Who holds the key to the future? (Photos: ASU)
For Arizona State, 2012 is about setting the table, not enjoying the feast.
That may be a hard mouthful of reality to swallow for Sun Devil fans, but it's true nevertheless. Waking up the "sleeping giant" and turning the program into the type of perennial power that many expect it to become won't happen overnight, nor in one season.
While the issues and problems that have plagued Sun Devil football for years are finally being addressed in a decisively positive way under the watch of head coach Todd Graham, the fruits of his efforts don't figure to be born for quite some time. The damage needing repair is just too great, and quite simply, it takes time to build a winning program. Time to change a culture. Time to bring in players to fit his system. Time to establish recruiting bases, and much, much more.
Given the state of the program that Graham inherited, as well as the vast potential present, the 2012 outlook should not rest solely on the team's win-loss record. The optimism brought on by Graham's changes has led to many fans raising their expectations into dangerously unrealistic areas, when the lasting value will actually come in places other than the standings.
This is going to be a rough and difficult year for the team. While some like Alden Darby may argue it's only a rebuilding year in terms of the locker room, this program is clearly in a major transition, with the ultimate goal of fielding strong teams to challenge for division titles in 2013, 2014 and each year thereafter.
That starts with the foundation that will be laid this year. The real value in 2012 will be the lessons learned, the habits formed, and the players developed. This will be the rare time when how ASU plays will carry more value than a win.
With that in mind, here are five major items that need to be crossed off the Sun Devil to-do list by season's end, because if they can do these, 2012 will be a success.
1) ASU Must Find a Quarterback of the Future
In one of the most repeated stats of the offseason, when Kelly starts the game on August 30th, he'll be the fifth different starting quarterback over the last five season openers. That's not exactly a stat you see associated with a perennial contender.
ASU has not had a returning star quarterback since the embattled days of Rudy Carpenter. With the current three quarterbacks—Kelly, Michael Eubank and Mike Bercovici—each having two or more seasons of eligibility left, it's crucial that by year's end, one has established himself as "the man" in Tempe around whom Graham can build a winner.
2) ASU Must Show They're Disciplined
108th, 120th (dead last), 114th, 120th again.
Most likely, you've seen that stat line on House of Sparky before, but if you haven't, those are ASU's national rankings in penalty yards-per-game over the last four seasons. Yeah...that's not going to get it done. That lack of discipline carried over off the field as well, and by the time Dennis Erickson was shown the door, the inmates were nearly in control of the asylum.
Graham's biggest challenge since taking over has been to instill that lost discipline and respect. So far, so good. Most every player has bought into the new approach, and every report has been glowing.
But that's to be expected at this juncture. The "honeymoon" period is still effect and the team is undefeated under Graham.
Will this continue during the grind and attrition of the season? Will everyone be as bought in when the team loses two or three in a row? It will be essential for Graham to not only maintain the level of discipline he has already instilled, but to build upon it. If he can, the dividends will be significant in 2013 and beyond.
3) ASU Must Develop Young Talent in the Secondary
After an exceedingly disappointing performance to end last season, the 2012 version of the Sun Devil secondary is carrying a renewed confidence with them into the season. Cornerbacks Deveron Carr and Osahon Irabor and safeties Alden Darby and Keelan Johnson each have a wealth of talent, but none has of yet emerged as a true star performer.
The team will need them to do so, and have some other players emerge, as the depth in the secondary is razor thin, and may be even thinner in 2013.
Carr and Johnson will be gone, and while Darby and Irabor may very well be impact players this season, many question marks will surround them. Robert Nelson could develop into a starting-caliber cornerback by them, but Rashad Wadood and recently converted wide receiver Kevin Anderson are currently next up on the position's depth chart. Yikes. Can guys like Oliver Johnson, Joe Eason develop in time?
At safety, young talent like Laui Moeakiola and Ezekiel Bishop could see a lot of time this season in which to develop, but will it be enough to combat the extremely pass-happy Pac-12? Can Graham land some help in the 2013 recruiting class (ahem, Priest Willis)?
Something's got to happen.
4) ASU Must Unlearn What They Have Learned
Wisconsin, Oregon State, USC, Stanford, Illinois, Oregon twice and the final five games of 2011. That's 12 games over the last two seasons that ASU has played well enough to win yet did just enough to lose. They were all too often their own worst enemy.
As mentioned above, the penalty issue was a large factor in the team's inability to close out winnable games, but far from the only reason that the Sun Devils have grossly underachieved. The team has program picked up a number of bad habits over the years, and those are issues that must be addressed.
In 2012, how ASU will play will be more important than the final score. Are they playing tough on every play? Are they limiting avoidable errors? Are they playing smart?
If by season's end, they can answer "yes" to every one of those questions, then this season was a success and the future for Sun Devil football will be bright.
5) ASU Must Beat Arizona