We reached out to those who participated in our preseason local media roundtable to get their thoughts on the Arizona State Sun Devils’ offseason outlook.
We’ve broken it up into two parts, and with the second segment we discussed what ASU’s area of concern area and whether it can turn things around next year.
Connor Pelton - House of Sparky Co-Managing Editor (@ConnorPelton28)
Kaelen Jones - House of Sparky Co-Managing Editor (@kaelenjones)
Zac Pacleb - House of Sparky Multimedia reporter (@ZacPacleb)
Miles Todd - House of Sparky Multimedia Reporter (@5280fs_s)
Fabian Ardaya - Devils Digest/Campus Rush Reporter (@FabianArdaya)
Justin Toscano - Devis Digest Reporter (@JustinCToscano)
Stefan Modrich - State Press Football Reporter (@StefanJModrich)
Mathew Tonis - State Press Football Reporter (@Tonis_The_Tiger)
Brad Denny - Former House of Sparky Editor/3TV Sports Writer (@BDenny29)
3.) What's the biggest area of concern/issue/need that must be addressed/fixed entering the offseason?
Ardaya: I've spent a lot of time harping on it, but the secondary needs to be fix. It's like ASU is in this boat that has holes in it -- quarterback uncertainty, offensive line struggles, injury concerns, poor tackling, recruiting stagnancy -- but even if you plug all those holes there's still a giant one in the middle of the boat in the secondary, and you'll still sink. Whether it's scheme, coaching, personnel or a mix of the three, this needs to be fixed.
Denny: Saying "the defense" is too easy, too obvious, and too true. That is No 1 through No. 10 on ASU's to-do list. So I'll go deeper to something I think manifested itself in horrifying fashion against Arizona: Buy in.
A lengthy losing streak is always go to take an emotional toll on the program, but the whispers of player discontent continued to grow louder as the season wore on. Finally, it culminated in the disastrous loss to Arizona. In the season's biggest game, with postseason and state-bragging implications aplenty, ASU mailed it in. The effort wasn't there, and by the fourth quarter, it was clear many players had flat out quit (for a scary look, rewatch Samajie Grant's touchdown run early in the fourth quarter and see how much effort ASU's defenders give).
Did the team quit on Todd Graham? Some of them did. This will be a critical offseason for the now-embattled coach. Picking a quarterback, shoring up his staff, and fixing the defense will be important, but reestablishing the trust in the locker room will be a necessity.
Jones: The secondary needs to take a step forward, even if it’s a small one. With a full year under the players’ belts, I expect there to be growth, but unless that unit makes any progress, it won’t matter how many points the Sun Devils’ offense can generate.
Modrich: I certainly don’t think we’ll find out what ASU’s plan is with its suddenly overflowing fountain of youthful quarterbacks for a while, but I’d start there. Blake Barnett is a huge get for Todd Graham and a big PR boost, but I think it would be shortsighted to anoint him as the starter prematurely. Manny Wilkins seems far too invested in the program to transfer, and I’m actually one of his biggest advocates, assuming he gets a competent offensive line to work with.
It seems now that ASU truly has a problem resembling that of Ohio State’s predicament with JT Barrett, Cardale Jones and Braxton Miller, but with even more names in the mix (and none of them can switch to receiver the way Miller did.)
Pacleb: It has to figure out the QB situation early. I assume the team won’t experience the bevy of injuries that it did. I expect the defense to improve as it returns several starters and key rotation guys. Adding that all up, yes, I do think ASU has every reason to turn it around. The overall talent level is there, especially at the skill positions. The defense is more experienced.
I’ve learned not to expect much, though, but I do expect a very warm seat for Todd Graham.
Pelton: Secondary. Secondary. Secondary.
If the tackling mistakes and blown coverages aren't fixed in a big way in 2017, I think some key staff changes on the defensive side of the ball will be called for.
Todd: If someone says anything other than tackling / the amount of quarterbacks ASU has I will be shocked. Seriously though, like I said earlier tackling is something that needs to happen in game. They do practice tackling, we see it all the time when we watch however it’s a matter of executing it in game. Keith Patterson (I think) said once in a press conference that they teach a rugby-style tackle where they aim for the hips but maybe it’s time for a change? *insert thinking emoji here*
Toscano: The entire defense. I'd like to think I could narrow the answer down, but the group's historically awful year leaves a lot of concern for the future. The defensive line seemed to regress a bit, the linebacking corps experienced injuries and the secondary was porous. Additionally, the team is losing leaders like Salamo Fiso and Laiu Moeakiola. I believe there will be some changes to the staff made in the near future, but ASU needs to improve its defense. A common theme shown by past conference winners (Washington, Stanford, etc.) is their defensive prowess. ASU played many good offenses, but gave up some historical days—Oregon freshman QB Justin Herbert tying a school record, Arizona rushing for over 500 yards, etc. The issue here is that I am unsure of where ASU will go to address improving its defense. Koron Crump is a bright spot, and so is Kareem Orr, who played well despite ailing from a knee injury. If there is one narrow area I can pinpoint needing improvement, it is the tackling. Statistically, ASU was the worst tackling team in the country as the Sun Devils missed 19.5 percent of tackle attempts, per Pro Football Focus (courtesy of Kaelen Jones, too). In context, that means the team is missing just under one out of five tackle attempts, an atrocious number. Poor tackling is not a problem you want to have in the Pac-12, which is full of outstanding athletes. ASU really needs to improve its defense moving forward, but I don't see it drastically improving. Incremental improvement is more likely. As a starting point, ASU needs to improve its defense enough where the group isn't near last in total defense and isn't in the conversation of worst defensive units in NCAA history.
