Arizona State Football: 6 Reasons Sun Devils Are Bound to Overachieve in 2013
The Arizona State Sun Devils finished 2012 in grand style.
For the first time in 34 years, the Devils ended the season with three straight wins. Even during the two championship seasons of 1986 and 1996, they suffered a loss down the stretch, to rivals Arizona and Ohio State respectively. Granted, those were their only losses those years and they still sting.
Speaking of the University of Arizona and bowl games, it was also only the second time in the same 34-year stretch that Arizona State won both the Territorial Cup matchup and their bowl game.
The 2012 record of 8-5 was the best since they won their share of the conference in 2007, but were embarrassed by Texas in the Holiday Bowl. That loss preceded four straight losing seasons and a desperate need for a change in Tempe.
The change began with the hiring of head coach Todd Graham in December 2011, and moves into the future with the hiring of Louisiana State's Director of Player Personnel Sherman Morris to head up recruiting.
The buzz around the 2013 Arizona State Sun Devils football team is nearing a fever pitch and we are still over three months away from opening night on September 5.
Here are the reasons why the Sun Devils will overachieve this season.
Defense, Defense, Defense
Defensive lineman Will Sutton became ASU’s sixth winner of the Morris Trophy and the 18th consensus All-American. Sutton also became the fifth player to win the Pac-10/12 Conference Pat Tillman Defensive Player of the Year award.
Sutton notched at least one tackle for loss in every game he played last season and totaled 23.5 tackles for loss. He finished with a team-leading 13 sacks and 63 total tackles. He was also ranked second in the nation with 1.92 TFL per game and third in the nation with 1.08 sacks per game which led the Pac-12 in both categories.
Devilbacker Carl Bradford finished the year with 81 tackles, 20.5 tackles for loss and 11.5 sacks. His three forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries were tied for the team lead.
Bradford's 1.58 tackles for loss per game was good for 11th in the nation and second in the Pac-12 behind Sutton. Bradford was one of just five FBS players last season to total 80+ tackles, 20+ TFLs AND 10+ sacks on the year.
Bradford and Sutton became just the first duo in Sun Devil history to post double digits in sacks in the same season since 1994. There were 51 FBS teams that finished with fewer sacks than Sutton and Bradford (24.5).
Together with Brandon Magee, Davon Coleman and Chris Young, the defense posted five double-digit tackle for loss earners in the same season for just the second time in school history.
The 117 tackles for a loss of 497 total yards—a 9.00 TFL per game mark led the nation and the 4.00 sacks per game finished just behind Stanford (4.07) for second in the nation.
Taylor Kelly Keeps Improving
Heading into the 2012 season, coach Todd Graham wasn't completely sold on Taylor Kelly as his quarterback. Heading into the 2013 season, he will be the first quarterback to start consecutive seasons since 2008.
He finished the season with a school record 67.1 completion percentage (241-of-359). Kelly finished just shy of tying Andrew Walter's school record of 30 touchdown passes with 29, all while backup quarterback Michael Eubank was getting playing time in every game. Imagine the damage he would've done if he played every down.
Kelly finished second in the Pac-12 in passing efficiency at 159.88, which was good enough for ninth in the nation.
His 3,039 passing yards were supplemented by his 516 net rushing yards and one rushing touchdown. His average of 39.7 rushing yards per game placed him third on the team. If you take away his sacks, Kelly would have led the team in yardage and yards per carry with 690 gross rushing yards and 6.7 yards per carry. He had eight carries of 20 or more yards and accounted for 37 first downs on the ground, both of which led the team.
“I just kept improving myself throughout the weeks, studying film and continuing to grow that way,” Kelly said. “I started to get more comfortable after the Missouri game, the first road game. The game then started slowing down for me.”
Double Trouble out of the Backfield
Marion Grice proved to be one of the top junior college additions in the country last year after leading the team with 19 touchdowns (11 rushing, eight receiving) on the season. His eight receiving touchdowns led the nation for receiving touchdowns by a running back and he finished tied for 14th in the country in total touchdowns.
He finished the year with four three-touchdown games and posted a league-leading percentage in touchdowns-per-touch at 13.2 percent. In other words, he scored a touchdown every 7.5 times he touched the ball, with 19 touchdowns off of 144 touches.
Freshman All-American selection D.J. Foster was one of just six true freshmen to start in their first opportunity to begin the 2012 season. He finished with 493 rushing yards and two rushing touchdowns to go along with his 37 receptions for 533 yards and four touchdowns. He ranks second all-time behind Zach Miller for receptions and receiving yards by a freshman—as a running back.
