Pac-12: Arizona State Sun Devils
UCLA's Anthony Barr, right?
No, the other one. ASU's Carl Bradford.
Oh, you haven't heard this one?
A top-tier fullback out of Norco, Calif., Bradford was recruited by then-coach Dennis Erickson to play defense. It was not a move he reluctantly accepted. It was an opportunity he jumped at.
AP Photo/Matt YorkASU's Carl Bradford is looking to have another standout season as one of the conference's best outside linebackers/hybrid rush ends.
On most teams, Bradford's numbers from 2012 wouldn't be an afterthought. He had 11.5 sacks and 20.5 tackles for a loss. But because his teammate, defensive tackle Will Sutton, was so dynamic last year (13 sacks, 23.5 TFLs), Bradford's contributions are often overshadowed. Sutton went on to win the Morris Trophy for the league's top defensive lineman and the Pac-12's Pat Tillman Defensive Player of the Year award, which is of course named in memory of the ASU great.
"That's amazing, isn't it?" noted head coach Todd Graham. "They are as prolific of a tandem as there is out there. He's a phenomenal player. Unblockable. A very special guy with All-American potential. Every day he and Will are talking about which of them is going to win Defensive Player of the Year."
However, Bradford enters the 2013 season with somber inspiration following the death of his father from a heart attack in March -- one week before the Sun Devils opened spring ball. No strangers to tragedy of late -- recall the murder of running back Marion Grice's brother in December -- the Sun Devils have used those tragedies to form a unique bond.
"When Marion's brother passed away, everyone showered him with prayers and open arms," Bradford said. "We were always there for him and he knew what kind of teammates he had. That's the same way I felt when my father passed away. When I came back, all the love from my teammates and roommates -- all the support was amazing. To have teammates and coaches like that was really a blessing when times were hard and I appreciate it so much."
It's a part of the job that can be difficult, Graham admits. In times of tragedy, players look to their coaches for answers.
"We don't always have them," Graham said. "All we can do is be there for them, listen, and try to help them through tough times. We tell them to live each day to the fullest because you're not promised tomorrow. The key to our team is relationships and in times of tragedy those relationships are critical. That's how you form a close-knit team. We've been through a lot in a short time and I've seen the character of this team shine through."
That character will be tested early as the Sun Devils -- who are neck-and-neck with the Bruins as preseason favorites in the South Division -- play a ramped up schedule that includes four straight against Wisconsin, Stanford, USC and Notre Dame. It's an opportunity for ASU to make a huge splash on the national stage.
"I think we're mature and we have to be mature to handle a schedule like that," Bradford said. "It's going to take a lot of focus and a lot of film work. Our guys have come a long way since last year'. We'll be prepared."
Sutton and Bradford have trained their sites on the school (and NCAA) sack record of 24 in one season, held by Terrell Suggs. (Note: Suggs holds the official NCAA single-season record at 24, though Derrick Thomas had 27 in 1988, prior to the NCAA keeping defensive stats). It's not quite as dramatic as Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris racing to 61, but there's no question the two are pushing each other.
"We were joking that we might end up with 50 sacks between the two of us," Bradford said.
Bradford is graded on a different curve that Sutton because of the position he plays. While Sutton put up uncharacteristic stats for a defensive tackle, Bradford is just one of several outstanding outside linebackers/hybrid rush ends in the conference. From Bradford and Barr to Stanford's Trent Murphy and USC's Morgan Breslin, the league isn't lacking guys who can create havoc in the backfield. In 2012, there were only five FBS players who had 80-plus tackles, 10-plus sacks and 20-plus tackles for a loss: Jamie Collins (Southern Miss), Jarvis Jones (Georgia), Damontre Moore (Texas A&M), Barr and Bradford. Only the South Division pair return in 2013. No doubt, the race for the league's defensive player of the year will be hotly contested (not to mention many outstanding defensive linemen, defensive backs and safeties).
Last year was the first time since 1978 that ASU has had two players post 20 or more tackles for a loss and 10-plus sacks in the same season (Al Harris and Bob Kohrs). Only 10 FBS players who tallied 10 or more sacks in 2012 are back in 2013 -- and ASU has two of them. In fact, 51 FBS teams had fewer sacks than Sutton and Bradford combined (24.5).
