Change defines the 2017 season for Arizona State football.
ASU will play its home games in a renovated Sun Devil Stadium, a symbolic representation of the heightened expectations the program holds after back-to-back 10-win campaigns in 2013 and ‘14. The Sun Devils also need a change in the on-field product after finishing below .500 for the second time in as many seasons in 2016.
Head coach Todd Graham's staff underwent considerable change for the second time in as many years, losing passing game coordinator Jay Norvell to the head coaching vacancy at Nevada. Also gone is offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey, who accepted the same position at Auburn. Both spent less than 12 full months in Tempe.
Change also arrives on the other side of the ball. After finishing in the basement in a number of defensive statistical categories, Graham added former Baylor defensive coordinator Phil Bennett to the mix.
School's officially in session at Arizona State.
5 Storylines to Watch in Arizona State Spring Practice
1. Getting to Know You
The opening of spring practices at Arizona State resembles the first day of a new semester, in certain ways. Many Sun Devils gain an introduction to new professors, introducing a different curriculum from their predecessors.
Former Alabama wide receivers coach Billy Napier arrives as offensive coordinator – and he's not the only new face from Tuscaloosa. Quarterback Blake Barnett – a highly touted Class of 2015 prospect from California, who spent the past two years at Alabama – also is on board.
Much of spring practice at Arizona State will be about feeling out the new dynamics evident up and down the roster and staff.
2. Quarterback Controversy?
Barnett's arrival shakes up the pecking order at quarterback. The Sun Devils cycled through signal-callers a season ago, due in part to injuries. None of them had much, if any, game experience prior to lining up.
Manny Wilkins was the best of the bunch, and played the most. He threw 12 touchdown passes against nine interceptions in 10 games, and rushed for another five scores. Wilkins also completed more than 63 percent of his passes, far better than 51 percent that freshmen Brady White and Dillon Sterling-Cole each produced.
Wilkins showed plenty of promise. Nevertheless, Barnett's immediate eligibility and familiarity with the new offensive coordinator suggest he'll have opportunity to nab the starting job.
3. Overhauling the Defense
Phil Bennett has his work cut out for him. Arizona State ranked No. 123 in the nation in scoring defense a season ago, and dead last (No. 128) against the pass.
The Sun Devils' national rank of No. 56 in rushing defense suggests they were much better defending on the ground; but surrendering 511 rushing yards and seven touchdowns in the season-ending loss at Arizona suggests otherwise.
Arizona State needs a complete overhaul defensively. Graham's feast-or-famine approach worked when the Sun Devils had pass rushers like Will Sutton and Carl Bradford, but the defense has starved much more than it's eaten in the last two seasons. The blitz-heavy scheme of years past leaves Arizona State vulnerable, particularly in the secondary.
The reconstruction of the defense won't take as long as the renovations made to Sun Devil Stadium, but it certainly won't be a finished project by the end of spring practices.
4. Offensive Identity
Arizona State's put up big points since Graham and Co. introduced their brand of "high-octane" football to Tempe. Despite injuries and inexperience a season ago, the Sun Devils still averaged 33.3 points per game.
And yet, Arizona State's offensive identity hasn't exactly been consistency over the last few years. The Sun Devils went from building off the dual-threat game of quarterback Taylor Kelly, to relying on pocket-passing Mike Bercovici.
Wilkins brought back the dual-threat dynamic, but Arizona State also leaned heavily on gimmicks such as a direct-snap package with running back Kalen Ballage.
Barnett's been lauded for his dual-threat ability, but if he's the No. 1 quarterback by September, how much will that factor into Arizona State's approach?
5. Replacing Mr. Automatic
Kicker Zane Gonzalez left Arizona State football this past season with the credentials to call himself the greatest of all-time. He set the NCAA record for made field goals last season, then set a Senior Bowl record this past January.
The Sun Devils were virtually guaranteed three points once they crossed the opponents' 40-yard line with Gonzalez on the roster. His absence leaves a tremendous void.
Trial runs for replacements begin in the spring, though incoming Gilbert, Arizona, prep product Brandon Ruiz may be the man for the job. He arrives in the summer.
Pre-Spring Outlook for Arizona State in the Pac-12
Arizona State's not alone in its situation; the recurring theme around the Pac-12 South this offseason is one of change. USC's Rose Bowl defeat of Penn State has the Trojans positioned as early favorites for a national title, say nothing of the Pac-12. Otherwise, both the South division and conference itself appear to be rather open.
Of all the uncertainties abound in the Pac-12 South, Arizona State looks to be the least certain of all. New defensive coordinator Phil Bennett successfully overhauled a once-moribund unit at Baylor, and could do the same at Arizona State – but it will take time.
The carousel of coordinators on offense presents another unknown.
Change was necessary for this program. Losing a blowout to Arizona to cap 2016 underscored that. But the Sun Devils need the positives to take shape quickly.