Notre Dame Football 2014 Off-Season Preview: Arizona State Sun Devils

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

ASU has a lot of questions on defense. I mean, a lot.

ARIZONA STATE SUN DEVILS

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2013 Record: 10-4

F/+ Rank: 13

Wins: Sacremento State, Wisconsin, USC, Colorado, Washington, Washington State, Utah, Oregon State, UCLA, Arizona

Losses: Stanford, Notre Dame, Stanford, Texas Tech

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Season Recap

The Sun Devils had a tough schedule playing 7 ranked teams and still came away with their most wins since 2007. After breezing past Sac State they won a controversial game against Wisconsin only to get soundly defeated by Stanford. They rebounded with a victory over USC in a game that saw a combined 103 points between the clubs. The next game was a loss against the Irish in the Shamrock Series game but ASU did string together 7 straight wins to end the regular season as champions of their conference division. However, their season ended on a poor note with another big loss to Stanford in the Pac-12 Title Game and a disheartening loss by 14 to Texas Tech in their bowl game.

Series: 3-0 Notre Dame

The Irish and Sun Devils played a home-and-home back in 1998-99 and rekindled the series with last year's match inside AT&T Stadium. Notre Dame heads to Arizona this year but the previously scheduled third game in South Bend for this recent series won't take place.

Coach Resume: Todd Graham (18-9, 3rd Year)

At one point in time Todd Graham was on the Harrumpher "You Beat Our Coach Therefore You're a Better Coach Than Our Coach" list for leading his 2010 Tulsa team to a win inside Notre Dame Stadium. He's now lost 2 straight to Brian Kelly but it's awfully hard to get removed from that list. Anyway, Graham has had a very solid career as he's now won at least 10 games in 4 out of the last 7 seasons and is the reigning Pac-12 Coach of the Year.

Linemen Situation: Okay for Offense, Scary for Defense

Arizona State has to replace two starters on the offensive line in left tackle Evan Finkenberg (1st-team All Pac-12, 47 career starts) and center Kody Koebensky (27 career starts). The other three returning players--fifth-year senior Jamil Douglas at left guard, redshirt junior Vi Teofilo at right guard, and fifth-year senior Tyler Sulka at right tackle--all started every game last year. The Sun Devils will also benefit from the former No. 10 overall Composite national recruit Christian Westerman becoming eligible this fall after sitting out 2013 following a transfer from Auburn.

The defensive line is a completely different story. Defensive end Gannon Conway (14 starts, 38 tackles, 7 TFL, 3.5 sacks), nose guard Davon Coleman (8 starts, 58 tackles, 15 TFL, 8.5 sacks), defensive tackle Will Sutton (14 starts, 48 tackles, 13.5 TFL, 4 sacks, 82nd overall pick to Chicago), and rush linebacker Carl Bradford (14 starts, 61 tackles, 19 TFL, 8.5 sacks) are all gone. Yes, Arizona State has to replace every single starter up front on defense.

Returning Quarterback: Yes

Some thought Taylor Kelly might leave for the NFL but he'll be coming back to Arizona State for a 5th season this fall. The native of Eagle, Idaho has compiled 57 touchdown passes and 6,705 passing yards with just 21 interceptions so far through his career. He's also fairly mobile and has rushed for 1,128 yards and 10 touchdowns over the past two seasons.

Biggest Problem for 2014: Everything on Defense

I've never previewed an Irish opponent that had to replace as much defensive talent as ASU does this fall. Zero defenders come back who started every game last year. Only two players (5th-year senior safety Damarious Randall with 9 starts and redshirt sophomore linebacker Salamo Fiso with 10 starts) return after having started more than half of the games in 2013.

That leaves the Sun Devils looking to fill 9 new positions on defense. 10 out of their top 12 tacklers are gone. 34 out of their 40 sacks are gone. 83.5 out of their 9th best nationally 101 tackles for loss are gone. In total just 33 starts return from the entire defense from 2013. That is unbelievably crazy.

Biggest Strength for 2014: Balance (and Explosiveness) on Offense

ASU scored 39.7 points per game last year (10th nationally) and could improve on that number in 2014. They might have to do just that with the above concerns on defense. Running back Marion Grice (1,434 yards from scrimmage, 20 total touchdowns, 6th round pick to San Diego) and tight end Chris Coyle (29 receptions, 423 yards, 4 touchdowns) are a couple of big losses on offense, though.

Still, a solid and experienced line is back to protect Kelly at quarterback. Second team All-Pac 12 reciever Jaelen Strong returns after leading the team with 75 receptions, 1,122 yards, and 7 touchdowns. And even with the loss of Grice the equally versatile D.J. Foster is back at running back after totaling 1,154 yards from scrimmage and 10 total touchdowns in 2013.

The Sun Devils might have to bank on some really young talent at some spots--especially receiver--but Todd Graham has a lot of nice pieces to work with and a veteran quarterback to run the show.

Offensive Scheme: Up-tempo Spread

Going back to his days at Tulsa where his teams racked up tons of points Todd Graham has been known for being a crafty offensive coach. His offense at Arizona State has evolved a little bit and isn't as run-heavy from the tailback position as in the past. For example, last year ASU passed the ball 494 times and handed the ball off to backs just 371 times. D.J. Foster has been a dynamite playmaker for the Sun Devils but spent a lot of time split out wide and caught 63 passes to just 93 carries. The big difference in keeping the rushing stats up is the extra use of quarterback Taylor Kelly who increased his carries by 40 from 2012 and finished with 173 on the season--just 18 fewer than the top back in Grice.

Special Teams: 2/4

Corner Robert Nelson is gone and returned punts last year. He also helped out at kick return with Grice as well. Sophomore kicker Zane Gonzalez is back after hitting 25 of 30 field goals last year, tying the NCAA record for field goals in a season. Alex Garoutte is gone after taking most of the team's punts but sophomore Matt Haack is back after punting 16 times in 2013.

Famous Alum: Al Michaels

The famous sports announcer who is a staple on NBC's Sunday Night Football lineup was born in Brooklyn and attended ASU in the mid-1960's. His call on the 1980 Olympic hockey game between the United States and Soviet Union may be the most famous of its kind in history. He's been on television for 50 years.

Random Stat: +15

That was Arizona State's turnover margin last year, tied for 5th best in the country. The long history of the game suggests the Sun Devils will have a hard time duplicating that success in 2014, especially when you consider all the players they have to replace on defense from a unit that forced 33 turnovers (5th best nationally) a year ago.

Summary

I can't think of a more fascinating team heading into 2014 than Arizona State. Their defense was ravaged this off-season with losses but their offense could be prolific. If you read the much-too-early pre-season prognostications the Sun Devils will probably be somewhere in the 20-30 range in the first AP rankings.

There's no doubt they'll get off to a hot start with games against Weber State, New Mexico, and Colorado. The latter two are actually road games which is nothing but weird. However, even with a likely 3-0 start ASU runs into UCLA, USC, Stanford, and Washington right in a row. They'll then host Utah before Notre Dame comes to town. Can they get through that stretch with fewer than 2 losses before the Irish invade the desert?

If ASU wins the division again it'll likely be with more than 1 loss in conference play. I just can't see a defense this inexperienced coming through over a long season. Even if the offense is explosive how much better can they really get? Once you get up in the 40-point range it gets awfully hard to improve significantly on that high of an output, especially in a very competitive Pac-12 conference.

Something along the lines of a 9-3 regular season with a bowl win feels about right if a few of their key offensive weapons stay healthy. No doubt this will be a dangerous team whose offense will challenge the Irish.

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