2015 CFB Preview – Arizona State

    Arizona State Sun DevilsGo to Team Page Sun DevilsGo to Selection Page           Like him or not, Todd Graham has the Sun Devils on the verge of becoming

    July 1, 2015

    Arizona State
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    Like him or not, Todd Graham has the Sun Devils on the verge of becoming a perennial Pac-12 power.

    By Rich Cirminiello | @RichCirminiello

    Sure, the ASU head coach is an acquired taste who hasn’t ingratiated himself to many in the college football world. But fans in Tempe are utterly thrilled he’s on their side. All Graham has done is win more games in his first three years—28—than any coach in program history.

    And last season’s 10-3 finish, with an entirely rebuilt D, was the best evidence to date that the Sun Devils are here to stay. While there’ll be personnel challenges in 2015, too, Graham and his staff are ready to meet them all thanks to skillful recruiting and player development.

    The Sun Devils have won 10 games in back-to-back years for the first time in more than three decades. Nice, but Graham is hardly satisfied by mere double-digit win totals. He expects titles and College Football Playoff contention. And it’s not just coach-speak designed to keep the kids and the community from becoming content.

    Graham is dead serious, and he’s backed up the expectations by assembling an outstanding staff, amassing gobs of high school and JUCO talent, and then demanding maximum effort from each of those recruits. In short, this staff has succeeded in changing the culture.

    For the coach’s objectives to be realized in 2015, a few things will need to happen. On offense, the Sun Devils must show they can be as effective and efficient with Mike Bercovici behind center as they were when Taylor Kelly was in change. That means developing new targets in the passing game and growing in pass protection, despite the presence of two new starting tackles.

    The D simply needs to mature. Despite being overhauled in 2014, the group was respectable. However, now that so many key contributors are back, a blossoming defense is expected to actually provide a spark, especially if the offense hiccups in the early going.

    In three years, Graham and his assistants have awoken the sleeping giant that is Arizona State football. And after winning 10 in a year of challenges, ‘rebuilding’ may no longer be in this program’s vernacular. Unfortunately, neither has ‘outright championship’ over the past couple of decades. The Sun Devils are sizzling these days, finishing ranked the last two seasons. But the program is approaching a Pasadena-or-bust stage of its growth, yet another sign of how much the situation has changed over the course of three years.

    What to watch for on offense: Foster-ing a new role. You want versatility? How about the 1,000-yard rusher switching positions to bolster a need area? D.J. Foster, a soft-handed Brandin Cooks reincarnation, has moved to slot receiver to support a group that lost Jaelen Strong to the NFL and Cameron Smith to a season-ending knee injury. The relocation was made smoother by the presence of RB Demario Richard and the emergence of Kalen Ballage and De’Chavon Hayes. Ballage is coming off a monster spring, and Hayes, known as ‘Gump’, could wind up being the fastest player in the Pac-12.

    What to watch for on defense: Sam I am. How dominating was Sam in his first full season with the Sun Devils? He’s seriously challenging Salamo Fiso, a productive two-year starter, for the starting gig at strongside. Sam was everywhere in March and April, looking like a different player than the wide-eyed one who arrived from Allen, Tex. a year ago. He also plays the game on the edge, with a fearless intensity reminiscent of former ASU bouncer Vontaze Burfict. If Sam can properly channel his nastiness, he’ll be tough to keep off the field in 2015.

    The team will be far better if … a D that’s a year older is actually a year better. Arizona State and its fans wrung their hands over a completely retooled defense in 2014, and were mildly pleased by the final results. But there were inconsistencies, especially in losses to UCLA, Oregon State and Arizona, which the locals hope will be addressed by an additional year of seasoning. Sure, S Damarious Randall and DE Marcus Hardison must be replaced, but there are enough productive returners for Keith Patterson’s kids to take a big step forward in 2014.

