Beaty (Kansas’ head coach) as his receivers coach.
  • At Tulsa, he brought in Gus Malzahn as offensive co-coordinator, and after Malzahn left, he brought in future SMU head coach Chad Morris. Malzahn just lured Graham’s 2016 offensive coordinator, Chip Lindsey, to Auburn.
  • Memphis head coach Mike Norvell spent nine years under Graham, moving from Tulsa grad assistant to Pitt offensive co-coordinator to Arizona State coordinator. Norvell brought Chip Long, Graham’s tight ends coach and recruiting coordinator, to Memphis as offensive coordinator. The pairing worked well enough that Long became Notre Dame’s OC after one season.
  • Jay Norvell joined Graham’s staff in 2016 before landing the Nevada job.

That’s six current college head coaches, plus likely future head men like Long and Lindsey. Graham’s newest offensive coordinator, former Alabama receivers coach Billy Napier, is regarded as quite the up-and-comer, too. Graham has former head coaches like Phil Bennett and Dave Christensen on the staff as well.

This is one hell of a coaching tree, one that will continue to blossom. And Graham’s barely been a head coach for a decade! Working under Graham means learning strong organizational principles and a system based on speed and aggression. With those basics, you can go in a lot of directions.

Of course, if you earn the reputation of molding exciting assistants, your reward is ... having to hire a lot more of them.

Two of Graham’s three losing seasons, by the way, happened in the last two years. From 20-7 in 2013-14, ASU has fallen to 11-14 since. The Sun Devils have regressed in almost perfectly linear fashion:

  • S&P+: eighth in 2013, 25th in 2014, 49th in 2015, 83rd in 2016
  • Offensive S&P+: 13th in 2013, 24th in 2014, 26th in 2015, 56th in 2016
  • Defensive S&P+: 15th in 2013, 41st in 2014, 81st in 2015, 114th in 2016

The offense has fallen, and the defense has vanished. The former can be explained in part by assistant coaching turnover; the latter, though, is a bit of an indictment — Graham, a former defensive coordinator himself, hasn’t lost a ton of defensive assistants. He’s either made the wrong hires or hasn’t recruited the right guys.

The ASU offense should be exciting in 2017; leading rusher Demario Richard, leading receiver N’Keal Harry, and flex guy Kalen Ballage (last year’s No. 2 rusher and No. 3 receiver) return, as do six linemen with starting experience. Three exciting transfers become eligible, and Graham and Napier have a pool of four semi-experienced quarterbacks. A return to the Off. S&P+ top 30 is conceivable.

The defense, however, could determine Graham’s fate. Coaches rarely survive three consecutive years of regression. The Sun Devils return lots of juniors and seniors on D, including attackers like end JoJo Wicker and linebacker DJ Calhoun, and Graham brought in Bennett, a seasoned coordinator. The good news is that a fourth straight year of defensive regression is nearly impossible.

2016 in review

2016 ASU statistical profile.

Graham squads are fast, confident, and assertive. His 2016 ASU team was flawed from the start, but against lesser competition, that didn’t matter too much. When the schedule got more difficult, however, the Sun Devils had no answers.

  • First 4 games (4-0): Avg. percentile performance: 61% (~top 50) | Avg. yards per play: Opp 6.6, ASU 6.3 (minus-0.3) | Avg. score: ASU 49, Opp 34 (plus-15)
  • Next 4 games (1-3): Avg. percentile performance: 39% (~top 80) | Avg. yards per play: Opp 6.3, ASU 4.0 (minus-2.3) | Avg. score: Opp 35, ASU 23 (minus-12)
  • Last 4 games (0-4): Avg. percentile performance: 17% (~top 105) | Avg. yards per play: Opp 8.4, ASU 5.1 (minus-3.3) | Avg. score: Opp 51, ASU 29 (minus-22)

Even early in the year, during tight wins over teams like UTSA and Cal, the defense was giving up a scary number of big plays. When the competition improved, the big plays became deadly. IsoPPP measures the magnitude of an offense’s successful plays, and ASU ranked 128th out of 128 FBS teams in IsoPPP allowed. If the Sun Devils weren’t creating havoc, they were getting gashed.

Meanwhile, quarterback Manny Wilkins dealt with ailments and was replaced by a couple different freshman quarterbacks. The run game vanished, which put far too much pressure on the QB of the week.

This is all a very bad combination, and after semi-respectable results — a 41-20 loss to USC, a 23-20 win over UCLA, a 37-32 loss to Wazzu — ASU imploded. This was a really bad team in November. Some shuffling on the coaching staff was warranted.


