The Sun Devils won the Pac-12 South last year, finishing with a 10-4 overall record and a 8-1 mark in conference play. Todd Graham’s team is poised to make another run at the conference championship, but Arizona State’s defense has to be rebuilt after losing several key contributors. Tackle Will Sutton, linebacker Carl Bradford, cornerbacks Robert Nelson and Osahon Irabor and safety Alden Darby are huge losses for new coordinator Keith Patterson. With only two returning starters on defense, expect the Sun Devils to lean heavily on an explosive offense.
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Previewing Arizona State’s Offense for 2014:
The Sun Devils should have one of the best offenses in the Pac-12. Start with senior quarterback Taylor Kelly, who had 37 total touchdowns and a combined 4,243 yards from scrimmage (3,635 passing, 608 rushing) last season. Kelly doesn’t have the strongest arm, but he’s adept at throwing on the run and escaping the rush. His challenge this year is to play as well against the Pac-12’s top teams as he does some of the conference’s lesser foes.
ASU’s running game will survive the loss of leading rusher Marion Grice because junior D.J. Foster is ready to assume a full-time role carrying the ball. Foster isn’t as strong as Grice between the tackles, but he’s more explosive. He’s also a terrific receiver and will be a big weapon for Kelly out of the backfield.
Foster and Kelly will be aided by an offensive line that should be able to weather the loss of two starters, including all-conference left tackle Evan Finkenberg. The addition of guard Christian Westerman, a transfer from Auburn, will allow Jamil Douglas to move from guard to left tackle.
If there’s a question mark it’s the wide receiving corps. Jaelen Strong is one of the best receivers in the country, a 6'3", 212-pound Larry Fitzgerald clone who caught 75 passes for 1,122 yards and seven touchdowns last season. But there’s little returning depth behind Strong, which makes it imperative that junior college transfer Eric Lauderdale can produce immediately.
Athlon's Cover 2 Podcast Previews the Arizona State Sun Devils for 2014:
Previewing Arizona State’s Defense for 2014:
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It’s highly unlikely that any team in the country has more holes to fill on defense than ASU, which lost nine starters on that side of the ball, including both of its starting cornerbacks, sack leader Carl Bradford and two-time Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year defensive tackle Will Sutton.
The Sun Devils will have no choice but to rely on a mix of junior college recruits — particularly along the defensive line — freshmen and untested sophomores. The inexperience could be a factor early in the season; ASU plays UCLA, USC, Stanford and Washington in a one-month span starting Sept. 25.
Along the front, the Sun Devils have to hope that transfers Edmond Boateng and Dalvon Stuckey can step in and play right away. There’s simply not a lot of depth at the position. There are similar concerns at linebacker. True freshman D.J. Calhoun looked great in spring ball, but is he ready for Pac-12 competition? And the Sun Devils haven’t been able to find a ready-made replacement at Devil linebacker for Bradford. Unless that player steps up in the fall, ASU’s pass rush will be compromised.
The secondary? Well, the only sure thing is safety Damarious Randall. ASU is replacing both of its corners for the first time in four years. The Sun Devils had 21 interceptions last season; the returning players have a total of four.
Previewing Arizona State’s Specialists for 2014:
The Sun Devils’ kicking game should be solid with punter Matt Haack and placekicker Zane Gonzalez — 25-of-30 last year — but the return and coverage teams were problems and are points of emphasis this season for coach Todd Graham. ASU needs to find a home-run returner and make better use of its athleticism in kickoff and punt coverage.
Graham talks big — and so far has backed up his words. But given the massive remake of the defense, it’s hard to imagine the Sun Devils winning a second straight Pac-12 South title. ASU will attack offensively and score a lot of points, but it might also be on the wrong end of 45–42 games. ASU has to play at USC, Washington, Oregon State and arch-rival Arizona and also has a difficult non-conference game against Notre Dame in early November. A nine-win season would deserve applause.
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Five Reasons why Athlon Sports is Picking Arizona State No. 16:
1. One of the Pac-12’s top offenses
Seven starters return from an offense that averaged 41.2 points per game in Pac-12 action last year. Quarterback Taylor Kelly should be a lock for all-conference honors, and receiver Jaelen Strong should be better in his second year in Tempe. With the concerns on defense, Arizona State will have to score at least 40 points per game in Pac-12 contests to win the South in 2014.
2. Rebuilding effort on defense
New co-defensive coordinator Keith Patterson is essentially starting from scratch on defense. The Sun Devils return only two starters and will be relying on several new faces for immediate contributions. Linebacker Salamo Fiso and safety Damarious Randall are tasked with becoming the new leaders for Arizona State’s defense this year.
3. UCLA and USC return more talent
Returning starters aren’t necessarily the best way to judge how teams will perform the next year, but UCLA and USC have more talent back on campus for 2014. With Arizona State’s personnel losses, it’s going to take some time for this team to rebuild in order to compete with the Bruins and Trojans.
4. The schedule
With a rebuilding roster, a schedule that features a September game against UCLA, combined with matchups against USC, Stanford and Washington in October isn’t the ideal situation for Graham. However, the second half of the season could allow Arizona State time to build momentum in the rankings. The Sun Devils have to travel to Oregon State and Arizona and host Notre Dame in that span, but the final five games are favorable for Arizona State to pad its win total.
5. Todd Graham’s track record
In eight years as a head coach on the FBS level, Todd Graham only has one losing season and won at least 10 games in three out of his four years at Tulsa. With Arizona State recruiting well, combined with an excellent staff in Tempe, the Sun Devils shouldn’t take too much of a step back in the win column.