    The Schedule:
    One of the marquee matchups of the opening weekend will pit Arizona State against Texas A&M in Houston, the Sun Devils’ first game with an SEC opponent in three years.
    – Defending Pac-12 champion Oregon is back on the schedule, visiting Sun Devil Stadium for a highly anticipated Thursday night affair on Oct. 29.
    – A pivotal pair of games with South Division rivals USC and UCLA will be preceded unchallenging tune-ups at home with Cal Poly and New Mexico. The Devils get eight days to prep for their visit from the Trojans.
    – Arizona State does not play a true road game until its Oct. 3 trip to Pasadena in a meeting with the Bruins with serious South Division implications.
    – The schedule plays out very nicely for the Sun Devils. Their bye precedes the crucial visit from Oregon, Arizona must travel to Temple and they’ll be the visitor in just four games all season.
    – WATCH OUT FOR … Washington State. The weekend after the Oregon game, and before bouts with Washington and Arizona, ASU must travel to the Palouse, where it figures to be seasonably brisk in early November.

    Best Offensive Player: Senior WR D.J. Foster. If someone wants to be anointed the most versatile weapon in college football, he might have to go through Foster first. After rushing for more than 1,000 yards in 2014, he’s taking his diverse skill set to slot receiver to bolster a unit missing last year’s top two performers. Foster is college football’s only active player with 1,500 career rushing and receiving yards, and his open-field elusiveness will encourage the staff to use him creatively, including on jet sweeps and direct handoffs.

    Best Defensive Player: Junior LB Laiu Moeakiola. Keith Patterson’s defense is predicated on versatile players who attack with vigilance in all directions. Moeakiola fits the job description to a tee. He’s fast, heady and hell-bent on creating chaos from ‘spur’ linebacker. And his keen instincts and anticipation make him a natural choice to fly in from the second level on blitzes. With a full year in the lineup, Moeakiola is poised to be even more disruptive and impactful in 2015.

    Key player to a successful season: Senior QB Mike Bercovici. There’s an assumption that Bercovici will take the baton from Taylor Kelly and seamlessly carry on as the leader of the Sun Devil offense. Easier said than done. It’s one thing to flourish off the bench, as Bercovici did in 2014. But it’s another thing entirely to meet expectations when you’re the presumptive starter throughout an entire offseason. Plus, Bercovici won’t have access to one of Kelly’s top weapons, big-play WR Jaelen Strong, who left for the NFL following his junior season.

    The season will be a success if … the Sun Devils remain on the 10-win escalator. After winning 10 games in 2013 and 2014, anything less in 2015 is going to qualify as a disappointment. And that’s a good thing, because the bar has been raised much higher under Todd Graham. Last season was proof that Arizona State can handle wholesale changes on one side of the ball, yet still remain ranked. So, as the offense undergoes a few alterations this fall, the defense is in a position to pick up a little more of the slack.

    Key game: Sept. 26 vs. USC. Of course, nothing trumps the annual rivalry game with Arizona, played this November at Sun Devil Stadium. But the Week 4 visit from the Trojans will set the tone for the following Saturday’s trip to Pasadena and the rest of the campaign. ASU has its sights fixed on winning the South Division, and USC is one of the program’s largest roadblocks to a Dec. 4 game in Santa Clara. Losing to Troy in Tempe could cap Arizona State’s potential in 2015.

    2014 Fun Stats:
    – Fumble lost: Arizona State 4 – Opponents 13
    – Penalty yards per game: Arizona State 32.4 – Opponents 61.2
    – Sacks: Arizona State 39 – Opponents 39

    What You Need To Know About The Offense: New quarterback. New left tackle. No Jaelen Strong. But Mike Norvell is still the coordinator, so there’s a sense that everything will be okay on offense. Norvell has excelled in Tempe with an inventive, balanced offense that keeps opposing defenses on their heels. The biggest change is at quarterback, where Mike Bercovici supplants Taylor Kelly on a full-time basis. Bercovici showcased confidence and a live arm out of the bullpen in 2014, but now must deliver on a week-in, week-out basis. His pass-catchers, such as sophomore Ellis Jefferson and recent UCLA transfer Devin Lucien, have plenty to prove, so multidimensional playmaker D.J. Foster has been moved from the backfield to slot receiver. Protecting Bercovici is another concern the staff will continue to address this summer. The interior of the line, led by C Nick Kelly and guards Christian Westerman and Vi Teofilo, is among the best in the Pac-12. The tackles, though, are new to the lineup. On the right side, fifth-year senior Billy McGehee is about to padlock the job. However, the battle at left tackle between favorite Evan Goodman and Sam Jones got interesting in April, with Act 2 coming in August.

