Arizona State enters an important season under head coach Todd Graham. After going 5-7 and missing out on a bowl game for the first time in five seasons, Graham and the Sun Devils are in many ways starting over. A new offensive coordinator is changing Arizona State’s approach on one side of the ball, while for the first time as a head coach, Graham is letting someone else run the defense. Even though there are questions on both sides of the ball, the Sun Devils should be better. Whether or not this shows up in the win-loss column could determine whether the next change for the program involves Graham himself.
Previewing Arizona State Football’s Offense for 2017
Even as the Sun Devils have gone through significant schematic changes in each of the last two offseasons, Todd Graham says the philosophy has not changed. “We’re a spread, no-huddle, 11 personnel, run, play-action pass team,” the ASU coach says. Though that may be factually true in a broad sense, the Sun Devils looked substantially different in 2016 following a coordinator change, and they will again in a transitional 2017. Former Alabama wide receivers coach Billy Napier has replaced Chip Lindsey, as Lindsey bolted Tempe for the same role at Auburn after just one season.
An offense marked by stability in Graham’s first four seasons has since meandered. Under Napier, the Sun Devils are incorporating more pro-style formations, will likely move their quarterbacks under center more and have a greater utility for tight ends. It’s quite a bit different from what Lindsey ran, and Jay Norvell before him.
Selecting a quarterback will ultimately determine what areas of ASU’s expansive playbook are most utilized. Returning starter Manny Wilkins is trying to hold off Alabama transfer Blake Barnett. Either way, they’ll have a tandem of experienced and capable senior running backs (Demario Richard and Kalen Ballage) to hand the ball to, a sophomore wide receiver (N’Keal Harry) who broke the school record for receptions by a freshman to throw to, and a maturing offensive line. The offense should show signs of improvement but still not be especially potent.
Previewing Arizona State Football’s Defense for 2017
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After running his own defense for 11 seasons, Graham is handing the keys over to veteran coordinator Phil Bennett, who last had the same job at Baylor. ASU finished last nationally in passing yards allowed in each of the previous two seasons, a failure particularly stunning when contrasted against what preceded it. The Sun Devils had consecutive 10-win seasons in 2013 and ’14 and placed five members of their secondary on the first- or second-team all-conference teams over that span.
Bennett has his work cut out for him considering the Sun Devils haven’t received an infusion of junior college or Division I transfers to help stabilize their secondary. Instead, they’re working to simplify the scheme and become more fundamentally sound, as the Sun Devils were the worst tackling team in the country according to at least one advanced metric. Senior Marcus Ball is the lone returning starter in the secondary after safety Armand Perry retired in the offseason, and top cornerback Kareem Orr transferred to Chattanooga.
ASU gets better moving closer to the line of scrimmage, with a good and experienced linebacker trio of Christian Sam, D.J. Calhoun and Koron Crump. Calhoun and senior tackle Tashon Smallwood have the most experience on the team, with 38 games played. Junior end JoJo Wicker is the team’s most talented and versatile defensive lineman.
Previewing Arizona State Football’s Specialists for 2017
Replacing Lou Groza Award winner Zane Gonzalez, who set six FBS records, is a big challenge. Freshman Brandon Ruiz, who switched his pledge from Alabama to sign with the hometown Sun Devils, will get the chance. Australian Michael Sleep-Dalton will take over the punting duties.
In the talent game, the Sun Devils are headed in the right direction but still are not near their destination. Graham has quadrupled the number of four- and five-star recruits on his roster over a five-year period, but much of the best talent is still young. If the Sun Devils can stabilize this season, with improvement in the secondary and at quarterback, they’ll likely be over the hump transitioning to 2018, when most of their best players will return. However, Graham may need to reach a bowl game this year to make sure he’s still around.