Pac-12: Arizona State Sun Devils

I remember the stupid things, the mood rings, the bracelets and the beads, the nickels and dimes, yours and mine. Did you cash in all your dreams?
And I said "What about Breakfast at Tiffany's?" … Well, that's the one thing we've got.

Pac-12's lunch links

April, 9, 2014
Apr 9
2:30
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If I owned the Twins, I wouldn't even show up here. I'd just hire a bunch of scientists to do my homework. I mean, if you're rich you don't have to be smart. That's the whole beauty of this country.

The ball is tipped and there you are. You're running for your life. You're a shooting star.
TEMPE, Ariz. -- What you already know about the 2014 Arizona State offense is impressive. Seven returning starters are led by third-year starting QB Taylor Kelly, owner of 57 career touchdown passes. There's imposing receiver Jaelen Strong, an All-American candidate. There's versatile veteran running back D.J. Foster and a physically impressive offensive line that could be the Sun Devils' best in recent memory.

But what you see at spring practices is often unfamiliar or new. Or a name that opens up the "Whatever happened to him?" file.

As in: Hey, that was a great catch by Strong.

[+] EnlargeDe'Marieya Nelson
Mark J. Rebilas/USA TODAY SportsDe'Marieya Nelson, a 6-foot-3, 230-pound tight end, will be an added weapon to Arizona State's offense next season.
No, that was redshirt freshman Ellis Jefferson. It's easy to mistake the two because both are 6-foot-4 and solidly built.

Or: Boy, Foster sure is elusive.

No, that was Kyle Middlebrooks or Deantre Lewis, players whose careers had been waylaid by injuries.

The loss of play-making tight end Chris Coyle doesn't seem to worry anyone because of the emergence of De'Marieya Nelson, who inspired coach Todd Graham to observe, "We can't cover him."

Returning starting guard Vi Teofilo is battling Auburn transfer Christian Westerman to hold onto his job. Or maybe both will start. There has been plenty of shuffling on the line in order to figure out where talented players like Jamil Douglas, second-team All-Pac-12 last year, and Evan Goodman should end up.

While most of the questions for the Sun Devils in 2014 center on their rebuilding defense, there's also intrigue on offense. Most of it dealing with how good the unit can be, not whether it will be good enough to defend the Pac-12's South Division crown.

Graham has, well, high expectations.

"Our offense should score every time they have the ball," he said.

Graham likes to be demanding, and he's excited about his offense, so setting a goal for offensive perfection probably makes sense to him. Yet Kelly, not a demonstrative sort who casually wields hyperbole, also gushes about what the offense is doing this spring and has the potential to do in the fall.

"We're deadly," Kelly said. "Our offensive line is doing a tremendous job up front. We're running the football better than we ever have before."

Of course, one shouldn't put too much stock into the vagaries of spring practices. A day after Kelly and Graham tossed bouquets to their offense, the rebuilding defense controlled the action during a weekend scrimmage.

Still, the potential for something special is obviously there. Further, the Sun Devils have a luxury that few teams in the nation or Pac-12 can boast: An A-list veteran backup quarterback. Junior Mike Bercovici doesn't look like a backup during practices. After deciding not to transfer when Kelly beat him out two years ago, he's almost certain to be the starter next year, and his live arm might make him a better NFL prospect than Kelly.

"The best thing about it is how they push each other in practice," offensive coordinator Mike Norvell said. "Bercovici is creating his future based off every rep he gets today even though he's not the first-team guy. When he gets an opportunity, I'm 100 percent confident he's going to be successful because of the way he's prepared every day the last two years. He's not wasting days. He's ready to lead this team."

That also means Norvell doesn't have to use kid gloves with Kelly, who is a good and aggressive runner, who had 608 yards and nine TDs last year. That's a security blanket that UCLA and Oregon do not have with their dual-threat QBs.

It's pretty safe to say that Arizona State, barring major injury woes, is going to have one of the best offenses in the Pac-12 and nation next year. But there's still plenty of intrigue on the depth chart, which is a good thing -- depth! competition! -- for Graham, Kelly and company.

Video: Arizona State DT Marcus Hardison

April, 7, 2014
Apr 7
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video
Arizona State DT Marcus Hardison talks about the Sun Devils rebuilding defense and his improvement this spring.
Happy Friday!
video
TEMPE, Ariz. -- The Arizona State offense is cruising along, owning the line of scrimmage and making plays. Taylor Kelly and company are efficient and dominant, even with a couple of negative outcomes here and there. Hard-to-satisify Sun Devils coach Todd Graham says later, "Our offense should score every time it has the ball."

