Coming off a season which saw them win 10 games, a second-straight Territorial Cup and its first PAC-12 South championship, the Arizona State Sun Devils open their third spring practice under Todd Graham on March 18th. With nine new starters on defense and several offensive weapons to replace, the coaching staff has their work cut out for them to build on last season’s success and earn that elusive Rose Bowl trip in 2014. While most questions will have to wait until August to be answered, here are some that will keep Sun Devil fans up at night this spring:
Who is going to be the defense’s new playmaker(s)? With the exodus of Will Sutton, Carl Bradford and Chris Young to the NFL, the defensive side of the ball will see plenty of new blood in 2014. And not just on the field as new defensive coordinator Keith Patterson joins the coaching staff this season. He will have plenty of young, raw talent to work with in the form of top returning defensive lineman Marcus Hardison, blue chip linebacker DJ Calhoun and promising defensive backs James Johnson and Marcus Ball. How these players perform at the Division 1 level will remain to be seen, but Graham and his staff’s track record for coaching up defensive players speaks for itself. Whether any of these players or returning starters like Demarious Randall and Jaxon Hood can step up and deliver a high level of play that has come to be expected of Todd Graham’s defenses will be interesting to watch.
Who will be the “go-to” players on offense? Quarterback Taylor Kelly’s ability to get the ball in the hands of his playmakers was a big reason why the offense was so explosive in 2013. The loss of Marion Grice and Chris Coyle will sting, but having Jaelen Strong and DJ Foster back is huge for an offense that surpassed the 50-point mark in six games last season and is looking to continue that trend this fall. Kelly and offensive coordinator Mike Norvell have some intriguing pieces to bring into the fold this fall, including JUCO standout receiver Eric Lauderdale, speedster Tyler Whiley and big play running backs Demario Richard and DeChavon Hayes. However, these newcomers will not don the maroon and gold until August, spring practice will need to see returning players like De’Marieya Nelson, Deantre Lewis and Cameron Smith take the next step to become more consistent going forward.
Can the offensive line become a consistent force? Being able to win the one-on-one battles in the trenches is arguably the most important part of any football game and a big reason for the Devils’ losses last season. Becoming more technically sound and building a relationship among the unit will be a focus during the spring. The battles at center and tackle to replace Kody Koebensky and Evan Finkenberg will be a storyline to watch in the coming weeks with Nick Kelly the likely successor in the middle. The competition at tackle is more wide open as Evan Goodman, Jamil Douglas and Christian Westerman could all push for snaps, while Tyler Sulka could be moved from the right side. Line coach Chris Thomsen should place emphasis on consistency to ensure there are fewer negative plays, which was a problem at times last season.