Arizona State Sun Devils head football coach Todd Graham had one message for his team this preseason: “Toughen up.”
“You know, I think that our motto this year is ‘Sun Devil Tough,’” Graham said at the Pac-12 Conference Media Day. “Every single Sun Devil you talk to, it’s about being tough. Tough people come out of tough times.”
And the times did get tough last year. The Sun Devils started last season with a 5-1 record before dropping six straight games to finish the year 5-7. The team kept most of its veteran core, with seven offensive starters and five defensive starters returning. But this year’s players are coming in with a little extra attitude, Graham said. Graham noticed the players playing with a chip on their shoulder from day one.
“I like the edge that our team has,” Graham said. “The first day of practice, I went out there and had to go, like, ‘Wait a minute, we don’t have pads on. Easy.’ They’ve got a little edge on them. I think they’re a veteran bunch, and I like the maturity of our team.”
Running the football will be a focus for the Sun Devils in 2017, with key senior running backs Demario Richard and Kalen Ballage returning. They combined for 1,129 rushing yards and 17 rushing touchdowns last season.
“We’ve got to get back to running the ball and playing with speed and physicality and to finish every play with a passion,” Graham said.
The Sun Devils also recruited freshman running back Eno Benjamin, who has had an impressive preseason and might get to see some playing time. Graham also liked the rest of his backs in redshirt sophomore Nick Ralston, freshman Trelon Smith, and senior Jacom Brimhall.
“We’re very deep and diverse in our talents at running back,” Graham said. “We spent a lot of time and utilizing the talent that we have at those two positions. So we’ll play a lot, I think, with two backs on the field.”
While the Sun Devils might have running backs, the team still has not secured a quarterback to lead the team. Redshirt junior Manny Wilkins, who had 2,329 passing yards and 12 touchdowns last season for the Sun Devils, was named the starting quarterback but still has to battle to keep his position during the offseason against redshirt sophomore Blake Barnett. Barnett transferred to ASU last year after starting one game at Alabama before being pulled out. Graham believes the quarterback battle has benefited his whole team.
“Guys have elevated each other,” Graham said. “I’ve enjoyed watching the competition probably as much as I’ve ever enjoyed any competition. What’s been neat is to watch them elevate each other, and it’s a fierce competition. And it’s created that atmosphere on our whole team.”
Whether it’s Wilkins or Barnett who starts, he will have one of the nation’s top wide receivers in sophomore N’Keal Harry, who finished last year with 58 receptions, 659 receiving yards and five touchdowns. Yet, the Sun Devils will still have to find a way to get the ball to him. The team focused on turnovers during the preseason after throwing 14 interceptions and losing seven fumbles last season, which ranked them among the bottom quarter of the league.
“We’ve got to get back to taking care of the football. We’ve got to eliminate the negative plays. That’s the biggest two things on offense,” Graham said.
On the defensive side, the Sun Devils have much to improve on. The team allowed 520.5 total yards per game, the worst in the league. The defense should see an improvement with redshirt junior linebacker Christian Sam coming back from injury after missing the entire 2016 season. Last season’s leading tackler, senior linebacker DJ Calhoun, also will return and add veteran leadership to a defense that was plagued with injuries and shallow experience last season. Junior JoJo Wicker, who was selected All-Pac-12 Second Team defensive honors last season, will return to lead the defensive line. The defense has enough talent to improve from last year’s poor performance. For Graham, it’s all about returning both sides of the team to form.
“Our whole deal is getting back to what we do,” Graham said. “That’s playing hardcore, disciplined football. I like our team because it’s a veteran team. We have a lot of experience on both sides of the football. So the whole key for us is getting back to playing disciplined, hardcore football.”
And the team will need disciplined football this season with their schedule. The Sun Devils open with a chance to start strong, with winnable games against New Mexico State, San Diego State, Texas Tech and Oregon. But a brutal midseason stretch will see them face Stanford, Washington, Utah, USC and Colorado. Still, Graham believes the Sun Devils have the toughness and formula it takes to return to a championship game.
“There is a very definitive formula for winning, and it’s very simple,” Graham said. “It’s owning the football. It’s dominating the line of scrimmage, the run game and score more than the other team.”