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ASU Football: Graham talks Cal, 3-0 start at Monday presser

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This is the part of the year where “it starts counting.”

NCAA Football: Northern Arizona at Arizona State Matt Kartozian-USA TODAY Sports

The Arizona State Sun Devils are off to a 3-0 start, though the three victories haven’t come with the greatest amount of comfort.

For head coach Todd Graham, that’s just fine. With the California Golden Bears set to visit Tempe this weekend, Graham discussed his team’s record, who’s stood out, what can be improved and what he sees in Cal during his weekly presser on Monday.

On starting 3-0

“We’re pleased to be 3-0. Growing and learning, and getting better each week.

“Now it all starts over. We kind of break the season up into non-conference, and then obviously you got nine conference games to see if you play a tenth one. And this is where it starts counting.

“So we’re really pleased to be where we’re at, and looking forward to having Cal in here and starting conference play.

“I think we’ll almost be back at full strength as far as not having everybody out. We’ve still got a couple of guys that need to heal up.”

Returning this week

Salamo Fiso

“I’m glad to have him back.”

  • Graham confirmed Monday that the senior linebacker will return this week after missing the first three games because of suspension. Fiso led ASU in tackles last year with 101 total and 22.5 takedowns for loss. Graham said he expects for there to be a transition period, but added “he’s a veteran.”

Tim White, Zach Robertson, George Lea

“But we’ll definitely have Salamo (Fiso) and (receiver) Tim White. And I think (offensive lineman Zach Roberston) will be back and (defensive lineman George Lea) will be back on defense. So that’s gonna help.”

On Facing Cal

Cal’s Bear Raid

“(Cal offensive coordinator) Jay Spavital worked with me at Tulsa, so he’s got his own little flare that he puts on it. It’s a little different.

Davis Webb

“Obvioulsy he’s a veteran. He’s tall, he’s really difficult to sack and get down. You get a hold of him and he’s still able to get the ball out. he’s a very good quarterback. you can tell he’s really gelled with his players.

“They’re very physical. I was very, very impressed with their physicality and the heart they showed against Texas. Very similar scheme. I think they’re one of the top two offenses in the country passing the ball.

“Their running backs are really, really good. What makesit so difficult is they make you defend sideline to sideline. They’ve got really good personnel. Obviously, the strength of their team is their offense and their ability to score points.”

  • Quarterback Davis Webb was the starting quarterback for Texas Tech when the Sun Devils fell to the Red Raiders 37-23 in the 2013 Holiday Bowl. He threw for 403 yards and four touchdowns. This week, instead of Jakeem Grant, ASU will be tasked with stopping Webb from finding Chad Hansen—someone Graham noted as being a passionate player and key target—with regularity.
  • Graham noted that Cal likes to utilize two-back sets featuring a fullback to lead the way for running backs Khalfani Muhammad and Vic Enwere. Graham said both of them are talented runners, lauding Muhammad’s speed and Enwere’s power.

On Cal momentum

“They had a close game that they lost to San Diego State… but then they came back and beat the No. 11-ranked team in the country.”

  • Graham said the Golden Bears will come into Tempe with plenty of momentum coming off of a 50-43 win over then-No. 11 Texas. He compared Cal’s defeat to SDSU with ASU’s escape last week versus UTSA, and said he hasn’t forgotten that last year’s bout with Cal finished with a three-point margin.

On what ASU can improve on

Tackling

“We’ve gotta get better fundamentally. We’ve gotta get better at tackling, especially in space.

A lot of that is controlling our energy and just really working on our fundamentals. Our tracking kind of stuff.”

Turning the ball over

“The turnover ratio deal is the No. 1 thing, it’s our No. 1 focus right now. We’ve gotta get takeaways, and we’ve gotta take care of the football.

“It’s a long time since I’ve been minus-3 and been successful in a game. So we overcame some adversity, but we really need to take care of the football. Going into this game, it’s going to be vital, the turnover ratio.”

  • The Sun Devils turned the ball over twice on their own side of the field (although both occurred on special teams), and UTSA converted both resulting possessions into points. Against a high-octane Cal offense, Graham is making sure to emphasize ball security this weekend.

Moeakiola at SPUR

“Yeah, just stabilizes us, I think. We’re still talking about that. Obviously, he’ll do whatever we need us to do. Pretty good likelihood that’s probably gonna happen.”

  • Laiu Moeakiola is expected to see more time at SPUR after starting the year off at safety.

Manny Wilkins protecting himself

“He’s tough as nails, and I don’t want him to play cautious. ... Learning how to play that way takes a lot of experience.”

  • Wilkins took a big shot and wasn’t able to fully execute a hurdle over a defender against UTSA. Still, Graham says he isn’t going to keep his quarterback from utilizing his athleticism to make big plays; so long as he protects himself.

Standouts

AJ McCollum

“I tell him he’s an old-school center. He’s just an old, tough, man blood-and-guts kind of guy. He really just brings a lot of physicality in the run game. He’s a guy that really likes coming off the football, hitting people.”

  • McCollum started at center each of the past two games after Robertson was forced out of the lineup and linemen Quinn Bailey and Stephon McCray slid to right tackle and guard, respectively. Graham said McCollum is still raw, but has been a great contributor.

N’Keal Harry

“He’s really doing a good job for us. He’s continuing to get better. I think he’s staying very humble and very hungry. And obviously, he’s a very gifted young man. I think coach (Jay) Norvell is doing a great job in developing him. He’s definitely a threat for us. And a guy that’s not only getting it done catching the ball, but he’s doing a great job blocking, he’s learning and he’s getting better at everything he’s doing. He’s a guy that is definitely a playmaker for us.”

  • Harry was named Pro Football Focus’ highest-rated receiver in all of Division I football to this point in the season, and Graham reinforced the idea his stardom is rising. Through three games, he leads ASU in receiving yards (181) and has scored three total times.

On team attitude

“I love this team. I love their attitude.

“I always say this at the beginning of every season, maybe for the last 10 or 15 years: You have to win the close games. And we’ve had a few of those so far. And none of them have been easy, but we’ve found a way to win them.”

  • Through three games, ASU’s combined winning margin is 48. We don’t expect that to increase by much against Cal, but Graham does think this is a gritty unit that can dig out tightly-contested tilts.

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