But who are these guys getting gashed? This isn't the Arizona State defense, is it? Where's Will Sutton? Where's Carl Bradford? Where's Alden Darby and Chris Young?

Here's a guess that unless you're a regular on Sun Devils football message boards, you can't name a single guy who will be starting on defense for Arizona State next year.

Not only did Arizona State lose nine starters, it lost all of its defensive stars. Six of those guys were first-team or second-team All-Pac-12. Two others were honorable mention.

"Every year you've got to hit the restart button," defensive coordinator Keith Patterson said. "Some years more than others."

That's for sure. Not only are just about all the players new -- several top backups also finished their eligibility -- so is Patterson, who was hired away from West Virginia to coach with Graham, his college roommate.

Yet things aren't dire. Only uncertain. Of course, the Sun Devils probably will play some barn burners next fall, particularly with 10 starting quarterbacks returning in the Pac-12. The measure of whether they can repeat as South Division champions, however, probably will come down to how quickly folks stop calling the defense inexperienced and start calling it surprisingly good.

The two returning starters are linebacker Salamo Fiso and safety Damarious Randall. Nose guard Jaxon Hood and DB/LB Laiu Moeakiola, part-time starters in 2013, also are back. You can pencil in Lloyd Carrington at one corner. Marcus Hardison will take on a spot on the defensive line. After that, things are pretty fluid and figure to remain that way until a bevy of first-year players arrive in the fall, including several juco transfers who are expected to immediately be in the starting mix, such as linebacker Darrius Caldwell.

[+] EnlargeWill Sutton
Mark J. Rebilas/USA TODAY SportsAll-conference DT Will Sutton is one of nine starters the Sun Devils must replace on defense.
That, in fact, is one of the challenges this spring. While the focus is on the present, there is some forward thinking in terms of what an eventual pecking order and rotation might be.

"No doubt. We spend an enormous amount of time talking about personnel, people who aren't even here," Patterson said. "But the focus right now, in the middle of spring ball, is more to the people on campus."

It's clear the coaches are excited about several young players. Safeties James Johnson and Marcus Ball, both redshirt freshmen, have been impressive. True freshman linebacker D.J. Calhoun, an early enrollee, seems certain to earn playing time, if not a starting role.

Still, there are a lot of questions, particularly with the front seven. It's pretty clear that the production of individual players won't match the past two seasons.

"We are not going to replace Carl Bradford and his production," Patterson said. "I don't think we'll have that type of individual player. We're not going to replace those guys. We'll play more as a unit, play more team defense."

Last season, the Sun Devils ranked 18th in the nation and second in the Pac-12 with 7.21 tackles for a loss per game. They ranked 18th in the nation and third in the Pac-12 with 2.86 sacks per game. They were sixth in the nation and first in the conference with 1.5 interceptions per game.

Graham's defense, which Patterson will run, is predicated on negative plays. It doesn't matter if no one on the 2014 defense picks up 19 tackles for a loss, as Bradford did, or grabs six interceptions, as Robert Nelson did, but it does matter if the Sun Devils are close to their 2013 team averages next fall.

Even though the Sun Devils will be young, they will continue to use an aggressive scheme. Said Patterson, "That's the core of who we are. We're not going to change that."

That also means taking chances. Another issue beyond piling up negative plays will be how often aggression ends up yielding an explosion play by the opposing offense.

The good news is Arizona State's defense might not face a better offense than the one it scrimmages against in practice. If the defense starts forcing a few three-and-outs against Kelly & Co., then it would be perfectly reasonable to imagine the Sun Devils again making a run in the South Division.

Video: Arizona State coach Todd Graham

April, 4, 2014
Apr 4
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video Arizona State coach Todd Graham talks about spring practices, his veteran offense and his rebuilding defense.

Video: Arizona State QB Taylor Kelly

April, 3, 2014
Apr 3
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video

Arizona State QB Taylor Kelly talks about spring practice and defending their Pac-12 South crown.
I saw the sign and it opened up my mind.
On Monday, we took a look at how the Pac-12's offensive players stack up as NFL prospects in the eyes of ESPN analysts Mel Kiper Jr. and Todd McShay. Tuesday, it's the defense's turn.

Defensive line

  • DE Scott Crichton, Oregon State: No. 4 (Kiper), No. 5 (McShay)
  • DT Will Sutton, Arizona State: No. 8 (Kiper), No. 10 (McShay)

If you've been following along since the end of the season, Sutton's spot isn't all too surprising. He didn't have a good showing at the combine and has taken heat about his physical condition, dating to before last season. Even with the concerns, it's hard to imagine he won't eventually find his way in the NFL. After all, he's only the second player in conference history to be a two-time Defensive Player of the Year. Washington's Steve Emtman (1990-91) was the other. That's not by accident.

