ASU’s Graham borrowing a page from Patriots

Todd Graham expects to tweak his offense to better fit quarterback Mike Bercovici's big arm in 2015.

Bruce Yeung

TEMPE, Ariz. — ASU head coach Todd Graham believes his team has its Julian Edelman. That would be D.J. Foster, the running back who will see much more time as an inside receiver this offseason. The Sun Devils also have their version of Tom Brady in quarterback Mike Bercovici.

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These aren’t parallels taken out of context, and to compare the Sun Devils to the Patriots isn’t only fitting because the former wants to finish like the latter — as champs. Graham is a friend of 2015 Super Bowl-winning coach Bill Belichick, and he’s hoping to implement a main philosophy from the New England Patriots’ offense into his 2015 Sun Devils.

"A lot of the things I watched New England do is get people off of you," Graham said Friday. "Their quick passing game is really good. We just haven’t done a lot of that. It’s been all run, play-action pass. Now, we’re still a run, play-action passing game. You’ll see more rhythm passing from the pocket."

It’s important to set this scene by stepping back to last season. Rarely do 10-win college football teams face quarterback controversy, but Graham’s Sun Devils dealt with a mild case of it in 2014.

To briefly recap, starter Taylor Kelly suffered a midseason foot injury, and Graham responded by unleashing Bercovici, who owned the bigger arm of the two. Once the dual-threat Kelly came back looking far from 100 percent, the fan opinion was split into two factions. Likely, the Arizona State coaching staff was at least questioning making another move, and Kelly’s benching in the regular-season finale against Arizona confirmed that to some degree.

There’s no controversy heading into spring ball. Bercovici takes over for the graduated Kelly, and it means the Sun Devils can expect a different way of attacking in their up-tempo ways — not that Kelly’s teams didn’t put up points. Just expect the offense to look a little different next season.

"Bercovici can throw a (quick slant) with 100-percent accuracy," Graham said. "One, two, ball’s out on three. (Defenses) can’t get pressure. Play-action, is when we’re really throwing it down the field. So much of our intermediate passing game last year was limited to running naked, running (bootlegs)."

Like it was following the 2013 season, Arizona State is searching for better things from its special teams. Graham would rank his entire special teams unit eighth in the Pac-12 in 2014, and he believes a jump into the top three to help out the offense and defense should put ASU in position to win a conference title.

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The punting team and coverage units might need the most work, and the coaching staff is still determining how they can best solve the situation from a managerial standpoint.

Graham is at least feeling good about the return game. He expects Kalen Ballage — whose 95-yard kickoff return helped ASU beat Duke in the Sun Bowl — and De’Chavon "Gump" Hayes to handle kickoff returns. Hayes will also field punts.

Hayes is a 5-foot-10, 188-pound speedster who transferred from junior college and redshirted in 2014. Graham raved about his abilities on Friday and said he should be in the running back mix next season, along with Demario Richard, Ballage and incoming freshman Jaason Lewis.

Defensive tackle Jaxon Hood missed ASU’s camp before last season for personal reasons, but he returned as the season began and recorded 10 tackles. Hood seemed to be in good shape, but he left the team, again for personal reasons, following a Nov. 1 game against Utah. Graham said Friday that the "door is open" for Hood to return for next fall, but the defensive tackle won’t be around this spring.

Hood’s best year came in 2012, when he recorded 26 tackles and three sacks.

Without Hood, Graham thinks the defensive line still has ample depth. He credited the depth built last year for helping the production of the team’s best defensive lineman, now-departed Marcus Hardison.

"If you watch last year how Marcus Hardison, toward the end of the year, his production started really, really going up, and it’s because we got him a breather," Graham said.

Take a hike past Sun Devil Stadium and it’s clear the heavy lifting of the renovation is under way. A portion of the southeast ramp is demolished, and about a fourth of the field has been torn up for the crews to work. Graham has even hopped into the construction equipment to help out.

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