Arizona State will score a lot. Coach Todd Graham's high-octane offense is led by school-record-breaking quarterback Taylor Kelly, who enters his third season as a starter. Kelly has a slew of weapons, including NFL-ready redshirt junior wide receiver Jaelen Strong and do-everything junior running back D.J. Foster. "This," Graham says, "is going to be the best football team we've had."
Last year's team played in the Pac-12 title game, but Graham needs every point the offense can muster. That's because the defense surrendered at least 37 points in each of the Sun Devils' four losses, and that unit lost nine starters. Graham believes he can plug new starters into his aggressive, blitz-heavy scheme to once again be among the nation's best in forced turnovers. To help he brought in defensive coordinator Keith Patterson, a longtime friend and former assistant at Tulsa and Pittsburgh. Graham will still call the coverages, but Patterson is now in charge of the fronts and meetings.
Graham and Patterson will run special teams too, and they hope improved play—the unit ranked among the nation's worst in net punting and failed to produce a kick-return touchdown last season—can offset any defensive lapses.
Junior cornerback Kweishi Brown is a ball-hawking 6-foot, 198-pound junior college All-America who is expected to start. Coach Todd Graham raves about Brown's size, strength and speed. Brown transferred from Grossmont College in El Cajon, Calif., where in two seasons he had 11 interceptions. He's also a dynamic punt and kick returner, which addresses another area of need.
The Gauntlet. That's what Graham calls the most crucial stretch of his team's daunting schedule. Beginning in late September, the Sun Devils have four consecutive conference games, against UCLA, at USC, against Stanford and at Washington. At least two of those four opponents should be in the top 10. If ASU can make it through unscathed, they'll not only be contenders in the Pac-12 but also for the Playoff.
OPPOSING COACH'S TAKE
They've got most of their offense back, but the key guy is Taylor Kelly. He's so efficient and smart with the ball. There are so many good quarterbacks in the Pac-12 that folks don't realize how good he is, especially as an athlete. He's not just an accurate passer, but he can also run. They're good up front, and Jaelen Strong is one of the best returning receivers in the country. He's first-round-pick good. This is the third year in offensive coordinator Mike Norvell's system, so they'll be even more efficient.
Revamping their defense is going to be the big make or break. They have some returners who played a little bit, but will they have the same production that departed stars Will Sutton and Carl Bradford did? When you have an experienced defense like they've had, you can get away with a couple of bad possessions or a turnover because your defense can bail you out. That may not be the case anymore.
SI POWER RANKINGS / By Rotowire.com
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SPECIAL TEAMS 82%
MARK J. REBILAS/USA TODAY SPORTS (STRONG)
NATHAN PRICE/EASTCOUNTYSPORTS.COM (BROWN)