ASU seeks identity, foundation in spring ball

Todd Graham on Tuesday opens his third set of spring practices at ASU.

TEMPE, Ariz. — Meeting the local media before the start of his third set of spring practices at Arizona State, coach Todd Graham reiterated his team’s mantra for the 2014 season.

"We have unfinished business," Graham said. "That’s a Pac-12 championship. Anything less than that’s disappointing."

But Pac-12 championships aren’t won in the spring, at least not literally. So when ASU takes to the practice fields Tuesday morning they’ll have another goal: laying the 2014 foundation.

"We’ve spent a lot of time with our coaches developing relationships with our players," Graham said. "Coach-to-player, player-to-player, and developing what our identity is and embracing that identity. I’m excited about that."

The identity forming for the 2014 season is especially important after the departure of 12 starters from the 2013 team that went 10-4 and won the Pac-12 South. With veterans like Alden Darby, Chris Coyle and Will Sutton gone, new leaders must emerge to help mold the identity of a team with high internal expectations — Graham also says anything less than 11 wins will be a disappointment.

Thus, spring practice will be less about position battles and filling out a depth chart, a particularly difficult task anyway with 24 recruits — many of them with good odds to contribute immediately — not arriving until the fall.

As for relationships, Graham recently shared at a coaching clinic that ASU coaches generally don’t have football-related responsibilities on Mondays and Fridays during the spring, giving them the opportunity to bond with their players in non-football ways.

But as much as spring practice gives the Sun Devils the chance to start to develope their identity, they must also develop on the field.

"We graduated nine players on defense," Graham said. "We all know that. There’s a lot of work to be done."

No surprisingly, Graham made special teams a recurring theme in Monday’s press conference. With the exception of field goal kicking, special teams were ASU’s biggest weakness in 2013, and the Sun Devils ranked near the bottom of the Pac-12 in most special teams categories.

We have unfinished business. That’s a Pac-12 championship. Anything less than that’s disappointing.

Todd Graham

Graham mentioned special teams in the first minute of his opening remarks and then again at least half a dozen times throughout the press conference.

"Special teams is going to be a big focus for us," Graham said. "That’s something that we’re going to work really, really hard on this spring."

Graham has done a few things to address ASU’s special teams problem. First, he brought in defensive coordinator Keith Patterson last month. Patterson, who has worked with Graham at three previous stops and spent last season at West Virginia, will handle defensive special teams while tight ends coach Chip Long will manage offensive special teams. Graham will play a role in both and cede some of his defensive responsibilities to Patterson.

Graham and his staff also spent significant time researching ways to improve particular units.

"We’ve spent a great deal of time with our coverage teams and our return games on special teams," Graham said. "A lot of the issues we had were fit issues that can be corrected."

Graham said ASU’s kick and punt return teams need to be more explosive and the coverage teams need to be more sound. It will be worth watching whether ASU maintains its "best players on special teams" approach going forward or focuses more on developing special teams depth with non starters.

OFFENSIVE STAR POWER

ASU has a ton of offensive talent returning. Graham talked about a couple players in particular and clearly has high expectations for them.

Graham gushed about senior quarterback Taylor Kelly’s character and leadership but also mentioned having discussed with Kelly the idea of him becoming ASU’s first Heisman Trophy winner.

"He said ‘That’s kind of a lofty goal,’" Graham said. "Well, why not? Why would we not have that goal? And how you do that is get those other 10 guys to play at a Heisman Trophy level."

Running back D.J. Foster also drew high praise. With Marion Grice now graduated, Graham says Foster will be ASU’s "premier tailback," meaning he’ll see less use as a wide receiver as he did last season.

"One of the things D.J. has and I think you saw against Stanford (in the Pac-12 title game) is he’s very versatile but he’s explosive," Graham said. "When he breaks the line of scrimmage, whether he catches a bubble pass or breaks a run, it’s going to the house."

* Graham expressed confidence the wide receiver position will be one of strength next season despite the depth hit by the transfer of junior-to-be Richard Smith, who started much of the 2013 season. Smith visited Boise State over the weekend and indicated later on his social media accounts he will transfer there for the fall semester.

* Graham said defensive tackle Jaxon Hood will be very limited during spring practice due to a ligament injury in his right hand. Safety Marcus Ball (clavicle) and running back Kyle Middlebrooks also will be limited this spring.

* Graham listed interior defensive line presence as his top defensive concern, followed by ASU’s ability to impact opposing quarterbacks and the secondary.