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The Countdown

A bottom-to-top assessment of the F.B.S. landscape heading into the 2012 season.

The Countdown

No. 82: Arizona State

Dennis Erickson had three jobs over a four-year span: Idaho in 1986, Washington State from 1987-88 and Miami (Fla.) in 1989. He once had three jobs over a six-year span: Miami in 1994 – leaving the program under an N.C.A.A. spotlight – the Seattle Seahawks from 1995-98 and Oregon State in 1999. He returned to Idaho in 2006, led the Vandals to four wins and then left for Arizona State, his third job in the Pac-12 over the previous two decades. Mercenary? Disloyal? Like all subjective labels, it depends on where you stand. Todd Graham is on his fourth head coaching job in seven years. He’s had two one-and-done stints, at Rice in 2006 and Pittsburgh a year ago. He’s said the wrong things: “I probably should have never gone to Pittsburgh,” for example. He’s been ripped and shredded by the national press. Fine. Just know two things: one, that Graham isn’t the first head coach to hopscotch his way across the country; and two, that Arizona State couldn’t care less. And the sooner you realize that there are bigger issues plaguing college football than another head coach playing musical chairs the better.

Conference
Pac-12, South

Location
Tempe, Ariz.

Nickname
Sun Devils

Returning starters
8 (3 offense, 5 defense)

Last year’s ranking
No. 42

2011 record
(6-7, 4-5)

Last year’s
re-ranking

No. 72

2012 schedule

  • Sept. 1
    Northern Arizona
  • Sept. 8
    Illinois
  • Sept. 15
    at Missouri
  • Sept. 22
    Utah
  • Sept. 29
    at California
  • Oct. 11
    at Colorado
  • Oct. 18
    Oregon
  • Oct. 27
    U.C.L.A.
  • Nov. 3
    at Oregon St.
  • Nov. 10
    at U.S.C.
  • Nov. 17
    Washington St.
  • Nov. 23
    at Arizona

Last year’s prediction

What I see is a team that after three years of building to this point has the pieces in place to absolutely return to bowl play and challenge for a South division title. What I don’t see is a Top 25 team, as many have suggested. Is this a team that can go into Auzten Stadium and knock off the Ducks? Is this a team that’s going to take four, let alone five of six against Missouri, Illinois, U.S.C., Oregon State, Utah and Oregon? Sorry, but I don’t see it. Just try to keep everything in perspective: get on the bandwagon, but don’t ask for too much. The Sun Devils are good, just not great.

2011 recap

In a nutshell Was this the most disappointing bowl team in the country? Notice the disclaimer: the Sun Devils did get back into bowl play for the first time since 2007, which did make last fall at least a partially successful season. But the year was still a massive letdown after the way Arizona State had been plugged as a can’t-miss team heading into 2011. How did things go so bad? Like a snowball rolling downhill, the Sun Devils’ season took a hit in early November and never recovered, accumulating speed until there was no choice but to fire Erickson and start fresh in 2012. Everything went wonderfully through October; the Sun Devils were 6-2, holding wins over Missouri, U.S.C. and Utah. A.S.U. wouldn’t win again, losing four straight by a combined 24 points to end the regular season before getting its doors blown off by Boise State during bowl play.

High point A 43-22 win over U.S.C. on Sept. 24. U.S.C.? Really? Yes, the same team that ended the year red-hot lost to the same team that ended the year with a whimper. It probably had something to do with four U.S.C. turnovers, one a fourth quarter interception that Shelly Lyons returned for a touchdown.

Low point A home loss to Arizona was the nadir of the regular season, though only the rivalry’s bitter history separates that defeat from similarly painful setbacks to U.C.L.A. and Washington State. As for the Las Vegas Bowl? Boise could have scored 100, had it chose.

