It’s been more than six months since Arizona State’s last game, and Sun Devil fans have to be hungry for another season of college football.
Spring practice merely offered a taste of what’s to come in coach Todd Graham’s third season. The good news: ASU opens preseason camp in about a month.
There will be plenty to discuss and debate as the season draws closer, but much has already been posited about the Sun Devils in college football’s offseason hype machine, which seems to grow bigger every year. (Hey, college football fans have to get through the offseason somehow.)
After going 10-4 last season and winning the Pac-12 South, the Sun Devils generated a good deal of buzz, though it was tempered by losses in the Pac-12 title game and Holiday Bowl, as well as significant personnel losses on defense.
With fall camp around the corner, here’s what’s being said about ASU’s prospects, offensive stars and a coaching staff on the rise.
Todd Graham is looking for more positive feedback after winning the Pac-12 South last season.
Given ASU’s losses on defense — nine of 11 starters departed — the pundits aren’t particularly high on ASU’s chances, though the Sun Devils are landing about where they finished up last season (14th in the BCS standings).
The Sporting News ranks ASU 13th in its preseason top 25 and calls the Sun Devils "the most intriguing team of our Top 25." The belief there is ASU could continue on an upward trajectory, winning at least 10 games again behind a prolific offense, or it could stumble amid defensive issues.
Athlon Sports has ASU a little lower at 16th and says it "is poised to make another run at the conference championship" with the caveat being the defense must be rebuilt — a well-documented theme.
Highly regarded college football writer Phil Steele, meanwhile, doesn’t see it that way. He doesn’t have ASU in his projected preseason Top 25, and that might be saying something considering Steele correctly predicted all 25 teams in last year’s preseason AP Top 25.
Lindy’s, while noting that "this program has momentum," also pegged Arizona State outside the Top 25, putting the Sun Devils at No. 30 nationally and sixth overall in the Pac-12.
For a conference perspective, the Orange County Register’s schedule preview tabs ASU as "UCLA’s only real competition for the Pac-12 south title in 2014." UCLA is the favorite as of now, but that’s a strong endorsement of ASU’s chances.
Overall, prognosticators are hot and cold on ASU. Call it a wait-and-see approach. That offense is inspiring confidence, but the unknown defense has many unwilling to commit to another strong season.
Unsurprisingly, the ASU players generating the most buzz this offseason reside on offense, where the Devils return seven starters after losing running back Marion Grice, two offensive linemen and tight end Chris Coyle.
Third-year starting quarterback Taylor Kelly leads the group. The former third-stringer has already put together two impressive seasons but could be in for his best yet, looking to improve his accuracy and cut down on interceptions.
Receiver Jaelen Strong has also garnered plenty of well-deserved attention. FOXSports.com had Strong 19th on its list of 32 must-watch stars in college football next season. Steele predicts Strong as a first-team All-Pac-12 selection — presumably, the conference’s best receiver, which is how Lindy’s ranks him.
Strong also has received a different kind of attention, in relation to his pro potential. After the NFL Draft in May, 2015 mock drafts began popping up, and most featured Strong. Notably, Strong came in at 24th in CBSSports.com and ESPN.com mock drafts and 21st in Sports Illustrated’s.
Running back D.J. Foster, too, has appeared on a handful of "breakout" lists as he prepares to step into a featured back role. But it hasn’t just been skill players getting noticed. Steele’s preseason Pac-12 teams featured nine Sun Devils — Strong on the first team, two second-teamers (Foster and OT Jamil Douglas), one third-teamer (Kelly) and five fourth-teamers (TE De’Marieya Nelson, OL Christian Westerman, DT Dalvon Stuckey, LB Salamo Fiso and DB Damarious Randall).
While it’s presumed ASU’s offensive stars will shine in coordinator Mike Norvell’s high-powered attack, it may be more interesting to see what stars emerge on defense.
Perhaps more than any other sport, college football makes stars of its coaches. At ASU, Graham is as much a star as any player. And while some cling to Graham’s job-hopping reputation, he has gained much respect in two seasons.
Consider Sporting News writer Matt Hayes’ annual ranking of all 128 FBS coaches. Before the 2013 season, Hayes pegged Graham a surprising 74th. Now, Graham comes in at 33rd, moving up 41 spots. Only Gus Malzahn, Graham’s former offensive coordinator, made a bigger jump, rising 42 spots to 13th after leading Auburn to the national championship game.
On Tuesday, 247sports.com put out its list of college football’s most underrated coaches, and Graham came in tied for fifth. "The guy can coach and he’s proving it," the list declares. Athlon Sports, meanwhile, picked Graham as the Pac-12’s third-best coach, behind Stanford’s David Shaw and Washington’s Chris Petersen.
But Graham hasn’t gone 18-8 at ASU on his own. Norvell has been a big part of ASU’s success, and after receiving offseason interest from Arkansas State, Florida and Notre Dame, he made NFL.com’s list of hot college coordinators, coming in at No. 11.