Arizona State offensive radar

Full advanced stats glossary.

Despite his defensive background, Graham’s teams have been far more likely to excel on offense than defense through the years. Of his 11 offenses, six have ranked 26th or better in Off. S&P+, and only two have ranked outside of the top 60.

The Sun Devils ranked 56th in 2016, dragged down by Wilkins’ injury issues. When he was healthy, ASU was still limited by an iffy run game, but the passing game was at least dangerous. Freshmen Dillon Sterling-Cole and Brady White (combined: 51 percent completion rate, 4.8 percent INT rate, 3 TDs to 5 INTs, 5.5 yards per pass attempt including sacks) simply weren’t ready.

  • Wilkins: 63% completion rate, 2.9% INT rate, 6.1 yards per pass attempt (including sacks)
  • Sterling-Cole & White: 51% completion rate, 4.8% INT rate, 5.5 yards per pass attempt

The backup situation will likely be in better shape, at least. White, a former blue-chipper, and Sterling-Cole are both back, but Wilkins is also getting pushed hard by Alabama transfer Blake Barnett, who worked with Napier in Tuscaloosa. Barnett began 2016 as Bama’s starter but was quickly usurped by Jalen Hurts. In a small sample, he took a ton of sacks and hit on some really big passes.

NCAA Football: Alabama vs Southern California
Blake Barnett
Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

Whoever wins the QB job will have a potentially awesome receiving corps. ASU does have to replace its two most efficient receivers — slot men Tim White and Frederick Gammage — but in Harry, Ballage, and slot receiver Jalen Harvey, the Sun Devils have three players who combined for 123 catches and 1,458 yards.

Harry, a former blue-chipper, held his own as a freshman No. 1, and Ballage combined an early 100-yard rushing game (137 yards, seven touchdowns against Texas Tech) with two late 100-yard receiving games (combined: 13 catches, 223 yards against Oregon and Utah). Meanwhile, senior Cameron Smith caught 41 passes in 2014 but has struggled to stay on the field the last two years. [Update: Smith has since transferred to Notre Dame.]

Joining the veterans are two exciting transfers. Sophomores Ryan Newsome (Texas) and John Humphrey (Oklahoma) are custom-built slot receivers with high ceilings. If either can replace White’s efficiency, and the winner of the QB battle can stay on the field, the passing game should hum.

The run game, though? A line that helped ASU rank 15th in power success rate and 21st in stuff rate is experienced despite the loss of two-year starting left tackle Evan Goodman. But neither Ballage nor leading rusher Demario Richard were even slightly efficient against defenses less awful than Texas Tech’s. Richard gained at least five yards on just 29 percent of his carries (the national average is about 40 percent), Ballage 28 percent.

ASU rarely moved backwards but still ranked 107th in rushing success rate. Returning everyone involved doesn’t automatically help those numbers.

NCAA Football: Arizona State at Oregon
Kalen Ballage
Cole Elsasser-USA TODAY Sports


Arizona State defensive radar

The offense obviously has some question marks, but the raw components, plus Graham’s history, suggest improvement. Graham’s defense, however, has lost the benefit of the doubt. ASU showed the downside of aggression last fall, ranking a not-awful 67th in success rate and 45th in havoc rate but giving up an almost impossible number of big plays.

I mean, damn:

Arizona State defensive efficiency and explosiveness

ASU allowed 3.7 gains of 30-plus per game (125th in FBS), 1.8 rushes of 20-plus (86th), and 12.5 passes of 10-plus (127th). To account for that, you better have the best efficiency numbers in the country. The Sun Devils did not.

A little bit of new blood could help. Graham brought in Michael Slater as line coach after the Beaty assistant engineered a massive turnaround on the Kansas D-line in 2016.

More significantly, he hired Bennett, Art Briles’ former coordinator at Baylor. Setting aside any moral issues you might (justifiably) have with former Briles assistants so quickly finding new work, this move makes sense. Bennett crafted a defense that served as a strong complement to the mach-speed Baylor offense.

The basics of the Bennett defense — an imposing defensive line anchored by a seasoned, swarming secondary — sound a lot like the basics of the defense Keith Patterson spent the last few years trying and failing to maintain in Tempe. (Patterson remains on staff as linebackers coach.)

