TEMPE, Ariz. — Often in college football, a new coach needs until his third season to get his program rolling. Todd Graham sped up the process at Arizona State, leading the Sun Devils to the Pac-12 Championship Game in his second season.
But now, after reaching new heights as a program in 2013, ASU faces the challenge of avoiding a drop-off in Year 3.
With the start of fall camp Friday, ASU begins the last step in its process of reloading after losing 14 starters from a team that won the Pac-12 South and produced the school’s first 10-win season since 2007.
"Great programs, that’s what they do — they reload," Graham said. "They don’t rebuild."
ASU has spent the offseason refocusing on 2014 after two disappointing losses — one to Stanford in the Pac-12 title game and one to Texas Tech in the Holiday Bowl — at the end of an otherwise successful year. Coaches quickly turned the page and began hammering home a message of "Unfinished Business."
Part of the reload came in February when ASU signed its most impressive recruiting class since Graham arrived, and the process began on the field in spring practice. Last week, players went through a final workout in the summer strength and conditioning program.
But now, with the season opener against Weber State less than four weeks away, the process truly begins. With the full team on campus and more urgency added to filling holes and answering questions, ASU starts its push toward a Pac-12 South defense.
"The leadership, the work ethic with our football team is the best that it’s been," Graham said at Pac-12 Media Days. "I think this is the best football team that we’ve had since I’ve been there."
ASU has much to accomplish before its Thursday night opener on Aug. 28. The bulk of the work comes on the defensive side, where — as has been well documented by now — ASU must replace nine starters.
When a defense loses players like Will Sutton, Carl Bradford and Chris Young, though, replacing them doesn’t often mean plugging in an equivalent player. Those are All-Pac-12 talents, and Sutton was the conference’s Defensive Player of the Year the past two seasons.
ASU does have a few defensive positions that should be easier to settle with experienced players returning, but overall the defense will be young and short on experience.
"Will we be as talented and experienced on defense? Well, no," Graham admitted. "But I do think we’ll surprise a lot of people."
Graham says he welcomes the challenge of tweaking and adapting the defense that finished fourth in the Pac-12 in total defense last season, perhaps because he has Keith Patterson, his defensive coordinator at Tulsa and Pittsburgh, back in the fold after two years apart. Patterson worked with the defense in the spring but now will face a little more pressure to get a young, inexperienced unit up to snuff.
There’s no reload needed on the offensive side, where ASU returns six starters and has pretty much already settled all but one opening. The offense, which finished 10th nationally in scoring last season, will use fall camp to generally get in sync, assimilate newcomers and get some veterans settled in new positions.
With quarterback Taylor Kelly returning for his third season of starting and weapons like running back D.J. Foster and Jaelen Strong at his disposal, ASU’s offense should be one of the most experienced, explosive and high-scoring in the Pac-12.
"The guys have been in the system for three years, so they know what to expect," Kelly said. "Offensively, we know what coach (Mike) Norvell wants — the plays and how fast he wants the tempo and where we’re supposed to line up."
ASU managed to retain Norvell for at least one more season, staving off interest in the winter from suitors like Florida, Notre Dame and Arkansas State by giving Norvell a raise and a promotion to deputy head coach.
Since coming with Graham to ASU from Pitt, Norvell has become one of college football’s most regarded young offensive minds. If his offense lives up to heightened expectations this season, he will be even more sought after following this season.
Special teams will be a huge focus of ASU’s camp, with Patterson and Graham teaming up to improve ASU’s biggest weakness in 2013.
ASU will continue the tradition Graham revived by spending five days at historic Camp Tontozona, the mountain retreat near Payson, Ariz. The team will have four open-to-the-public practices there, the last of which on Aug. 16 will feature intrasquad play.
While Graham’s first fall camp two years ago required his getting players to buy into his plan, finding a starting quarterback and implementing his scheme on both sides of the ball, this fall camp produces an equal challenge.
Graham has set the bar high, and he maintains anything less than 11 wins and a Pac-12 title would be a disappointment. Given the defensive rebuild, that may seem unrealistic, but not to Graham and his players, some of whom took exception to being picked to finish third in the Pac-12 South preseason media poll.
"Year three should be your best year," Graham said. "This is when it all should come together, and I have a lot of confidence that our team will."