After a disappointing season in 2015, the Sun Devils look to get back atop the Pac-12 South. Coach Todd Graham has always had the offense on point, but in 2016 the defense might have to carry the weight. Losing quarterback Mike Bercovici hurts a lot, but coordinator Chip Lindsey feels confident they’ll have a competent player under center come fall. Until a quarterback emerges, expect the Sun Devils to lean on the one-two punch of Demario Richard and Kalen Ballage at running back.
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Previewing Arizona State’s Offense
In four years under coach Todd Graham, Arizona State has fielded a top-35 scoring offense, but continuing that trend this season might be difficult. The Sun Devils lose seven starters from last year’s offense, including quarterback Mike Bercovici, receiver D.J. Foster and four offensive linemen.
A quarterback isn’t expected to be named until the final week of preseason practice. Sophomore Manny Wilkins and redshirt freshmen Brady White and Bryce Perkins battled through the spring with little separation. True freshman Dillon Sterling-Cole will join them in the summer. None has started a college game.
One thing in Arizona State’s favor — its running backs. As a sophomore last season, Demario Richard became the 19th back in school history to rush for more than 1,000 yards. After recovering from mono during the season’s first month, Kalen Ballage added 653 rushing yards.
The Devils lose their top receivers in Foster and Devin Lucien, but they return Tim White, who had 57 catches for 633 yards in his first year out of junior college. Also back is deep threat Cameron Smith, who missed last season with a knee injury.
Previewing Arizona State’s Defense
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Graham is known for his aggressive, blitzing ways. That won’t change, but it’s possible the coach will back off the accelerator — slightly. Last year, Arizona State gave up 33.5 points per game, the most under Graham. They still ranked in the top five nationally in both quarterback sacks and tackles for a loss, but the pressure often left them vulnerable to big plays, especially in the passing game.
Arizona State last season allowed 337.8 passing yards per game, the worst in the country and the worst in school history. A better four-man pass rush should help, and Graham likes what he has up front in end JoJo Wicker, nose tackle Viliami Latu and tackle Tashon Smallwood. Wicker started last season as a true freshman and has all-conference potential, while Latu and Smallwood are seasoned veterans.
A three-year starter, senior strong-side linebacker Salamo Fiso is the defense’s anchor, but the key to Arizona State success likely will come in the secondary. With the Sun Devils down three starters to graduation, Graham plans to move outside linebacker Laiu Moeakiola — a two-year starter at Spur linebacker — to free safety, providing some back-end experience. Sophomore Kareem Orr, who last season led the Pac-12 with six interceptions, will help.
Previewing Arizona State’s Specialists
No concerns here. Second-year coordinator Shawn Slocum has made special teams a strength. Arizona State has four specialists who should be among the best in the Pac-12. Senior placekicker Zane Gonzalez — already the school’s third all-time leading scorer — last year led the nation in touchback percentage. Senior Matt Haack’s 43.1-yard average is tops among the conference’s returning punters, junior long-snapper Mitchell Fraboni seldom makes a mistake, and White last season ranked 15th nationally in kick-return yardage.
After consecutive 10-win seasons — the program’s first since the early 1970s — Arizona State last year took a step back, finishing 6–7. This season, the Sun Devils could struggle to reach bowl eligibility. With Richard and Ballage, the Devils likely will have one of the Pac-12’s top backfields, but the uncertainty and inexperience at quarterback — to go along with four new starters on the offensive line — will be tough hurdles to clear. An advantage: The schedule. Arizona State opens against Northern Arizona, Texas Tech, UTSA and California, with three of the four in Sun Devil Stadium. That could give the offense time to find its footing before the Pac-12 schedule kicks into high gear with contests against USC, UCLA, Washington State and Oregon.