Nov 3, 2012; Corvallis, OR, USA; Arizona State Sun Devils defensive lineman Jaxon Hood (92) tackles Oregon State Beavers running back Malcolm Agnew (30) during the game at Reser Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Scott Olmos-USA TODAY Sports

Will a rebuilt defense keep Arizona State from returning to the top?

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The early promise of the Dennis Erickson era fizzled into a wallow through mediocrity, but Todd Graham looks to have the Sun Devils contending for conference crowns again. In fact, ASU won the South division last season, losing only to Notre Dame and mighty Stanford along the way. However, the season ended on a bum note as the Sun Devils were trounced by the Cardinal in the conference title game, and were then shredded by the Texas Tech passing attack in the Holiday Bowl. The 2 losses certainly took the shine off an otherwise fine season, but the Arizona State-faithful have had their appetite for success whetted again, and rightfully so.

 

Offense

Nov 30, 2013; Tempe, AZ, USA; Arizona State Sun Devils wide receiver Jaelen Strong (right) catches a touchdown pass under pressure from Arizona Wildcats cornerback Shaquille Richardson in the second half of the 87th annual Territorial Cup at Sun Devil Stadium. Arizona State defeated Arizona 58-21. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Nov 30, 2013; Tempe, AZ, USA; Arizona State Sun Devils wide receiver Jaelen Strong (right) catches a touchdown pass under pressure from Arizona Wildcats cornerback Shaquille Richardson in the second half of the 87th annual Territorial Cup at Sun Devil Stadium. Arizona State defeated Arizona 58-21. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

The focal point of the offense was junior quarterback Taylor Kelly, who was voted 2nd team all-conference in an impressive group. Kelly passed for 3635 yards and 28 TDS, but also made many plays with his feet, adding 608 yards and another 9 scores. Running back Marion Grice was a major component of the offense too. He may have lacked the lofty rushing stats of his peers, but he scored 20 total TDs and often stepped up when the offense was struggling. He rushed for 996 yards and caught 51 passes for 438 yards, despite missing the last 3 games. At receiver, JUCO Jaelen Strong was expected to put on a show, and he didn’t disappoint, catching 75 passes for 1222 yards. The offensive line had the same unit in place for all 14 games, an impressive feat, but they still struggled against tough defenses, and allowed 41 sacks, far too many for Kelly’s liking.

The good news is, Kelly’s back on an offense that loses 4½ starters (Kevin Ozier started 6 games). The bad news is, they lose 4 key starters, and they can’t really count on their impressive luck with injuries last season (only 6 starts lost). Kelly will be a senior and in his 3rd year as a starter, and should be even better. Having Strong to throw to again is a bonus, but Kelly will miss all-conference tight end Chris Coyle. Now-senior De’Marieya Nelson played regularly last season (6 starts), and will get more opportunities this year, assuming he can win the job. Grice has graduated too, but may not be as big a loss as one would expect. DJ Foster (501 yards, 6 TDs) capably filled in when Grice was injured, but he also has value as a receiver (63-653-4) and may maintain his role. Should that be the case, Deantre Lewis (301 yards, 1 TD) may stick at running back after switching back-and-forth from defensive back. Expect small-but-electric JUCO De’Chavon Hayes to play a big part. The offensive line is taking a big hit with all-conference left tackle Evan Finkenberg finally moving on. Center Kody Koebensky is also gone – he’s a 2-year starter, and it’s rarely easy to replace centers. Sophomore Evan Goodman took a redshirt last season after backing up Finkenberg as a true freshman, and will get every chance to win the job. He has a ton of potential. Nick Kelly is a former JUCO who backed up Koebensky last season, and should take over in 2014.

 

Defense

The defense was generally good last season, but power teams were still able to beat up on them. Even with a 4-2-5 defense (and variations), a team with this many quality returning starters should not have been this vulnerable. PAC 12 defensive player of the year Will Sutton led a unit that leaked some yards, but forced 33 turnovers and totaled 40 sacks. End Carl Bradford and tackle/end Davon Coleman shared the team lead with 8.5 sacks each, and a combined 34 tackles for loss. Linebacker Chris Young counted 7.5 sacks and 17.5 tackles for loss amongst his 112 tackles, while redshirt freshman Salamo Fiso took over down the stretch and looks like a keeper. The secondary boast 3 all-conference selections in strong safety Alden Darby and corner Robert Nelson (both firsts), while Osahon Irabor earned second team honors at the other corner.

Now the defense that struggled occasionally could be in for a spot of bother, as they need to replace 9 starters this season. The line loses all 4 starters, but returns Jaxon Hood, who started the season but was banged up for much of the year. He’s a nice building block to start with. The cupboard isn’t exactly bare, but Graham hit the JUCO ranks hard to add depth if nothing else. Tackle Dalvon Stuckey and ends Edmond Boateng and Darrius Caldwell were among the top-ranked community college players this season. If none of them start, they should at least play in the rotation. Caldwell may play linebacker too. Fiso is the only returning linebacker, and even though he earned valuable experience last season, he’s still only a sophomore. Expect sophomore Viliami Latu and Antonio Longino to make a push for a starting spot after a learning season. Carlos Mendoza should take over as the Spur. Free safety Damorious Randall is the only returning starter in the secondary, but they have some experience among the potential starters. Viliami Moeakiola started 4 games at free safety last season, and another at nickel. He’ll likely take over at strong safety. Lloyd Carrington also played some nickel, and also got in a start at corner, where he should find a home next season. Rashood Wadood and JUCO Kweishi Brown will battle it out for the other corner spot.

 

Special Teams

Kicker Zane Gonzalez made the all-conference team, hitting 25 of 30 field goals, with a long of 44. Neither punter, Alex Garoutte or Matt Haack were outstanding, but they were serviceable. Garoutte took over midseason, and will be first in line for 2014, but Haack won’t give in without a fight. Garoutte will have a job as a kickoff specialist regardless. Grice was a solid kick returner in addition to his offensive chores, but Nelson was mediocre returning punts. The coverage units could have been better, but weren’t awful either.

All the specialists are back, but whoever wins the punting job needs to improve. A couple of new returners need to be found, but there is more than enough talent on board to find a couple of decent players. The coverage units need to tighten up a little, but they aren’t a huge concern.

 

Prediction

The PAC 12 is competitive right now, and it will be had for Arizona State to match last season’s success with a team losing 9 all-conference picks, 6 on defense. The schedule starts with a couple of warm-ups, to give the new faces some time to gel, but there’s little let up after that. While the Sun Devils are building well, and should be back in contention for the league crown in 2015, this could be a tough year. They won’t be walked over, but 6 or 7 wins is a very probable result.

 

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Tags: Alex Garoutte Antonio Longino Arizona State Sun Devils Carlos Mendoza Dalvon Stuckey Damorious Randall Darrius Caldwell De'Chavon Hayes De'Marieya Nelson Deantre Lewis DJ Foster Edmond Boateng Evan Goodman Jaelen Strong Jaxon Hood Kweishi Brown Lloyd Carrington Matt Haack Nick Kelly PAC 12 Football Rashood Wadood Salamo Fiso Taylor Kelly Todd Graham Viliami Latu Viliami Moeakiola Zane Gonzalez

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