The book is nearly closed on the 2013 college football season, but Arizona State’s attention is already focused on 2014.
Following its disappointing Holiday Bowl loss, ASU enters an off-season of questions big and small. How the big questions get answered could determine which direction Todd Graham’s program trends, at least in the short term.
Spring practice is less than three months away, but before getting there, here’s a look at five questions to ponder in the interim.
There were plenty of positives to the 2013 season, including victories over Wisconsin, USC, Washington, UCLA and Arizona. The UCLA win clinched the Pac-12 South title, and the UA win brought the Pac-12 title game to Tempe. Todd Graham was the Pac-12 Coach of the Year, Will Sutton repeated as Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year and 17 total players were recognized with All-Pac-12 honors.
The way the season ended, however, with a loss to Stanford in the Pac-12 title game and an embarrassing loss to Texas Tech in the Holiday Bowl might change how the season is viewed. A Rose Bowl berth or a Holiday Bowl win probably would have made 2013 an unqualified breakthrough season. Instead, it may be seen as another step in the right direction.
Was 2013 a success? Yes, the program took huge steps forward. But Graham and players may end up regarding it as "good but not great," the same way they called 2012 average.
As ASU saw last season, losing coaches is part of the price of success in college football. The Sun Devils lost two assistant coaches from the 2012 staff, and there could be more changes this year.
ASU already locked offensive coordinator Mike Norvell up with a promotion and a raise after he received interest from Notre Dame, Florida, Arkansas State and others, but some of Norvell’s colleagues could draw interest. Co-defensive coordinator Chris Ball has done well improving ASU’s secondary and getting a lot out of his players, though he seems happy at ASU and might be even more inclined to stay given his son is transferring to ASU. Defensive line coach Jackie Shipp has extensive Big 12 experience after 14 seasons at Oklahoma and could be sought after in that conference.
Graham also had strong words about ASU’s special teams failures following the Holiday Bowl. They were an issue all season, and Graham said he would take a "personal interest" in dealing with special teams "immediately." It’s unclear what that means for special teams coordinator Joe Lorig.
For what it’s worth, Graham has said publicly he expects to keep this staff together.
Linebacker Carl Bradford said before the Holiday Bowl he would make a decision on whether to return for his senior season sometime after the bowl game, once he had received feedback from the NFL Draft Advisory committee. Bradford has until Jan. 15 to declare himself eligible for the draft.
Bradford might have a hard time passing up a grade of third round or better, and losing him would mean ASU loses nine defensive starters. He would be particularly difficult to replace, as Graham has said he is the prototype for the Devilbacker position.
If Bradford returns, it would give Graham not only a playmaker to rebuild around, but a veteran to take an on-field leadership role. Like Will Sutton this year, though, Bradford would be schemed against heavily by opposing offenses, which could result in a statistical drop-off.
ASU loses 26 seniors — 12 of them starters and another four of them regular contributors — and will have some big holes to fill, particularly on the defensive side.
Some of the replacements will be relatively easy depth chart moves. Running back D.J. Foster, for example, will likely replace Marion Grice as ASU’s featured back. Lloyd Carrington could move up to replace Robert Nelson at one of the cornerback positions. ASU has a good deal of young talent returning, but in many instances it will have to move players around to fill holes.
Some help could be had from incoming recruiting class as well. Defensive tackles Connor Humphreys (Portland Central Catholic) and Tashon Smallwood (Fresno Central East), assuming they sign with ASU, could have the chance to contribute right away. Same goes for defensive end Edmond Boateng and linebacker D.J. Calhoun, who have already signed with ASU and are expected in spring practice.
The offense is in better shape, with the return of quarterback Taylor Kelly and playmakers Jaelen Strong and Foster. In addition to Grice and tight end Chris Coyle, replacements need to be found on the line for center Kody Koebensky and left tackle Evan Finkenberg. ASU has some offensive line depth and should have good options. Initial efforts to figure out a new lineup will begin in earnest during spring practice in March.
ASU has yet to hire an athletic director to replace Steve Patterson. Once that happens, the wheels on ASU’s capital projects should start spinning a little more smoothly. Senior associate athletic director Rocky Harris is keeping things moving forward, but certainty in leadership should make it easier.
The big project in question: Sun Devil Stadium renovation. ASU is soon expected to announce a fundraising campaign to complement its efforts to raise money through high-profile donors. This will be a big off-season in terms of getting its financing plan in place. The stadium is desperately in need of an upgrade, and the timeframe in which that happens will have an impact on the program’s trajectory.
Additionally, demolition will begin soon on the north end zone upper deck ahead of the 2014 season. The demolition will reduce the stadium’s capacity by approximately 5,700 seats, from 71,706 to roughly 66,000, and open up the stadium to a view of Tempe Town Lake.