"I truly don't know how they are going to scheme us," Bradford said. "We have weapons all around the board and all guys are attacking and all guys are playmakers. I feel bad for the offensive lines. They have a whole other thing coming their way this year."
What they're selling: Rich Rodriguez's offensive system worked wonders at West Virginia and introduced the nation to Denard Robinson at Michigan. In 2012, the explosive offense scored at least 34 points in 10 of the Wildcats' 13 games.
What they're missing: The Wildcats don't have the Territorial Cup, which went to Arizona State following a 41-34 victory last season. If Arizona is going to climb the Pac-12 ranks, it'll need to win at home and lock up local talent over the Sun Devils.
Arizona State Sun Devils
What they're selling: There's a new attitude at Arizona State, as Todd Graham took the Sun Devils from the most penalized team in the country to one of the least penalized in just one year. Installing that discipline and accountability has been a major selling point for recruits signing up to play with Graham.
What they're missing: The Sun Devils won their final three games of the season for the first time in more than three decades, but losses to UCLA and USC leave them looking up at the Pac-12 South leaders in the battle for national prominence.
California Golden Bears
What they're selling: One of the top public universities in the world, Cal will always be able to pitch its strong academics to recruiting. The new facilities and revamped California Memorial Stadium will help accentuate the package with a pretty bow.
What they're missing: Coach Sonny Dykes has recent Pac-12 experience, but his three years at Louisiana Tech took him completely out of the minds of West region recruits. In-state recruits, essential to Cal's recruiting success, are unfamiliar with what Dykes' systems look like in game action, although the Golden Bears will have a chance to make several statements this fall.
What they're selling: The Buffaloes need playmakers at a multitude of position on both sides of the ball. Playing time and the ability to make an instant impact are certainly on the table for Colorado recruits.
What they're missing: Colorado was two points away from a winless season in 2012 and has very little on-field momentum heading into 2013. The Buffs have just four wins in two years in the Pac-12, and until that changes, it'll be difficult to win significant recruiting battles.
What they're selling: The noisy uniforms and noisier Autzen Stadium provide the flash, but there is plenty of substance in the fast-paced offense the Ducks run. It's unlikely that will slow down under new coach Mark Helfrich.
What they're missing: Mostly obviously, they're missing Chip Kelly, which has left a slight cloud over how the program might change direction or continue unaltered under the new staff. But the possibility of looming NCAA sanctions means the Ducks can't sell completely smooth sailing to recruits in this class.
Oregon State Beavers
What they're selling: The Beavers can sell credibility, not just on the field, but with the coaching staff as well. Mike Riley and his staff have proven they can win in Corvallis and year after year, the Beavers' coach comes across as incredibly genuine to recruits.
What they're missing: In state, Oregon State is the decided underdog when it comes to flash and national appeal. The Beavers aren't often referred to as a "dream school" by recruits, so there is rarely a sure-fire commitment for coaches when they go out of state.
What they're selling: Arguably no school in the country has the combination of academics and athletics of Stanford. When you're recruiting student-athletes, that's a good place to start.
What they're missing: Despite the recent success, Stanford is never going to be able to put together the game-day atmosphere of some of its Pac-12 competition, including Oregon, UCLA, USC and Washington.
What they're selling: Jim Mora's staff has Southern California buzzing about the new direction UCLA is headed. That's a good thing for the Bruins, who have climbed out of the shadow of USC.
What they're missing: The Bruins had a chance to completely pass USC, but dropped their final three games of the season. There is still a question about whether they've jumped the Trojans for good and until that is settled on the field this season, the Trojans will likely get the benefit of the doubt, regionally and nationally.
What they're selling: No Pac-12 program can fall back on tradition like USC. And now with the John McKay Center, old school meets new school in a much-needed facility upgrade.
What they're missing: Rumblings about Lane Kiffin's job security began after a 10-point loss to UCLA, grew louder after a loss to Notre Dame and became deafening after a Sun Bowl loss to Georgia Tech. Despite athletic director Pat Haden throwing his full support behind the coach, recruits and their families are having difficulty believing Kiffin and his staff are there for the long haul.