Coincidentally, the SEC's Defensive Player of the Year, Michael Sam, isn't ranked in the top 10 by either. See the list here. Insider

Other Pac-12 defensive linemen who figure to be in the mix in the draft are Cassius Marsh (UCLA), Taylor Hart (Oregon), Deandre Coleman (Cal), George Uko (USC), Tenny Palepoi (Utah), Morgan Breslin (USC), Ben Gardner (Stanford) and Josh Mauro (Stanford).

Linebacker

  • [+] EnlargeAnthony Barr
    Kirby Lee/USA TODAY SportsFormer UCLA linebacker Anthony Barr could be the first Pac-12 player to be drafted this year.
    OLB Anthony Barr, UCLA: No. 2 (both)
  • OLB Trent Murphy, Stanford: No. 6 (Kiper), No. 9 (McShay)
  • ILB Shayne Skov, Stanford: No. 3 (both)
  • ILB Jordan Zumwalt, UCLA: No. 8 (Kiper)

Barr is widely considered the Pac-12's best hope at landing in the first 10 picks, but if McShay was drafting, that wouldn't be the case. On drafting Barr, McShay wrote:
[Barr] of UCLA is a speed-rusher who stalls out when attempting to convert speed to power, and there is too much finesse to his game for me to pay a top-15 price for him. He looks like he's on skates when he attempts to set the edge.

That's not exactly a ringing endorsement for the same player Stanford coach David Shaw compared to Jevon Kearse. Shaw called Barr called the best (defensive) player the conference has had in the "last few years."

Murphy is in a similar boat to Sutton in that his college production isn't necessarily being viewed as a lock to translate to the NFL. He still figures to be a good fit for a 3-4 team and should be expected to contribute right away.

Outside of the four listed, it wasn't a very deep year for linebackers in the conference. Utah's Trevor Reilly, who can play both OLB and DE, Arizona State OLB Carl Bradford and USC's Devon Kennard headline the rest of the NFL hopefuls.

Defensive back

McGill should send a thank you card in Pete Carroll's direction. It's largely because of Seattle's use of big-bodied corners en route to a Super Bowl victory that the league appears to be trending in that direction. At 6-foot-4, McGill's size -- in addition to his solid showing at the combine -- is a rare asset among the group of corners.

Bucannon looks like he'll be the first defensive back off the board, but will he be a first-round pick? That's unlikely, but it would be a surprise if he lasts into the third round.

Another storyline to watch is where the three defensive backs who left early -- safety Ed Reynolds (Stanford), cornerback Terrance Mitchell (Oregon) and cornerback Kameron Jackson (Cal) -- wind up.

See the lists for linebackers and defensive backs here.Insider

Poll: Best three-headed monster?

March, 28, 2014
Mar 28
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Which Pac-12 team has the best overall three-headed monster?

To review what the heck we are writing about: On offense, that's an elite combination at quarterback, running back and receiver. On defense, it's an elite combination of a leading tackler, a leader in sacks and leader in interceptions.

SportsNation

Which Pac-12 unit has the best three-headed monster?

  •  
    15%
  •  
    44%
  •  
    23%
  •  
    7%
  •  
    11%

Discuss (Total votes: 5,817)

We've reviewed South offenses and North offenses and South defenses and North defenses.

But now we want your take on whose troika is the mightiest. Who has the surest thing heading into 2014?

On offense, we like Oregon in the North and Arizona State in the South.

Oregon offers QB Marcus Mariota, RB Byron Marshall and WR Bralon Addison. Arizona State counters with QB Taylor Kelly, RB D.J. Foster, WR Jaelen Strong. That right there is a tough call.

The Ducks probably have a lead at quarterback, but you could say the Sun Devils are better at the other two spots. Or you might not.

On defense, we like USC in the South and Stanford in the North.

USC offers LB Hayes Pullard, DT Leonard Williams and S Su'a Cravens, while Stanford has LB A.J. Tarpley, DE Henry Anderson and S Jordan Richards.

That's a group of six players who figures to earn All-Pac-12 honors.

First you might choose which crew you like on offense and which one you like on defense. Then you could ask yourself which one you'd most want to play for your team.

It's nice to have star power at all three levels on either side of the ball. But your question today is whose stars shine the brightest.

Pac-12's lunch links

March, 26, 2014
Mar 26
2:30
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Whether it's rock and roll or old soul, it don't matter.

