TEMPE, Ariz. — When Arizona State coach Todd Graham laid out his goals for the Sun Devils last season, he remained mostly broad in focus, trying to establish his program and get players to buy in.
This year, after an 8-5 season that included ASU’s first bowl win since 2005, Graham is getting more specific. It’s less “speaking victory” and “high-octane football” and more clear-cut initiatives.
“I think we’re an exciting brand of football to watch,” Graham said. “But if you ask me the things going in we’ve got to do, we’ve got to be No. 1 in the country in taking care of the football and not giving up (tackles for loss) in the country, and we’ve got to be No. 1 in the country, No. 1 in the conference in rush defense. It’s our main goal to continue to be explosive defensively.”
That’s not a short list, nor is it one filled with easy-to-reach goals. Here’s how ASU ranked nationally in those categories last season:
— Turnovers lost: 77th (24 total), although turnover margin was +0.46 turnovers per game
— TFLs allowed: 99th (6.62 allowed per game)
— Rushing defense: 81st (182.85 rushing yards allowed per game)
Clearly, Graham and his staff have pinpointed a few keys areas they believe could make a big difference. So how does Graham see these issues being addressed?
The first is easy: Take better care of the ball. The second may come naturally thanks to a strong offensive line that includes three returning starters. Graham admitted that the offensive line is a spot lacking depth, but he feels he has seven capable linemen and expects good competitions in fall camp.
“We have some really quality returning starters that have shown great leadership,” Graham said. “That’s probably the thinnest group on the team, but great quality.”
With the right combination up front and better understanding of the offense in the second year, a reduction in tackles for loss seems likely.
The third goal — limiting opponents’ running games — may be the trickiest.
“We spent a lot of time researching that,” Graham said. “The No. 1 thing is depth. The other thing is just size. One of the things I’m excited about: We are bigger. Our guys that are here are bigger, faster and stronger.”
Graham is right inasmuch as his key players have bulked up. All-American defensive tackle Will Sutton, for instance, is up to 305 pounds, 20 pounds heavier than he played at for much of last season.
As for depth, the Devils should be in better shape than they were last year when Sutton missed almost two games with a bone bruise in his knee. Redshirt senior Gannon Conway is expected to contribute more this season, and newcomers Marcus Hardison and Demetrius Cherry — both junior college transfers — should prove key additions during a season in which Graham expects to face even tougher rushing attacks.
“We’re playing a different animal this season,” Graham said. “There are teams on our schedule — obviously Wisconsin, Stanford (and) Notre Dame — that are more of the power-I type of offense.”
Clearly, ASU has more goals this season, be they individual or team goals, but those three he mentioned are right at the top of the list and worth keeping an eye on.
ASU announced Thursday that it would be one of two teams (Cal being the other) to be featured in a new Pac-12 documentary series called “The Drive” that will chronicle the team’s season in an all-access format much like HBO’s popular “Hard Knocks” series does with NFL teams.
At a time when more and more schools worry about secrecy, Graham isn’t concerned about his program being exposed.
“We go by the rules here, and we’ve got great people here,” Graham said. “To have a 30-minute show each week about our players and this program is a no-brainer. … We don’t have anything to hide.”
Graham is not concerned about the show being a distraction, either, because of the support staff ASU has in place to keep players focused on the field and in the classroom. Early opinions from players are also positive.
“Sometimes that can get to people’s heads, but I think we have the right personnel, the right guys that are going to be able to use that as a motivator,” senior tight end Chris Coyle said. “They’re going to understand the camera is on them and they can’t be letting off on any plays. … As long as we can stay focused and get everybody working hard, I think it’s going to be an asset.”
Added offensive lineman Jamil Douglas: “I’m excited about it, to be honest. I like watching ‘Hard Knocks.’ I think it will be interesting for me to watch it after they film just to see how everything is from the outside looking in.”
And who might get the most screen time?
“Probably Taylor Kelly, Will Sutton or Carl Bradford,” Douglas said. “I’m going to try to sneak in, get some screen time from those guys.” QUICK HITS
— Sophomore running back D.J. Foster said he’s down to about 195 pounds after getting up to 203 during spring practice. He wants to gain more weight before the season starts and play around 200 this year to be more durable and more effective as a power runner.
— Graham offered a few injury updates heading into camp. Running back Kyle Middlebrooks will be limited early on as he continues to recover from a torn anterior cruciate ligament. Defensive back Damarious Randall, a junior college transfer, will likely be limited early by a groin strain. Wide receiver Joseph Morris, also a junior college transfer, had minor foot surgery recently and will be limited at the start of camp.
— Graham said linebacker Chris Young will be a starter at either spur or will, indicating that the spring move to will is not set in stone. Graham did say Young is the top candidate to replace Brandon Magee at will, with Antonio Longino, Carlos Mendoza and Grandville Taylor also in the mix.
— Graham on ASU’s early-season stretch against Wisconsin, Stanford, Notre Dame and USC: “I want to be 2-0 in conference — that’s where I want to be after those first five games. You know I want to be 5-0, but I want to be 2-0 in conference play. That’s the most important thing about those first five games.”