What they're selling: Offensively, there is plenty of intrigue as to how co-offensive coordinators Dennis Erickson and Brian Johnson direct the attack. Overall, there is still the memory of what Utah was able to accomplish as a BCS spoiler in 2008, and Kyle Whittingham hopes to spark some of that magic in the Pac-12.
What they're missing: In two years, the Utes are below .500 in the Pac-12 and missed out on a bowl game last season. At this point, it's still an uphill climb in terms of convincing recruits they can cause an upheaval in the conference standings.
What they're selling: It's tough to find a coaching staff with more energy on the field or recruiting trail, starting with head coach Steve Sarkisian and moving to every assistant coach on the staff. It's a young group that relates incredibly well to recruits.
What they're missing: The Huskies have yet to win eight games in Sarkisian's three years in Seattle, so hitting that number would be a big step toward proving there is some growing on-field momentum.
Washington State Cougars
What they're selling: Mike Leach is still one of the most interesting personalities in college football, and despite some stumbles in his first year at Washington State, recruits are still interested to see what the Cougars can do this fall in his second year.
What they're missing: The Cougars need wins and they need them now. Washington State hasn't posted a winning record since 2003 and when it comes to on-field performance, it simply can't compete with a majority of Pac-12 teams.
2. Oregon: While Stanford and Oregon feel like 1A and 1B, you have to account for the uncertainty of the Ducks' changing coaches, particularly when it's one with as big a presence as Chip Kelly. The returning talent, including Heisman Trophy hopeful Marcus Mariota at quarterback, is strong on both sides of the ball.
3. Arizona State: The Sun Devils and UCLA feel like 3A and 3B as the South Division favorites, but the Sun Devils welcome back 16 starters compared with 13 for the Bruins. The biggest question is at receiver, where incoming players are being expected to immediately compete for starting spots.
4. UCLA: There's a lot to like on both sides of the ball, including quarterback Brett Hundley and outside linebacker Anthony Barr. There are questions at running back and in the secondary. Answer those, and get better play out of the offensive line, and the Bruins could be sniffing the top 15.
5. Washington: The Huskies welcome back 20 starters for the re-opening of a renovated Husky Stadium. It's fortuitous that this looks like coach Steve Sarkisian's best team. The biggest question was whether quarterback Keith Price would bounce back from a poor 2012 season. His strong spring, as well as improved play from the offensive line, hints that this could be a Top-25 team.
6. Oregon State: The Beavers are held back, at least in terms of perception, by two things: (1) Uncertainty at quarterback; (2) A worrisome crossing of the fingers at defensive tackle. Neither Cody Vaz nor Sean Mannion separated himself at quarterback, and the Beavers are counting on junior college transfers to fill their two voids at defensive tackle. Still, there's enough here to merit a preseason Top-25 ranking.
7. USC: This low power ranking has nothing to do with talent or potential. The Trojans have enough talent, if things come together, to play in the Rose Bowl. But coach Lane Kiffin sits on the hottest seat in the conference, the Trojans are adopting a new defense under Clancy Pendergast, and there are questions at quarterback and in the secondary. The Trojans might be the most volatile team in terms of predictions. They could win 10 games. Or six.
8. Arizona: Arizona's two main questions are about absence (replacing quarterback Matt Scott) and presence (essentially the entire two-deep returning from a bad defense). It's difficult to believe the Wildcats' quarterback play will be as good as it was last season, but it's also difficult to believe the defense won't be vastly improved. Off-field issues for running back Ka'Deem Carey seem as though they will be resolved, but there is no escaping receiver Austin Hill's knee injury.
9. Utah: The best news for the Utes this spring was improved play from the offensive line and the seeming maturation of quarterback Travis Wilson. There are, however, plenty of questions on defense at all three levels, and it will be interesting to see how Dennis Erickson operates as a co-offensive coordinator.
