Will Sutton is just one of many defensive starters ASU will have to replace this offseason.
The Arizona State football team had a very successful 2013 season, winning the Pac-12 South title and coming within one win of the Rose Bowl.
By most accounts, the season was a great success—until the final two games.
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The Sun Devils were 60 minutes away from playing in the Granddaddy of Them All before the Stanford Cardinal pummeled them. Even with the bad 38-14 loss in the Pac-12 Championship game, fans were still excited to see their Sun Devils in the Holiday Bowl.
That excitement quickly faded after kickoff, however, as the Texas Tech Red Raiders dominated ASU in the Holiday Bowl, and the Sun Devils ended up limping out of the season with two bad losses.
Those losses exposed some weaknesses for Arizona State and showed that there are a few major areas of concern for the Sun Devils heading into the offseason.
The Sun Devils need to prepare better for big games, help Taylor Kelly develop more as a passer and find out how to replace a lot of defensive playmakers this offseason if they want to repeat as Pac-12 South Champions.
Preparation for Big Games
Arizona State hasn't performed well when the lights are at their brightest recently.
The Sun Devils lost nationally televised games to Notre Dame, Stanford (twice) and Texas Tech this past season.
In three of those four games, analysts actually picked Arizona State to win.
Omitting the first meeting with the Stanford Cardinal, the Sun Devils should have won, or at least been competitive, in all of those games. Mental errors cost ASU against the Fighting Irish, but in the Pac-12 Championship game and Holiday Bowl the Sun Devils were just out coached.
Head coach Todd Graham and his staff didn't have their team prepared for those final two games, and it showed, as ASU lost by a combined score of 75-37.
SI.com writer Stewart Mandel also weighed in on ASU's inability to win the big one after the embarrassing loss to Texas Tech:
Just when you thought ASU had finally shed the "not yet ready for primetime" stigma, these last two games happened.— Stewart Mandel (@slmandel) December 31, 2013
ASU did come up with a huge road win against UCLA at the end of the year to secure the Pac-12 South crown, but they almost choked that game away late.
This offseason, Graham and his staff need to work on getting their team prepared better for these big games. The Sun Devils came out flat on the road a lot in 2013, and when the spotlight was on the team it seemed to crumble.
For ASU to make the Rose Bowl next year, that can't happen.
Development of Quarterback Taylor Kelly
At the start of the season, Kelly looked like a young Jake Plummer.
He started the year throwing for 300 yards or more in the Sun Devils' first five games. After that, though, his numbers decreased significantly.
Kelly did not pass 200 yards four times in the Sun Devils' last six games.
Near the very end of the year when the pressure was on, Kelly really crumbled. He became gun-shy and didn't seem confident in his arm or decision-making.
This really showed in the Holiday Bowl, where the Sun Devils threw for a season low of 125 yards.
This offseason, Kelly needs to become confident in his game.
The Sun Devils will return some key playmakers on offense next year, and with Kelly in his senior season, they should put up big offensive numbers again.
For that to happen, Kelly needs to develop his ability to read defenses and have confidence in his game.
Replacing Key Defensive Starters
Two-time Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year Will Sutton, Alden Darby, Osahon Irabor, Chris Young, Davon Coleman, Gannon Conway and Robert Nelson are just some of the defensive playmakers Arizona State will lose this offseason.
ASU's defense came on late in the year, led by this senior group, and helped the Sun Devils go to the Pac-12 title game.
Next year, not only will the Sun Devils have to replace all of this talent, they will also have to replace the leadership.
Sutton has been the poster boy of Sun Devil football the past two seasons and has become one of the biggest emotional leaders on the team. Darby and Irabor were the leaders of the secondary, and Young led the team with 112 total tackles last year.
This is one of those situations where really none of these guys can be replaced, so the Sun Devils will need next year's defense to play as a cohesive unit to make up for the loss of all this individual talent.
This offseason, Arizona State will need to figure out not only who will take over these starting roles, but who will become the leaders on the team.
While losing all this talent is tough, losing the leadership is even tougher.