(Photo: Gabrielle Mercer/WCSN)
For a team that won just five games in 2016, Arizona State continues to find itself at the forefront of off-season news.
The disappointment was epitomized with a season-ending loss at the hands of in-state rival Arizona – a team that had yet to win a conference game – 56-35 for the second Territorial Cup loss of the Todd Graham era.
The team missed the postseason after starting 5-1 – the cherry on top of Graham’s worst season as a Sun Devil. Furthermore, his defense – Graham’s presumptive strength as a coach – still couldn’t stop a nosebleed, ranking as the second-worst overall unit in the FBS.
Still, there were a few silver linings in the midst of all the let-down.
For starters, Graham and offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey saw the emergence of freshman receiver N’Keal Harry, who looks to have the makings of a transcendent talent on the offensive side of the ball.
Harry became the second true freshman in Arizona State history to score a touchdown in each of his first three games, finishing with seven total on the season.
He played in all 12 of the team’s games, posting 58 receptions for 659 yards and continued to put his talent on display.
People took notice, particularly after he turned a busted play against Utah into a 31-yard touchdown.
— Pac-12 Network (@Pac12Network) November 14, 2016
ASU is a tough watch but this Freshman WR could be special. How’d he end up there??
— Daniel Jeremiah (@MoveTheSticks) November 11, 2016
With a promising true freshman campaign in the books, Harry will be a player to watch for the next two — and if Sun Devil fans should be so lucky — three years.
However, the staff that helped Harry in his progression is already more thin.
Receivers coach and passing game coordinator Jay Norvell was hired by the University of Nevada to become the program’s new head football coach on Wednesday night.
Norvell helped a passing offense remain potent under a new signal caller in Manny Wilkins, who had yet to throw a collegiate pass entering the team’s first game against Northern Arizona.
Although ASU averaged 299 yards through the air in 2015, the drop off was relatively minor under Norvell and Lindsey as the team averaged 259 passing yards per game this season.
Lindsey has also been linked to other openings, including the head coaching void at Georgia State University, which has since been filled.
Arizona State OC Chip Lindsey and Auburn OC Rhett Lashlee were among finalists for Georgia State job that went to Shawn Elliott.
— Travis Haney (@travhaney) December 8, 2016
At the time, it doesn’t look as though Lindsey’s departure is imminent, and his activity on the recruiting front should do something to solidify that fact.
Aside from his role in landing the commitment of former Alabama quarterback Blake Barnett, Lindsey continues to visit recruits and is said to have played a pivotal role in landing Barnett.
With three seasons of eligibility remaining, Barnett will compete immediately with the likes of Wilkins, redshirt sophomore Brady White and sophomore Dillon Sterling-Cole. The commitment of Basha High School quarterback Ryan Kelley will be something to monitor, however, given the newly-crowded state of the Sun Devils’ quarterback room.
Kelley committed to play at Arizona State after de-committing from Oregon in May.
Wilkins played in 10 games this season, posting 2,329 yards, 12 touchdowns and nine interceptions while rushing for 246 and five touchdowns. White and Sterling-Cole both started in games this season as well, posting a combined 647 yards, three touchdowns and five interceptions.
White, a product of Hart High School in California, has a history of competing with Santiago High School alum Barnett.
Although they’re now on the same team, White made a statement the last time he shared the field with Barnett.
Arizona State commit Brady White is on fire. He’s thrown six TDs tonight and his team suddenly leads Blake Barnett and Hart HS 50-28.
— Tyler Donohue (@TDsTake) September 27, 2014
Still, while the future prospects for Arizona State have been trending upward since the season ended, one fantastic career highlighted an overall underwhelming season.
On Thursday night, senior kicker Zane Gonzalez was named the 2016 Lou Groza Award winner, an honor given to the best kicker in college football.
As a senior, Gonzalez set the all-time FBS career record for most field goals after hitting 96 and set the record for most points by an FBS kicker with 494. He capitalized on 23 of his 25 field goal attempts in 2016, including seven of nine from 50 or more yards.
Next season, Graham will need to redeem himself from the second-consecutive season in which Arizona State failed to live up to expectations.
If he can make the necessary improvements to a defense that has been among the worst units in the country, Graham and his staff have already started to lay the foundation for positive strides in 2017.