Rob Malara

Graham’s List of Off-Season Priorities

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Now that Arizona State head football coach Todd Graham knows junior running back D.J. Foster will return for his senior season and junior wide receiver Jaelen Strong will make himself eligible for the NFL Draft, Graham can now turn the page and start to look at the 2015 season.

If we learned anything about the Pac-12 as a whole in 2014, the fortunes of teams can change rapidly (look at Stanford, Arizona, Utah, and Cal as examples).  While there will be an increase of players with starting experience, especially on defense, there will be plenty of decisions to be made by the end of August, in order for this team to continue to compete in the Pac-12 South division.

Here are four areas of focus for the coaching staff this off-season:

1. Surround Bercovici with receiving threats

When Todd Graham announced that this was now Mike Bercovici’s team during his post-game Sun Bowl speech, it put to bed any idea that the likes of Brady White or Manny Wilkins would have a shot at winning the starting job in 2015. With that foundation laid out, the staff could move on to figuring out ways to help build on Bercovici’s 2014 success, namely by continuing to develop receivers for him to throw to not named Jaelen Strong.

Foster’s decision to return for his senior season is a step in the right direction for this passing offense that will have a new full-time leader under center for the first time since Graham took over in 2012. Having accumulated nearly 4,000 yards of total offense in his three years of incremental improvement in the offense, Foster talked in his press conference about his excitement about being involved in more of a slot role next year.  With the emergence of true freshman Demario Richard over the second half of the season, Foster may now find himself the primary receiver in the offensive scheme much more than the secondary ball carrier. The development of Foster as a full-time receiver will be critical as he will be one of the best returning offensive players at any position entering 2015 in the Pac-12.

BercoviciFoster1

When he was healthy, Cameron Smith was a dependable compliment as the secondary wide receiver option to Jaelen Strong .  While Smith only topped the 100-yard plateau once, he showed the ability to stretch the field vertically if given the opportunity when he starred in his only chance as top dog among the wide receivers, filling in for an injured Strong against Washington State.

Still, it’s safe to say the offensive staff would like to see someone among the likes of junior Gary Chambers or sophomore Ellis Jefferson step up and fill the role as the big-bodied target we witness Strong thrive in during the past two seasons.  While no one is suggesting either of the two have Strong’s NFL talent or production ability, if they can simply keep teams honest, preventing them from doubling up on Foster, they will serve a greater purpose.

2. Find a Devil backer to dictate the pace defensively

Sophomore Edmond Boateng started five of the first seven games at Devil backer totalling 22 tackles and 2.5 sacks.  To be fair, the Sun Devil defense leaned heavily on 4-3 looks as the season progressed, favoring more players in traditional alignments (especially with the attention of Demetrius Cherry) than using the hybrid Devil backer position.   Adam Stites for CronkiteSports.com did a great write-up on this whole debate earlier in the season.

But whether it’s at Devil backer, or at a more traditional rush end spot in sub packages, about the only thing this defense is missing going into next year is a true pass rusher who can beat their opponent one-on-one.  This will be a huge opportunity to improve upon given the fact this team could not pressure the quarterback with less than five players against the majority of their opponents. Enter freshman Ismael Murphy-Richardson who spent the season on the scout team after getting cleared to practice in early September.

After a few months in the Sun Devil conditioning program, Murphy-Richardson, a Phoenix native, has the looks of a player Graham can use to push the envelope as that joker player, rather than over-relying on bringing the house constantly and exposing his secondary, as was the case for most of 2014.

And then there is the option of December verbal commit Davon Durant.  While Murphy-Richardson is still growing into the suitable body type for the position, Durant is already there physically.  The top junior college linebacker according to Rivals.com spent this past season causing havoc as an outside linebacker with his prototypical size/speed combination.

Todd Graham was forced to play with the cards dealt to him after Carl Bradford declared for the draft late during last year’s recruiting cycle.  He now has the pleasure of possessing all-conference talent both presently and for the future in these two players, a step in the right direction compared to where he was just twelve months ago.

3. Improve in pass protection

The Devils advance to 2015 knowing they’ll need to replace the bookends along the offensive line.  Left tackle Jamil Douglas held his own in 2014 after kicking out from guard, dominating at times against the likes of teams with a stand-out front seven, Stanford first and foremost.  It’s never easy to replace guys with the talent and experience of a Douglas, let alone right tackle Tyler Sulka, a starter for the last two years at the position.

Photo by Tomer Greenfeld

The flip-side of the equation when looking to improve the offense however is pin pointing the fact that the Sun Devils offensive line gave up the second most sacks per pass play in the conference, trailing only UCLA. Think about that, the Devils line gave up one sack every 12 passing plays, and lead the conference in sacks allowed.  Whether that’s on the line, the choice of throwing the ball more down field forcing their quarterbacks to hold onto the ball longer, or the evolution of the pass as part of the read-option scheme, ASU struggled at times to keep the quarterback clean, whether it was Taylor Kelly or Mike Bercovici.

During the spring Mike Norvell and offensive line coach Chris Thomsen will have their hands full trying to decide among the likes of Evan Goodman, Billy McGehee, Sam Jones, or Jack Powers to fill the two tackle positions. Could Norvell and Thomsen decide to put Christian Westerman at a tackle position and elevate Stephon McCray to a starting guard spot? With the past two recruiting classes, 2013 and 2014, falling short in acquiring it’s full potential of impact talent at offensive line, these four lettermen will have the opportunity to get a leg up on potential Junior College enrollees in the summer.

4. Who is next in line after Sutton and Hardison?

The defense grew by leaps and bounds in the second half of 2014, with the improved play of senior Marcus Harrison having much to do with that.  His ability to hold his own against the run while also pressuring the quarterback fulfilled the promise of why he was recruited in the 2013 class to be Sutton’s replacement, albeit for just one season.

If Durant and Murphy-Richardson can hold their own at Devil backer, Boateng could slot into the defensive line rotation, with field end being his most probable landing spot.  The news gets even better as players like junior Demetrius Cherry and Renell Wren give the defense options for looks in terms of defensive fronts.  The challenge will be whether or not any of these three players can be next in line for the throne as best all-around player on the line.

About Rob Malara

Rob Malara

Rob Malara is a 2002 Sun Devil grad having spent the majority of his time in Tempe as a football, basketball, and baseball season ticket holder and front row inhabitant. A member of the Football Writers Association of America, he hosted the ASU Devils podcast and was its sub-optimal technical producer through its lifespan. Currently the president of the ASU Alumni Association's Northern Colorado Club, he is part of a family of maroon and gold residing in Fort Collins with his Sun Devil wife and nearby Sun Devil sister.

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