Tidbit Erickson departed Tempe with the worst career winning percentage of any coach in the program’s modern era whose tenure lasted more than one season. If you include single-season stays, Erickson, who went 31-31, comes in fourth: Bob Owens (1-6) won 14.2 percent of his games in 1979, when he was a midseason replacement for Frank Kush; Steve Coutchie (2-7-2) won 27.2 percent of the team’s games in 1946; and Hilman Walker (2-7) won 22.2 percent of his games in 1942. Erickson’s next-closest competitor is Larry Marmie, who went 22-21-1 from 1988-91. Yes, every multiple-year head coach at A.S.U. whose tenure started after 1936 has won at least 50 percent of his games.

Tidbit (penalties edition) Arizona State led the nation in penalties (8.0) and penalty yards per game (79.8) last fall. No one was surprised. A.S.U. struggled with on-field discipline issues in each of Erickson’s five years with the program, finishing last in the country in accumulated penalty yards in 2009 (85.6 yards per game), 113th in 2010 (69.6 yards per game) and 109th in 2008 (66.8 yards per game). The Sun Devils’ best year under Erickson – and I’m using that term lightly – came in his debut, back in 2007, when the team ranked 78th nationally in penalty yards per game.

Former players in the N.F.L.

33 S Josh Barrett (New England), CB Omar Bolden (Denver), LB Vontaze Burfict (Cleveland), QB Rudy Carpenter (Dallas), DE Dexter Davis (Seattle), S Eddie Elder (Arizona), OG Paul Fanaika (Seattle), C Garth Gerhart (Cleveland), LB Travis Goethel (Oakland), DE Lawrence Guy (Green Bay), WR Derek Hagan (Buffalo), TE Todd Heap (Arizona), LB Robert James (Atlanta), DE Jamaar Jarrett (St. Louis), LS Brian Jennings (San Francisco), OT Dan Knapp (Oakland), OG Shawn Lauvao (Cleveland), CB LeQuan Lewis (Oakland), LB Shelly Lyons (Miami), TE Zach Miller (Seattle), RB Dimitri Nance (Atlanta), S Troy Nolan (Houston), QB Brock Osweiler (Denver), LB Colin Parker (Arizona), OG Mike Pollak (Carolina), WR Gerell Robinson (Denver), OT Alderious Simmons (New Orleans), LB Terrell Suggs (Baltimore), WR Kerry Taylor (Minnesota), CB Justin Tryon (New York Giants), K Thomas Weber (Cincinnati), WR Kyle Williams (San Francisco), WR Mike Willie (San Diego).

Arbitrary top five list

Disappointing Pac-12 teams, 2007-11
1. California, 2007.
2. Arizona State, 2011.
3. Arizona State, 2008.
4. Oregon State, 2010.
5. U.S.C., 2009.

Coaching

Todd Graham (East Central University ‘87), entering his first season. Graham, in brief: Rice, Tulsa, Pittsburgh, Arizona State. You know the backstory. Arizona State marks Graham’s fourth F.B.S. head job over the last seven years. He’s led each of the first three programs to bowl play at least once – and he only had one chance for the postseason at Rice and Pittsburgh, two hit-and-quit stops on his way to Tempe. Graham’s most extensive experience came at Tulsa, where he compiled a 36-17 mark from 2007-10, winning at least 10 games three times and playing for the Conference USA title twice, in 2007 and 2008. He left for Tulsa after one year at Rice, a season that couldn’t have gone much better: the Owls went 7-6, earning the program’s first bowl bid in 45 years. A 10-win 2007 campaign marked a triumphant return to Tulsa for Graham, who served as Steve Kragthorpe’s assistant head coach and defensive coordinator from 2003-5. The Golden Hurricane defense made a distinct improvement in each of Graham’s seasons, improving from 109th nationally in total defense in 2002 to 60th in 2003 and 40th in his final season. The pass defense ranked among the top 25 in each year, perhaps a result of Graham’s experience as a two-time all-N.A.I.A. defensive back at East Central University in the mid-1980s. Before arriving in Tulsa in 2003, Graham coached under Rich Rodriguez at West Virginia from 2001-2, first as linebackers coach, before taking on the co-defensive coordinator job during his second season. Yes, Graham is a wanderer. And yes, he’s left two programs in a lurch since 2006. Arizona State doesn’t care that Graham has been a one-and-done coach two times over the last six years. All A.S.U. cares about is that Graham knows a thing or two about winning football games.