Tonis: If you don't say the secondary, you didn't watch 11 of the 12 games. The Sun Devil pass defense was one of the worst EVER and the only thing that stopped it from being the single worst was Arizona deciding it wouldn't throw the ball at all and instead run for over 500 yards. Whether it be new players or new coaching or a new scheme, something has to change. That's not me saying it, it's the numbers.
4.) Can ASU turn things around next year? Do you expect ASU to turn it around?
Ardaya: You have to ask this question again after National Signing Day, because a lot of this depends on if ASU can fix some of their current issues with an influx of talent. The Sun Devils are fortunate that some of their key graduates (Zane Gonzalez, Laiu Moeakiola, Salamo Fiso, Tim White, Evan Goodman) are in places where there's a relatively solid amount of depth. ASU needs to establish consistency all phases, which is something they struggled with in 2016, and go back to the same level of discipline and focus that led to back-to-back 10-win seasons in 2013 and 2014 and that eluded them in the last four games of 2016. ASU needs to turn things around, for the sake of Todd Graham and the coaching staff, though I'm not sure they will be able to do so.
Denny: As bad as things got for ASU, they can turn things around and reach their lofty goals for 2017. Believe it or not, they have a lot working in their favor.
First and foremost, ASU has a lot of talented players on the roster. That's always a good foundation to have. The injuries allowed a lot of younger players to gain valuable experience a year or two earlier than expected, and that should pay dividends in 2017. The four remaining new assistant coaches have had a year in the program and with their players, and that familiarity should help. The incoming recruiting class should have a immediate impact player or two.
Those are all very promising things to have in your favor. However...
Who will be the quarterback? How bought in are the players? What changes are being made to the defensive scheme? Can you find a workable offensive line?
After his first season, Graham has had two great seasons and two bad seasons. The entire roster was brought here by him. This is his program, top to bottom. This is on him. We're about to find out if he can answer those questions. If he can, ASU will be back. If not...well, ASU is a triathlon school, anyway.
Jones: At its peak, this team is capable of flipping the script, but I don’t think it will. I don’t see ASU making much progress on its quarterback situation, unless Barnett is somehow improved. The offensive line should be better, but that’s not for certain. The secondary has two starters penned in for now and is hoping another two can step up. Personnel wise, there’s bright spots at RB, WR, LB and DE, but when looking at the 2017 schedule—which involves some mix of Arizona, USC, UCLA, Colorado, Oregon, Utah, Stanford and Washington—it’s not exactly encouraging.
It could take years to return ASU to its status as a Pac-12 South power that it earned in 2013, but I think, as I’m sure most of us do, that 2017 will be a barometer for the state of the program and ultimately decide the direction they choose to go with Graham, and the rest of the dominoes will fall from there.
Pacleb: I’ve said all the things I need to about the defense, but yeah. The defense - tackling, big plays, etc.
Pelton: Depends on your definition of a turnaround. I think the team has enough talent coming back and an easy enough schedule to win six games and get back to a bowl, but I don't think a 6-6 season will signify any major leaps and bounds for the program.
Of course, the way those 12 games are won and lost will also play a big role in perception and judgement. Another big-time losing streak to end the season could prove disastrous for Todd Graham's future.
Todd: I think they’ll be better I’m not sure about “turning things around”. They showed really good flashes this season (especially at the beginning of the season but it’s highly unlikely that they pull off what Colorado did this season and go from 1-8 in conference play to 8-1. Should they not improve in conference play I Todd Graham will definitely be on the hot seat. It would mean that in the past five seasons Arizona State has declined in Pac-12 play. (2013 - 8-1, 2014 - 6-3 etc.) For any soccer fans out there it would mean that Todd Graham is the equivalent of Jose Mourinho. Great starts when he gets to a new team... not so great three or four years later.
Toscano: I think ASU can turn things around enough for Todd Graham to earn some more time with the program. I believe one needs to look at this question with some perspective. While ASU had a down year, programs like Washington and Colorado had resurgences. Additionally, USC is still a talented team that showed it can beat the best (won at Washington). ASU has tough games against those schools and will have a seemingly difficult schedule overall as it also travels to Texas Tech. I believe the improvement will need to be incremental, meaning ASU fans can't expect a sudden turnaround that includes a 9-or-10-win season. I do believe a probable open quarterback competition will be healthy and ASU has pieces on offense, starting with N'Keal Harry, who now helps headline the group with running backs Demario Richard and Kalen Ballage (assuming Ballage doesn't declare for the NFL Draft). ASU just got Alabama transfer quarterback Blake Barnett, which will hopefully spark its recruiting, which was fairly stagnant throughout this season. I think Graham will figure out a way to improve the team next year, and I'd be really surprised if ASU faced the same type of injuries issues as it did in 2016. However, improvement starts with the defense, which can't get much worse. I'm interested to see which avenues Graham takes to improve that unit for next season.
Tonis: Sure, ASU could turn it around, but the rest of the conference is getting better and leaving the Sun Devils behind. USC is turning into a powerhouse again, UCLA still has Josh Rosen, Utah's defense is still great and, oh yeah, Colorado, the team that won the Pac-12 South this year, has a better quarterback replacing Sefo Liufau. Things may get worse before they can get better for Todd Graham and Co.