    What You Need To Know About The Defense: Coordinator Keith Patterson planted seeds a year ago. This fall, he sits back and watches his Sun Devils bloom. ASU was overhauled defensively in 2014, losing eight all-stars to eligibility. But now that so many underclassmen were used last fall, the D should begin reaping the rewards in 2015. All things considered, Patterson did a solid job last season, ranking No 6 in Pac-12 scoring and notching a combined 66 sacks and takeaways. Even better days lay ahead for the frenetic group that likes to press the action and dictate the tempo with blitzes and pressure. The Sun Devils will feature a nuanced blend of veterans, like LB Laiu Moeakiola, S Jordan Simone and Lloyd Carrington, and rising stars, such as DT Tashon Smallwood, S James Johnson and linebackers D.J. Calhoun and Christian Sam. What the unit now needs is a ‘Devil’ backer to emerge and take some of the heat off an inconsistent pass defense. Butler (Kans.) Community College transfer Davon Durant was expected to provide immediate help, but he’s currently suspended and facing a trial for aggravated assault.

    Players You Need To Know

    1. WR D.J. Foster, Sr.
    Foster can do a little bit of everything for the Sun Devil attack, which is exactly what his role will be in 2015. The senior is a running back by trade. But his soft hands combined with the emergence of sophomore Demario Richard has enticed the staff to audition its best weapon at wide receiver. Regardless of where Foster lines up, he’ll touch the ball plenty in 2015. The dynamic 5-11, 205-pound homerun hitter rushed for 1,000 yards, caught 62 passes and scored a team-high 12 times last year.

    2. QB Mike Bercovici, Sr.
    A Taylor Kelly injury provided a sneak peek of Bercovici last fall. This season, the curtain gets pulled all the way back. Bercovici showed enough in three starts to believe he’d be in the lineup for more than 100 FBS programs. He possesses a rifle, which he’ll use to fit the ball into tight windows and stretch the field. And the 6-1, 200-pound Bercovici is tough, staring down pressure before unleashing a dart. He ended up completing 115-of-186 throws for 1,445 yards, 12 touchdowns and four interceptions in his final season as a part-timer.

    3. RB Demario Richard, Soph.
    Forget Richard’s numbers from a year ago. Chump change compared to his upside potential. He got his feet wet in his first season out of Palmdale (Calif.) High School, coming off the bench to rush for 478 yards and four scores on 84 carries, while catching 13 passes for 156 yards and four additional touchdowns. But even in limited stretches, it became clear that the 5-10, 210-pound Richard has the lower body strength and quickness through the hole to erupt into a Pac-12 superstar this season.

    4. C Nick Kelly, Sr.
    It took a year of seasoning on the B team, but Kelly is proving to be quite a pickup out of American River (Calif.) College. In his first season as a starter, he started every game at the pivot, while playing his way on to the All-Pac-12 Second Team. Kelly harbors the requisite smarts to excel at the position, often recognizing blitzes in time to properly line up his troops. The 6-2, 290-pounder is tough at the point of attack and quick enough to get to the second level.

    5. LB Laiu Moeakiola, Jr.
    For a Sun Devil to thrive at ‘spur’, he has to possess the attributes of a linebacker and a safety. Moeakiola is proving to be that guy in Tempe. He is a quintessential ‘spur’, operating with the range, smarts and fearlessness to make things happen wherever it’s necessary. Moeakiola is just 6-0 and 215 pounds, and prone to getting dinged up. But he was impactful in 2014, earning honorable mention All-Pac-12 with 72 stops, 10.5 tackles for minus yards, five sacks and a couple of pass breakups.

    6. OG Christian Westerman, Sr.
    Arizona State is pleased with the early returns on Westerman, who earned honorable mention All-Pac-12 in his Sun Devil debut. And a lot more is expected from him in 2015. Three years ago, he was a five-star Auburn recruit and the nation’s top-rated guard. But after two years as a Tiger, he transferred back to his home state. The 6-4, 305-pounder is a nasty drive blocker and a powerful road grader in the running game. Once Westerman cleans up his technique, NFL scouts are going to fall in love with his potential for the next level.

