RETURNS TO EXCELLENCE
With fifth-year senior quarterback Mike Bercovici, a veteran defense and a new leader for special teams, coach Todd Graham aims to improve on last year's 10--3 record, which included a 36--31 Sun Bowl victory over Duke. "We should be the best we've been," says Graham, who's entering his fourth year in Tempe.
The Sun Devils scored more than 50 points three times in 2014. In Bercovici's three starts—he totaled 1,243 yards and nine TDs—they averaged 182 more yards passing; twice he threw for more than 485. To maintain that air pressure Graham moved senior D.J. Foster, a 1,081-yard rusher, to wideout, where he replaces field-stretcher Jaelen Strong. That's possible because Arizona State has sophomores Demario Richard (5.7 yards per carry) and Kalen Ballage (6'3", 222 pounds) ready to take over the run game.
Last season the Sun Devils had nine new starters on defense. All of them are back, but none has proved to be the consistent pass-rusher they desperately need. New special teams coach Shawn Slocum, who held the same post with the Packers for the last six years, has an even bigger problem to fix: a unit that was last in the Pac-12 in kickoff (555 total yards) and punt (3.7 each) returns.
Let the Pac-12 vs. SEC debate begin with the Sun Devils' not-so-neutral-site opener against Texas A&M in Houston. The conference schedule is more favorable: They get USC (Sept. 26), Oregon (Oct. 29), Washington (Nov. 14) and Arizona (Nov. 21) in Tempe, where they're 12--2 over the past two years. ASU's road test will come on an Oct. 3 trip to UCLA.
Todd Graham projects left tackle Evan Goodman as a future first-round pick, even though the junior has never started. The 6'4", 314-pound Goodman was buried behind Jamil Douglas, the Dolphins' fourth-round choice in May. Now Goodman gets his chance, but he'll need to lead a line with two new starters to keep ASU's high-octane offense humming.
OPPOSING COACH'S TAKE
Mike Bercovici has a big arm and can make all the throws. They'll take a lot of shots downfield.... They've got really good skill players. Guys who are explosive and can play in space.... Even though D.J. Foster is playing in the slot, I'm sure he'll get just as many touches.... Defensively, they're blitz-oriented. Todd Graham loves taking chances, but they're calculated. They get to you so quickly that they create a lot of negative-yardage plays. They thrive on pick-sixes and fumble recoveries.... They're not as deep as other teams in the Pac-12, particularly on defense. They're not very big on that side either. But their staff is very good at figuring out your play, then blitzing into it. The times they're wrong, though, they give up big plays.