With a seven loss 2015 season in the rear view mirror, the ASU football began practice today in Camp Tontozona for the remainder of the week to kick off their fifth fall camp under the leadership of head coach Todd Graham. With five new assistant coaches and the most inexperienced roster returning among Pac-12 schools, this season could end up being Graham’s most challenging.
For the coach that won 34 games in his first four seasons, he know his team has to get stronger mentally going forward, “we had been accustomed to winning those close games, and last year we lost every close game we were in. We slipped a little bit discipline-wise, we slipped a little bit coach-wise, and we slipped leadership-wise. And this is a pretty competitive league.”
While Graham’s trademark optimism and usage of hyperbole with reporters and fans has been calmed thanks to the oversight of Ray Anderson, the main concerns seem more clear than any other season since he began in 2012.
— Sun Devil Football (@FootballASU) August 2, 2016
First Tine to Victory: Find Taylor Kelly 2.0
Graham’s fifth season in Tempe begins with a huge question mark at the quarterback position. The Sun Devils join the ranks of seven other Pac-12 schools that will be officially naming a new starting quarterback once September begins. And while last season’s starter Mike Bercovici got better as the season progressed, his strengths just didn’t seem to fit the offense in which he was asked to perform in.
But Graham feels this challenge is being addressed by the right man as offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey is a quarterback guru who has improved talent at the position wherever he has coached professionally. Graham even went so far as to note that Lindsey’s predecessor, Mike Norvell, had never been a quarterbacks coach unlike the Devils new play-caller. That’s why it was so important that ASU retained Lindsey’s services when his former team Southern Miss came calling back in January.
No quarterback on the roster has thrown a collegiate pass, which puts the Devils in unique territory as they’ll be the only school in FBS play that can say this leading into 2016. So when Graham and Lindsey do make their selection as to who will start the game on Sept. 3 against Northern Arizona; be it sophomore Manny Wilkins, or redshirt freshmen Bryce Perkins and Brady White, or even true freshman Dillon Sterling-Cole; success will come down to how well the player has taken to Lindsey’s style and coaching ability.
Graham has gone both ways when commenting on how the team will need to decide on who its next quarterback is. He’s noted numerous times this off-season about the similarities in selecting a new starting quarterback with what the process was like back in 2012 when he gave Taylor Kelly the nod to replace the departed Brock Osweiler. But then the final press conference before camp was to begin, having met with Kelly earlier in the week, Graham noted “four days into camp with Taylor is when he really started to separate. When he moved, he really moved up. We gave him four days to max out his reps. He improved all summer long, not only in those four days.”
When might the new starter be named? Graham said at the completion of spring practice that the answer to that question would not come until just before the opener against NAU.
In the meantime Lindsay will looks to utilize the strengths of what his next starting quarterback does well, rather than force a square peg into a round hole. Being flexible in high school due to roster fluctuation made Lindsay learn to be flexible in the scheme, be it a spread passing dictated game plan to using the short passing game to off-set the run game in college. It’s this strength that made his quarterback Nick Mullens and Southerm Miss team so successful when he called plays during 2015.
Second Tine to Victory: Forge the Best Five on the Offensive Line
To put things into perspective, the Stanford Cardinal have the second fewest amount of starts in the Pac-12, and they have 25 more than the Devils do as camp begins. 11 of those 15 career starts came from senior left tackle Evan Goodman who struggled with consistency throughout 2015, both in protecting Bercovici’s blind side and committing penalties (a mortal sin to both his position coach Chris Thomsen, let alone Graham). His senior year development into a more stable pass protector could prove critical as the team breaks in its next quarterback.
Sam Jones got valuable playing time last fall at tackle but moved to left guard in the spring. He and Goodman look like the locks at their positions as camp begins. There are some questions at the other three spots, first and foremost will be whether senior Stephon McCray plays at center or at right guard depending on the performance of junior walk-on center Tyler McClure and the more decorated junior college transfer A.J. McCollum.
Quinn Bailey has played his way up the depth chart over the past twelve months seeing time as blocking tight end in short yardage sets against West Virginia in the Cactus Bowl before playing with the ones throughout spring ball as the team’s right tackle. Zach Robertson and Steve Miller will give Bailey competition that could help to make this one of the deepest lines since Graham took over. But also one without a proven all-conference performer.
While Graham considers this position group to be the biggest question mark, his faith in Thomsen seems to go a long way. “He’s a master teacher. Who he’s the most like, it would be Tom Landry. He doesn’t get very animated very often; he just does a tremendous job.”
— Sun Devil Football (@FootballASU) August 2, 2016
Third Tine to Victory: Rebuild the Secondary and Then What?
“We got knocked on our can (in 2015), we better get back up and get back at it. Lots of positive things as far as that goes. I look at the leaders on the team, you don’t have a returning quarterback so that impacts that a little,” were the sentiments of Graham when discussing both the leadership on the roster, and of the mental toughness of this team.
Defensively speaking, when things have gone right (think back to 2013), it’s been because of an effective pass rush surrounded by play makers around the ball. The feel of the second level defenders on the 2016 defense will look much different as camp begins. While veteran linebackers like senior Salamo Fiso and junior Christian Sam look will maintain the foundation, senior Laiu Moeakiloa shifts from Spur (where he started for the past two seasons) to free safety in an effort to give the back end of the defense a bit more experience. Graham likes flexibility in his defense, and having a player like Moeakiola allows him to do different things.
After multiple shoulder surgeries during his Sun Devil career, playing a position that is a bit farther back off the line of scrimmage might help Moeakiola healthier than he’s ever been. But it’s also his steady nature, communication skills on the field, and strong mental make-up that has been difficult to replace when he’s missed time due to the shoulder injuries. Having him captain the secondary with the likes of talented sophomores Kareem Orr and Armand Perry having only totaled 14 career games between them could go a long way. These three have nowhere to go but up as part of a defense that was statistically the worst, in terms of defending the pass, in school history. The one position up for grabs in the secondary looks to be the other corner position where senior Gump Hayes, junior Chad Adams, graduate transfer Bryson Echols, and highly touted junior college transfers Maurice Chandler and J’Marcus Rhodes will be under the leadership of their new position coach TJ Rushing. This doesn’t factor in whether or not the likes of Robbie Robinson or Chase Lucas put together the camp of their dreams and make a push for the two-deep as true freshman.
Rushing has the job of improving a secondary that helped to give up 24 plays of at least 40 yards, the worst in FBS play. Part of the plan to improve on last years defense includes shifting Orr from safety back to corner where he was originally recruited by the Sun Devils. The freshman All-American got better as the season went on totaling six interceptions as the Sun Devils only returning starter from the 2015 secondary.
“It’s a really explosive league,” said Graham. “There are going to be some bombs going down the field and you have to be able to knock those down and not let those things happen.” How this unit performs in 2016 could either compliment or thwart the progress at the quarterback position. If they play well, there will be much less pressure on whomever wins the starting quarterback job. If they take a while to develop (see the Texas Tech game), it could throw whomever wins the job into the fire much quicker than either Graham or Lindsay would be comfortable with.