Notre Dame Football Pre-Spring Opponent Preview: Arizona State
Notre Dame's Shamrock Series returns to Texas for the first time in four years this fall when the Irish collide with Arizona State at the palatial Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Texas.
Arizona State had an up-and-down first season under nomadic head coach Todd Graham, but finished strong with a win at Arizona and a demolition of Navy in the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl to close at 8-5. The offense resembled more of the prolific attack Graham's Tulsa teams displayed rather than the one that struggled in Graham's one season at Pittsburgh.
The teams have not met since a home-and-home series in 1998 and 1999, the only two meetings between the programs. The Irish are very familiar with Graham, however, as they'll be facing him for the third time in four years, all at different schools.
The Sun Devils began spring practice on Tuesday, leading up to their spring game on Apr. 13. Let's take an early look at what Arizona State has to offer in 2013.
For other Notre Dame opponent previews, click on the links below.
Date: Oct. 5
Site: Cowboys Stadium (Arlington, Texas)
Last Meeting: Notre Dame 48, Arizona State 17 (1999)
Win Streak: Notre Dame - 2 (teams have only met twice)
Record: 7-5 (5-4 Pac-12)
Bowl: Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl (defeated Navy, 62-28)
Leading Passer: Taylor Kelly (So.) - 241-of-359, 3,039 yards, 29 TDs, 9 INTs
Leading Rusher: Marion Grice (Jr.) - 103 carries, 679 yards, 11 TDs
Leading Receiver: Chris Coyle (Jr.) - 57 receptions, 696 yards, 5 TDs
Arizona State had one of the most muddled quarterback situations in the country heading into last spring after the departure of Brock Osweiler (did you know he's not actually 6'8"?).
Redshirt freshman Michael Eubank appeared to have an edge during the spring, but sophomore Taylor Kelly took control of the position and never relinquished it.
Kelly is a much better fit for Graham's offense than Tino Sunseri was at Pittsburgh. Graham's attack is more or less a run-based spread attack, but it's more power-driven than finesse-driven, as opposed to a team like Oregon.
While not tall at just 6'1", Kelly is a great athlete and has good speed, amassing over 500 yards on the ground last season. He even served as the backup punter.
An All-Pac 12 season is within reach, even in a conference with Kevin Hogan, Brett Hundley and Marcus Mariota.
Cameron Marshall was expected to handle the bulk of the carries last season, but the senior ended up with only one fewer carry than Kelly and failed to lead the team in rushing.
With Marshall gone, Marion Grice assumes the leading role.
The junior college transfer surprised everyone last season by leading the Sun Devils in rushing despite not arriving in Tempe until July. Grice is a threat in the passing game but is much bigger than the typical pass-catching back.
The combination of a between-the-tackles runner and pass catcher is a scary combination.
Sophomore D.J. Foster will back up Grice. He's a freakish athlete who also serves as a receiver, catching 38 passes last year.
The versatility of this duo, as well as Kelly, makes game planning for Arizona State a difficult task.
Of Arizona State's four leading pass catchers last season, only one was a true wide receiver.
Tight end Chris Coyle led the Sun Devils with almost 700 yards, while Grice and Foster ranked third and fourth. The only wide receiver in that quartet, Rashad Ross, departs, so this unit is fairly inexperienced.
Coyle should again be Kelly's top target.
The senior had 10 catches for 131 yards against Illinois last season and broke the school record for receptions by a tight end. While not the athlete of a tight end like Tyler Eifert, Coyle is a good blocker and a warrior, having played through multiple injuries last season.
The Sun Devils may utilize some two-tight end sets this season with Coyle and fellow senior Darwin Rogers.
Senior Kevin Ozier is the top returning wide receiver, with 21 catches last season.
The Sun Devils don't need a ton of production from this unit with Coyle, Grice and Foster getting the majority of touches, but someone needs to emerge in order to give the team some semblance of a vertical passing game. Don't rule out newcomers Jaleen Strong and Joe Morris.
For a team that doesn't throw downfield much, allowing almost three sacks a game last season is an alarming statistic.
It didn't hold the offense back much, however, as the Sun Devils averaged 465 yards per game, but improved offensive line play is a top offseason priority.