Tidbit (coaching edition) You knew that Graham was going to clean house. Arizona State’s new staff is just that: new, from top to bottom. A few came with Graham from Pittsburgh, including offensive coordinator Mike Norvell and co-defensive coordinator Paul Randolph. The other co-coordinator, Ron West, was an assistant at Tulsa in 2009. Wide receivers coach DelVaughn Alexander, formerly of Wisconsin, couldn’t turn down the opportunity to return to his old stomping grounds in the Pac-12. Defensive backs coach Chris Ball has been around the block, including two separate stints at Washington State. Offensive line coach Bob Connelly has coached at Washington State, U.C.L.A. and Alabama. Chip Long will coach the tight ends after doing the same at Illinois over the last two years; outside linebackers coach and special teams coordinator Joe Lorig takes a step up from Central Washington. Who else? Try former Memphis head coach Larry Porter – a woeful head coach but an absolutely dynamic recruiter. He’s a huge addition.

Players to watch

It won’t be a smooth transition. Consider Pittsburgh’s struggles a season ago: the Panthers scored fewer points per game, for starters, but also struggled mightily moving the ball effectively on the ground while landing extremely mediocre quarterback play. This happens when you move from a pro-style system to the spread – and the same growing pains occur when you make the opposite move. It’s unavoidable, in most cases, and Arizona State will be no exception. Why might the Sun Devils’ transition be more painful than most? Because the system change is exacerbated by the changing cast in the starting lineup: A.S.U. is making drastic personnel moves at quarterback, along the offensive line and at receiver.

So it won’t go that smoothly. In a way, however, could the fact that A.S.U. needs to insert several new faces in the starting lineup be a good thing for this team? Perhaps, if you can look at the situation optimistically. At quarterback, for example – more on this position below – Graham can move forward without an incumbent starter, which might allow him to fully implement his offense; likewise along the offensive line. Would Graham prefer to return more starting experience? Of course. Yet you can see a silver lining in the fact that A.S.U. is turning over a new leaf on the two-deep.

Where A.S.U. does return outstanding depth and experience is at running back – and the returning contributors are going to love playing in Graham’s run-slanted system. There’s senior Cameron Marshall (1,050 yards and 18 scores), who is quietly making a case for being the finest back in school history. His 18 touchdowns as a junior tied Woody Green and Terry Battle for the most in a single season in school history; Marshall’s 29 scores over three years has him 10 behind Green for the program record.

Marshall is an every-down, load-carrying back who only needs to improve his overall consistency in order to land all-conference accolades. He had four 100-yard games last fall, including 141 yards in the win over U.S.C., but Marshall also rushed for 47 yards or less in four games against F.B.S. competition. One thing you know about Graham’s offense: it’s very, very running back-friendly. Marshall will have every opportunity to put up a wonderful follow-up to his breakout junior season.

A.S.U. can trot out at least two capable reserves. One is senior James Morrison; he was one of a few holdovers who impressed the new staff during the spring. A second is junior Kyle Middlebrooks (150 yards), a speedster who will fill a role as a change-of-pace back. While he’s still working his way back from the gunshot wound he suffered last February, A.S.U. is hopeful that junior Deantre Lewis will recover the form that made him a tremendous option as a freshman. Without Lewis, the running back position is in great shape; with Lewis at or near 100 percent, few teams in the Pac-12 can tout similar depth.

The options in the backfield have allowed A.S.U. to move senior Jamal Miles to receiver on a permanent basis. Good move: Miles (60 receptions for 361 yards, 6 touchdowns) isn’t merely a dynamic athlete, an all-conference pick in the return game and a consistent threat out wide, but the Sun Devils need his experience at a position devoid of proven production. Miles also fits what A.S.U. wants at receiver – guys who can make plays in space, create mismatches and catch-and-run. Miles and juniors J.J. Holliday and Kevin Ozier – the latter a former walk-on – topped the depth chart after spring ball, but look for A.S.U. to use as many as seven or eight receivers during the season.