Grice and Foster finished first and second on the team in all-purpose yards with 1104 and 1026 yards respectively. They are two of only five returning members of the exclusive "400 Club," rushing and receiving 400-plus yards on the season.
Multiple Receiving Targets for Taylor Kelly
Along with the aforementioned running backs, there is a litany of others waiting on the other end for quarterback Taylor Kelly, beginning with returning senior H-back/tight end Chris Coyle, and ending with an entirely new wide receiving corps that signed letters of intent earlier this year.
Coyle set the school record for single season tight end receptions with 57 and with five touchdown receptions, Coyle finished tied for second in single season TD receptions for a tight end, and third in the nation in tight end receptions per game with 4.38. His 57 receptions and 696 receiving yards led all Sun Devils.
He will not be all alone in 2013, as returning sophomore Rick Smith had a solid true freshman season, besting NFL players Gerell Robinson, Kerry Taylor, Kyle Williams and Derek Hagan in receptions and touchdowns.
Redshirt senior Kevin Ozier also returns to the starting lineup. Ozier finished the 2012 season second on the team in yards per catch (15.4) and tied for third with Coyle for touchdown receptions with five.
Coach Graham noticed that true wide receivers weren't lighting up the stat sheet and went on a mission to remedy that issue. Graham stated in his national signing day press conference that his "number one offensive goal was dynamic players at wide receiver."
He signed three freshmen and three junior college transfers. Redshirt sophomore Jaelen Strong and junior Joseph Morris come to the Sun Devils from Pierce Community College.
Strong is rated as a 4-star prospect, the No. 6 junior college wide receiver and the No. 15 overall prospect by ESPN. Morris is rated by ESPN as the country's No. 16 junior college wide receiver prospect and the No. 61 prospect overall.
Freshman Ronald Lewis is the No. 127 wide receiver prospect, according to ESPN, and Cameron Smith is rated as the No. 123 wide receiver prospect by Scout.com and Ellis Jefferson is ranked No. 136 by ESPN.
Offensive Line Will Offer Kelly Great Protection
The offensive line for the Sun Devils are going to offer up a new level of protection for quarterback Taylor Kelly and open up running lanes for Marion Grice and D.J. Foster.
Center Kody Koebensky was recently named to the Rimington Trophy Watch List. The Rimington Trophy is awarded to the most outstanding center in NCAA Division I football, and the watch list consists of 44 players, including five from the Pac-12.
Koebensky started all 13 games last season at center and helped pave the way for the Sun Devils' rushing attack in 2012 that averaged 205.5 yards per game, the second-best mark in the past 25 seasons.
Redshirt senior Evan Finkenberg returns for his final season, anchoring the offensive line at the left tackle position and protecting the blind side of Taylor Kelly. He was named the 2012 Randall McDaniel Outstanding Offensive Lineman Award at the annual team banquet. He and right tackle Jamil Douglas were honored with making the 2012 All-Pac-12 Team Honorable Mention Award.
Veterans Sil Ajawara and Vi Teofilo round out the offensive line while the fate of Auburn transfer Christian Westerman hangs in the balance. Out of high school, Westerman was the No. 3 offensive tackle in the nation, the No. 1 recruit from Arizona and the No. 26 player overall nationally by 247Sports.
If the Tigers are sanctioned before the start of the season, Westerman would have the chance to play immediately in the fall.
Secondary Will Thrive Once Again
The secondary has returning two members of Phil Steele's Preseason All-Pac-12 Team in cornerback Osahon Irabor and safety Alden Darby. Irabor led the team with 14 passes defended and finished with 37 tackles, an interception and a forced fumble.
Alden Darby was recently selected to the Lott IMPACT Trophy Watch List. The trophy is awarded for those that excel in the classroom, on the field and in the community. IMPACT stands for Integrity, Maturity, Performance, Academics, Community and Tenacity, and is awarded to those who have a positive influence both on and off the field.
An All-Pac-12 Second Team selection, Darby nabbed three interceptions last year, including one that he returned for a 70-yard touchdown. Darby also added 80 tackles, including eight in the team's Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl win over Navy.
All members of Phil Steele's Preseason All-Pac-12 Team are listed below:
- Will Sutton, first team, defensive line
- Chris Coyle, second team, tight end
- Carl Bradford, second team, linebacker
- Osahon Irabor, third team, cornerback
- Alden Darby, third team, safety
- Evan Finkenberg, third team, offensive tackle
- Marion Grice, third team, running back
- Taylor Kelly, fourth team, quarterback
- Jaxon Hood, fourth team, defensive line
- Davon Coleman, fourth team, defensive line
David is the Featured Columnist of Arizona State Athletics for B/R. Follow him on Twitter at @asudave.