10. California: Cal also is a volatile stock. A gander through the depth chart has a lot of "what if." As in: What if the Bears get good quarterback play in 2012? What if running back Brendan Bigelow stays healthy? What if the offensive line improves? What if the defense is as good as the recruiting stars suggest it should be? Answer those "what ifs" positively, and this is a bowl team.
11. Washington State: There is every reason to believe the Cougars will be better in Year 2 under Mike Leach, starting with the seasoning all those young players received the hard way in 2012. But it's difficult to see the Cougs eclipsing too many other teams in the conference pecking order. The No. 11 spot here could come with five wins.
12. Colorado: Colorado will be better in coach Mike MacIntyre's first season than it was in 2012, mostly because it can't get any worse. The Buffs were one of the nation's youngest teams last season, and it showed. They figure to be bigger, stronger and smarter this fall. But probably not so much as to escape the basement here.
1. Quarterback competitions (mostly) unresolved: Arizona, California, Colorado, Oregon State and USC entered spring with straight-up QB competitions, and none arrived at any clarity at the position, though some seemed to hint at a front-runner. B.J. Denker looked like the Wildcats' best healthy QB, while Cal's Zach Kline seemed to assert himself slightly for the Golden Bears. At Colorado, Connor Wood's case was helped by attrition. USC's and Oregon State's battles were too close to call.
Further, returning veteran starters with something to prove, including Washington's Keith Price, Washington State's Connor Halliday and Utah's Travis Wilson seemed to assert themselves to varying degrees, though Austin Apodaca could push Halliday in the fall.
2. New coaches, new ways: Sonny Dykes took over at California as did Mike MacIntyre at Colorado. Both, as could be expected, brought changes. Mark Helfrich replaced Chip Kelly at Oregon and, as could be expected, he changed almost nothing. The most obvious change at Cal was open practice, which former coach Jeff Tedford's abandonment of curiously coincided with the Bears gradual decline. The Bears will adopt a no-huddle, spread offense, replacing Tedford's pro-style scheme, and switch from a 3-4 to a 4-3 defense, a reverse of the overall Pac-12 trend. MacIntyre arrived preaching relentless optimism and a pistol offense, while defensive coordinator Kent Baer will retain a 4-3 scheme, but hopefully get better results with his version.
3. Defense, line play look strong: The Pac-12 heads into 2013 poised for a banner year. Oregon and Stanford look like national title contenders -- both are likely preseason top-five teams -- while as many as seven conference teams seem like top-25 candidates. Some of the reasons for the promise are typical: returning QBs and skill players. But what's potentially a bigger reason for improved national standing is the physical side of the game: Offensive line and defense. Nine teams have at least seven starters coming back on defense, while seven teams welcome back four starters on the offensive line. Only one team, Utah, doesn't have at least three starters back on the O-line. Further, there's as much, if not more, star power coming back on the lines and on defense than at the skill positions.
This year's premier game in the Pac-12 figures to be Oregon at Stanford on Nov. 7. Both teams are predicted to be top-five, and the fact that they are in the same division makes it even more compelling. So assuming that's the most anticipated game on the 2013 docket, what's No. 2?
Glad you asked.
AP Photo/Matt YorkArizona State, after falling to UCLA on the last play in 2012, gets a shot at revenge Nov. 23.
From just an Arizona State point of view, I still think it's the Arizona game for all of the reasons explained in the post. But from a conference-wide perspective and conference-wide interest level, then I'd go with the Sun Devils' Nov. 23 showdown at UCLA.
For starters, there are so many interesting similarities between the two rising programs.
- Both schools have second-year head coaches who accepted their positions with a healthy heaping of skepticism from their respective fan bases.
- Both exceeded expectations last year.
- Both have second-year starters at quarterback who were fantastic in their first years. Even their numbers are pretty similar. Taylor Kelly: 3,039 yards, 67.1 completion percentage, 29 touchdowns, 9 interceptions, 516 rushing yards, 1 rushing touchdown. Brett Hundley: 3,745 yards, 66.6 completion percentage, 29 touchdowns, 11 interceptions, 355 rushing yards, 9 rushing touchdowns.
- Both have much tougher schedules in 2013 than they did in 2012, so with the increased level of expectation comes an increased level of national scrutiny.
