It took just two seasons, but Todd Graham led Arizona State to the best conference record in the Pac-12, despite Stanford and Oregon ranking as preseason top-10 teams, and UCLA (according to some) the overwhelming favorite in the South.
Taylor Kelly and Will Sutton were clear leaders for the Sun Devils — one loaded with senior producers — and State went on a wild 2013 ride that ended with an 8-1 league record and a Pac-12 championship game in Sun Devil Stadium.
Returning for the defending South Division champions is a host of elite playmakers, including star three-year starter Taylor Kelly at quarterback. Sure, replacing Marion Grice and Chris Coyle will be key in the playmaker department and filling a couple of holes on the O-Line is important, but Graham’s tallest order is replacing nine of 11 starters on his defense.
There will be a noticeable theme with ASU’s “three things to watch” this spring.
Arizona State Sun Devils 2014 Spring Preview
2013 Record: 10-4 (8-1 Pac-12)
Spring Practice Opens: March 18
Spring Game: April 19
Three Things to Watch in Arizona State's 2014 Spring Practice
Find playmakers along the D-Line
Will Sutton was a two-time Defensive Player of the Year in the Pac-12, and he cannot simply be replaced. But more than that, the Arizona State defensive line is also missing All-Pac-12 picks Davon Coleman (15.0 TFL), Gannon Conway (7 TFL) and hybrid end/linebacker Carl Bradford (19.5 TFL). Replacing all four starters up front is virtually impossible for any team, but this group combined for over 200 tackles and 24.5 sacks in 2013. Finding guys who can pressure the quarterback and play behind the line of scrimmage is imperative for Graham and new co-defensive coordinator Keith Patterson. Jaxon Hood returns and has plenty of upside at nose tackle, and Marcus Hardison might be the best returning pass rusher on the roster. This duo will try to fill the void on the inside, while Sean O’Grady, junior college transfers Edmond Boateng, Kweishi Brown and Demetrius Cherry will attempt to stake their claim for playing time as well this spring.
Find playmakers at linebacker
Bradford's departure also impacts the linebacking corps, as this unit has to replace Chris Young (112 tackles), as well as contributors Anthony Jones and Steffon Martin (combined 72 tackles). Salamo Fiso returns as one of the few with starting experience but other names like Antonio Longino and Carlos Mendoza need to step into bigger roles. The same can be said for early enrollee D.J. Calhoun, redshirt freshmen Chans Cox and Alani Latu as well as JUCO transfer Darrius Caldwell. This group wasn’t as talented or productive as the defensive line departures but there is still a glaring lack of experience among the returning players. Graham and Patterson will spend plenty of time this spring rebuilding the linebacking corps.
Find playmakers in the secondary
The theme for ASU spring practice should be fairly apparent by now. Much like the defensive line and linebacking corps, the secondary is in rough shape after three All-Pac-12 picks moved on to the NFL. Robert Nelson was a first-team All-Pac-12 coverman and Osahon Irabor was one of the biggest playmakers in the league from his cornerback position. Finally, Alden Darby must be replaced at safety, and he was also a first-team all-conference selection in 2013. Free safety Damarious Randall returns with the most experience (71 tackles), and Lloyd Carrington got plenty of snaps last year as well at cornerback. Otherwise, Graham is looking for guys who were contributors last year to develop into stars in 2014. Hybrid safety-backer Viliami Moeakiola, Ezekiel Bishop and Rashad Wadood all saw the field from a year ago and must step into bigger roles this year. Redshirt freshmen Marcus Ball and Jayme Otomewo could help out as well. Either way, this unit is lacking in star power, playmaking ability and leadership and that will need to be addressed in a big way this spring.
2014 Early Projected Win Range: 8-10
Kelly leads an offense with big-time talent from a playmaker standpoint (DJ Foster, Jaelen Strong), and the offensive line should be able to rebuild quickly. But this defense has just two starters back and lost eight All-Pac-12 selections from that side of the ball. This is why Todd Graham brought in five junior college front seven signees. Needless to say, Graham has his work cut out for him on defense, but his offense will be in great shape. The issue with a repeat as South Division champs may be the schedule this season - not the overhauled defensive depth chart. Crossover games with Stanford, at Washington and at Oregon State are challenging, and the round robin with USC, UCLA and Arizona will be even more difficult this season. Could this team challenge for a division championship? Certainly. But Graham will have to do serious work on his defense this spring for that to come to fruition this fall.