TEMPE, Ariz. — Arizona State faces a host of challenges this season — optical challenges with the way it is perceived, and practical challenges with its on-field personnel.
For the first time in Todd Graham’s tenure in Tempe, it is fair to wonder if the Sun Devils are moving forward. The momentum of back-to-back 10-win seasons was lost last year when the team underachieved amid lofty preseason expectations and staggered to a 6-7 record that included a sloppy Cactus Bowl loss to West Virginia — a game that served as a microcosm for all the 2015 team’s issues.
As Graham enters the 2016 season, he is facing pressure to put an enticing product on the field before Sun Devil Stadium enters the final phase of its renovation. He is facing pressure from an athletic director who has little patience for mediocrity and has essentially told him to talk less and win more. In the face of these forces, Graham enters the season with question marks and inexperience littering his starting lineup.
All is not lost, however. Graham has been in this situation before. He rallied Tulsa from a 5-7 season in 2009 to a 10-3 record in 2010 and a No. 24 AP ranking. He anointed untested quarterback Taylor Kelly and surprised many analysts by going 8-5 in his first season (2012) in Tempe.
As the Sun Devils prepare to open the season on Saturday when they host Northern Arizona, we’ll take a look at some reasons for optimism and some sobering reminders of the challenges ahead.
5 REASONS FOR OPTIMISM
Running backs Demario Richard & Kalen Ballage: Richard and Ballage form one of the better running back tandems in the nation. Richard rushed for 1,104 yards last season to finish sixth in the Pac-12 as a sophomore, while Ballage amassed 679 yards. The two combined for 11 rushing touchdowns. It’s true that they will run behind an inexperienced line this season, but that line has more size than it has in the past. Moreover, the rushing duo has a year more experience, and offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey has plans to utilize both in the same backfield. The effectiveness of ASU’s rushing attack will likely be the barometer for its offensive success.
Revamped coaching staff: Lindsey is one of five new assistant coaches on Graham’s staff. Jay Norvell (receivers), T.J. Rushing (defensive backs), Joe Seumalo (defensive line) and John Simon (running backs) are the others. The amount of turnover Graham endured on his staff in the offseason was shocking to some, but it was equally shocking how long his staff had stayed largely intact. This group still has to prove itself, but the athletic department opened up its wallet to attract more expensive coaching talent, so there is reason to believe Graham when he says he has upgraded. There is also reason to believe that new ideas and new voices can inject some life into the Sun Devils.
The defensive front seven: Graham was widely criticized for his refusal to abandon his blitzing style on defense last season when the attack simply wasn’t getting to the quarterback. The lack of pressure left an already overwhelmed secondary on islands with fewer personnel to defend opposing passing attacks. ASU’s front seven should be much improved this season. Tackle Tashon Smallwood and end JoJo Wicker lead an improved defensive line where sophomore Renell Wrenn also hopes to make his mark. Linebackers D.J. Calhoun, Salamo Fiso and Christian Sam are one of the top groups in the Pac-12. The front seven could take a lot of pressure off the Sun Devils’ rebuilt secondary with consistent pressure.
Kicker Zane Gonzalez: Gonzalez was the nation’s best on kickoffs last season, recording touchbacks on 75 percent of his attempts. He enters the season as the NCAA’s active leader in field goals per game at 1.87, and scoring at 9.9 points per game. With 73 career field goals, he needs just 16 to break the FBS career record of 88 set by Florida State’s Dustin Hopkins.
The first four games of the season: Northern Arizona was picked to win the Big Sky Conference and Texas Tech can put up points, but the Sun Devils got as big a break as you could ask from the schedule in facing Tech and the Lumberjacks at home, while taking on Texas-San Antonio on the road. If the Sun Devils play to their talent level, they could reasonably start the season 4-0, with their Pac-12 opener scheduled for Sept. 24 at home against Cal. A quick start could boost the confidence of a young group and lead to surprises for a team that was picked to finish fifth in the South Division.
5 REASONS FOR CONCERN
The offensive line: No matter how good the Sun Devils feel about their recent recruiting on this unit, it takes time for a line to gel and for individual linemen to learn each other’s tendencies. This may be an even bigger concern than the performance of a young quarterback, because if the line isn’t able to open holes in the running game for ASU’s talented backfield, the Sun Devils’ offense may be impotent.
An inexperienced quarterback: Graham still has not named a starter, although everyone remotely associated with the program expects it to be redshirt sophomore Manny Wilkins. Neither Wilkins nor redshirt freshman Brady White have thrown a college pass, which creates some challenges.
“Any time you open the season and get a chance to play, I think those guys have to fight the emotion of being too excited and they need to relax and just play and realize it’s a team game and it’s not all on their shoulders,” Lindsey said.
The rebuilt secondary: ASU can’t get much worse than last season’s unit, which from a statistical standpoint was the worst passing defense in school history, allowing 337.8 yards per game to rank dead last (127th) among FBS schools. ASU also allowed 35 passing TDs, which was tied with Oregon and better only than Rice’s 36 among FBS schools. Safety Armand Perry’s return to health will be a big boost to the unit, as will a year’s maturation for cornerback Kareem Orr, who set an ASU freshman record with six interceptions last season. Laiu Moeakiola returns to his natural bandit safety position, leaving the other cornerback spot as the biggest question mark on this unit.
Moeakiola’s health: Moeakiola has missed time again in the past week with what Graham is calling a hamstring injury. One of the reasons the Sun Devils moved him from spur linebacker to safety was to try to keep him healthy. He had offseason surgery on his right shoulder, an injury that forced him out of the Cactus Bowl, and he’s had two surgeries and played hurt the better part of the last two seasons. If you had to choose one player that would be toughest for ASU to lose, Moeakiola would be the guy.
The final four games of the season: We noted how the first four games of the Sun Devils’ schedule offer opportunity for a quick start. They had better take advantage because the final four games are a tough stretch. The Sun Devils close at Oregon, hosting Utah, and then traveling to Washington and Arizona. Oregon is ranked No. 24 in the preseason AP poll, Utah is No. 26, Washington is No. 14, and Arizona is ASU’s bitter in-state rival. ASU won the most recent meeting, 52-37, last season in Tempe.