In his first year as Head Coach at Arizona State, Graham helped guide the Sun Devils to an 8-5 record, including a second place finish in the Pac-12 south division and the school's first bowl win since 2005 with a resounding 62-28 dismantling of Navy in the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl. But with positive results come raised expectations.
Arizona State averaged 38.4 points per game in 2012, which ranked 14th nationally. A large reason for that was the play of first year starting quarterback Taylor Kelly, who passed 3,039 yards, 29 touchdowns (one shy of the school-record for passing touchdowns in a season), and just nine interceptions.
The Sun Devil signal caller completed 67.1% of his attempted passes, which shattered the previous school record, but still, Graham thinks there's plenty of room for Kelly to improve.
"I want him to be number one in the country for fewest turnovers," he said. "I want him to lead the country in the fewest amount of interceptions. If he does that, I'm gonna be fired up."
Kelly relied heavily on tight end Chris Coyle and his running backs in the passing game last season, but in order for him and the Sun Devils to take the next step towards becoming a more potent offensive attack, Kelly will need his wide receivers to play a more prominent role in 2013.
"Kevin Ozier and Richard Smith have had great springs," said the coach. "We have three freshmen wide receivers coming in that are special, along with Joe Morris and Jaelen Strong, the junior college transfers. Jaelen, we feel, will be dynamic just as soon as learns our system."
"We also have De'Marieya Nelson, a running back/tight end, so we have upgraded our personnel," Graham added. "We were 14th in the country scoring points, and we want to be number one in the country. So we think we have improved that through our development and training program and we've got a chance to be more explosive outside."
The Sun Devils will also tout one of the more dynamic running back duos in the Pac-12 with senior Marion Grice and sophomore sensation D.J. Foster. Together, the two rushed for over 1,100 yards and had a combined 25 total touchdowns. Graham says he expects the Sun Devils to rely on their running game early in the season in order to give his WR's and enough time to learn the system.
"We were 25th in the country last year in running the football and the key for us is we want to be number one," he remarked. "We're a run, play-action pass football team so it's very vital to our success for us to dominate the line of scrimmage. The run game is critical, and not just early on in the season, but throughout the whole thing."
"I think that has to do a lot with depth," he added. "We didn't have much depth last year but we've gotten bigger, faster, and stronger through adding more players and developing the rest. Our number one goal is rush offense and rush defense. That's the thing that has to be elevated."
Big Man on Campus
The big news on Friday at Media Day for the Sun Devils was that senior defensive lineman Will Sutton officially tipped the scales at 305 pounds, up from 275 pounds last season. Sutton returned to Arizona State for his final year of eligibility after giving serious consideration to entering the NFL Draft.
The All-American committed himself to a full offseason in the weight room in an effort to beef up and one last chance at competing for a conference championship. Despite the significant weight gain, Graham says he doesn't expect it to affect his defensive star and actually envisions him playing at an even high level in 2013.
"I think last year he had some bad weight on him, so he got down to 275 before the year started because we knocked the bad weight off him," he said. "But it's just a natural process. He had to get lean and then add muscle mass. Will's natural playing weight is probably around 300 pounds anyway. I think he transitions to, like, a Warren Sapp. I think he will be a very high draft pick next year."
"He's put himself in a position to have a better year than he had last year," Graham added. "I said all he's gotta do is hold that Rose Bowl trophy up above his head and the Pac-12 trophy above his head and the National Championship trophy above his head and he doesn't have to worry about his draft status."
Defensive Re-Enforcement on the Way
Last season, Arizona State featured one of the better defensive units in the Pac-12. As a unit, they ranked second nationally in sacks and tackles for loss and return arguably the best defensive duo in the country in Sutton and junior Carl Bradford. But opposing offenses better not focus too much on those two as the Sun Devils look to feature a hefty and aggressive starting defensive unit this fall.
Graham said he envisions a starting defensive line featuring Marcus Hardison, Jaxon Hood and Davon Coleman, Mo Latu, and Sutton with Bradford in the Devil backer role.
"Davon has underachieved, I believe," commented Graham. "But now, it's like his light went on - at least that's what Coach Griswold says. Gris said he's had an unbelievable summer. (In the weight room) Carl Bradford breaks all the records but Davon is right behind him."
Graham also expects a number of other newcomers to immediately contribute to the Sun Devil defensive depth chart, including a couple incoming freshman.
"Guys on defense who I think will be impactful are Damarious Randall, Marcus Ball, Solomon Means, and Antonio Longino. And when I'm talking impact, I mean the two-deep, for sure. Enrique Flowers, Chans Cox. The two freshmen are Chans Cox and Marcus Ball. They really have a great chance to contribute."
One of the main concerns for the Arizona State defense entering fall camp will be shoring up its secondary. The Sun Devils lost two starts from last year's team in corner back Deveron Carr and safety Keelan Johnson, but return a number of less experienced players with potential to be big time playmakers.
"What makes the secondary strong is when you're knocking the opposing quarterback on his can," joked Graham. "But I think Osahon Irabor has had an unbelievable summer and I'm looking at him to have a breakout year. And then we've got Lloyd Carrington and Robert Nelson at the position, so there's a lot of competition for jobs."
"We've got Solomon Means coming in, another guy I'm excited about and he'll have three years of eligibility," he added. "And Marlon Pollard, the transfer, and Rashad Wadood, so there's a lot of depth at the corner spot that's going to help us a lot."
"Obviously the big key in the secondary is find a free safety," Graham continued. "We've got to have someone step up in camp and take charge there. And then Viliami Moeakiola is backing up Darby, so we've got some depth there too. A lot better than last year when we had no depth. We just have to get stronger and more physical."
Come one, Come all
Arizona State's 2013 schedule figures to be one of the more challenging in the conference, if not the nation. The Sun Devils open the season up at home against a Sacramento State team that is undefeated in its last three contests against Pac-12 teams before a brutal four game stretch that would make any coach cringe. Except for Graham, apparently. The Sun Devils host 2012 Big 10 champion Wisconsin and USC at home, while they travel to play defending Pac-12 champion Stanford and national champion runner-up on the road, all in the first five weeks of the season.
"Yeah, it's challenging. There isn't anyone in the country with a four game stretch like that," Graham acknowledged. "You can't help how the schedule falls but at the same time I think it's a great opportunity. That’s why you coach. I'm pretty fired up about having the opportunity to do that. We just have to take it one week at a time."
"We like the pressure. We're competitors. That's one of the things I love about this football team," he added. "We got simply one goal at our place and that's to be champions. That's what we're set out to do and we don't mind being held accountable to that. It's not undue pressure. We want it; we like it."
Fewer Freshman on the Field?
Graham is hopeful that the Sun Devils, who played a number of true freshmen in 2012, including Freshman All-Americans D.J. Foster and Jaxon Hood, won't be forced to play as many in 2013, although he pointed out that LB Chans Cox, wide receiver Cameron Smith, as two players that will be difficult to keep off the field.
"That's what we want," said Graham. "We want guys to redshirt. That's not a bad thing."
Another freshman likely to see significant minutes in the fall is safety Marcus Ball, who has already commanded the respect of his coach and teammates even before fall camp.
"He came here because he loved the discipline aspect of it," remarked Graham. "He's a born leader. He's already a leader amongst the guys. He's already garnered respect from the upperclassmen for the way he works. He's strong, big, fast. So what's there not to like?"