Senior Rashad Ross (18 catches for 254 yards), a former JUCO transfer, is going to challenge Holliday for a starting role come August. Senior A.J. Pickens (12 for 140) has made enough growth over the last two years to factor into the rotation. A pair of redshirt freshmen, Gary Chambers and Karl Holmes, were listed behind Ozier on the post-spring depth chart. Graham signed three prospects in February, including one JUCO receiver, Alonzo Agwuenu, who produced at a high level for a strong JUCO program in Mt. San Antonio. Middlebrooks could also take some snaps at receiver, so A.S.U. does have options.

The offensive line returns a pair of linchpins in junior left tackle Evan Finkenberg, a starter since his freshman season, and senior right guard Andrew Sampson. Joining Sampson on the strong side is senior right tackle Brice Schwab, a four-game starter as a JUCO transfer in 2010 who took a redshirt season last fall. Sophomore Jamil Douglas is the favorite at left guard, a spot – like right tackle – where the Sun Devils alternated a pair of seniors in 2011. The biggest hole lies at center, where A.S.U. is going to struggle replacing Garth Gerhart. While junior Kody Koebensky held the top spot leaving the spring, look for the competition between Koebensky and redshirt freshmen Mo Latu and Devin Goodman to continue in August.

What’s the big-picture take on offense? It’ll be a hokey-pokey year – one step backward for every two steps forward. The transition is going to be painful at times, even at a position of strength like running back. Quarterback play is going to be a worry, especially without many proven targets in the passing game. And the offensive line’s transition is going to be particularly steep. Look for A.S.U. to get better as the year goes on, however.

Is the offense the first thing that comes to mind when you think about Graham – well, outside of those other things? It shouldn’t be. Graham’s successful turns at Rice and Tulsa may have come on the back of the offense, but it’s on defense that Graham’s teams typically distance themselves from the opposition. As at his previous stops, Graham and his staff will implement a multiple-look front with several tweaks, like a hybrid end-linebacker who will be tasked with getting consistent pressure in the backfield while also helping out on pass coverage. At times, the Sun Devils will run out of a 4-3 set; primarily, however, the defense will line up in a 3-3-5 look. Arizona will do the same – and at both schools, speed is of the essence.

One question: Is Junior Onyeali going to play in 2012? While Graham has yet to officially reinstate Onyeali, who was suspended prior to Arizona State’s bowl loss to Boise State, it’s looking extremely likely that he’ll be lining up at this defense’s hybrid end-linebacker spot come September. He’s a wonderful fit for the position, thanks to his pass rushing skills, and a reinstated Onyeali could give A.S.U. some much-needed punch coming off the edge.

Yet he’s a bit of a question mark – he hasn’t played in a while, for one, and after a terrific freshman season Onyeali was a disappointment when in pads last fall. And Onyeali is just one question mark up front, joining senior Corey Adams, a former five-star recruit who has fallen well short of his initial billing. Adams will draw nose tackle duties when A.S.U. lines up in its base set with three down linemen; this will test Adams, who has the talent to excel but has yet to put his complete game together. Junior Will Sutton (33 tackles, 2.5 sacks) will play alongside Adams at tackle, though he’ll move outside in a 4-3 look. Junior Davon Coleman (42 tackles, 2.5 sacks) will be the Sun Devils’ true end. There’s certainly talent here, but A.S.U. needs Onyeali to return to his freshman form – let alone get his jersey back – and Adams to play up to his potential.

It’ll be great to see fifth-year senior Brandon Magee back on the weak side after he missed all of last season with an Achilles tear. Two years ago, Magee – a tremendous athlete, both on the gridiron and the baseball diamond – finished second on the team in tackles. The Sun Devils need him to return to full health to help smooth the growing pains in this defense; A.S.U. must also replace each of last year’s three starters, led by Vontaze Burfict, the tackling and penalty-accumulating machine who left a year ahead of schedule.

Burfict’s shoes will be filled by either junior Kipeli Koinseti or last year’s backup, Brandon Johnson, with Koinseti holding down the top job after the spring. It’s a two-way battle at the spur, where pass coverage skills are equally important as an ability to stop the run, with A.S.U. auditioning both Anthony Jones and converted safety Matt Tucker.

