ASU’s Graham confident as ever despite defensive rebuild

Todd Graham at Pac-12 Media Days says his rebuilding defense will 'surprise a lot of people.'

Kelvin Kuo/Kelvin Kuo-USA TODAY Sports

From the way Arizona State coach Todd Graham talked Thursday at Pac-12 Media Days in Hollywood, you might have thought the Sun Devils had been picked to win the conference in its preseason media poll rather than third in the South division.

Despite significant losses to graduation and more experienced competition in the Pac-12 South, Graham appeared abundantly confident that ASU will be in the mix to repeat as South champs … and possibly more.

"I think this is the best football team that we’ve had since I’ve been there," Graham said. "I’ve got a lot of confidence our team is going to compete and win a championship."

Graham wore wristbands on both wrists Thursday that, among other phrases, said "NC 15," as in National Championship 2015. So, no, Graham has not set the bar any lower.

Externally, though — as the media poll results indicate — expectations are lower. That stems almost entirely from the loss of nine defensive starters, seven of whom earned All-Pac-12 recognition last season.

There’s also the fact ASU was among the Pac-12’s worst on special teams last season, save field goal kicking. The depth chart, too, poses challenges, as only 12 of 34 players to sign with ASU between 2010 and 2011 remain on the team.

With all that to face, it’s easy to see why most expect at least a slight regression from last season, which culminated with the Pac-12 Championship Game in Tempe. But as Graham handled questions Thursday about all the challenges ASU faces, he offered reason after reason for his confidence.

Perhaps from more than anywhere else, Graham draws confidence from ASU’s offense. The unit returns eight starters, including third-year starting quarterback Taylor Kelly, star receiver Jaelen Strong and versatile running back D.J. Foster. The offensive line also looks to be better, with guard Jamil Douglas moving to left tackle and Auburn transfer Christian Westerman joining the starting five.

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"This will be the best offensive football team that I’ve ever coached," Graham told reporters.

Graham didn’t have to do much convincing there, as most expect ASU’s offense to be among the Pac-12’s best. If not for that, ASU might have finished even lower in the media poll.

For the defense, Graham admits he has a tough task and doesn’t deny he’d love to still have Carl Bradford, Will Sutton and Chris Young around. But, as he has before, Graham pointed to the job he and his staff did in 2012 rebuilding a defense that had lost six starters. That defense wound up finishing with the Pac-12 second-best defense.

"When I came in, we were not very good defensively, and we weren’t very big," Graham said. "We still weren’t very big last year. So we developed a system and a scheme that can create explosive plays and takeaways and (tackles for loss) and sacks.

"I like the system we’ve developed. We’ve got to adapt it and tweak it a little bit, but I’ve got all the confidence in the world that we’ll be productive again."

Those tweaks will be personnel-related, as ASU has a number of positions where no prototypical option exists, but Graham has expressed before his belief in his system is more crucial to defensive success than the players in it.

Graham also draws a great deal of confidence from reuniting with Keith Patterson, his former defensive coordinator at Tulsa and Pitt who spent the past two seasons at West Virginia. Patterson, Graham said, balances the staff and allows Graham to focus more on the big picture.

As confident as he may be, though, Graham does admit his defense isn’t likely to be what it was last season.

"We’re going to be young, but we’re very talented," Graham said. "Will we be as talented and experienced on defense? Well, no. But I do think we’ll surprise a lot of people."

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As for special teams, Graham said on multiple occasions it will be the most improved facet of ASU’s game this season. Patterson has led the charge in fixing the specials teams units, and ASU’s coaches have spent a considerable amount of time researching ways to improve them.

"I think the key to our success is our special teams," Graham said. "That was our nemesis last year. It’ll be the most improved thing on our football team."

There’s no real answer for depth issues other than to develop young talent into reliable reserves, and ASU has an impressive pool of talent arriving this fall.

Up against all ASU faces this fall, some coaches might offer more measured predictions. They might speak in generic terms about "competing" and "being in every game." Not Graham, though. He has remained true to form, expressing more confidence now than ever.

"We were one game shy last year, and we don’t want to be Pac‑12 South champions (this year)," Graham said. "We want to be Pac‑12 champions, Rose Bowl champions, and obviously, win every game. That’s the standard."

*Graham didn’t address them by name but acknowledged the losses of a pair of junior college recruits — linebacker Darrius Caldwell and defensive lineman Dalvon Stuckey — who did not enroll due to academic reasons. "It’s disappointing we had a couple of guys that didn’t make it. If you’re depending on a couple of guys, you’re in trouble."

*As usual, Graham spoke glowingly of senior quarterback Taylor Kelly: "This is the best quarterback in all my years coaching I’ve ever had a chance to coach."

*Graham’s best quote on Kelly, though presumably a joke: "It’s just the ‘it’ factor. I want him to marry my daughter."

*With D.J. Foster moving into a featured back role, Graham said he wants the junior to get between 25 and 30 touches per game.

*Asked if he could see himself retiring at ASU, Graham said he could. He detailed the commitment he and his wife have made to ASU and the state — they paid off their house and have made capital contributions to the university — and spoke again of his desire to have the kind of success legendary coach Frank Kush had at ASU.

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