Todd Graham has gotten the Sun Devils off to a much faster start than most people thought he would this season. How are ASU fans feeling 5 games into 2012?
They're loving it. Graham's work in restoring confidence in the program in the wake of an ugly finish to the season has been pretty remarkable, and starting off 4-1 has just cemented it. The expectations have radically shifted for merely hoping for bowl eligibility to talk to winning the South division, which six weeks ago would have certainly been classified under the "crazy talk" header.
With California, Illinois and Missouri all struggling to various degrees, how much do you really think we can glean from 4-1 record?
While it's hard to tell how well ASU will stack up against the big boys on their upcoming schedule like Oregon and USC, we can certainly see how much the program has changed over the last year. Under Dennis Erickson, the Sun Devils had great talent, but were a total mess internally. There was no discipline or accountability on or off the field, and as a result, the team was often their own worst enemy. Graham has more or less whipped the program into shape, and the on and off field execution is a near 180. For example, ASU led the nation in penalties in two out of the last three years. This year? They are the sixth-least penalized team. While the tough schedule ahead may result in some losses, at least the Sun Devils are now just battling their opponents and not their own internal demons.
Taylor Kelly has done well and three different seem to be splitting the carries. What is the identity of this offense?
The new offense under coordinator Mike Norvell is a run-heavy spread that attacks defenses with a high tempo as much as they do with scheme. The biggest surprise is the play of Kelly. He was a near-afterthought in the offseason quarterback competition, but has emerged as a real dual-threat playmaker and is currently 10th in the nation in passing efficiency. His top target is tight end Chris Coyle, who has done very well along the seams, and the wide receivers are improving after a very rough start. The running game, which was expected to be the team's strength, has struggled, with starter Cameron Marshall having just 164 yards coming off a 1,000-yard year. One player to watch is true freshman running back D.J. Foster, who has been explosive in both on the ground and as a receiver.
We have heard so much about the success of the Sun Devils defensive line that I think most Buffs fans are now familiar with the talent there. How have the linebackers and the secondary looked so far?
The linebackers have been very good. Senior captain Brandon Magee is back after missing all of 2011, and he's been terrific against both the run and the pass. Steffon Martin had a slow start, but has been improving at the strongside, but the real star has been Chris Young. The juco transfer plays the "spur" position, which is a hybrid linebacker/safety, and he flies all over the field. He already has 9.5 tackles-for-loss, which ranks 10th in the nation.
The secondary was one of the major causes of last season's collapse, but they've been very good, considering what they've faced. The passing defense ranks fourth nationally, but they've also faced four back-up quarterbacks and Zach Maynard, so that certainly factors in. All four starters are very talented and have been good so far, but each has battled consistency issues in previous years. It remains to be seen whether those will resurface once they face better passing attacks.
Any level of nervousness headed into a Thursday night road game in Boulder?
Oh yes. ASU's victory on the road against Cal in their last game was just the program's sixth road win over the last 24 games away from Tempe, and haven't won consecutive road games since October of 2007. The Sun Devils have always had the talent to be consistent winners, but they've had such a longstanding tendency to self-destruct on the road, it will take a while for any road concerns to vanish. Another bad habit has been to play to the level of competition, and being 22-point favorites is a dangerous position. Graham has made instilling mental toughness, discipline and focus (all three entirely absent under Dennis Erickson's tenure) his primary task since taking over. We'll find out Thursday how much progress he's made.