Arizona State ready to take next step after successful first season under Todd Graham

Arizona State's 2012 season was defined by new coach Todd Graham's philosophy.

The fast-talking Texan revamped the entire program, adding a level of discipline while changing everything from the style of football the Sun Devils played to the look of the football offices and even the players.

The do-it-my-way-approach worked: Arizona State won eight games and crushed Navy in the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl.

This season, there's been more buy-in.

The philosophy isn't just from Graham and the coaches. The players are a part of it, too, buoyed by witnessing the success Graham's method can have.

"I think after being so close, I think they've seen that we can do that," Graham said. "There's no doubt in my mind that we have the talent and the ability to be in the hunt. I think our guys; they expect to win a championship. I know that they believe they can. I don't know that all of them believed they could last year."

Five things to watch for as the Sun Devils head into their second season under Graham:

1. SUTTON RETURNS: Arizona State got a huge boost when defensive tackle Will Sutton decided to return instead of heading to the NFL. A disruptive force up front, Sutton had 13 sacks and 10.5 tackles for loss despite missing two games with a knee injury. He was a consensus All-American and the Pac-12's player of the year last season and has bulked up to 305 pounds this year. And watch out for him on offense; Graham may try him at fullback in some short-yardage situations.

2. KELLY'S DEVELOPMENT: Taylor Kelly won a tight battle to be the starting quarterback coming out of last year's preseason camp. Once the regular season started, there was no doubt he was the right choice. As a sophomore, Kelly was a dynamic force, beating teams with his arm and extending plays with his legs. He threw for more than 3,000 yards, 29 touchdowns and set a school record by completing 67.1 percent of his passes. Graham would like him to cut down on his turnovers, but Kelly should give the Sun Devils stability — not to mention more big plays — as the first starting QB to return in Tempe since 2008.

3. TOUGH EARLY SCHEDULE: Graham wants the Sun Devils to become one of the elite teams in the country, so he's beefed up their schedule — a LOT. After opening the season against Sacramento State, Arizona State faces a gauntlet of tough games: Wisconsin at home, on the road against Stanford, Southern California at home and Notre Dame in Arlington, Texas, on Oct. 5. Get through that stretch with three or four wins and the Sun Devils will be in great shape. Struggle and it could be a confidence shaker.

4. RUNNING DUO: Marion Grice and D.J. Foster were almost interchangeable in Graham's spread offense last season, both able to peel off long runs or catch passes out of the backfield. Grice was one of Arizona State's most pleasant surprises after transferring from Blinn College, leading the team with 1,104 all-purpose yards and being named offensive MVP of the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl. Foster was the centerpiece of Graham's initial recruiting class out of Saguaro High School in Scottsdale and had a solid first season, finishing second on the team with 1,026 all-purpose yards. Back after a season under Graham's system, Grice and Foster could be even better this year.

5. STOPPING THE RUN: Arizona State had one of the nation's most productive offenses, finishing 14th nationally with over 38 points per game. The Sun Devils were good against the pass on defense, too, finishing first nationally with 9.0 tackles for loss per game and second in sacks with 4.0 per game. Where Arizona State needs some work is on run defense. The Sun Devils were 81st nationally against the run last season, allowing more than 182 yards per game and their opening gauntlet of games features some power-running teams. Arizona State is bigger up front this season, which should help, and Graham plans to gear back the scheming a little so his players can just react more in hopes of making them better against the run.

Predicted finish:

Pac-12 South Division: Second.



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