House of Sparky's 5-Pack series is in full swing, breaking down everything you need to know for Arizona State's 2012 season in handy five-piece increments.
This week, we're going to take a look at the team's greatest strengths and most glaring weaknesses. First up, the positive.
1) Offensive Defenders
For the past several seasons, the bite had been missing from ASU's defense. The 4-3 scheme under Craig Bray had it's moments, but it never brought the attack to the offense. Under Todd Graham and defensive coordinator Paul Randolph, that will change, and the team has several players who can carry the fight into an opponent's backfield.
While the entire mindset of the defense is now geared towards attack, their is one position in particular that is devoted to such backfield penetrations--the Devilbacker. Current starter Carl Bradford is one of the most intriguing players for ASU this season. At 6'0", 240 pounds, he has a great size, speed and tenacity combination, not to mention the linebacker and defensive end experience needed. He showed flashes of his disruptive ability during his spot duty last year, and after strong spring practices, he's primed to be a major threat.
Behind him is a player still not technically on the team. Junior Onyeali is still on the suspension given to him by Graham, but every indication points to a return. Like Bradford, Onyeali is a tweener at 5'11", 245 pounds that has demonstrated terrific ability to rush the passer. With his attitude adjustment in place and injury concerns behind him, the speedy Onyeali can soon focus on piling up the sacks.
Along the defensive line is Will Sutton, the much hyped defensive tackle who thus far has yet to deliver on his potential. Now a junior, the tenacious 6'2", 270 pounder has the versatility to play tackle or slide out to end and wreak havoc against the run and pass.
Newcomer Steffon Martin joins the team this summer from a celebrated junior college career. Last season, he made 108 tackles, including 17 for loss, notched eight sacks and intercepted two passes. A tremendous athlete at 6'2", 235 pounds with a reported 4.54 time in the 40, Martin should make an impact from Day 1.
It's reassuring that an offense that has major question marks at quarterback, wide receiver, tight end and along 80% of the starting offensive line has an ace in the backfield.
Last season, Marshall carried the load for the rushing attack, becoming the first Sun Devil since 2006 to top 1,000 yards (1,050) and tied the single-season school record with 18 touchdowns. With ASU's suddenly deep and talented backfield, his numbers may decline but his value will not.
Marshall is a dynamic ballcarrier, able to run with power (223 pounds) or speed, and he's unquestionably one of the top backs in the Pac-12. That is a valuable luxury for a team that will be breaking in a new quarterback. When things get tough, give it to Cam.
3) The Return Game
Over the last two seasons, ASU has ranked No. 3 and No. 10 in the nation in kickoff returns. That success has come from a variety of different players, with four different players having scored touchdowns (Omar Bolden, LeQuan Lewis, Jamal Miles and Rashad Ross) and Kyle Middlebrooks came within a yard of making a fifth.
Once again, the return game looks strong.
Leading the way is Miles, the dynamic senior who set the school record last season with his third career kickoff return touchdown, and he also posted a terrific 16.6 yards average on punt returns. His speed, agility and explosiveness make him a lethal threat.
Should Miles see a reduction in his return duties due to his focus on honing his wide receiving skills, ASU has depth. Ross is one of the fastest players in the conference and is gone once he finds a seam. Middlebrooks combines his good speed with shifty moves and elusiveness, and can handle kickoff duty. During the spring, cornerback Robert Nelson saw action on punt returns, and has the ability to make more than a few coverage players miss.
4) New Attitude
Under Dennis Erickson, the Sun Devil program became fluent in apathy, indifference and recklessness.
Now, Graham has the team "Speaking Victory".
More than installing new offensive and defensive schemes, more than landing a top recruit, and more than even winning games this season, Graham's first and most crucial job is to raze the remnants of the Erickson regime and rebuild the foundation of the program in a lasting and positive way.
So far, the early indications are promising. The current players have bought in to the new culture of discipline, accountability and hard work. Whether that will be sustained throughout what figures to be a long and challenging first season remains to be seen, but the progress is encouraging.
5) Low Expectations
In a now familiar subversion of form, ASU has always exceeded low pre-season expectations (2007) while also failing to live up to any positive ones (2008). After the former in 2011, the belief around most of the college football world is that ASU will be in a battle to stay out of the Pac-12 South cellar.
This fact is not lost on any of the coaching staff or players, and it's serving as additional motivation. They know that this team has a lot of talent, and while the road ahead will be difficult, that additional fuel can be a valuable asset.
Previous season preview entries in our 5-Pack series are here