It's that spring break time of year, and college seniors across the country are enjoying a "last hurrah," so to speak. Arizona State's Taylor Kelly is no different.

Well, he's actually completely different.

Instead of hitting the beach with some buddies and making like Dionysus, he jetted on March 9 to San Diego to "work on my craft" with QB guru George Whitfield and several other college quarterbacks.

"I felt like it's my last hurrah, in the sense of my football senior year," Kelly said.

Also on hand in San Diego for a week of quarterback two-a-days were Baylor's Bryce Petty, North Carolina's Marquise Williams, Virginia's David Watford and Texas signee Jerrod Heard. Johnny Manziel and Logan Thomas were hanging around getting ready for their pro days and the NFL draft.

[+] EnlargeKelly
AP Photo/Rick BowmerTaylor Kelly is staying busy, getting ready for his senior season as Arizona State quarterback.
But wait ... there's more. Kelly drove back to Tempe, Ariz., on Saturday only to fly back to California at 7 a.m. Sunday to film a segment with Rick Neuheisel and the Pac-12 Network. He returned to ASU that evening at 6 p.m. so he could make an 8 p.m. team meeting in advance of spring practices, which begin Tuesday. He had a 5:45 a.m. workout on Monday morning, by the way.

Busy, yes. But worth it, Kelly said.

"I learned a lot," he said.

Two springs ago -- and 57 touchdowns and 6,705 passing yards ago -- it would have been difficult to imagine Kelly being in such demand. He was the consensus pick to finish third behind Mike Bercovici and Michael Eubank in the Sun Devils QB competition to replace Brock Osweiler. Instead, he's a budding three-year starter, with Bercovici his big-armed backup. Eubank transferred to Samford after the 2013 season.

Kelly has played himself onto NFL radars and could improve his standing with a strong senior season. While few saw that coming in the spring of 2012, Kelly said his self-belief never wavered.

"With my competitive nature, I've always thought I could [play in the NFL]," he said. "I wanted to be that great quarterback, to lead a team to championships. That's who I've been my whole life. I never had any doubts in myself or my ability to be the starting quarterback three years ago."

Kelly is just the second Sun Devils quarterback to have thrown for more than 3,000 yards in consecutive seasons in school history. He set a school record for completion percentage (67.1 percent) and moved into the top five in seven school-record lists, including passing yards, passing yards per game, completions, attempts, total offense, yards per game and points responsible for.

Of course, if he wants to be remembered in Tempe like Jake Plummer, he's got to get the Sun Devils back to the Rose Bowl. Or the College Football Playoff.

Kelly said he's focused this spring on improving his efficiency and reducing interceptions and sacks. While he's put up big numbers as a dual threat, he also only ranked seventh in the Pac-12 in passing efficiency last year. He's thrown 21 interceptions in the past two years, including 12 in 2013. He's been sacked 79 times (ouch!). One of the surprising Pac-12 stats from 2013: The Sun Devils yielded a conference-worst 41 sacks (2.93 per game) -- five more than anyone else, though that was in 14 games -- despite having a mobile QB in Kelly and a good offensive line.

"Sometimes when I'd feel pressure, I'd release the pocket, and that's really hard on our offensive line," Kelly said.

Proving he can make plays under duress will answer a lot of NFL questions. It also would boost the Sun Devils' chances to repeat as South Division champions.

Another spring question for Arizona State is who Kelly will target. Receiver Jaelen Strong is back and likely will become an All-American candidate, but the next leading returning wideout is sophomore Cameron Smith, who caught just eight passes in 2013.

Kelly doesn't seem too worried, however. He named De'Marieya Nelson -- tight end Chris Coyle's 2013 backup -- touted juco transfer Eric Lauderdale, 6-foot-4 redshirt freshman Ellis Jefferson and walk-on Fred Gammage as players who should step up this spring.

What is clear is that Kelly is the undisputed leader of the Sun Devils, a role that he's set to embrace despite a laid-back nature.

"I'm just going to be myself," he said. "If I need to speak up and say something, I feel a lot of the guys respect me enough that they are going to listen to what I say."

Arizona State is almost certain to fall behind UCLA in the Pac-12 South pecking order among preseason publications. Further, Kelly, not unlike Oregon State's Sean Mannion, falls in behind Oregon's Marcus Mariota and UCLA's Brett Hundley in terms of Pac-12 and national quarterback Q-rating.

That doesn't figure to worry Kelly. He's been counted out before. It's pretty clear that he's not going to be outworked as he prepares for his last hurrah.


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