1. Has Todd Graham met or exceeded expectations?
Interesting question because when he was first hired he did lay out pretty lofty expectations in terms of how much more disciplined the team would be on and off the field, how ASU will put on a product that the fans would be proud about, and how much effort he and his players will put in promoting the program.
By and large, those specific expectations have been met, but I guess if someone thought it was just “coach speak” and now realizes that Graham has delivered on what he said he would do, you could say he exceeded expectations.
In terms of the record in Graham’s first year, I believe most fans expected a season where ASU would win around six games, so even though the season is quite over yet, you could say that those expectations have been met.
Overall, I think that the vast majority of ASU fans have been happy with Graham and can see that he’s laying a foundation that can be the cornerstone for a very successful program in the future.
2. Taylor Kelly has taken some criticism from ASU fans as of late, but his stats show a very solid season. Why has he taken criticism and how has he played as of late?
It goes without saying that when a team struggles the quarterback always takes most of the blame (sometimes unfairly) and during a four-game losing streak Kelly obviously was heavily scrutinized.
Granted, he didn’t play well in that stretch and at times exhibited highly questionable decision making and his lack of arm strength really got exposed against a higher caliber of defense.
Something I have been mentioning a lot this season was the poor performance by the wide receivers. Again, it’s something that comes back to the quality of opponent. Those four losses I mentioned all came at the hands of teams who were in the Top 25 at the time and the wide receiver group, which is inexperienced and talent challenged as it is, was beyond overwhelmed during that stretch.
Therefore, they provided little to no support in the passing game and Kelly, let alone the entire offense, was consequently affected quite a bit.
Kelly’s last game may have been his best so far this season as he completed a school record 18 straight passes, which means that his wide receivers decided to show up for a change. He was 20-23 for 276 yards and four touchdowns in that contest, so whatever confidence he may have lost during the losing streak, he did regain last week.
3. Why has Graham not found one running back to focus on rather than giving carries to three different players?
With all the emphasis that Graham places on the running game, as well as the high pace that the offense operates at, I doubt if one proverbial “work horse” would really be the way to go.
It has become quite evident that Marion Grice and D.J. Foster are more compatible for this offense than returning starter Cameron Marshall, but the staff ensures that the senior still gets his own fair share of touches every game let alone starts every week.
Both Grice and Foster have been so effective this year that you can’t justify giving one back a significant number of additional carries over the other.
4. Has Graham talked about his relationship with Rodriguez and what is the vibe with ASU media about that relationship?
I think it’s no secret at this point that the relationship between the two is anything but pristine, and that each of them will have their own motivation to win Friday’s game. However, Graham has already downplayed this aspect and said that the rivalry game itself is much bigger than any relationship he has with Rodriguez and Graham is obviously not hinting at anything that would imply an extra incentive, etc. he has to win this game.
Thus the media won’t hear anything on record about this topic, but again it’s more than understood that the history the two coaches have had over the years was rockier than it was smooth.
5. How has Graham recruited this class and is the feeling that he has or has not met the future needs of the team?
There are mixed feelings about the class so far. Being that this is first-year staff, it would be way too harsh to complain about a class that the week of Thanksgiving is ranked sixth in the Pac-12 and 36th overall.
Graham made a statement landing one of the best in-state prospects in linebacker Chans Cox, an Elite 11 quarterback in Josh Dobbs, quality linebackers such as Alani Latu and Viliami Latu and a very promising tight end in Jason Reese.
There is definite need for offensive and defensive linemen in this class and currently ASU only has one commit from each position, so that is something that will have to change between now and signing day.
Cox’s commit aside, I don’t know if you could say that ASU has generally done well with the other quality in-state prospects from the valley. Additionally, while there is no denying that ASU has recruited very well in Texas and is even able to snag players from the Southeast, it is surprising that so far it has less than a handful of commits from Southern California, which has always been a hotbed for ASU recruits. Those are some of the aspects that will ultimately determine how this class will be judged.
6. ASU's defense has been solid this season. What is the biggest reason for this?
The new culture that Graham implemented, with increased emphasis on discipline and accountability, has probably paid the biggest dividends on defense.
Ironically this group is playing more aggressively than recent Sun Devil defenses, but with the guidance of the staff, they have found the right balance between playing hard and playing smart. In other words, penalties and missed assignment have decreased quite a bit from last season.
The 3-4 scheme they run has been tailor made for Will Sutton, who is having an incredible year on the defensive line. Carl Bradford, who plays a hybrid defensive end/linebacker, is another player that has been flourishing in this scheme. Having linebacker Brandon Magee back as the leader of the defense is beyond invaluable. JC transfer and fellow linebacker Chris Young is one the best players that came in as part of the 2012 recruiting class.
Overall a strong front seven has allowed the secondary to elevate its game, but again I’ll bring it around to the staff that has helped players such as Keelan Johnson and Deveron Carr play up to their potential and improve leaps and bounds in their senior year.
7. What has been the biggest difference between ASU this year and last year?
As I mentioned, the new team culture of discipline and accountability. This atmosphere has just produced a business-like attitude by the players. They know that any extra circular activities on and off the field won’t go unpunished, they know that they have to give maximum effort on every snap in every practice or game, regardless of whether it’s a blowout or a nail biter.
Even though the 6-5 record can make one question if this new environment has benefited ASU or not, there is no doubt in my mind that we are witnessing a very positive and strong shift in how this team is handling itself and as a result I believe that an improvement in record will take place in the near future.
8. What are the keys to this game for Arizona State?
The Sun Devil defense will have to be exceptional in this game and has to control the line of scrimmage to shut down the running lanes and disrupt the potent passing game.
The ASU offense has to exploit a weak Arizona secondary, so the wide receivers have to build on a rare, but solid performance, from last week and help loosen up the Wildcats’ front seven and allow its stable of talented running backs to go to work.
But maybe the biggest key is to stick to their even keel and disciplined approach and not let the emotion of the rivalry, especially on the road, get the best of them.