At long last, football is back. While the tailgates and games might be months away, the coaches and players are back on the field and ready for action.
Tuesday marked the start of Arizona State's spring practice slate and head coach Todd Graham made it clear that his program hopes to pick up right where it left off. Graham and the Sun Devils hit the field at 8:30 in the morning and the eagerness and anticipation was evident from the first drills.
"I'm as excited as I've ever been," Graham said. "One, because of the tremendous support that we have from our boosters, our university, from our students. There's just a great synergy around this place right now."
In Graham's short tenure as the Sun Devil coach, Arizona State has created a new standard of expectations for the program. After winning a Pac-12 South title in the fall, Graham maintains that striving for anything less is unacceptable.
"The standard is set of competing for Pac-12 Championships every year," Graham said.
After starting the season 10-2, Arizona State dropped the Pac-12 Championship to Stanford in early December before falling apart against Texas Tech in the Holiday Bowl just before the New Year. The two-game losing streak is a disappointment to the Sun Devils, and they are preparing to make sure it doesn't happen again come fall.
"We have unfinished business. We wanted to finish," Graham said about the end of last season. "We want to honor those guys that laid that foundation by finishing. How are we going to do that? We leave no doubt."
The Sun Devils lose nine starters on the defensive side of the ball, so spring practices will be a work in progress and an important stepping stone to reloading. With that in mind, here are some of the new looks Arizona State has this spring.
A New Coach
One day after National Signing Day, special teams coordinator Joe Lorig bolted for Utah State to join Matt Wells' Aggies staff. The Sun Devils wasted little time finding Lorig's replacement and Arizona State hired Keith Patterson. Patterson has worked with Graham at a number of stops throughout the pair's careers dating back to their days at Allen High School.
An assistant at West Virginia last season, Patterson was hired to coach on the defensive side of the ball and bring his knowledge to the special teams' units. Patterson was vocal throughout Tuesday morning's practice and was especially loud when the defense was transitioning from drill to drill.
"To have a guy, you can see how he coaches, the passion he coaches with," Graham said.
The passion was obvious as Patterson is cut from the same cloth as Graham. Both coaches are defensive-minded disciplinarians who demand effort in all aspects of practice. Based on his first practice, it looks like Patterson is a natural fit for this staff.
"We've been toe-to-toe before. But I've got a respect for him and a belief in him that really brings a lot to what we're doing," Graham said.
A New Leader
Graham has spent much of the offseason praising Taylor Kelly for the voice he brings to the offense, so running back D.J. Foster may have slipped under the radar. Foster showed up to spring practice in incredible physical shape, and said his offseason training with strength coach Shawn Griswold is the source of his new definition.
"I had a great offseason. Coach Gris worked hard and got us right," Foster said. "I feel great and my body feels good."
Foster took charge of the running back drills on Tuesday morning and practically worked in conjunction with running backs' coach Bo Graham to ensure that everything ran smoothly. After practice, Foster said the coaching staff urged him to take a leadership role this offseason and he's growing into his new responsibilities.
"Coach Norvell and even Coach Graham, the whole staff wants me to be more of a vocal leader and just help guide the younger guys and some of the guys who haven't been out here as long to make sure our running back group is solid," Foster said.
Though leadership isn't for everyone, Foster knows his teammates look up to him as a veteran presence in the program. As someone who saw extended playing time as a true freshman and has bounced around the offense during his career, Foster's experience and knowledge of the scheme is an asset. With that in mind, Foster says he's working toward making leadership a top priority.
"I accept it, I'm happy to be in that role," Foster said. "It's definitely a challenge for me, but sometimes it's good to get out of my comfort zone."
A New Scheme
With the departure of Carl Bradford, Arizona State will now look to adapt its defensive scheme and tailor it to its existing personnel. Bradford brought bursts of speed and explosiveness off of the edge as a pass rusher, and played in a stand-up technique quite frequently.
Without Bradford to man the hybrid role of the Devil backer, Graham and his staff are turning to Chans Cox and Viliami Latu to fill the void. Both Latu and Cox are thicker than Bradford, and each is more comfortable playing from a three-point stance at this stage of their careers.
What that means is that instead of having a true 3-4 look with Bradford in a linebacker stance, Arizona State could showcase more 4-3 schemes this fall with Cox and Latu coming off the edge from a down lineman spot.
"You see we've modified things a bit," Graham said of his defense. "You'll see a lot more four down (linemen)."
Graham said the Sun Devils will tinker with the defense throughout the spring and into fall camp, and Cox and Latu are just two of the options Arizona State will explore. Whether Arizona State runs more 3-4 or 4-3 looks, Graham insists the Sun Devils will always bring heavy pressure.
"How we deploy it (the defense) is a little bit different," Graham said. "So we're also researching and adapting to what we're doing."