By Rock Mayock 10:00 a.m. | To say the second half of the 2011 season was disappointing for Dennis Erickson and the entire Arizona State fan base is the understatement of the year. The season started with a promising 6-2 record that included wins over #21 Missouri and #23 USC. However, a deluge of injuries coupled with poor coaching resulted with the hapless Sun Devils finishing the season with 5 straight losses including a 56-24 ass kicking issued by Boise State in the MAACO Las Vegas Bowl.
As with their in state rivals to the South, Arizona, the Sun Devils elected to make a change from the top down for 2012. Will new head coach Todd Graham have the juice to bring the Sun Devils back to national prominence? Let’s take a look.
Overview: Prior to the conclusion of the 2011 regular season former head coach Dennis Erickson and university elected to voluntarily part ways. Unlike other coaching vacancies in the Pac-12, the Sun Devils failed to net a high profile name to lead their program. The university was unable to secure their first choice, former Houston and current Texas A&M head coach Kevin Sumlin, and instead settled upon former Rice, Tulsa and Pitt head coach Todd Graham. Graham’s hiring was met with deal of skepticism due to the fact he has demonstrated an uncanny penchant for abruptly abandoning his employer to pursue other job opportunities. What cannot be argued are his 49-29 regular season and 3-1 bowl record as a collegiate head coach. What is unique to this his newest endeavor is the sheer magnitude of the rebuilding project. In the wake of Dennis Erickson’s departure the ASU program finds itself decimated on both the offensive and defensive side of the ball. In short, it’s going to be another long year in Tempe.
OFFENSE: Dictionary.com defines a challenge as “something that by its nature or character serves as a call to battle, contest or special effort.” Todd Graham defines a challenge as “replacing your starting QB, top three wide receivers and 7 scholarship offensive linemen.” Therefore the first order of business is to settle the QB position. Mike Berovich, Michael Eubank and Taylor Kelly are all vying to become the next signal caller for the Sun Devils however none of the three have ever started a college game and none of them are familiar with Todd Graham’s offense. Berovich figures to have a slight edge given the fact that he backed up Brock Osweiler last season however Eubank is a legitimate dual threat (standing 6-5, 240lbs) Graham attempted to recruit during his tenure at Pitt. Don’t be surprised if snaps are shared at the beginning of the season until someone establishes himself as “The Man.”
The primary issue with the ASU offense will be the offensive line. As previously stated, the Sun Devils lost 7 scholarship offensive linemen, including 3 starters, from their 2012 roster. Juniors Evan Finkenberg (LT) and Andrew Sampson (RG) are both three year returning starters and will anchor a line very thin on experience. The rest of the projected line up will include sophomore Jamil Douglas (LG), junior Kody Koebensky (C), and senior Brice Schwab (RT). Only Schwab has any starting experience (4 games). The line will als need to transition from Dennis Erickson’s pass first blocking scheme to Graham’s run first blocking scheme. In general run blocking is easier to adapt to so this transition should be seamless.
Speaking of the running game, it should be the strength for the ASU offense. Both Todd Graham and OC Mike Norvell love to run the football and they have a couple of solid horses to feed it to. Last year’s leading rusher, Cameron Marshall, will lead a group of young tailbacks that include James Morrison, Kyle Middlebrooks, Deantre Lewis, juco transfer Marion Grice and 4 star freshman D.J. Foster. Due to the inexperience at both QB and offensive line the Sun Devils will rely heavily upon their running backs. They’ll run hard and they’ll run often. Look for the offense to produce two 1,000 yard rushers this season.
The wide receiver position is as unsettled at the QB position because the Sun Devils have a lot of young, but unproven, talent. Junior WR Kevin Ozier has established himself as the emotional leader of the receiving corps however senior Jamal Miles, freshman Gary Chambers and freshman Karl Holmes have more natural talent. Although they are not an intricate part of the Graham/Norvell offense, the wide receivers will see the ball in a variety ways such as the end around, direct snap and bubble screen.
Overall the ASU offense will feature a lot grind it out action between the 20’s. Do not expect a rehash of Dennis Erickson’s love for the big play. This is an entirely new brand of Sun Devil football.
DEFENSE: There is good news and bad news for the ASU defense. The bad news is that the defense was just as gutted as the offense. The good news is the defense was gutted because it was terrible down the stretch in 2011. After starting the 2011 campaign with a ferociously relentless defense that racked up 19 sacks in the first 8 games, the defense fell apart due to injuries and apathy over the last 5 games and collected only 7 sacks. Their inability to place pressure on opposing quarterbacks resulted with defense giving up 273 pass yards per game (108th nationally). Incidentally the team ended their season on a 5 game losing streak. Thus there is a need for a change in philosophy and scheme.
Todd Graham and defensive coordinator Paul Randolph have elected to implement a trio of defenses, the traditional 4-3 and 3-4 sets as well as the 3-3-5 stack defense. The Sun Devils will likely lean toward the 3-3-5 stack defense due to their depth in the secondary and the weakness of the front 7.
The defense will be bolstered by the return of Junior Onyeali (LB) who was suspended during the Spring, Brandon Magee (LB) who has recovered from season ending Achilles tendon surgery and Alden Darby who will be moved from CB to S. Also benefiting the team will be the absence of Vontaze Burfict and his on/off the field shenanigans now that he has attempted to take his talents to the NFL (Bengals, undrafted free agent).
The Sun Devils also hope for immediate contribution from Corey Adams (DT), Will Sutton (DT) and juco transfer Kipeli Koniseti (LB). The defense will need all of the help it can get to prevent another late season meltdown.
Here a quick factoid: Todd Graham was the co-defensive coordinator under Rich Rodriguez at West Virginia.
BOTTOM LINE: This will be a rebuilding year at Arizona State and expectations should be set accordingly. Todd Graham’s installation of a new offense, new defense and less than favorable schedule do no bode well for an above .500 season. With games at Missouri, at Cal and at USC coupled with getting both Oregon and a revamped Washington State on the schedule a 5-7 season is very likely.
The rapidly rising level of competition and the pedigree of incoming head coaches has made the Pac-12 the preeminent conference in college football. If, and that is a big if, Graham sticks around for a couple of seasons there is hope for future of ASU football. However if he jumps ship, as he has been known to do in the past, after 2-3 seasons the program will be mired in mediocrity for a decade.
5-7, 4th in the Pac-12 South