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June 13, 2013

Beat writer knows best: ASU

The Arizona Sun Devils look a lot different today than they did in September of 2010, when they made the trip up to Camp Randall for their last game against the Wisconsin Badgers. Dennis Erickson was in the midst of his fourth year in Tempe, and the Sun Devils were trying to break out of a two-year slump after they won 10 games in 2007.

But three years after the Badgers eked out a 20-19 win over the Sun Devils, even Arizona State's uniforms are different. Todd Graham is now running the show after fleeing Pittsburgh after one season, but the results have been pretty good so far. The Sun Devils won eight games in Graham's first year, and won their first bowl game since 2005.

And now that Graham has one year at Arizona State under his belt, the Sun Devils have set their sights a little higher. To find out if Arizona State can keep up their momentum, I asked Chris Karpman of ASUDevils.com a few questions about their season outlook. He's got some great insight, so make sure to follow him on Twitter (@ASUDevilscom) before the Badgers make the trip out west.

I don't think it's a stretch to say Todd Graham arrived in Tempe under less than ideal circumstances. That being said, how has the team responded to him since he took over the program? An 8-5 record isn't anything to scoff at in a coach's first year.

Chris Karpman: Overall the players have responded very well and there's no better emblem of that than the team's turnaround in penalties. The Sun Devils were the worst BCS team in the country in penalty yards per game in Dennis Erickson's final season and a year later, the disciplined, attention-to-detail approach of Todd Graham was quickly assimilated as ASU led the Pac-12 in fewest penalty yards per game. ASU fans didn't care about what Pitt fans or national media felt about Graham leaving that school after one year and it doesn't seem to matter whatsoever in recruiting. The 2013 version of the Sun Devils should be even better than last year, at least talent-wise.

What kind of offensive and defensive schemes should the Badgers expect to see when they make the trip down to Arizona? What's Graham's coaching style?

CK: Graham is the play-caller and architect of a very hybrid, multiple defense that changes its look from within games depending on down and distance and the style of the opponent's offense. One thing is a common thread, however, and that's the aggressiveness of Graham with play calling. The Sun Devils bring five or more pass rushers on probably 75 percent or more of its defensive snaps and often run blitzes. This is the reason that it is the only school in the country to return two players who each had 20 or more tackles for loss and 10 or more sacks from last season. The blitzes come from all over the field too, and as a result the secondary plays a lot of different coverages. The goal is to keep opposing quarterbacks on their toes and more prone to making mental mistakes resulting in turnovers. Offensively, ASU runs a spread offense that uses a lot of zone read and pass-run post-snap options. It throws the ball to its backs a lot, including its h-back (what it calls the 3-back), and likes to run a lot of power and inside zone runs. It wants to establish the run to open the field up.

Who are the players to watch on both offense and defense? Do you think the Sun Devils will be better on offense or defense this year?

CK: Offensively, junior quarterback Taylor Kelly set a school record as a first year starter in 2012 with his completion percentage, and finished second all time in touchdown passes in a season, and did so with a bad receiver corps. H-back Chris Coyle set a school record for most catches for a tight end in a season, beating famous ASU tight ends Zach Miller and Todd Heap. At running back, senior Marion Grice averaged more touchdowns per touch than any of the most prominent backs in the league last year and that was in his first season in Tempe. Sophomore back D.J. Foster is a potential star in the making. Defensively, senior defensive tackle Will Sutton was a consensus All-American and Pat Tillman Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year and junior devil backer (a hybrid end/linebacker position) Carl Bradford had 20-plus tackles for loss and 10 sacks. Linebacker Chris Young, safety Alden Darby, cornerback Osahon Irabor and tackle Jaxon Hood are all-conference candidates.

The Sun Devils look to have a brutal schedule this year. Which stretch of games do you think will determine if they can take the program to another level?

CK: ASU hosts Wisconsin for its seconds game of the year and then plays at Stanford before a home game against USC and a neutral game against Notre Dame. Going 2-2 through that stretch with at least one Pac-12 win would be a respectable start and potential springboard for a potential Pac-12 South run. If ASU could somehow go 3-1 in those games it could potentially set itself up for one of its best seasons in recent memory. A 1-3 result would potentially be demoralizing.

What's a reasonable record for Sun Devils fans to expect in Graham's second year? Is Arizona State a sleeper team in the Pac-12 South like some have said?

CK: This is probably the most talented ASU team I will have covered in the last decade if junior college receivers Jalaen Strong and Joe Morris qualify for initial eligibility. The defense could be among the best in the country and the offense has great running backs, a very good quarterback and tight end, and a good offensive line. Strong and Morris could elevate it to a great offense and if so, ASU probably should win at least nine games. It wouldn't surprise us in the slightest if ASU won 10 games and was ranked in the Top-15 or so at the end of the season. That's a reasonable goal.

Thanks again to Chris for giving us the scoop on the Sun Devils. Make sure to follow him on Twitter @ASUDevilscom and visit ASUDevils.com for more Arizona State coverage.

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