Slater could have some fun with JoJo Wicker and Tashon Smallwood up front. The two combined for 20 tackles for loss and five sacks, and backup Renell Wren contributed six and 1.5, respectively. Linebackers DJ Calhoun and Koron Crump, meanwhile, combined for 22 and 13.5. That’s a lot of returning havoc, and Bennett should know how to use some of those pieces.

NCAA Football: Arizona State at Southern California
JoJo Wicker
Kelvin Kuo-USA TODAY Sports

Of course, havoc wasn’t the problem last year — breakdowns were. And the state of the secondary doesn’t automatically lead one to believe they will be solved. A more effectively aggressive front seven can produce aggrieved, mistake-prone QBs, but when the QBs get the passes off, they’ll be throwing into the teeth of a secondary that must replace half of its top four cornerbacks, plus safety Armand Perry, who just retired with injury issues.

The returnees are experienced; there just might not be enough of them. Safeties Marcus Ball and Chad Adams and corners Kareem Orr [update: Orr’s transferred to UT-Chattanooga] and Maurice Chandler are all either juniors and seniors and combined for 22 percent of ASU’s tackles last year. But they created almost no disruption — ASU was ninth in the country in LB havoc rate but 127th in DB havoc rate — and gave up at least four touchdown passes four times last year.

Opponents completed 64 percent of their passes and produced a 156.9 passer rating; ASU basically turned every opposing passer into USC’s Sam Darnold (161.1). And while Graham is not averse to signing JUCOs, he’s going to be relying on younger players to provide an energy boost in the back — four-star redshirt freshman Chase Lucas, for instance, finished the spring as a starting corner.

As goes the ASU pass defense, so goes ASU. The havoc recipe was all wrong in 2016, and that cannot continue.

NCAA Football: Washington State at Arizona State
Koron Crump
Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Special Teams

It could have been a lot worse for ASU last year; if not for the No. 4 special teams unit in the country, the Sun Devils could have gone lost at least a couple more games. They did, after all, go 2-1 in one-possession finishes.

Unfortunately, the primary reason for ranking fourth in Special Teams S&P+ was Zane Gonzalez, and he’s gone. Gonzalez went 13-for-15 on field goals over 40 yards and booted three-quarters of his kickoffs for touchbacks, setting a bar that his successor might not come anywhere close to clearing.

Tim White’s punt returns were the next reason for ASU’s strong special teams ratings; he’s also gone. This unit is almost completely starting over.

2017 outlook

2017 Schedule & Projection Factors

Date Opponent Proj. S&P+ Rk Proj. Margin Win Probability
31-Aug New Mexico State 124 21.8 90%
9-Sep San Diego State 52 1.9 54%
16-Sep at Texas Tech 66 -1.4 47%
23-Sep Oregon 23 -5.9 37%
30-Sep at Stanford 12 -17.7 15%
14-Oct Washington 13 -12.3 24%
21-Oct at Utah 45 -4.2 40%
28-Oct USC 7 -16.1 18%
4-Nov Colorado 50 1.7 54%
11-Nov at UCLA 34 -6.6 35%
18-Nov at Oregon State 54 -2.8 44%
25-Nov Arizona 68 4.2 60%
Projected S&P+ Rk 58
Proj. Off. / Def. Rk 31 / 85
Projected wins 5.2
Five-Year S&P+ Rk 7.2 (38)
2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk 38 / 30
2016 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin* -4 / 2.0
2016 TO Luck/Game -2.5
Returning Production (Off. / Def.) 71% (72%, 70%)
2016 Second-order wins (difference) 3.6 (1.4)

Even as the wins have vanished, ASU has continued to look like a Graham team: aggressive, fast, and willing to risk a few explosions to create some of their own. But the combination of injuries and poor pass defense created a disaster against just about any team with a pulse last fall.

Naturally, after three years of regression, S&P+ has stopped believing in the Sun Devils. They are projected to improve, but only to 58th, and with a brutal North slate that includes Stanford and Washington but misses Cal and Washington State, 58th isn’t good enough to guarantee a bowl.

Like Arizona and most of the Pac-12, though, ASU’s fate will be determined by tossups. Including non-conference games against SDSU and Texas Tech, the Sun Devils are looking at eight games with win probability between 35 and 60 percent. They had one likely win and three likely losses, so they’ll have to win a majority of the tight games to make sure their bowl drought ends at just one year.

At least Graham’s latest round of hires looks strong. His new offensive coordinator and defensive line coach are up-and-comers, and he brought in a potentially valuable old hand to save a flagging defense. ASU should show enough progress to keep Graham in Tempe for another year, but it might take until 2018 for everything to click again.

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