The grass is cut, the paint is down on the field and the new scoreboard is towering over Frank Kush Field. It’s once again time for Arizona State Sun Devil football.
Off of the program’s worst season of the Todd Graham era, the Sun Devils embark on a comeback season of sorts, in very unfamiliar territory.
Both coordinators had to be replaced this offseason, as did numerous position coaches, creating a turnover on staff that can’t be overlooked. New coaches means new relationships to build and different ways of communicating, which can create problems once stressful situations hit that can’t be simulated in the offseason.
Led by all-world running back Larry Rose III, the Aggies head to Tempe with a disappointing season of their own in the rearview mirror. Rose had the worst season of his career in 2016, but still surpassed 1,000 total yards in nine games.
He should be priorities one through five for an experience ASU defensive front, led by five seniors and two juniors. The return of redshirt junior Christian Sam should help a linebacking corps that was the best part of a defense that allowed over 200 rushing yards in five games last season, including 511 to Arizona.
Sam, along with seniors DJ Calhoun and Koron Crump, can set the tone for an improved defensive front behind senior Tashon Smallwood and junior JoJo Wicker and contain Rose, putting the rest of the running backs on the schedule on notice that this isn’t the same porous front seven.
But that’s not the only way the Aggies can attack. Redshirt senior quarterback Tyler Rogers is one of the most dynamic passers in program history, and he has all his weapons back. Seven of his eight top targets from 2016 are back with New Mexico State this season, attacking a secondary of the opposite.
Sophomore Kobe Williams and redshirt junior Joey Bryant, both new to ASU in 2017, will see the first snap of the game at the cornerback position. Joined in the secondary by redshirt junior Dasmond Tautalatasi and senior Chad Adams — the only player with a DI start — ASU will need to adjust to a unit very familiar with each other.
Defensively, the Aggies were a mess in 2016, surrendering 38.8 points and 496.3 yards per game against a schedule featuring just one team that was ranked at any point of the season.
This should allow the ASU offense, which struggled a season ago, to hit the ground running and give redshirt junior Manny Wilkins a confident connection with his new receiving options, especially redshirt sophomores John Humphrey and Ryan Newsome.
The dependability of the backfield needs to be re-established, as well. Demario Richard is back at full strength from an injury-plagued season a year ago and Kalen Ballage hoping to build on his best season as a Sun Devil.
Opening day is the first chance for teams to show their improvements from the previous season, and if ASU hopes for a successful 2017, the Sun Devils need to have a lot of them.