- Both have premier defensive players in Will Sutton and Anthony Barr, who were atop the conference stats leaders last season in sacks and tackles for a loss.
So while this game might not only determine the Pac-12 South champ, the sidebar is it could also determine the 2013 Defensive Player of the Year.
I'm guessing since I took this game, Ted is going to go with UCLA-USC -- which would be my second choice (or third, as it were). I'm sure he'll make a very compelling argument.
But when you look at the returning starters -- for both teams on both sides of the ball -- and how last year's game played out at Arizona State, it's likely that the 2013 edition at the Rose Bowl will match the excitement level and the stakes will be equally high. And the fact that the 2012 encounter came down to a game-winning field goal as time expired makes the rematch that much more compelling.
Arizona, still looking for a quarterback and down an A-list wide receiver, has seen its stock drop over the past few weeks. USC is by no means a darkhorse in the division and could very well return to prominence in 2013.
But for now, we know that Arizona State and UCLA have the fewest question marks. Most would agree that the Sun Devils have fewer. But with the Bruins the two-time South champs, the road to the conference title game has to go through Pasadena until proven otherwise. And with a pair of teams loaded with talent, this game might actually end up being the most significant of the season.
Ted Miller: I'm with Kevin in that I think the UCLA-Arizona State game will play out in the South Division like the Stanford-Oregon game in the North.
AP PhotoUCLA goes for two in a row over rival USC on Nov. 30; how warm might Lane Kiffin's seat be then?
Before UCLA impressively triumphed 38-28 in last year's game, USC had won five in a row and 12 of the past 13 in the series. The Trojans had owned the Bruins. And then Jim Mora came to town, and the Bruins started looking like a different team, one with some swagger and one that seems to be on a strong uptick.
Meanwhile, there's USC. A year ago, folks were celebrating the Trojans as national title contenders and heavy Pac-12 favorites. Coming off a strong 10-2 finish in 2011, many were on the cusp of rethinking their reflexive aversion to coach Lane Kiffin. The feeling was that Kiffin not only had grown up but also perhaps we -- college football fans, the national media, etc. -- had been too hard on him.
Then 2012 happened. It was yucky from all angles from a USC perspective. And Kiffin took the brunt of the blame. He doesn't even seem to be getting much credit for being a stand-up guy this offseason and owning up to his own shortcomings. Heck, the guy basically pushed his own father out the door, so you know there's some soul-searching going on.
The stakes in the USC-UCLA game are always going to be high because it's a bitter rivalry. It's also likely it will have some bearing on the Pac-12 South race, the national rankings and the pecking order for bowl selection. While Arizona State and UCLA are the two South Division favorites, USC is right there. In fact, if someone could magically guarantee that the Trojans would fully and consistently play to their capabilities, the reaction would be to make them a solid South favorite.
But many now doubt the Trojans and Kiffin. That's also why this game is interesting.
Kiffin sits on the hottest seat in the conference. This matchup might rate as a must-win for his survival. Many USC fans probably just mocked that "might" qualifier.
For UCLA, Mora going 2-0 versus the hated Trojans would provide further proof that the Bruins are headed back to national relevance. Another celebration around the Victory Bell might be prelude to another shot at the Rose Bowl in the Pac-12 title game.
And with those circumstances in Westwood standing in contrast to a USC team potentially looking for a new coach, one might then wonder if the football monopoly in L.A. is truly over, with the City of Angels now cruising for a Bruin.
We're going through the Pac-12 and picking out one game that seems most important -- or potentially most revealing -- for each team from our vantage point today.
And then we'll let you vote from a list of potential options.
We're going in reverse alphabetical order.
Most important game: Nov. 30 vs. Arizona
Michael Eubank to win the starting quarterback spot. There was also a consensus that no matter what happens, just beat Arizona.
But an eight-win season and a bunch of talent returning on both sides of the ball -- including quarterback Taylor Kelly and Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year Will Sutton -- means the Sun Devils can raise the expectation bar higher than it was last year. Their hopes for 2013 should include roses. Whether the Sun Devils are actually good enough to turn those hopes into reality depends on how they navigate a very demanding 2013 slate.
