In his first season as Arizona State’s head coach, Todd Graham won over a skeptical fan base and delivered the school’s first bowl victory since 2005. It wasn’t easy, but putting together a worthy second act might be even tougher.
With spring practice beginning Tuesday, Graham and the Sun Devils come armed with many assets but nearly as many questions. Spring practice should answer some of those, while others will have to wait until the fall.
Chief among ASU’s strengths is what it returns from a 2012 team that went 8-5 and routed Navy in the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl. Eight starters return on each side of the ball, leaving the Sun Devils with just a few holes to fill in the starting lineup.
Headlining the returning group is consensus All-American defensive lineman Will Sutton, who chose to return to ASU for his senior season. Next to Sutton on the defensive line, Devilbacker Carl Bradford appears poised for a big 2013 season. On the other side of the ball, junior quarterback Taylor Kelly leads a dynamic offensive core that remains intact with dangerous running back duo Marion Grice and D.J. Foster, and tight end Chris Coyle.
Before spring practice gets under way, here’s a look at some of the storylines to watch in spring practice, offseason developments and more.
The Sun Devils welcome a handful of new faces this spring, including three new coaches and four new players.
Former Oklahoma assistant Jackie Shipp joins the coaching staff and will handle defensive line duties while co-defensive coordinator Paul Randolph moves to linebackers. Shipp, an assistant on Bob Stoops’ Sooners staff for 14 seasons, was relieved of his duties at Oklahoma and did not spend much time on the market. He filled the opening left by former linebackers coach Ron West, who left for North Carolina, and will have plenty to work with this spring in Sutton, Davon Coleman, Jaxon Hood and Junior Onyeali.
Chris Thomsen also makes his ASU coaching debut in what is technically his second stint with the Sun Devils. Hired by Graham in December 2011, Thomsen left shortly after to coach offensive line at Texas Tech, where he eventually took over as interim head coach for the team’s bowl game last season. He was rehired at ASU in January as running backs coach but is expected to shift to offensive line after the dismissal of Bob Connelly.
To fill the running backs position, Graham has reportedly tabbed on-campus recruiting coordinator Bo Graham, who is also his oldest son. Bo Graham coached running backs for two years at Tulsa and was head graduate assistant and assistant receivers coach at Pittsburgh in 2011. He, too, will have a lot to work with this spring in Foster, Grice, redshirt freshman Terrell Davis and redshirt junior Deantre Lewis.
Four early enrollees will make their practice debuts in maroon and gold Tuesday. Among them is highly touted linebacker recruit Chans Cox, a four-star prospect out of Lakeside Blue Ridge and one of the state’s top high school recruits last year. Also participating after early enrollment are juco-transfer offensive lineman Nick Kelly and Chandler defensive lineman Kisima Jagne.
Former Chandler Hamilton star and Auburn transfer Christian Westerman, an offensive lineman, will also practice but is not expected to play in 2013 per NCAA transfer rules, though he has appealed to the NCAA for immediate eligibility.
Many of ASU’s position battles won’t be truly decided until the 2013 recruiting class arrives in the fall, but spring practice should begin to offer a little insight at a few positions of need.
Perhaps more than anything, ASU needs better production at wide receiver. Grice, Foster and Coyle led ASU in receiving last year, and none of that trio is a true receiver. ASU also loses Jamal Miles and Rashad Ross to graduation, leaving a thin group of returners, a couple of whom could contribute significantly this season.
Senior Kevin Ozier brings the most experience to the receiving corps but will have to become more consistent. Senior Alonzo Agwuenu could make big strides this spring and position himself as one of ASU’s top receivers after seeing limited action last year. Sophomore Richard Smith might have the most to gain this spring, as after flashes of ability in his freshman season, he could emerge as a candidate for a starting job.
ASU also has two spots to fill in the secondary following the graduation of safety Keelan Johnson and cornerback Deveron Carr. A few 2013 recruits will be in play here, but candidates looking to make impressions in spring practice include sophomore Rashad Wadood, junior Lloyd Carrington and senior Robert Nelson at cornerback and sophomore Ezekiel Bishop and Laiu Moeakiola at safety.
The picture at linebacker, which no longer includes the now-graduated Brandon Magee, will likely remain a bit fuzzy until fall, when sophomore Carlos Mendoza will be healthy and junior college linebackers Eriquel Florence and Antonio Longino will be in the fold.
GETTING A CHANCE
With key players often getting held back a bit for health reasons and players nursing injuries, spring practice can present an opportunity for a player who has fallen down the depth chart to make an impression on coaches. ASU has a few candidates:
— Deantre Lewis, redshirt junior running back: Lewis missed the 2011 season while recovering from being shot in the leg and was stuck last season behind Foster, Grice and now-graduated senior Cameron Marshall. He tried to switch to defensive back, but the experiment was abandoned shortly thereafter. With a new running backs coach in place and Graham’s love of playmakers, Lewis might force his way back into the picture with an impressive spring.
— Mike Bercovici, redshirt sophomore quarterback: Yes, the staff essentially knows what it has in Bercovici already, and no, he’s not going to take Taylor Kelly’s starting job. But Bercovici, who redshirted last year behind Kelly and Michael Eubank, should get plenty of action this spring as an opportunity to remind coaches of his talent. It’s hard to imagine Bercovici working his way onto the field this season, but a strong spring could at least create a battle for the backup job.
— Alex Garoutte, redshirt junior kicker: This one might elicit more than a few groans, as Garoutte has been a regular foil the past couple seasons, but he still has a powerful leg. He lost his starting job to walk-on Jon Mora last season but might be able to win it back if he shows coaches he’s mentally prepared to handle the job again and provide reliability.
Position battles and high hopes aside, spring practice is more generally an important next step in Graham’s mission to position ASU among college football’s elite teams. Often the hardest part of early success is the expectation of greater success after it, and Graham should feel that pressure from an eager fan base early next season with games against Wisconsin, Stanford, USC and Notre Dame in the first five weeks.
It’s Graham’s task now to motivate his players for even more than they accomplished in 2012. Graham got those players to buy in and is credited with reinvigorating the program as well as instilling some much-needed discipline. Starting Tuesday, he faces perhaps his greatest challenge yet in topping his own opening act.