Secondary play will improve under Graham’s watch. A.S.U. struggled mightily against the pass last fall, particularly over the second half – the defense’s collapse as a whole began during the final drive against U.C.L.A., to be specific. Graham’s pass defenses are always attacking, always aggressive and always opportunistic, three superlatives you would not attach to the Sun Devils’ secondary in 2011. He’ll have this same impact on the starters in Tempe, though the secondary must first begin believing that it can run with the talented receivers littering the Pac-12.

Cornerback play will be improved merely through experience. Both of last year’s starters return: Deveron Carr (45 tackles) on one side, Osahon Irabor (48 tackles, 1 interception) on the other. Maligned last fall, Carr and Irabor will enjoy playing in this new system. But the spotlight is on; both need to improve, and the new staff won’t hesitate to call on reserves like sophomores Rashad Wadood and Devan Spann and former Louisiana-Monroe transfer Robert Nelson – the latter could really make a name for himself after opting to take a step up to the B.C.S. conference level – if one or both struggle in the early going.

The Sun Devils lose some play-making ability at safety in Clint Floyd and Eddie Elder, not to mention some valuable experience. Looking ahead to September, A.S.U. really needs senior Keelan Johnson (48 tackles, 2 interceptions) to move seamlessly into the starting lineup at free safety – he joins Adams as one of several new starters who have yet to reach their potential. If Johnson struggles, A.S.U. might turn the job over to JUCO transfer Chris Young, though Young should also get a look at boundary safety.

That role is currently held by junior Alden Darby (51 tackles), whose ability to bounce between safety and cornerback makes him one of the most valuable members of this defense. Keep an eye on sophomore Ezekial Bishop, who surprised the previous staff with how quickly he grasped the system last fall before suffering a season-ending injury in the opener.

Sophomore Alex Garroute ended last season strong, making seven straight field goals to end the year after a disastrous performance in the loss to U.C.L.A. on Nov. 5. That bodes well for the youngster as he enters his second year in the lineup – and remember that he’s no longer stepping right into Thomas Weber’s shoes, which will help. Where A.S.U. truly excels is in the return game. Miles scored three times via returns, twice on kickoffs, and Ross added a score on kickoff returns. Middlebrooks is another option on kickoffs, though he lost his grasp on the starting role last fall.

Position battle(s) to watch

Quarterback Let’s look at the bright side. While Brock Osweiler did leave a year ahead of schedule, his departure does allow Graham to avoid a situation similar to the one he inherited at Pittsburgh – basically, while losing Osweiler does sting, it allows Graham to implement his system without caveats instead of building the offense around a decidedly pro-style quarterback. Little victories, and A.S.U. can use the optimism. The bad news, of course, is that the Sun Devils return dangerously little experience at the position; three quarterbacks are in the running for the starting job, with one a redshirt freshman and the other two sophomores.

The two sophomores, Mike Bercovici and Taylor Kelly, attempted three and four passes, respectively, in 2011. All four of Kelly’s attempts came in mop-up duty in the season opener against U.C. Davis. Bercovici attempted two passes in the season opener and a third in the 34-point win over Colorado in October. Not a ton of experience, obviously. In addition, last season’s experience is nearly useless consider the offense’s shift into Graham’s spread system. While there’s no discounting the importance of snaps on the college level, Bercovici and Kelly essentially started from square one during the spring.

This, not to mention Graham’s wise decision to open the entire two-deep up for debate, gave redshirt freshman Michael Eubank an equal playing field in this three-quarterback competition. What’s one thing that Eubanks has that Kelly and Bercovici do not? Experience in an up-tempo, spread offense, albeit high school experience – while not the same offense, Eubank did play in a similar system before enrolling at Arizona State.

So how does the situation look heading into the summer? Graham has indicated that Bercovici holds a slight edge – that he was listed first on a depth chart backs that up, though Eubank and Kelly were co-starters – and that he’d prefer to have a clear starter. But A.S.U. also seems open to the idea of playing two quarterbacks, with the backup earning snaps in certain packages. That does point to a potential pairing of Bercovici and Eubank, with the redshirt freshman the running threat.

