One step forward, no steps back.
Even with losing nine starters on the defensive end from their 10-win campaign last year that saw them win their first Pac-12 South title, ASU head coach Todd Graham high expectations for this coming season.
“This program is about winning championships,” Graham said. “We were the Pac-12 South champions last year, but that’s short of our goal. We’re a lot closer to our goal than we were two years ago.”
With nine defensive starters gone from last year’s squad, this will be the first true test of Graham’s ability to develop young talent and use his own recruits since taking over at ASU.
“Great programs reload, they don’t rebuild,” he said. “When you have guys you recruit yourself, it makes things a lot easier because that is all they know.”
Graham isn’t ignorant of the challenges that are to come with bringing along the defense, saying his biggest concern on the defensive end comes at Will linebacker, where redshirt sophomore Carlos Mendoza has been taking reps this camp.
He also expressed concern about depth on the defensive line, forcing playing time for freshmen such as Connor Humphreys, Tashon Smallwood, and Renell Wren. Graham said the key to the success of the defense as a whole is the development of the interior defensive line.
“We don’t have a lot of experience, and we don’t have a lot of guys,” he said. “What we had to do with six guys last year, we might have to do with four.”
The fall has brought out some positives on the defensive end, with Salamo Fiso establishing himself as the team’s starting Sam linebacker and cornerback Lloyd Carrington having an impressive camp.
“I think that Lloyd (Carrington) has had the best fall camp of any corner I have ever coached,” Graham said.
Special teams, which was an issue at times for the Sun Devils last season, has emerged from this fall as a strength in Graham’s eyes.
“We are fast, and that’s what we recruit,” he said. “Plus these guys are smart, which makes us even faster.”
This season also brings added expectations for third-year starter Taylor Kelly, who Graham said will be given more autonomy and control on the offensive end to become a “Pac-12 champion” quarterback.
“Taylor Kelly needs to be our offensive coordinator out on the field,” he said.
ASU comes into 2014 with added expectations and an even tougher schedule. Graham said he loved the added pressure, calling their No. 18 ranking in the initial coaches poll a mark of “respect”. Even with a four-game stretch coming against UCLA, USC, Stanford, and Washington, Graham is unfazed.
“That’s why I came here,” he said.
Even with college football expanding to a four-team playoff this season, Graham was unsure if it was enough. He said that the Pac-12 and SEC are the most respected conferences in college football, and that a one-loss conference champion from either of those conferences should not be left out of the championship picture.
ASU offensive coordinator Mike Norvell, in his third season, spoke to a scrum of reporters at ASU’s media day. Here are some takeaways from the session.
ASU really wants the ball in DJ Foster’s hands:
There’s no question junior running back D.J. Foster is going to be the everydown back for the Sun Devils in 2014, replacing Marion Grice.
Foster had 1,176 yards of total offense last season, and has actually had more receiving yards than rushing in each of his first two seasons. But he’ll mostly be getting looks out of the backfield.
Norvell reiterated part of the team’s plan for Foster in the upcoming season, saying his goal “is to make sure he gets 20-25 touches per game.”
“I think we’d be foolish not to also let him do what he does really, really well, moving him around, whether it’s in the slot or outside, to get those matchups for him as a pass receiver as well,” Norvell said.
ASU won’t just use one back though. Norvell also talked about some of his backups.
He said freshman Demario Richard’s skill-set is similar to Foster’s and freshman Kalen Ballage may be a “bigger and faster” version of Grice.
No. 2 receiver?
The No. 2 receiver spot is one of the major question marks heading into the season for the offense. Everybody knows about redshirt junior wide receiver Jaelen Strong (1,122 receiving yards, seven touchdowns in 2013), but he needs receivers opposite him.
This stems from the fact that sophomore wide receiver Cameron Smith had the second-most catches by a returning Sun Devil who is not a running back with eight.
ASU added two four-star receivers in its 2014 recruiting class in junior Eric Lauderdale and freshman Jalen Harvey, but it’s the returning guys who had Norvell’s attention.
“(Redshirt junior wide receiver) Gary Chambers is somebody that has been here for a few years and really has not done much pushing for playing time the last couple of years,” Norvell said. “He’s done a tremendous job in the weight room, gaining strength in his body, his routes.”
“Ronald Lewis is a young (redshirt) freshman that has stepped up this last week of practice, made some really nice plays, going up and high-pointing the football. He’s a big strong physical receiver that can definitely stretch the field,” he said.
“Most people in their third year, everybody thinks you’re going to add to this offense because you have more time. I’m almost trying to scale back a little bit at what we do and just be able to change the variations and how we present things.”
Norvell said redshirt senior quarterback Taylor Kelly has gained about 10-15 pounds this offseason.
He said redshirt freshman tight end Kody Kohl can line up in the backfield or in the slot, which is what he said Chris Coyle did.
Redshirt junior guard Christian Westerman is apparently a workout warrior, reportedly bench pressing 225 pounds 41 times in the offseason. But what excited Norvell most about him isn’t his physical tools which “speak for themselves,” but that “his football IQ has continued to grow.”
Reach the reporters at Justin.Janssen@asu.edu and firstname.lastname@example.org or follow them on Twitter @jjanssen11 and @fardaya15