Aug. 30, 2012; Tempe, AZ, USA; Arizona State running back DJ Foster (8) is tackled by a Northern Arizona defender in the first quarter at Sun Devil Stadium. (Jennifer Hilderbrand-US PRESSWIRE)
It's hard to imagine a better start to the new regime than the 63-6 beating Arizona State put on their northern neighbors from NAU. Most every position group graded out well, and the team avoided any major injuries in the process.
Now a full day removed from the action, let's take a look at a few of the key lessons we have learned about this 2012 Sun Devil team.
D.J. Foster is really good
Being one of the nation's top recruits, people expected four-star prospect D.J. Foster to be good. On Thursday night, he teased Sun Devil Nation with just how good he could be.
On the game's first play, he caught a 16-yard pass on a crossing route after lining up as a slot receiver. Later in the first quarter, he showed off his rare burst and explosiveness on runs of 16 and 24 yard, and he scored a touchdown early in the second quarter.
His night ended early after he fumbled, but that did little to dispel the excitement surrounding him. Foster's ability to be a dynamic playmaker in both the running and passing games should make for a highlight-filled freshman year.
Chris Young is a missile
Another newcomer made his mark on defense. Juco transfer Chris Young had a late start, coming into camp out of shape, but quickly got himself ready for the season and he was the defensive MVP against NAU.
Playing from the spur position—a hybrid linebacker/safety spot—Young led the team with eight tackles and was extremely disruptive by making a game-high 2.5 tackles for loss. He showed off tremendous closing speed and sure tackling ability, and he should continue to be a strong contributor all season long.
The defense is relentless
Young wasn't the only defender making noise. Defensive coordinator Paul Randolph kept his word about transforming the ASU defense into an attacking unit, as pressure was applied consistently and creatively throughout the game.
Pressure came from the defensive line, linebacker blitzes, cornerback blitzes and more. The Sun Devils racked up two sacks and nine tackles-for-loss on the night, and were poised for many more.
Taylor Kelly can be more than a caretaker
Taylor Kelly is the safe choice. He's a game manager. He's not going to make plays.
Those sentiments came out in droves after Kelly was named the team's starter. Kelly leapfrogged the now redshirting Mike Bercovici and Michael Eubank by being the least mistake-prone quarterback during fall camp, which also led to questions about whether he can make plays, not just avoid mistakes.
The early indications are promising.
Kelly was able to make some plays downfield, firing well along the intermediate depths. He missed Coyle on two open throws deep, and was bailed out by a great mid-air adjustment by Rashad Ross, but for a first career start, the results were good.
He also showed a great ability to run without fear. He gained 43 yards on the night including a 23-yarder and a key third down scramble to keep the opening drive alive. On the flip side, his fearlessness also resulted in him taking a few big hits, something the coaching staff will likely talk to him about in the coming weeks.
While he didn't set the world on fire in his debut, he certainly raised the temperature several degrees.
He had not seen game action since 2010. He was coming back from a season-ending Achilles injury suffered one year ago. Would senior linebacker Brandon Magee be rusty, let alone effective?
Here's your answer.
Magee's pick six was the highlight of the game, and showed that a player of Magee's caliber can't be held down for long. The ASU defense will still have a lot of questions to answer in the coming weeks, but if Magee can play to his vast potential, he'll provide many of those answers on his own.
Chris Coyle can own the seams
Coming into the season, many people, myself included, were very high on the potential of 3-back Chris Coyle. The 6-foot-3, 230 pounder has a unique skill set that fits perfectly into the 3-back's versatile responsibilities. He showed why such faith may have been a good idea.
He only caught two passes, but he made them count. On the first, he converted a third down with a sure catch and some nice moves. On his second, he blew by the coverage on the seams en route to a 49-yard play. Coyle was also wide open on two more plays along the seams but was overthrown by Kelly.
Mike Norvell's offense calls for the 3-back to be an active part of the system, and Coyle's ability teases at some big games in the future. If Kelly and Coyle can work on their connection, it could become a potent duo.
Coach Graham won't tolerate mistakes
Cameron Marshall and D.J. Foster are two of the most talented players on the team, but they receive no special treatment under Todd Graham.
Marshall fumbled in the first quarter, and it was recovered by NAU. Despite coming off a 1,000-yard, 18-touchdown season, that breach of Graham's "Own the Ball" mantra earned Marshall a spot on the bench until late in the thrid quarter. Graham also had Marshall on the punt coverage unit in the fourth quarter with ASU up by 57.
Foster also found the bench after his second quarter fumble and did not return.
Let this be a lesson to all potential Sun Devil ball carriers.
Curb your enthusiasm...for now
Yes, the game was awesome. Yes, it was exactly what everyone could have asked for. Yes, fans should feel good about this team right now.
But let's remember that it was "just" NAU. While they have some playoff aspirations in 2012, they are essentially a middling FCS program, and were treated as such by a motivated and fired up Sun Devil team. Arizona State did exactly what they should have done to a team like that.
So while this is a great moment for the team and the fans, fans should wait until the end of September to get a real read on how good this year's squad is and can be. The next four games—Illinois, at Missouri, Utah, at Cal—will provide a stern litmus test.