No matter how high the hopes get, however, there is and always will be one constant. Beat Arizona.
But before things get all territorial, the Sun Devils have to go through a gauntlet as tough as any team in the league.
Last year Arizona State faced seven teams that finished the year with winning records. One of those was an FCS team, meaning the Sun Devils faced six sub-.500 opponents. And they did what they were supposed to do in those games -- going 5-1 with the only loss coming on the road to Missouri. But when the schedule ramped up, they lost four in a row to Oregon, UCLA, Oregon State and USC before rebounding nicely to close the year with wins over Washington State, Arizona and Navy. The combined record of ASU's 2012 opponents was 80-82 (.493) and if you only count the FBS schools, it was 72-79 (.476).
The 2013 season promises to be tougher. Then again, so do the Sun Devils. The combined 2012 record of this year's opponents is 87-67 (.564). And if you take out FCS Sacramento State, the combined FBS teams were 81-62 (.566). It features both Rose Bowl participants in Wisconsin and Stanford and the national runner up in Notre Dame. All three of those games will be huge toward building ASU's national credibility.
But they aren't as important as Arizona.
Right now ASU and UCLA are perceived as the frontrunners in the South -- and USC isn't too far behind. Last year's showdown with the Bruins was epic -- with both teams scoring late before a game-winning UCLA field goal sealed it for the Bruins. It's a budding new rivalry and it could again determine the 2013 South champion.
But it's not as important as Arizona.
The way ASU's schedule sets up is interesting. It's frontloaded with four tough, consecutive games against Wisconsin, Stanford, USC and Notre Dame. That's as tough a stretch as any team in the country. And it closes against Oregon State, at UCLA and home to Arizona. How ASU negotiates the schedule early will go a long way toward how the rest of the country feels about them.
But, all together now, it's not as important as beating Arizona.
The home team has lost the last four meetings between the schools. Last year's score, 41-34, is considered a blowout by recent historical standards. The teams played to 31-27 in '11, 30-29 (2OT) in '10 and 20-17 in '09. The average margin of victory has been less than a field goal.
It's as fierce a rivalry as there is in the nation and in a recruiting destination-state like Arizona, bragging rights mean everything. The addition of Graham and Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez has also added a new and exciting element to the showdown. And as the old adage goes, anything can happen in a rivalry game.
Suppose ASU isn't as good as advertised and it goes 1-4 to start the season and one of the LA schools takes the South. Nothing would rectify a disappointing year like beating your rival. Suppose ASU is as good as advertised and they are in the looking at 10-11 wins heading into the Arizona game. Nothing puts a stamp on a year like heading to the postseason at your rival's expense.
So while ASU certainly has plenty of important games that carry national significance -- it's still hard to imagine anything ever trumping the Territorial Cup as most important.
"In the eight games we won last year, Taylor didn't throw any interceptions," Graham said.
"And in the five games we lost," Norvell said, "he threw at least one."
Ron Chenoy/US PresswireTaylor Kelly "commands our team," coach Todd Graham said. "He's a guy with all the intangibles, a guy we completely trust."
But it also aligns with what Kelly needs to do this fall to take the proverbial next step: Take charge and be consistently excellent so Arizona State becomes better than those other good teams.
Graham calls it mastering the offense. Kelly knows it's about stepping up at critical moments.
"When things hit the fan, that's when I've got to play my best," Kelly said. "When things would start to hit the fan last year, I would kind of panic and start forcing things. Or if we were down, I'd feel I had to make a play. After watching film, I realize I need to take the easy route and take what the defense gives me."
Be smart. Command the huddle. Distribute the ball to the playmakers. Step up and deliver in big moments. That's what veteran quarterbacks do, and that's what will get Kelly and the Sun Devils to the Pac-12 title game with a shot at the Rose Bowl.
It's reasonable to project. Kelly blew away preseason expectations last year, eclipsing 3,000 yards passing while ranking second in the Pac-12 and ninth in the nation in passing efficiency. He threw 29 touchdown passes and rushed for 516 yards and a score. Even incremental improvement should make him an all-conference candidate, though the same can be said for a number of outstanding Pac-12 quarterbacks.
