No. 61 Arizona State
Arizona State has won 11 total games the last two years, their lowest two-year total since 2009-10, a stretch that played a role in the dismissal of Todd Graham’s predecessor Dennis Erickson.
Their attempted turnaround will include two new coordinators, possibly a transfer starting quarterback, a rising star at receiver and three disruptive defenders in the front seven.
2016 Record: 5-7 (2-7, Pac-12)
Arizona State started the season 4-0 but it wasn’t pretty. They beat Northern Arizona, won shootouts against Texas Tech and Cal and beat UTSA by four points. Then reality came; the Sun Devils were drubbed by USC in Week 5, the first of seven losses in their final eight games.
Six losses came by at least 20 points and their pass defense was non-existent (FBS-worst 357 yards per game).
Head Coach: Todd Graham (6th year, 39-26)
Two years ago, Todd Graham was the toast of Tempe. He had a 28-12 mark in three years, back-to-back 10-win seasons and an appearance in the 2013 conference championship. Now he’s on the hot seat after winning 11 total games the last two years and did not have his contract extended, as was an annual formality during the first four years.
It’s unclear what the 52-year-old Graham needs in 2017 to convince the administration he’s worth bringing in 2018 but seven wins and a return to bowl eligibility would be a start.
Key Returning Offensive Players
QB Manny Wilkins, RB Demario Richard, RB Kalen Ballage, WR N’Keal Harry, OT Quinn Bailey, G Sam Jones, C A.J. McCollum
Billy Napier replaces Chip Lindsey at offensive coordinator after Lindsey left for the same job at Auburn. Napier is a revered recruiter who spent the the last five seasons as receivers coach at Alabama and was peeved when Saban didn’t give him the job following the departure of Steve Sarkisian.
Though the Sun Devils will still use a no-huddle, play-action-heavy offense, Napier will incorporate more pro-style features. And it didn’t take him long to earn the respect of players.
“He’s had his moments where he’s let us know he’s vulnerable to let us see who he is as a person instead of a football coach,” quarterback Manny Wilkins said of Napier. “That’s something I have a high level of respect for.”
Wilkins is battling — ironically — Lindsey’s former backup quarterback, Alabama transfer Blake Barnett, for the starting job. Whoever wins the starting job gets one of the top receivers in college football in sophomore N’Keal Harry. The four-star prospect from nearby Chandler had a team-high 58 receptions for 659 yards and five touchdowns.
Their top two running backs return in seniors Demario Richard and Kalen Ballage. The 6-foot-3, 230-pound Ballage had a staggering 14 touchdowns on just 126 carries. He scored seven — seriously, seven — rushing touchdowns on 13 carries against Texas Tech.
Three upperclassmen are back on the offensive line, including senior center A.J. McCollum.
Key Returning Defensive Players
DT Tashon Smallwood, DE JoJo Wicker, DE Koron Crump, LB D.J. Calhoun, CB Kareem Orr, S Marcus Ball, S Armand Perry
Todd Graham has run his own defense since taking over at Tulsa in 2007. That won’t be the case in 2017, with veteran coordinator Phil Bennett arriving from Baylor.
“Todd has confidence in me,” Bennett said in April. “I’ve done it. I don’t think there’s many people out there, if anybody, that’s called more defenses than I have. I’m not saying I know it all because every day you learn. But he has confidence in what I can bring.
Bennett is trying to fix a unit that yielded 19 plays of 25 yards or longer during a six-game losing streak. Their top three tacklers return, led by linebacker D.J. Calhoun and ends Koron Cump and JoJo Wicker, who combined for 33.5 tackles for loss and 16 sacks. At times Wicker (below) — a Second-Team All-Pac 12 selection with Crump — was dominant, registering three tackles for loss and one sack against Oregon.
Senior defensive tackle Tashon Smallwood, meanwhile, will hold down the middle.
In the secondary, all eyes on are on redshirt freshman Chase Lucas as he battles for a starting spot at corner, but the Sun Devils also return three upperclassmen starters. Corner Kareem Orr didn’t have another six-interception season like he did as a freshman in 2015, though he still had 53 tackles, five passes defended and one pick.
Notable Player Losses
LB Laiu Moeakiola, CB De’Chavon Hayes, K Zane Gonzalez
Arizona State lost a handful of a key players from the five-win team, none of which might be bigger than kicker Zane Gonzalez. A three-time All-Pac selection and 2016 All-American, Gonzalez finished his career hitting 204 of 209 PATs and 96 of 116 field goals.
Linebacker Laiu Moeakiola was an all-conference selection as a senior.
Notable Player Additions
QB Blake Barnett, CB Chase Lucas
Former highly touted Alabama recruit Blake Barnett arrived last winter and was granted immediate eligibility. He only appeared in three games with the Tide, completing 11 of 19 passes for 219 yards and two scores.
“They were everything I was looking for in a school,” Barnett said in February. “There wasn’t really one specific thing that stood out, but I think as an overall fit, this is what I was looking for. Great coaches. I have full faith in Coach [Todd] Graham. He’s a great coach and I think he’s going to lead us in the right direction. The talent here is tremendous.”
Corner Chase Lucas is also chasing — get it? — a starting job. A four-star member of the Sun Devils’ 24th-ranked 2016 class, he is a big-time athlete.
Arizona State’s non-conference slate isn’t terrifying but it is delicate. They host San Diego State in Week 2 and visit Texas Tech in Week 3 before opening Pac-12 play a week later with Oregon at home.
|Thursday, Aug. 31||vs. New Mexico State|
|Saturday, Sept. 9||vs. San Diego State|
|Saturday, Sept. 16||at Texas Tech|
|Saturday, Sept. 23||vs. Oregon|
|Saturday, Sept. 30||at Stanford|
|Saturday, Oct. 14||vs. Washington|
|Saturday, Oct. 21||at Utah|
|Saturday, Oct. 28||vs. USC|
|Saturday, Nov. 4||vs. Colorado|
|Saturday, Nov. 11||at UCLA|
|Saturday, Nov. 18||at Oregon State|
|Saturday, Nov. 25||vs. Arizona|