ASU captains evaluate season at halfway mark

TEMPE, Ariz. — Building up to the 2013 season, discussion of Arizona State focused heavily on the Sun Devils surviving a brutal first half. Now, they’ve done so, having gone 4-2 with wins over Wisconsin and USC but losses to Stanford and Notre Dame.

Many outside the program expected ASU to be 4-2 by now, some expected better and some worse. But what about the Sun Devils themselves? Where did they believe they would be halfway through their second season under coach Todd Graham?

I offered my evaluation of ASU’s first half position by position this week, but for an inside take I went to ASU’s captains, quarterback Taylor Kelly and safety Alden Darby. I sat down with each this week to get their assessment of where the Sun Devils stand halfway through their schedule. This is their midseason report.

Here at the halfway mark, you guys are 4-2. You managed a couple big wins but also suffered a couple big losses. What’s your overall assessment of what was accomplished in the first half and where this team stands with six games to go?

Kelly: I think we’ve done a pretty solid job as a team so far. We played a lot of great teams, especially in that gauntlet stretch. I’m proud of my guys. I believe we’re a lot better than we were last year at this point. Just facing all those good teams week in and week out, that’s really helped us. I also think we have a lot to improve, like the running game, get that going. Guys are learning each week, and we haven’t hit our potential or where we want to be yet, so we have a lot of room to grow still.

Darby: I feel like we’re off to a good start right now but we’ve still got a ways to go. But coach Graham’s message in the meeting today really woke us up. He was basically saying, “We’ve got to do a lot more. We have to practice harder and play with more passion.” Before practice, I started the defense and I said “Nothing that happened — no blown coverages, no missed tackles, no misalignments — none of that matters from this point on. It’s a fresh start midway through the season, so let’s focus on being perfect.” That’s where we’re at right now.

How did this team perform in the first half relative to expectations? Above? Below? Right on?

Kelly: Where I thought we would be, it’s been below. I really thought we could come out of those games 6-0. We missed a couple opportunities. The loss at Stanford, we just didn’t come out ready to play at the beginning of the game. We came back in the second half, and they’re a great football team, but I believe if we would have come out a little bit sooner moving the football we could have got those guys. Same thing with Notre Dame. We have a lot of talent, but we just couldn’t get the ball going. But give them credit. They’ve got a great football team. They were just more disciplined than we were.

Below, honestly. Looking at the Stanford game, we said all week we were going to lose if we beat ourselves. If you look at the tape, we did just that. We tried to do too much on defense and got caught in some blown coverages. We lost on special teams too. It was the same with the Notre Dame game. We had no turnovers the whole first half, and we came out and turned the ball over three times in the second half. So the two losses we had we beat ourselves. We easily could be 6-0. No doubt, we could be 6-0 right now. So we kind of feel like those two losses are our fault. Being 4-2, we’re happy with where we’re at but we can’t have any more losses.

Taylor, you’re the leader of the offense, which right now ranks third in scoring and fifth overall in the Pac-12. What’s your take on how it performed in the first half?

Kelly: It’s performed well. I thought we’d get our running game going a little bit better, but I’m very impressed with the offensive line and what they’re doing — not giving a lot of sacks up. And the running backs are getting open for me, as well as the receivers. I’ve been shocked how much we’re getting vertical shots on teams. With Jaelen, just seeing what he’s doing and his abilities, and the same with Chris Coyle and all those guys. Cameron Smith is one of the targets I like a lot. He’s continuing to grow each week and get stronger. I’m excited to see those guys grow these next six games.

You mentioned a lot of elements of the offense. What do you think has been the unit’s greatest strength so far?

Kelly: I believe it’s our offensive line. The way they’ve been playing as a unit has really been the standout for me. They’re starting to communicate a lot better — seeing blitzes and being on the same page. Having not worked together other than these six games — it’s a new unit on that right side — they’re doing a great job. They’ve just got more and more to improve on and get better.

What about the defense? What’s been the strength of that group more than anything else?

Darby: The chemistry. We’ve all played together for some years now and we know each other. We’re all hungry, and there’s a lot of seniors on the defensive side of the ball. We’re all playing with a purpose, and we’ve all got each other’s back. We know we can count on each other. So that’s been the strength. And then just having a good front seven that’s been getting pressure on quarterbacks and stopping the inside run. As a secondary, we’ve got to be better at stopping the perimeter run.

Has that outside run stopping been this defense’s biggest weakness so far? Or is there something else?

