The Sun Devils may need every one of those points, as they are replacing almost their entire defense.
The bottom line: This year’s team will be exciting, with crazy, high-scoring games likely to be the norm.
“This will be the best offensive football team that I’ve ever coached,” says coach Todd Graham, now entering his third season leading the Devils, speaking at Pac-12 media day.
Here are the reasons the offense should be among the most explosive in the nation:
• Taylor Kelly is, by some accounts, at least a fringe Heisman Trophy candidate as he enters his third and final season as the starting quarterback. Kelly put up some of the best numbers in Sun Devil history last year. The agile, dual-threat quarterback from Idaho threw for 3,635 yards and 28 touchdowns while running for 608 and nine scores. (Kelly, however, had to give up his off-field hobby, drag racing, after Graham saw a media report earlier this summer. “So I called him. He said, ‘Coach, I thought you were a fan of racing.’ I said, ‘Yeah, you can race if you want to. You’re just not going to be our starting quarterback.’”)
• D.J. Foster, the all-round threat from Saguaro High School, will be used more as a running back with the departure to the NFL of Marion Grice. Foster ran for 501 yards while catching 63 passes last season.
• Jaelen Strong returns as one of the most highly-regarded wide receivers in the nation. Last season, Strong caught 75 passes for 1,122 yards and seven touchdowns.
• Jamil Douglas will lead the offensive line. Douglas, the left tackle, will anchor a line that the Devils believe will allow them to run the ball whenever they please.
“Our offensive line is bigger. It’s more physical, it’s stronger,” Graham says. “I think we’re going to be a lot more explosive, being able to move people and knock people off the football. When we can run…it makes this offense very difficult to stop.”
The offense may have as much brainpower as scoring punch. Kelly and Douglas are “A” students who already have their degrees.
“This is the smartest team I’ve had,” Graham says. “The team with the best character I’ve ever had, and I have a lot of confidence this will be the best football team we’ve put on the field at Arizona State.”
All the brave talk aside, will all of this add up to another championship season? (ASU won the Pac-12 South last year, their first undisputed title since the memorable Rose Bowl year of 1996.)
The Devils will have to shore up last season’s biggest weakness, special teams, which will be coordinated in part by Graham himself, while also replacing nine defensive starters.
The coverage teams will be “a lot deeper” and punter Matt Haack “has had an unbelievable off-season and is really punting the ball well,” Graham says.
That means Alex Garoutte can stick to kickoffs, where he has been effective, while place-kicker Zane Gonzalez is coming off an all-Pac-12 season.
“The area we’ll be most improved is special teams,” Graham says.
That still leaves the question of whether the Devils can stop anybody. Or at least slow anyone down.
Among the nine defensive starters who have moved on are NFL draft picks, Will Sutton, the two-time Pac-12 defensive player of the year, and Carl Bradford, who entered the draft after his junior season. They also lost linebacker Chris Young, who came on extremely strong late and helped save the Devils’ title-clinching win at UCLA.
Key returnees are middle linebacker Salamo Fiso, safety Damarious Randall and defensive tackle Jaxon Hood, a Chandler Hamilton High School grad who has been a part-time starter.
They’ll need to get immediate help from safety Marcus Ball, a redshirt freshman who missed last season with an injury, and outside linebacker, D.J. Calhoun, a true freshman who is thought to be a big-time player.
The Devils were hurt by the loss of defensive lineman Dalvon Stuckey and linebacker Darius Caldwell. They were Graham’s top two junior college recruits on defense; they didn’t qualify academically.
Graham, noting these were his first two recruits at ASU to suffer this fate, says, “Obviously, we’d have loved to have a different outcome but we’re going to be fine.
“We’re excited about the guys we have and we’ll get it done with the guys we have.”
Graham, a defensive coach by background, seems to relish the idea of proving he can reload his defense instead of settling for a rebuilding season.
“Will we be as talented and experienced on defense? Well, no. But I do think we’ll surprise a lot of people. “We’re going to be young, but we’re very talented.”
Mercifully for ASU fans, Graham seems to have to deal less and less frequently with what had been a lingering distraction: the issue of whether his job-hopping ways have ended and that he’s committed to staying in Tempe.
“I think people know there are things that I’ve done, obviously. The success that we’ve had has helped a lot with that, but just being honest with people. When parents ask me in my office, ‘Coach, what are your plans and stuff?’ I’m extremely honest with them about that. And very open about being able to answer questions.”
Graham noted that he and his wife have purchased two homes in the Valley (one of them a Scottsdale home formerly owned by rock star Bret Michaels), and he’s made a significant donation to ASU’s capital campaign.
“We wouldn’t be doing that if we weren’t here for the long haul,” he says. “I think people can see we’re committed.”