TEMPE, AZ - DECEMBER 14: Head coach Todd Graham of the Arizona State Sun Devils speaks at a press conference introducing him as the new head football coach at Sun Devil Stadium on December 14, 2011 in Tempe, Arizona. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
Relief is the operative word that comes to mind as an opposing Pac-12 fan when thinking of Arizona State this season. Relief that Vontaze Burfict isn't going to try and decapitate opposing players on the field. Relief that telecasts involving the Sun Devils won't involve a hundred incarnations of "Brock Osweiler is 6'8". But, mostly, relief that as Dennis Erickson leaves for what is almost sure to be more competent coaching, that those and other very good players are no longer on the roster. Arizona State massively underachieved at 6-6 last season, but such a record, with only eight returning starters, would be considered a remarkable coaching job for Todd Graham in his debut season in Tempe.
Rich Rodriguez and Mike Leach are getting the headlines as far as new coaches in the Pac-12 with offensive prowess, but Todd Graham's resume should not be overlooked. Graham had a history of high octane offenses at Tulsa, and will bring with him a run-based spread that should mesh well with the existing personnel. The Sun Devils are deep with talented running backs, boasting an embarrassment of riches that are the envy of the conference. Senior Cameron Marshall, with almost 1100 yards last season, is the headliner, but the Sun Devils have four quality backs behind him. Deantre Lewis, who had nearly 600 yards as a freshman before redshirting last season after a gunshot wound is back, as is speedster Kyle Middlebrooks. ASU also adds two four-star recruits--JUCO transfer Marion Grive and freshman D.J. Foster. This is one of the most talented units in the country, and given the lack of depth across the other offensive skill positions, I wonder whether any of these guys will be seeing time at receiver in order to put more talent on the field.
Speaking of that position, it is difficult to assess how strong of a unit it could be. Gerrell Robinson had nearly 1400 yards last season, and he's gone along with Aaron Pflugrad and Mike Willie. Jamal Miles returns, but his 60 receptions went for only 361 yards last season, and one of Graham's challenges will be to figure out how to better utilize him. Rashard Ross and Kevin Ozier combined for 29 receptions last season, and along with AJ Pickens and JUCO transfer Alonzo Agwuenu will attempt to hold down the fort. Its a group with potential, but also a group with nothing proven. Quarterback has very much the same issue, with the competition coming down to sophomore Taylor Kelly and Freshman Michael Eubank. Unlike his counterpart in Tucson, Graham has two quarterbacks who are good fits for the spread, but neither of them has any significant experience. The offensive line returns only two starters, but was so bad last year that it may not be a bad thing. If the Sun Devils can get consistent quarterback play, the running backs are so good that the offense could be okay or even pretty good.
Arizona State also has some elements of a good defense, althouigh depth is a major question mark. ASU's top six tacklers from last season are all gone, inlcuding Colin Parker, Vontaze Burfict, and Shelly Lyons. Also graduated are starting defensive linemae Bo Moos and Jamaar Jarrett. Only four starters return. Technically, ASU will run a 3-4, but its a hybrid with a drop end that Graham will call a "Devilbacker." The only sure thing on the line is Will Sutton returning at the DT, but there are qustions as to whether Junior Onyeali is a DE or a drop end, and that has to be figured out for everything else to fall into place. However, with big, talented bodies in Corey Adams, Mike Pennel, and Davon Coleman, this is a unit with a lot of talnet that could actually be better than last year. While all of those guys are very talented, the depth behind them is a big question mark.
At linebacker, Vontaze Burfict has obviously been the big name the last few seasons. However, despite his talent, he was so erratic and drew so many penalties that it could actually be a case of addition by subtraction, and the lossesof Colin Parker and Shelly Lyons will hurt far more. Getting back Brandon Magee, a two year starter who sat out last season with injury, will help immensely. With Onyeali likely at devilbacker, that gives the Sun Devils two spots to fill, and Graham has to sort through a group of career journeymen and JUCO transfers to find out who those will be.
The secondary returns quite a bit of experience, as starting cornerbacks Deveron Carr and Osahon Irabor both return. Alden Darby and Keelan Johnson didn't start last season, but still played a ton at safety last season, combining for 99 tackles, and JUCO transfer Chris Young is highly regarded as well. ASU has a lot of depth at this position. Like the offense, you can make a case for the defense being quite good this season, but a lot of things have to break the right way. The fact that there are giant holes at linebacker, as well as general depth issues all across the front seven, make me think that consistency is a recruiting class or two away.
ASU opens up with Northern Arizona, but has a difficult next two with Illinois at home followed by a trip to Missouri. The Sun Devils have five Pac-12 road games, though trips to Colorado, Oregon State, and Arizona are very winnable. Missouri, Oregon, Utah, and USC are likely losses, but this team has a ton of "toss-up" games--home games with Illinois, UCLA, and Washington State as well as those road tests. Northern Arizona is almost certainly a win, but given that OSU and Colorado are on the road, you can't automatically put them in the win column.
Overall, Arizona State is a talented bunch, but depth issues and a lack of experience are major question marks going into the season. Barring a major upset, the season comes down to seven toss up games on the Sun Devil schedule. If the QB play and the defense comes together, winning five of those isn't inconceivable. I like this squad much better than Oregon State, Colorado, or Arizona but, given that all three of those are on the road, I don't think I can trust this squad to win all three. That may be what keeps them at the five win mark and just out of a bowl game.