    7. LB Salamo Fiso, Jr.
    Fiso feels he can play much better than he did last season, which might be necessary to hold off surging sophomore Christian Sam. Still, Fiso had a pretty good year, his second as a starter. He was fourth on the Sun Devils with 83 tackles, including 11 behind the line and three sacks. The 6-1, 235-pounder is so much more than just his numbers, because he brings an infectious tenacity and aggressiveness to the field. After earning honorable mention All-Pac-12 in 2014, Fiso is bucking to raise his profile this season.

    8. CB Lloyd Carrington, Jr.
    Carrington’s first season in the lineup went down as a success. He started all 14 games, finishing with 58 tackles, six stops for loss, three sacks, six pass breakups and honorable mention All-Pac-12 recognition. While Carrington is aiming to improve in coverage this fall, his physicality at the position will continue to be a major plus for the Sun Devils. He’s 6-1 and 192 pounds, and he approaches the position like a hard-hitting safety.

    9. LB Antonio Longino, Sr.
    Kudos to the coaching staff for moving Longino from ‘Devil’ to weakside during the season. The move paid off by maximizing the playmaking ability of the first-year transfer from Hutchinson (Kans.) Community College. Longino possesses a good mix of 6-2, 230-pound size and athleticism, which affords him excellent range against the run. He finished 2014 with 94 tackles, 5.5 stops for loss and two sacks, peaking with a career-high 17 stops in the Sun Bowl victory over Duke.

    10. S Jordan Simone, Jr.
    Arizona State continues to be a breeding ground for former walk-ons to develop. Simone is just the latest in a growing line of examples. The 6-0, 195-pound overachiever has been ultra-productive out of the secondary, finishing second on the team with 100 tackles to go along with 4.5 stops for loss, two picks and two fumble recoveries. Simone is the classic try-hard, blue-collar defender, quickly developing into an inspiration to his teammates.

    11. DT Tashon Smallwood, Soph.
    Smallwood is poised to become the Sun Devils’ next star at ‘Tiger’ or three-tech, a position designed for agile interior linemen. In many ways, he’s ideally suited for a defensive scheme that requires its defender to perform with passion, intensity and explosiveness. In his debut out of high school, the 6-0, 285-pounder flashed a penchant for getting off the snap quickly and beneath the pads of opposing blockers, making 23 tackles and 5.5 stops for loss. Smallwood’s ceiling as playmaker in Tempe is enormous.

    12. OG Vi Teofilo, Sr.
    Teofilo is one of the Sun Devils’ veteran rocks on the interior of the O-line. He’s started 27 games in Tempe, bringing toughness, a versatile skill set and a great work ethic to the Arizona State front wall. The 6-3, 305-pound Teofilo is at his finest when he’s blowing open holes for the running backs, and he was recognized as an honorable mention All-Pac-12 selection a year ago.

    13. CB Kweishi Brown, Sr.
    Brown arrived in Tempe as a JUCO All-American, and at times played like it in 2014. He was an important addition for a team that was hurting at cornerback, instantly earning a spot in the lineup. Brown isn’t bashful about getting physical with opposing receivers, using his 6-0, 205-pound body to outmuscle them for positioning. His Sun Devil career kicked off with 46 tackles, three interceptions and nine passes defended, highlighted by a breakout performance versus Stanford.

    Head Coach: Todd Graham
    4th year: 28-12
    10th year overall: 77-41
    Schedule
    Sept. 5 Texas A&M (in Houston)
    Sept. 12 Cal Poly
    Sept. 19 New Mexico
    Sept. 26 USC
    Oct. 3 at UCLA
    Oct. 10 Colorado
    Oct. 17 at Utah
    Oct. 24 OPEN DATE
    Oct. 29 Oregon
    Nov. 7 at Washington State
    Nov. 14 Washington
    Nov. 21 Arizona
    Nov. 28 at Cal
    Ten Best ASU Players
    1. WR D.J. Foster, Sr.
    2. QB Mike Bercovici, Sr.
    3. RB Demario Richard, Soph.
    4. C Nick Kelly, Sr.
    5. LB Laiu Moeakiola, Jr.
    6. OG Christian Westerman, Sr.
    7. LB Salamo Fiso, Jr.
    8. CB Lloyd Carrington, Jr.
    9. LB Antonio Longino, Sr.
    10. S Jordan Simone, Jr.

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