TEMPE, Ariz. (AP) — Arizona State’s offense has been explosive in two seasons under coach Todd Graham and has a chance to be even better this season with so many playmakers returning.
But as the Sun Devils head into the 2014 season, it seems all anyone wants to talk about is the defense.
And for good reason. With just two returning starters, even Graham understands why there’s so much focus on that side of the ball.
“Obviously, if I was asking the questions, that’s what I’d be asking questions about,” Graham said.
Arizona State complemented its dynamic offense last season with an athletic, disruptive defense while winning 10 games and the Pac-12 South. There were plenty of star players on D, too, including tackle Will Sutton and linebacker Carl Bradford, both selected in this year’s NFL draft.
Now, nearly everyone with much experience is gone, with defensive tackle Jaxon Hood and safety Damarious Randall the only returning starters.
That means the Sun Devils will have to rely an awful lot on young, inexperienced players on defense.
Arizona State does have some talent coming back, including safety Marcus Ball, who was on pace to start as a freshman last season before a collarbone injury in preseason camp forced him to redshirt.
There’s also talent among the youngsters; Graham brought in some quality junior college players and his latest recruiting class was among the best in the country.
Still, most of these Sun Devils will be learning on the job, hopefully not making too many mistakes in a schedule that gets tough quickly after the opener against Weber State on Aug. 28.
“Will we be as talented and experienced on defense? Well, no,” Graham said. “But I do think we’ll surprise a lot of people with the productivity in the country.”
Here’s are five more things to look for as Arizona State heads into its third season under Graham:
KING KELLY: Taylor Kelly had to win a tight battle as the Sun Devils’ starting quarterback as a sophomore. It’s hard to imagine anyone else leading them now. Heading into his senior season, Kelly is one of the nation’s top QBs, a player who can hurt teams with his arm and his ability to avoid tacklers. Kelly’s name dots Arizona State’s record books and he’s also its undisputed team leader, a by-example type of player who teammates naturally look to.
TWO-WAY DE’MARIEYA: De’Marieya Nelson has been Arizona State’s best tight end and could put up some big numbers in that dynamic offense. But the Sun Devils also need help on defense and Nelson just happens to be a pretty good defensive end. With that in mind, Graham has been working the senior on both sides of the ball, saying he will likely play 40 snaps on defense, about 20 on offense and play on special teams, where he excelled last season.
STRONG ONE: Jaelen Strong had a huge impact as a junior college transfer last season, catching 75 passes for 1,122 yards and seven TDs. With a year under offensive coordinator Mike Norvell’s system, Strong is expected to have an even bigger year in 2014. NFL scouts also seem to love Strong, who’s big at 6-foot-3, 212 pounds and has a knack for coming up with big plays.
FOSTER’S TIME: D.J. Foster is getting his shot at being Arizona State’s featured back. A prized local recruit in Graham’s first class two years ago, he showed off some big-play capability as a slot receiver last season, catching 63 passes for 653 yards. Foster got a shot in the final three games last season after Marion Grice suffered a foot injury and Foster played well, scoring a pair of long touchdowns against Stanford and rushing for over 100 yards the other two games.
SOME SPECIAL TEAMS: Arizona State had some disastrous games on special teams last season, from bad snaps to poor kick coverage to mediocre returns. The lone bright spot was kicker Zane Gonzalez. Last season, he tied the NCAA freshman record by making 25 field goals and set an ASU record by hitting 18 straight. He also hit all 63 of his PAT attempts and set a school record for points by a kicker with 138. The addition of defensive coordinator Keith Patterson, who worked with Graham before, should help shore up the rest of Arizona State’s special teams.
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