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Arizona State Sun Devils 2016 Spring Football Preview

Demario Richard

Demario Richard

A 6-7 finish does not tell the full story of the 2015 Arizona State football season.

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Yes, a sub-.500 finish fell well short of expectations — expectations head coach Todd Graham unabashedly set at national championship level. And, after back-to-back 10-win campaigns, the 6-7 tally marked a regression two full games below Graham's previous worst in Tempe: an 8-5 finish in 2012, his debut season.

The last month of the 2015 regular season and Arizona State's bowl game provide context to go with the record. The Sun Devils dominated in a win over in-state rival Arizona and rallied to beat a good Washington team, but squandered opportunities and blew leads against both Oregon and Cal before losing a Cactus Bowl shootout to West Virginia.

All that, and we're only talking one month.

The tumult of the late season carried over into the offseason. Coaching exits and high turnover throughout the roster promise a new-look Arizona State in 2016, the first glimpse of which will be on display in spring workouts.

5 Storylines to Watch During Arizona State Spring Football

1. Graham's Guy at Quarterback 

Mike Bercovici's departure opens a quarterback competition, which isn't that unique in and of itself. What is rather surprising is that whomever wins will be the first starting quarterback recruited by Graham's staff. Both Bercovici and predecessor Taylor Kelly were holdovers from Dennis Erickson's tenure.

Redshirt sophomore Manny Wilkins is a former 4-star recruit and spent 2015 second on the depth chart behind Bercovici. Wilkins has yet to complete or attempt a pass, but carried seven times for 55 yards in three games. Ballyhooed recruit Brady White will challenge Wilkins, with Bryce Perkins also in the mix.

TheArizona Republic reports a starter will not be named in spring, but the coming practices should impact the race heading into preseason camp come summer.

2. A New Driver of High-Octane Offense 

The brand of hurry-up, no-huddle football Graham brands as "high-octane" gets a new driver in 2016. Mike Norvell accepted the head coaching position at Memphis, replacing Virginia Tech-bound Justin Fuente. Chip Lindsey came shortly thereafter, but lost support staff (running backs coach Kodi Burns) shortly after his hire.

This year may be an ideal time to break in new offensive staff. Lindsey's taking over play-calling for an offense that loses seven starters, including versatile playmaker D.J. Foster.

Lindsey may have to break in a new quarterback, but he inherits one of the best running back tandems in the Pac-12 with traditional feature back Demario Richard and power back Kalen Ballage. Arizona State can build off the run game, but must do so behind an offensive line replacing talented guard Christian Westerman.

3. Special Teams Prowess 

Special teams miscues plagued Arizona State in 2013 and '14, but the 2016 Sun Devils have the pieces for one of the Pac-12's best special teams units.

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Speedster Tim White was among the nation's best kick returners in 2015, averaging 27 yards per attempt and taking one back for a touchdown. Punter Matt Haack and kicker Zane Gonzalez are entrenched veterans, both coming off solid years.

What's been one of Arizona State's biggest weaknesses looks like its most established strength heading into 2016. 

4. Home Runs or Strikeouts 

Think of the blitz-heavy defensive scheme Graham prefers like a swing-happy, home-run hitter in baseball. It's a risk-reward mentality that comes up big when effective, but can result in plenty of strikeouts.

In 2015, the Sun Devils whiffed more than they connected. The 33.7 points per game Arizona State surrendered were the most any Graham defense allowed in his four years with the program, and ranked 99th nationally.

Graham defended his scheme after losing the regular-season finale to Cal, 48-46, a game in which the Sun Devils surrendered numerous big plays. Giving 43 points to West Virginia in the Cactus Bowl left Arizona State heading into the offseason with the bad taste of 128 points allowed in just three games.

How a 2.5-month layoff to marinate on those failings impacts Graham's philosophy could shape the Sun Devil defense in 2016. Arizona State loses five starters, including defensive backs Lloyd Carrington and Jordan Simone. Linebacker Salamo Fiso and defensive back Kareem Orr return to provide a foundation for that blitz-and-turnover combination Graham favors, but they'll need support.

5. Defending The Pass 

After struggling with option offenses in Cal Poly and New Mexico early in the season, Arizona State buckled down to limit opponents to 125.9 rushing yards per game — 20th best in the nation. But as logic would dictate for a defense that gave up as many points as the Sun Devils, a stingy rush defense struggled mightily against the pass.

No team in college football was worse against the pass. The Sun Devils allowed 338 yards per game through the game, the statistical manifestation of the aforementioned commitment to bodies on the blitz.

Arizona State defensive backs have to be comfortable on an island, in single coverage. Orr settled into a playmaking role as the season progressed, but the Sun Devils lacked the sheer variety of capable defensive backs necessary to withstand passing barrages. Losing Kweishi Brown leaves further uncertainty in the secondary heading into spring.

Pre-Spring Arizona State Outlook in the Pac-12

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Graham hasn't been shy about touting top-tier potential for Arizona State football. The 2016 campaign will provide the stiffest test of the program's endurance in Graham's tenure.

Arizona State has fewer returning starters — six on defense and just four on offense — than any team in the Pac-12, save Cal. The lack of experience, coupled with the disappointment of 2015, has the Sun Devils facing more uncertainty than any season since '12.

This team's identity will be far from crafted by the end of spring practice. The 2016 Sun Devils should look different than any squad Graham's had. With the Pac-12 South collectively facing a season of uncertainty, Arizona State's basement could be the bottom, as much as its ceiling could be first place.

— Written by Kyle Kensing, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a sportswriter in Southern California. Kensing is publisher of CFBHuddle.com. Follow him on Twitter @kensing45.