While the unit lacks an elite talent, senior left tackle Evan Finkelberg is probably the best of this group. He's one of three returning starters along with guard Jamil Douglas and center Kody Koebensky.
Unless this unit improves dramatically, this can be a game—much like Oklahoma last season—where Louis Nix and the Notre Dame defensive line should dominate and, perhaps, be the difference that swings the game in the Irish's favor.
Heading into last season, Michigan State's William Gholston was the opposing defensive lineman Notre Dame fans were most worried about facing. This year, it's Will Sutton, the Sun Devils All-American defensive tackle.
Don't get confused. Sutton is not a Louis Nix clone. He's just 6'2" and 275 pounds, but he's perhaps even more dominant than Nix.
Sutton's 13 sacks were third in the nation and his 23.5 tackles for loss were second. Having a first-year center and a first-year right guard against Sutton is a concern for Notre Dame.
There is also defensive end Junior Onyeali to deal with, a speed rusher who is at his best on third downs.
Sophomore Jaxon Hood is the incumbent at nose tackle. While not overly big at just 290 pounds, he has the luxury of playing next to Sutton, who requires much attention from opposing offensive linemen.
The Sun Devils' 3-4 defense is comparable to Notre Dame's in that the two outside linebackers have defined roles—one as a pass rusher (a la Prince Shembo) and one who plays in the open field (a la Danny Spond).
Junior Carl Bradford has the Shembo role.He is coming off of a double-digit sack season, giving Arizona State a lethal inside-outside pass rush duo along with Sutton.
The "Spur" linebacker (equivalent to Notre Dame's Dog linebacker) is senior Chris Young. He's more of a natural pass-rusher, but has added coverage skills to his game to make him a dangerous player at all points on the field.
The big loss from this unit is inside linebacker Brandon Magee, the heart and soul of the defense for the past few seasons despite standing just 5'11".
Replacing the Pac-12's No. 2 tackler won't be easy, but the Sun Devils do return Steffon Martin at the other inside spot.
Junior college transfer Eriquel Florence could be an opening-day starter inside as well.
The Pac-12 has always been known for quality quarterback play, but you wouldn't have known that had you just watched Arizona State's secondary last year.
The Sun Devils allowed just 168 yards per game through the air and intercepted 21 passes.
The 2012 unit was a veteran group that started two seniors and two juniors.
Keelan Johnson, the team's interception leader, departs at free safety as does field cornerback Deveron Carr. Boundary cornerback Osahon Irabor and safety Alden Darby return.
Darby was named to the Pac-12's all-conference second team, finishing with 80 tackles and three interceptions.
Senior Robert Nelson played in every game last season as the third cornerback and should step in for Carr.
The vacant free safety position is up for grabs, with as many as four players vying for the open starting spot.
Alex Garoutte was the incumbent last year at placekicker but was benched after making just six of 11 attempts.
Jon Mora made nine of 12 tries the rest of the season, and the job is now his heading into this season. Garoutte was still used for extra points, and Arizona State may again use multiple kickers this fall.
Josh Hubner is the best punter in the Pac-12 and could be the best in the country.
He averaged 44 yards per punt last season and was a model of consistency, never averaging fewer than 40 yards per punt in any game.
With wide receiver Jamal Miles departing, both returner positions will see a change. Foster has the tools to be used here, much like Graham used Damaris Johnson (who returned a punt for a touchdown against Notre Dame in 2010) at Tulsa.
Falling in between home games with Oklahoma and USC, this is an extremely dangerous game for Notre Dame.
Arizona State could start the season in the Top 25 and may be the best team in the Pac-12 South.
Graham's loyalty can be questioned, but his coaching ability can't.
The good news for Notre Dame fans is that Irish defensive coordinator Bob Diaco has held Graham's offenses to just two total touchdowns in two games. If that average continues, Notre Dame should head into its first of two bye weeks with a victory.
If the Sun Devils offensive line can figure out a way to contain Nix and Stephon Tuitt, they are more than capable of pulling off the upset and spoiling Notre Dame's unblemished record in Shamrock Series games.
The program's motto is "Fear the Fork." In a classic trap-game situation, Irish fans should do just that.