The ASU football season is right around the corner. Many analysts are giving this team a good chance to win the Pac-12 South and potentially gain a birth in the Rose Bowl. However many questions remain for Todd Graham’s second year. In part one of a two part series, WCSN football writers Jason Galvin, Jeffrey Sanders and Nick Krueger sit down to discuss the team as a whole and potential issues facing the team this upcoming season.
1. Marion Grice vs. DJ Foster. Who carries the load this season and how much time will they split in the backfield?
Jason Galvin: This is an easy answer: Marion Grice. Grice is built to be a workhorse running back and that became more apparent with every game the Sun Devils played in 2012. The most underrated recruit in the country last year, Grice improved with every game, every touchdown, every carry. He has size, vision and surprising speed. And besides that, Foster is a better route runner and I believe the lack of experience at wide receiver will lead the sophomore out of the backfield and into the slot often. I say the load is split 65-30-5 (Grice-Foster-Terrell Davis)
Jeffrey Sanders: I think Grice and Foster will be getting equal time this season as they did last season. Grice only had four more touches than Foster and both will play a pivotal role in the offense. The difference between the two will come in the red zone. Grice led the team with 19 total touchdowns and he should see the bulk of the touches inside the 20.
Nick Krueger: For me it has to be Marion Grice. It was a bit of a roller-coaster season for Grice, who had over 100 yards rushing and 3 touchdowns against NAU but then didn’t get over 50 yards rushing in the next 10 games. He certainly had his coming out party against U of A rushing for 156 yards and three touchdowns. Against Navy in the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl, he topped that effort with 159 yards rushing and two more touchdowns. Graham has stated that Grice will carry the load. However Foster did average 4.8 yards a carry last year. I’m certainly not counting Foster out. I’ll give Grice 80 percent of the carries but remember how much everyone thought Cameron Marshall was going to carry the running back core in the preseason last year? If Grice doesn’t meet expectations early, Todd Graham isn’t afraid to change things up.
2.Besides Kevin Ozier, the wide receiver position is the big question mark. Who is the strongest out of Graham’s recruits at this position and who will take the lead in this new wide receiving core made up of Ozier, Joseph Morris, Jaelen Strong, Ronald Smith and Ellis Jefferson?
JG: I’ve been a big fan of Jaelen Strong since I first watched him play at L.A. Pierce College. He is unlike any receiver Arizona State has had in the last five years. Strong is big, fast, and fluid, a complete package who should step in and contribute from day one. I like his chances to be this year’s version of Marion Grice; he may not be the star in Week 1, but he will be by Week 10.
JS: The buzz around Tempe has been that JC transfer Jaelen Strong has a chance to be special. Strong is a big kid at 6’4”, 205 pounds. He has a chance to be a red zone monster with his size. Strong hauled in 67 passes for 1,263 yards and scored 15 touchdowns at L.A. Pierce. He has a chance to take the passing game to another level.
NK: Now I’m a little partial to Ronald Smith (being from Louisiana myself) but I think the clear choice here is Jaelen Strong. Apparently his nickname while at Pierce was, “Go getta” and I think he can do that for the Sun Devils this season. Right now Strong has a 4.46 for his 40-yard dash time. If he can build up his frame a little bit he’ll provide one very big target for Taylor Kelly. Strong should compliment Coyle very well and it might end up being a “pick your poison” between the two big targets.
3.What will happen with the ASU kicking game? Jon Mora took hold after Alex Garoutte was shaky early. Graham signed Zane Gonzalez in the spring but will it be enough? Who should or will get the start at kicker?
JG: The best thing coach Graham can do here is develop the best 4th down and 2-point conversion offense in the country, but since that probably is not very realistic, my guess is Zane Gonzalez will get the first shot. Gonzalez is a Todd Graham recruit, and Graham focuses more on special teams than any other group when he is on the practice field. Graham wouldn’t have brought Gonzalez in if he thought the kicker of the future was on the roster already.
JS: The kicking game has been a crapshoot ever since Thomas Weber left campus in 2011. I believe Zane Gonzalez will get every chance to win the starting kicking job to start the season for the simple fact that he is someone other than Alex Garoutte or Jon Mora. It is very likely a game could come down to a kick right off the bat with the tough early season schedule and it is crucial that one of these three becomes a consistent kicker.
NK: The UCLA game last year was the microcosm of everything wrong with the ASU kicking game. Alex Garoutte goes 0-3 and if he hits even just one of them ASU wins the game and keeps their Pac-12 title hopes alive. Jon Mora then took over and did a fine job but going for it on fourth down when the team is at the 35 yard line because you don’t have enough confidence in the kicker is just silly. Graham signed Zane Gonzalez for a reason. He has range (long of 44 yards) and didn’t miss one field goal or extra point in his senior year of high school. There is absolutely no reason to have three kickers on the depth chart so it will be a battle to watch in the fall because however little glory the kicker gets, he plays a huge role when it comes down to crunch time.
4. How does this team keep a level head being picked to possibly win the Pac-12 South and a Rose Bowl dark horse?
JG: This is the million-dollar question, isn’t it? I’m putting my faith in Todd Graham here. The man has a way to motivate players without letting them become cocky. It is truly remarkable to watch. Graham himself is a quietly confident coach who runs his team like an army. The Sun Devils believe they are better than their opponents, but they know they must apply maximum effort at all times, or Graham is quick to bench even the longest tenured players in favor of someone who has more passion. The message has been clear from day one, and everyone bought in last year. I don’t see any reason why that would change this season.
JS: Arizona State never dealt with expectations well under Dennis Erickson, so it will be interesting to see how this team does under Graham now that they have high expectations. After their tune-up game, the Sun Devils face a tough four game make-or-break stretch. Luckily for them, two of those games are at home and one is a neutral site game. If they can go 2-2 in that stretch and win either the USC or Stanford game, then I can see them living up to expectations and winning the Pac-12 South.
NK: No one knew what to expect out of ASU last year. Now everyone is incredibly sure that this team is a “sleeping giant.” My only worry is that ASU is that “sexy pick” for the sleeper but one that doesn’t pan out. When everybody is picking the Sun Devils as a “team to watch,” how much of a surprise is it really? Who knows, they may eat a pretty big piece of humble pie early against a tough schedule. No matter what, this team can play, but whether they know it or not will have to do a lot with coaching. Most of these guys are pretty high character and shouldn’t have a problem keeping themselves in check.