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Pac-12 South PREDICTION
HEAD COACH: Todd Graham, 8-5 (1 year) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Mike Norvell | DEF. COORDINATOR: Paul Randolph, Chris Ball
The Sun Devils are a team on the rise after going 8-5 in Todd Graham's first season.
If Arizona State can find some wide receivers who can get open and catch the ball, its offense could be as explosive as any in the Pac-12. Quarterback Taylor Kelly doesn’t have the strongest arm in the conference, but he’s a superb leader, and he has a knack for being able to make big plays at the biggest moments. His ability to throw on the run and make plays with his feet has reminded some of former ASU great Jake Plummer.
The Sun Devils also return two terrific running backs in senior Marion Grice and sophomore D.J. Foster. Both players have breakaway speed, can run between the tackles and are terrific pass-catchers out of the backfield. As much as coach Todd Graham likes to run the ball, both Grice and Foster could surpass 1,000 yards rushing. Grice is the leading returning rusher with 679 yards and averaged 6.6 yards per carry. “I ask (Grice) every day after practice ‘Did you practice today like the Heisman Trophy winner?’ and he tells me yes or no,” Graham says. “He’s had quite a few practices (this spring) where he’s said yes, so I feel good about that.”
The offensive line should be solid, despite the loss of two starters, and tight end Chris Coyle is an effective weapon both down the field and on third downs. If just one of the five receivers Graham signed can contribute immediately — junior college transfer Jaelen Strong is the most likely candidate — the offense will be extremely difficult to stop.
The secondary is the concern here — it’s not overly talented or especially deep — but that may not matter given how good the front seven should be.
Tackle Will Sutton (13 sacks, 23.5 tackles for a loss) is arguably the best defensive lineman in the country, and he’s surrounded by a deep and particularly athletic front that benefits from the attacking style Graham employs. Linebacker Carl Bradford had 11.5 sacks last year, and it’s conceivable that he and Sutton could combine for 30 sacks this year.
Throw in nose tackle Jaxon Hood, a Freshman All-American in 2012, and ends Junior Onyeali and Davon Coleman, and it’s no wonder that Graham believes this could be one of the best defenses he’s ever had.
ASU must replace two starters in the secondary, but the pass coverage doesn’t have to be great given how little time opposing quarterbacks should have to throw the ball.
Taylor Kelly, QB – Set a school record by completing 67.1 percent of his passes and accounted for more than 3,500 yards of total offense.
Will Sutton, DT – Consensus All-American in 2012 after racking up 23.5 tackles for a loss and 13 sacks, the fourth-highest total in school history.
Marion Grice, RB – Led the team with 679 rushing yards, had three TDs against Arizona and was named Offensive MVP of the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl.
Special teams often get overlooked by fans, but this is huge concern for Graham. The Sun Devils have to replace standout punter Josh Hubner, who averaged 47.1 yards per kick, but more important, they have to find a reliable placekicker. Neither Alex Garoutte nor Jon Mora was the final answer last year, and Graham was so concerned he added Zane Gonzalez as a late signee to his 2013 recruiting class.
The Sun Devils have all the ingredients to make a run at the Pac-12 South title and an appearance in the Rose Bowl. Their defense — led by the reigning Pac-12 Pat Tillman Defensive Player of the Year in Sutton — should be dominant. They return their quarterback, top two running backs and three starters on the O-line.
Do they have concerns? Sure. They need to find a couple of quality receivers, and they don’t have much depth in the secondary, particularly at cornerback. But there’s not a dominant team in the South, and the schedule is favorable: The Sun Devils don’t play Oregon, they get USC at home and two of their final three games are at Sun Devil Stadium. A nine-win season and date in the Pac-12 Championship Game are not beyond their reach.
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