It's strange to recall that a year ago the idea of such a projection would have seemed ridiculous. Kelly finished 2012 spring practice third in the Sun Devils quarterback competition behind Mike Bercovici and Michael Eubank. More than that, there was some talk of reducing his reps and making it a two-man race heading into fall camp.
"We came this close to making it a two-man race because of my belief that it's hard to rep three guys," Graham said. "That would have eliminated Taylor Kelly. I'll be honest. He was third team coming out of spring, and that was where he should have been. He improved that much over the summer."
The same can be said for the 2012 season. Kelly showed resilience by bouncing back after bad games. The poor showing at Missouri? He threw 11 touchdown passes in the next three games with no picks. A four-game losing streak killing the momentum of a previously promising season? Kelly threw eight touchdown passes with no picks as the Sun Devils finished with three consecutive victories, including a comeback victory in the Territorial Cup.
"I think he got better every single game," Graham said. "There is no substitute for experience. What gives me the most confidence in this team is we have a quarterback who I completely trust, who has all the intangibles it takes to be a great quarterback and a great leader."
There is a question, and it affects Kelly directly: Receiver.
Kelly has a good tight end/H-back in Chris Coyle. Running backs Marion Grice and D.J. Foster are skilled pass-catchers. But there's a dearth of talent and experience at wideout.
Said Kelly, "It's been a work in progress."
It's an issue whose solution lies in the unknown: Arizona State needs at least two, perhaps three, incoming receivers to show up ready to play immediately. The Sun Devils signed five receivers, topped by the touted Jaelen Strong (Said Graham, "As dynamic a receiver as I've seen on film."), and they will be immediately thrown into the rotation.
While Graham also frets about special teams, the Sun Devils' potential advance to a 10-win sort of team depends on giving Kelly some A-list targets who will keep an opposing defense honest.
Further, there won't be much of a preseason, getting-to-know-you process. Games 2-4 go: Wisconsin, at Stanford, USC and Notre Dame in Cowboys Stadium.
Yet this team is fully capable of handling a front-loaded schedule and climbing the national rankings. And that feeling starts with Kelly.
"He commands our team. He's a guy with all the intangibles, a guy we completely trust," Graham said. "We have a quarterback who is a championship-level quarterback. That gives you a chance."
Said coach Paul Chryst:
“Like many college freshmen, Rushel is working through some challenges right now. As it is for all members of our team, my most important concern is his personal well-being. Rushel and his family have our full support. We are giving him time away from football to work through this situation but he very much remains a part of our family on a daily basis. We want to be sensitive and respectful of Rushel, and I would ask others to do the same.”
Well said. Classy. Obviously Chryst's chief motive is helping out a young man.
Kim Klement/USA TODAY Sports The Panthers will not allow Rushel Shell to transfer to Arizona State, which is led by former Pittsburgh head coach Todd Graham.
This morning, we learned that Chryst and Pitt no longer rate Shell's "personal well-being" as the "most important concern," nor does the school offer him and his family its "full support." Shell, clearly, is no longer part of the compassionate and loving Pitt "family."
We know this because Pitt has informed Shell he can't transfer to Arizona State, one of four Pac-12 schools he indicated he wanted to consider.
Is there a competitive reason that would justify this decision? No. Pitt and Arizona State have no scheduled games.
So what is the reason?
Well, there's only one: Chryst and Pitt are choosing to role model petty, churlish behavior because they can, and that apparently will appeal to many Pitt fans who still are fuming that over a year ago Todd Graham preferred a job at Arizona State over one at Pittsburgh.
The only other explanation is that Chryst and Pitt hate freedom.
The high-minded response for a college coach in every single instance when a player wants to transfer is: "OK. Your choice. Good luck."
The middle-minded response for a college coach is: "OK, but you can't transfer to any team in our conference or on our schedule."
The low-minded response for a college coach is ... what Chryst and Pitt did.
By the way, Pitt also said Shell can't transfer to Arizona. Why? According to ESPN's Joe Schad, it's "because former Pitt staffers coach there as well."
