Since Arizona State's loss to Texas Tech in the 2013 Holiday Bowl, the Sun Devils have been eager to rid their mouths of the sour taste of a loss. On Tuesday, Arizona State can take the first baby steps toward doings so, as the program begins its 2014 spring practice slate.
Sun Devil head coach Todd Graham met with the media for a press conference and luncheon on Monday and was as jovial and relaxed as he's ever been. The Texas native is beginning his third season in the desert, and he is confident that Arizona State is making the improvements necessary to become a perennial contender.
On Monday, Graham talked about the team's excitement heading into spring ball and his expectations for the Sun Devils' progress.
"You know we're looking forward to it, I'm really excited about the attitude, the work ethic, the maturity, the leadership, winning breeds winning and I'm really, really excited about this football team, and how they're going to develop, and looking forward to this spring continuing to get better fundamentally," Graham said.
After finishing the 2013 season with 11 wins and a Pac-12 South title, Graham says those achievements have become the new benchmark for the program. Arizona State must strive to surpass its performance from the previous season, and Graham says that starts by focusing on what kept the Sun Devils from reaching even greater heights.
"We try to look at the things, obviously, we did very well coming off of being the Pac-12 South champions and a lot of positive things that were nice to have a lot of winning things to build upon," Graham said. "But on the same hand we are looking at some of the things that were the obstacles keeping us from winning."
The No. 1 obstacle that Graham mentioned was the play of the Sun Devils' special teams units. Arizona State has the athletes to thrive on coverage and return units, and in the offseason, Graham decided to make a key change.
Last year's special teams coordinator, Joe Lorig, left Arizona State to pursue a coaching opportunity at Utah State, and Graham replaced him with West Virginia assistant Keith Patterson to oversee some special teams units. Graham himself will take a more dedicated approach to special teams and will incorporate some of his own philosophies and schemes as the Sun Devils make adjustments.
"We spend a great deal of time with our coverage teams and special teams in our return games," Graham said. "I think a lot of the issues we had were fit issues that can be corrected."
Spring practices won't only afford Arizona State the opportunity to try out new schemes, but also give some of its newer players more opportunities to shine. With nine starters departing from one of the Pac-12's top defenses, Graham is eager to see what some of the offseason's hardest workers can do on the field.
"I've seen a lot of maturity already, guys like Marcus Hardison, Salamo Fiso, Damarious Randall, these are guys that have really stuck out to me defensively, as guys that have really matured," Graham said.
Hardison was expected to be a key cog for Arizona State on the defensive line last year, but the junior college transfer had difficulties transitioning to the college game. Now, with a year under his belt, the coaching staff is hoping he can blossom into a starter and help fill a void on a defensive line that loses Will Sutton, Davon Coleman and Gannon Conway.
Hardison falls into a more experienced category, but Graham is also looking forward to spring ball to see some of his younger players mature. Defensively, the competition for a number of starting spots should be wide open into fall camp, although some players have made their presences felt in the offseason training program.
"Excited to see Antonio Longino, Chans Cox, the Latu brothers. Really excited about that," Graham said. "James Johnson's been a guy that has been looking sharp, Lloyd Carrington stepping forward as a leader."
Perhaps the most difficult player to replace on the defensive side of the ball will be Devil backer Carl Bradford, who brought a prototypical body type and skill level to a demanding position. The Devil backer is a hybrid defensive end and linebacker, and Bradford's departure leaves Arizona State lacking experience at the spot.
Chans Cox and Viliami Latu are two candidates to take Bradford's place, and junior college recruit Darrius Caldwell will compete for the position when he arrives in the fall. Spring practices will allow the coaching staff to take longer looks at two of the younger, more talented players in the program.
"We feel like in the Devil position that Chance Cox and Ami Latu are two very smart football players," Graham said. "If you line those guys up, they're different from what Carl was, so we have to adapt their skills. Even Ami and Chance are different as far as when they play with their hand down, when they stand up. A lot of spring will be in that research phase and seeing those guys work at full speed."
The differences in returning talent on offense and defense are vast this year. While the Sun Devils lose much of their starting core on defense, the offense returns playmaker after playmaker and has the depth to be among the Pac-12's top units yet again this season.
During the luncheon portion of Monday's event, Graham stood behind offensive coordinator Mike Norvell and flashed six fingers. When Norvell turned around, Graham joked "60, Mike. With how much we're paying you this year, we're expecting 60 points from your offense."
Norvell laughed too, but he knows a third-year starting quarterback like Taylor Kelly, an explosive running back like D.J. Foster, and a skilled wide receiver like Jaelen Strong are more than capable of contributing to 60-point efforts. And while those days may be months away, building toward that goal begins on Tuesday.
"We don't have to have the finished project right now," Graham said. "I think one of the things that we did a good job of is adapting the scheme to our guys. I'm excited about the guys that are here and I'm excited about the guys that are coming. We have some really talented guys."