2013 SEASON IN REVIEW: Arizona State is a team on the rise. After going 4-8 in 2009, the Sun Devils have slowly built up their win total each season since. The improvements paved the way for last year's 10-4 squad, which won the Pac-12 South Division and hosted the Pac-12 Championship Game.
Arizona State did not have to play Oregon in 2013, but they faced plenty of formidable foes, including Wisconsin, Notre Dame, UCLA and Stanford. Wins over the Badgers and Bruins were the high points of the season, while a crushing setback in South Bend stands out as a low point. However, it was the Cardinal that proved to be the real nemesis, as the Sun Devils lost to them, 42-28, in the third game of the season, and then again the in the conference title tilt (38-14).
Following the second loss to Stanford, the Sun Devils laid an egg in the Holiday Bowl against Texas Tech, losing 36-23. It was the only time during the season that they lost back-to-back games.
OFFENSE: Offense is plentiful in the Pac-12, and Arizona State is another program in the league that is a nightmare to defend. Last season, the Sun Devils scored a sensational 39.7 points per game, good enough for 10th in the country. They also piled up 457.3 yards per outing.
However, head coach Todd Graham called his squad the best offensive football team he has ever coached during the recent Pac-12 media event.
"It's been one of the most explosive offenses in the country for that long a period of time at several different schools," Graham said. "But our system is designed for our players. It's very quarterback centered. It requires a guy that's very disciplined in distributing the ball and doesn't turn the football over."
Graham certainly has such a quarterback in Taylor Kelly, who is entering his third year as the starter. The multi-faceted signal caller should have no problem continuing to lead such an explosive offensive group, especially with talented skill position players like D.J. Foster and Jaelen Strong around him. In 2013, Kelly threw for 3,635 yards and 28 touchdowns on 62.4 percent passing, while being intercepted only 12 times in 484 attempts. He also tacked on 608 yards and nine scores on the ground.
Foster is even more versatile than Kelly, with his ability to play on the edge or come out of the backfield. He will see more snaps as a running back now that Marion Grice has moved on to the NFL. Last season. Foster put together a fine campaign as the second rusher, with 501 yards and 6 touchdowns. He also ranked second on the team in receptions (63) and receiving yards (653), while scoring on 4 catches.
The receiving corps has its leader as well, with Strong set to build on a fantastic 2013 season. The 6-foot-3 junior from Philadelphia hauled in 75 balls for 1,122 yards and 7 touchdowns. He also recorded seven games of at least 100 yards and was named to the All-Pac-12 Second Team. Cameron Smith (8 receptions, 129 yards) will be the second option among a group of young targets, while De'Marieya Nelson has the difficult task of standing in for the consistently sure-handed Chris Coyle at tight end.
The offensive line has three returning starters, with all-conference tackle Jamil Douglas heading up the unit. Guard Vi Teofilo and tackle Tyler Sulka are also back for another go.
DEFENSE: While the offense has an enviable amount of returning talent, the defense, which was strong last year, is essentially starting from scratch.
Aside from linebacker Salamo Fiso and safety Damarious Randall, there is not one starter returning to the field for the Sun Devils, who ranked fourth in the Pac-12 in total defense (372.4 ypg) a year ago.
"I have a lot of confidence that we've gotten guys that can execute what we're trying to do," Graham said of his defense. "But there is no substitute for experience. They'll need experience to get better. We better get it in a hurry, because we have a tough early part of that schedule."
The biggest vacancies to be filled are up front, where former standouts Will Sutton and Carl Bradford once roamed free. Losing such formidable players, who helped Arizona State's aggressive game plan, which led to the sixth-most sacks in the country (40) last year, will not be easy to overcome.
Along the defensive line, senior Marcus Hardison (1.0 sack) has a chance to step into a much bigger role, with Mo Latu also likely to be plugged in as a starter on the interior.
The new group of linebackers features Fiso at the head, with freshman D.J. Calhoun and redshirt sophomore Viliami Moeakiola also set to play major minutes.
Randall will join Fiso as a senior member of the unit, helping to mold a slew of new secondary contributors to play at a high level.
Luckily Fiso (71 tackles, 5.5 TFL, 3.0 sacks) and Randall (71 tackles, 3 INTs) were extremely productive players for last year's unit. Now they just need to prove that they can lead.
SPECIAL TEAMS: As a freshman, Zane Gonzalez really impressed, connecting on 25-of-30 field goal attempts, with a long of 44 yards. The effort earned him first-team all-league honors, so the Sun Devils should be comfortable in that area.
Punting is another story, with Matt Haack taking over on a full-time basis after averaging 38.2 yards per punt on 16 attempts last season.
Grice and Robert Nelson were the punt and kick returners last season, so some new options will have to come through before opening day.
OUTLOOK: There isn't much time for Arizona State to get into a rhythm before the Pac-12 season begins. The Sun Devils take on Weber State in the season opener, then travel to face New Mexico before opening up league play at Colorado. Those are three winnable games, but they face a real test over the next four weeks, which features challenges against UCLA, at USC, versus Stanford and at Washington. The back end of the year includes a rematch at home against Notre Dame and a trip to Tucson to face Arizona for the Territorial Cup.
Once again the Sun Devils will miss Oregon, but that doesn't mean they avoid dropping back from the lofty heights they reached last season. The offense should light fields on fire with its speed and potency, but the completely reworked defense will hold this team back from improving on last year's win total.