If Arizona State coach Todd Graham is serious about competing for a Pac-12 Championship in 2014, then Saturday's spring game offered a glimpse as to how much work the Sun Devils and their coaching staff have ahead of them.
While no team in the country looks polished and ready for action in April, Arizona State looked sloppy and tired throughout the latter half of Saturday's affair.
"There were way too many dropped balls today. The tempo was way too slow," Graham said after the game. "There are a lot of things we need to work on. But I was very pleased with the competition."
Graham has every right to be excited about what the Sun Devils were able to accomplish this spring. New leaders emerged on the defensive side of the ball and Arizona State continued to show an appreciation for the details and discipline that have defined the program since Graham's arrival.
Despite losing nine starters on defense, the Sun Devils should remain in the conversation in the Pac-12 South because of an outstanding returning cast on offense and a coaching staff that gets the most out of its talent. However, Saturday showed some of the struggles the team might encounter, especially early in the season.
The maroon team scored two touchdowns on four offensive plays at the start of Saturday's scrimmage, set up by a 62-yard reception from Jaelen Strong and a long interception return from Damarious Randall that gave the 'Maroon Monsoon' excellent field position.
However, those plays exposed some of Arizona State's greatest concerns heading into 2014. Aside from Randall, the secondary is inexperienced and doesn't have a player that can match up with explosive standouts like Strong. Furthermore, if the Sun Devils turn the ball over (as Mike Bercovici did on the Randall interception), the challenge of winning games will increase several fold because of a young defense.
Graham admits the Sun Devils are not blind to the difficulties they expect to face along the road. Arizona State plays a tough schedule, and will face a handful of teams with superior talent. Still, Graham expects his team to compete for a victory in every game because that's the culture that has been established.
"Our program is about one thing, and this is winning championships," Graham said. "Anything less than being Pac-12 Champions is less than acceptable. These guys understand the task ahead of them. We have a lot of work to do and we're excited to get the opportunity to do it."
Credit Graham, who watched two offenses trade punts on six straight second quarter possessions Saturday, for having the leaders on his team talking up team goals instead of allowing team struggles to overwhelm them. Taylor Kelly completed just 7 of his 22 attempts, but in lieu of chiding his receivers for dropping easy receptions, Kelly praised his entire unit for its progress this spring.
"Our offense has done a great job, it was a big test for some of these young receivers that came in," Kelly said. "D.J. Foster is an amazing player, the offensive line, they're doing a great job and so much more ahead then they were at this time and point."
Kelly's top target, Strong, saw limited action on Saturday as his 62-yard catch was his lone reception during the scrimmage. Yet like Kelly, Strong remained upbeat about the team's singular focus moving forward.
"Most definitely. I don't see why not," Strong said when asked if he thought the Sun Devils could win the Pac-12. "That's the question that everybody asks. We got to the Pac-12 Championship last year, when nobody felt we could make it there."
Strong is right. Few experts foresaw the Sun Devils outlasting USC or UCLA en route to a South Division title, and even fewer pegged the Sun Devils to finish with the best overall mark in conference play. In a dog-eat-dog landscape, players like Kelly can talk about championship aspirations nowadays without the mainstream media scoffing.
"It's the National Championship. The Rose Bowl. Pac-12 Championship [game]," Kelly said. "Host it, win it here, that's our goal. We want to be in the top-four with that new playoff race this year. Compete at every level during the summer and get rockin' rolling in August."
It's one thing to talk about achieving success, and it's another to go out and earn that success. On Saturday, the Sun Devils gave themselves a starting point, and talked about where they would like to finish. Now that the foundation has been established, how do they get there? It starts this summer.
Kelly has to develop a better rapport with his receiving unit. Whether Ellis Jefferson and Fred Gammage remain in the mix for playing time, or Eric Lauderdale and Jalen Harvey supplant them upon their arrival, someone other than Strong has to find chemistry with the signal-caller.
Arizona State's receivers looked lost at times on Saturday, and couldn't corral passes that knocked them in the hands. On top of that, it was the receivers, not the linemen, that struggled to get set in the hurry-up offense. Far too often Arizona State had its receivers run down the field only to jog back to the line of scrimmage to set up their next play. Saturday's scrimmage lacked the usual sharp, crisp tempo we're accustomed to seeing form Arizona State, and that won't be tolerated by this coaching staff.
Defensively, the Sun Devils missed on too many opportunities. Salamo Fiso twice had chances to intercept Mike Bercovici over the middle, but all the Sam linebacker could do was bat the ball to the ground. In other scenarios, interior linemen and linebackers let running backs escape the second level, and Deantre Lewis found far too many cutback lanes.
In the film room, there's no doubt the coaching staff will be critical of the Sun Devils' pursuit to the football, because second efforts from running backs can usually be eliminated with stronger, more disciplined run support.
Ultimately, the spring game revealed to the general public what Todd Graham already knew about his team. There is talent and there are problems, there is inexperience and there are solutions. Graham has reiterated the idea that the coaching staff will have to do a remarkable job to prepare Arizona State for the season, considering the Sun Devils will rely so heavily on incoming reinforcements.
"That's probably going to be the biggest thing-transitioning the guys that aren't here," Graham said. "I have a lot of confidence in the guys that are here, and those are the guys that are going to lead them and take them where they need to be in the fall."
If Arizona State can identify its short-comings from Saturday and players show a willingness to work hard to get into playing shape this summer, then talk of a Pac-12 Championship will continue well into September. This coaching staff has exceeded expectations before, and Saturday's spring game showed that it might have to again if the Sun Devils want a fighting chance.