Darby: The outside run is probably the biggest weakness. And then just alignment errors. We’ve had a lot of alignment errors. If you look at all the touchdowns we’ve given up, it’s not because the guy flat out beat us or it was a bad call. It’s just alignments. So we’ve got to clean those up.

And the offense’s biggest weakness?

Kelly: For me, it would be the turnovers. We’ve been working on that week in and week out. I’ve just got to have a better focus throughout the whole entire game, trust my keys and trust that my defense is good and is going to get the ball back for me so I don’t have to force anything. That’s the big thing for me to focus on the rest of the year, and then just getting our running game going. If we can get that going, our play action game will open up a lot better and teams won’t be able to key on certain things. They’ll have to pick their poison of what they want to stop.

Who has stood out most to you on offense so far?

Kelly: (Wide receiver) Jaelen Strong would be the easy one. Just not having played with him, I knew he was talented, but that’s just watching film from junior college. Some kids in junior college stand out and then they come to the next level and it’s totally different. This kid works hard, lot of film study. And then ‘K.O.’ (wide receiver Kevin Ozier) is the other guy that has not shocked me but is starting to get his name out. He works hard every day, he’s a quiet guy, he catches everything that comes at him, he knows all the routes. So he’s very smart, and I’m excited to see what he does these next six weeks and how he leads those receivers because he is the leader of that group.

And on the defensive side, who has been a bright spot through six games?

Darby: Anthony Jones. Chris Young, of course. Jaxon Hood really stood out. And Davon Coleman has arguably had the best two games of anybody on defense the past two weeks. He’s had the best two games he’s had in his career. It’s guys like that that are really stepping up, guys that weren’t really consistent starters last year but are now seniors and taking on those roles. And Damarious Randall has come in his first two games and been amazing. I knew he could play like that, and he’s coming out and showing it.

What part of this defense is most improved over last season?

Darby: I would have to say our front seven. We had a big issue last year with stopping the run, and I feel like now it’s not an issue. It’s an issue stopping the perimeter run, but as far as running inside that’s not going to happen. As far as the perimeter run, that’s maybe us in the backfield, our fault. So I feel like our front seven stopping the run has been big.

What about the offense? Where has it improved most compared to last season?

Kelly: The offensive line, probably. They’ve just come together as a unit. I’m not sure if there are stats but it seems like the amount of sacks we’ve given up to this point is less than last year. They’re doing a great job growing maturity wise and mentally. I believe we had a couple guys on the line (last year) that weren’t taking it seriously. And then we had Andrew Sampson get hurt and Vi (Teofilo) came in. I don’t think he was fully mentally mature. I think he improved on that in the spring and in the summer and through these six games.

Speaking more generally, what’s the biggest thing that needs to happen for this team to have a strong second half?

Kelly: Protecting the football, obviously. That’s a big thing. And then just being disciplined and not letting the grind get to us. We have to come out to practice with a fire in our eyes. We only have I think 15 practices the rest of the season. Coach talks to us about that, and when you think about it like that it’s crazy, especially for those seniors. We’ve only got five Tuesdays left, and if we come out and practice with a focus throughout the week on each of those days we’ll be sitting in the Pac-12 championship game and the Rose Bowl Game. Our goals are out there, and if we come to practice and get ready for them we’re unstoppable. We have a ton of talent. The only thing hurting us is ourselves.

Darby: We’ve got to play with passion. We’ve got to finish. And we’ve got to believe we can go to the Rose Bowl. We say it every day, but we’ve got to make sure we believe it. It will show if we believe it because if we believe it we’ll come out and practice hard every day, have a positive mindset and practice and play with a passion. The main thing is believing and having a passion about everything we do.

Much of this team is the same as last year’s group that lost four of its last six regular-season games. What makes this team better prepared for a strong finish? Outside the schedule, what’s different from a year ago?

Kelly: I believe we have a lot more maturity on our team. We had some young guys playing, and myself. I’ve matured a lot. Like I said before, it’s the grind. Guys would get sick of doing the same thing over and over, waking up at 6 a.m. for practice, going to class — just that routine. I believe we’ve grown maturity wise, and having that through these last six games will be big.

Darby: The difference is we’re a lot much more mature in year two. We don’t have guys on the fence. We don’t have guys getting upset after losses and wanting to just give up. We’ve got guys that, if we lose a game, are like “We’ve got to pick it up this week, we’ve got to show the world we’re still a top team.” Everybody’s mindset is right. It’s not like “Oh, we lost, we blew it, it’s over for us.” Nobody is like that. It’s been “OK, we lost this week, so let’s watch the tape, get it corrected, put it behind us and go to work.” Everybody’s mindset is totally different.