Sun Devils open Graham's fifth season against NAU
TEMPE, Ariz. -- Arizona State would seemingly have the perfect opponent to open a season full of questions.
Northern Arizona plays in the lower-tier FCS, hasn't beaten Arizona State since 1938 and doesn't have the size or depth to match the Sun Devils.
Yet as he leads his team into Saturday's game at Sun Devil Stadium, Arizona State coach Todd Graham is not taking anything for granted. The Lumberjacks can play and he knows it.
"We have studied them well and we know their coaching staff. They are well-coached and they have talent," Graham said. "We have a lot of respect for their team and their level of play, and we know they are going to be highly motivated and confident come Saturday."
Todd Graham's Sun Devils had a disappointing 2015 season, finishing 6-7 after being picked as a dark horse College Football Playoff team early in the season.
Arizona State had a disappointing 2015 season, finishing 6-7 after being picked as a dark horse College Football Playoff team early in the season.
The Sun Devils return this season with a quarterback battle between players who have never thrown a pass in college, along with questions on the offensive line and defensive secondary.
Northern Arizona could present a difficult challenge despite playing the little brother to the two FBS programs in Arizona.
The Lumberjacks opened the season ranked 18th in the two major FCS preseason polls and were picked to win the Big Sky Conference. They have an explosive offense that includes a quarterback and a receiver who received All-American recognition last season, which could cause some problems for an Arizona State defense that ranked last nationally in pass defense a year ago.
"They are going to catch some passes and they're going to have some plays because they are very talented," Graham said.
A few things to look for when Arizona State and Northern Arizona open the season Saturday night:
WHO'S THE QB?: Between Taylor Kelly and Mike Bercovici last season, Graham has known who his starting quarterback would be in every season except his first (2012) in the desert. This season, Arizona State joins Tulane as the only FBS programs to not have a quarterback on its roster who has thrown a collegiate pass. Sophomore Manny Wilkins and redshirt freshman Brady White had battled for the spot since spring before Graham told a local radio station on Friday that Wilkins will start against the Lumberjacks. Graham added that the QB competition is not over, so White could see some playing time Saturday and beyond.
COOKUS RETURNS: While Arizona State has questions at quarterback, NAU certainly does not. Case Cookus had a stellar freshman season, throwing for 3,117 yards and 37 touchdowns while completing 69 percent of his passes. He was named the FCS national freshman of the year last season, a third-team All-American and has one of the nation's best receivers to throw to, FCS All-American Emmanuel Butler. Against a revamped ASU secondary, there could be a few big plays Saturday night.
POWER AND SPEED: Arizona State's inexperience at quarterback will be offset by one of the best and most experienced backfields in the Pac-12. Juniors Demario Richard and Kalen Ballage give the Sun Devils a mix of power and speed that will make it difficult for the Lumberjacks -- or anyone else -- to stop. At 5-foot-10, 219 pounds, Richard goes through would-be tacklers like a bowling ball. The 6-2, 227-pound Ballage has the power to run opponents over, but also is one of the fastest players on the team.
NUMBERS: Arizona State leads the all-time series 21-14-4 and has won the last nine meetings since a 13-13 tie in 1946. ... Northern Arizona coach Jerome Souers is entering his 19th season with the Lumberjacks. ... Arizona State K Zane Gonzalez enters the season needing 16 field goals to break the FBS record of 88 set by Florida State's Dustin Hopkins.