Game(s) to watch

A.S.U. could start fairly strong. Northern Arizona is a win, of course. The following Saturday, the Sun Devils host an Illinois team undergoing its own coaching change. Perhaps – though it’s a long shot – A.S.U. can catch Missouri napping; the Tigers play host between two enormous SEC East games against Georgia and South Carolina. A.S.U. also has the good fortune to miss Stanford and Washington out of the Pac-12 North, though Oregon does come to Tempe on Oct. 18. If you’re a pessimistic sort, consider these factors: five Pac-12 road games, 11 games against B.C.S. conference competition and three road games in November. While A.S.U. should hang around in most games, it’s not exactly a schedule tailor-made for a successful debut.

Season breakdown & prediction

In a nutshell Even a fundamentally sound, disciplined, experienced team would struggle making the transition into Graham’s system. Arizona State is none of those things. It’s gone unmentioned, to a degree, but Graham is facing battles on multiple fronts; in addition to implementing a new system on offense and defense, he must attempt to remake A.S.U. into a far more disciplined and consistent team – because both qualities went way out the window over last year’s disastrous finish. In the short term, the Sun Devils need to choose a starting quarterback and find answers at receiver and at center. While it seems as if A.S.U. has found a starting lineup on defense, it’s safe to say that question marks still exist. Can the front get consistent pressure on the quarterback? Can Magee return to his prior form and solidify a new-look linebacker corps? Can the secondary reverse last year’s slide and begin forcing turnovers during Pac-12 play? These are some significant questions for any team to address, and they’re doubled by the fact that for much of this coming season, the Sun Devils are not going to be comfortable in this new system. The good news, simply put: Graham, for all the negativity tossed in his direction, has a blueprint for bringing the Sun Devils into annual Pac-12 contention. His system has worked elsewhere, would have worked at Pittsburgh and will work in Tempe. The program’s baseline under Graham will be annual bowl play. If he remains focused on the task at hand, it’ll be exciting to see what Graham can achieve with this sort of support system. For now? A.S.U. is going to hit some speed bumps. But as noted above, this team will play its best football in November – at least a few weeks before the season finale against Arizona, I would think. I don’t think that the Sun Devils are reaching the postseason, but this team should win five games in Graham’s debut.

Dream season A.S.U. wins three straight and five of six to open the year, losing only a tough home game to Utah. While the Sun Devils lose to Oregon and U.S.C., as expected, Graham wins nine games during the regular season – beating Arizona by 28 points in the season finale. Such a year would have enormous ramifications on the recruiting trail.

Nightmare season While expectations are somewhat low heading into 2012, A.S.U. beats only Northern Arizona during non-conference play and Colorado once the calendar turns to the Pac-12. The Sun Devils finish 2-10 overall, 1-8 in the Pac-12, and suffers a 41-14 loss to Arizona to cap the year.

In case you were wondering

Where do Arizona State fans congregate? A number of solid options for the Web-savvy A.S.U. fan: ASU Devils and Devils Digest for recruiting coverage, Cactus Ranch as a solid independent site and Pitchfork Nation and House of Sparky for the blog lovers.

Arizona State’s all-name nominee OT Aristacus Forster.

Word Count

Through 43 teams 152,978.

Up Next

Who is No. 81? The head coach at tomorrow’s program was born on the same day that a now-defunct professional sports league began operations. The first commissioner of this league attended a university that disbanded its football program in 1939.

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Comments

  1. George Mikan says:

    DePaul disbanded its football in 1939. George Mikan attended DePaul and was the first commissioner of the defunct ABA. The ABA began operation on February 2, 1967, the birthday of Paul Rhoads of the Iowa State Cyclones.

  2. Vic says:

    ABA + Feb. 2, 1967 + George Mikan + DePaul =

    Paul Rhoads/Iowa State

  3. Dave says:

    Pitchfork Nation link not right.

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