I know this is frustrating and embarrassing for Pitt folks. Coaches and players seem to prefer their association with the Pitt program to be "former" rather than "current." That's not me just typing that; Don't blame the messenger! That's what we keep seeing with people's behavior.
So here's a measure of character for Pitt fans. All of them know what is right and all of them know this isn't right. They know it. Not a single Pitt fan truly believes Pitt is acting like a bastion of higher learning and integrity with this decision.
Now will those Pitt fans take a stand for what is right, contact Pitt and support the freedoms of a young man?
Or will they support petty, churlish behavior because they can?
Graham and the Sun Devils have gathered after a spring practice, awaiting their training table. It's Tuesday. It's lunch time. That means one thing: Taco Tuesday. When a fellow shows up for training table on Tuesday at Arizona State, he expect tacos. That is the way. And it is good. Graham likes Taco Tuesday.
Yet there are no tacos to be found. These are the times that try men's souls. Graham makes sure everyone in the room knows he is perturbed. And enjoying himself, tacos or not.
What a difference a year makes.
AP Photo/Rick ScuteriFor Todd Graham and Arizona State, the past is no longer interesting. It's all about the present, in which the Sun Devils are South Division co-favorites.
Because little was expected of the Sun Devils in 2012, the only subject that interested national reporters about the program was Graham's controversially abrupt departure from Pittsburgh. He was asked to explain his OUTRAGEOUS BEHAVIOR -- you know, leaving one job for a better one -- exactly 5,356 times.
"We loved that," he said. "It's our favorite subject."
Yet he answered all 5,356 inquiries without snapping over the redundancy. And then he coached the heck out of his football team, which showed impressive improvement both on and off the field.
The Sun Devils went 8-5 -- just the second time the program won at least that many games since 2005 -- and won a bowl game, its first in six seasons. But it was not only that. In 2011, they ranked last in the nation with 79.77 penalty yards per game. That was a talented but horribly sloppy and undisciplined team. In 2012, they ranked first in the Pac-12 and eighth in the nation with 34.92 penalty yards per game.
In 2011, the Sun Devils waived a white flag over a once-promising season, losing six of their final seven games against a weak schedule, with the locker room fracturing into antagonistic bailiwicks. In 2012, they bounced back from a four-game losing streak against quality opponents to win their final three games, including a comeback victory at rival and 24th-ranked Arizona.
And instead of racing out the door for an NFL paycheck -- as many Sun Devils have been wont to do -- consensus All-American defensive tackle Will Sutton, the Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year, opted to return for his senior season.
The past is no longer interesting. It's all about the present, in which the Sun Devils find themselves as South Division co-favorites with UCLA, a team that beat them last fall on a last-second field goal with Sutton sitting out with an injury.
"We're not going to sneak up on anybody," Graham said. "People are expecting us to be a darn good football team. So how do you handle success?"
That's been a problem in the past. A preseason ranking in 2008 became a 5-7 finish, and Arizona State was 5-1 and ranked 18th before it imploded in 2011.
Cal Sport Media via AP ImagesWill Sutton led the Pac-12 in tackles for loss and sacks per game in 2012.
"This team has some very strong qualities," Graham said. "One, being the quarterback. Two, being we do have the capabilities of having a really good defensive football team."
Kelly, who was buried at No. 3 on the QB depth chart after spring practices last year, seems poised to take another step forward.
"I think he got better every single game," Graham said. "There is no substitute for experience. What gives me the most confidence in this team is we have a quarterback, and we have a quarterback who I completely trust, who has all the intangibles it takes to be a great quarterback and a great leader."
Folks should get a fairly good line on the 2013 Sun Devils by the first weekend of October. Last year, the early schedule was weak. That's not the case this go-around. After the opener against Sacramento State, Arizona State plays Wisconsin, at Stanford, USC and Notre Dame in Cowboys Stadium.
At that point, we should know if the Sun Devils are legit Rose Bowl contenders. Graham thinks so, and he wants his team to believe it.
"I believe these guys think they can win [the Pac-12]," he said. "I don't think they did last year."
The subject has changed in Tempe. The question heading into 2013 is whether that translates onto the field.