In just its second season under Graham, Arizona State won ten games for the first time since 2007 and it's first ever Pac-12 South Division title. But the Sun Devils lose a total of 15 starters from last year's team which means developing the team's current players is priority number one for Graham and his staff this spring.
"When you talk about replacing players and all that stuff, the expectations are what they are," said Graham. "We're going to be a program about winning championships. You're going to have guys graduate. That's part of it. We're excited to develop those guys and see them have success at the next level and that's what it's all about.
"We've worked hard to develop a culture here and we laid a good foundation, but we're by no means there. We've got a lot of work to do."
Step one for Graham is shoring up a defense that will need to replace a number of key contributors along the defensive line, including the two-time Pat Tillman Defensive Player of the Year and Carl Bradford, an All-Pac-12 Second Team member in 2013.
"If you asked me to give you a gauge on what my biggest concerns are, my number one concern would be inside on the defensive line," he said. "My number two concern is making sure we can impact the quarterback. Obviously, we think we helped ourselves in recruiting in those two areas. Third on that list would be worried about the secondary. And then the last thing I'm worried about is the linebacker position even though I think Chris Young is probably one of the toughest guys for us to replace.
Fortunately for Graham, the Sun Devils return a number of talented players who also saw significant playing time last season, which he hopes will expedite the learning curve this spring before the many of the new recruits arrive in the fall.
"We spent a lot of time with our coaches developing relationships with our players and developing what our identity is and embracing that identity," said Graham. "Guys like Marcus Hardison, Salamo Fiso, and Damarious Randall; these are guys who have really stuck out to me. These are guys who have really matured.
Foster Returns to the Backfield
While the Sun Devils may not have as many concerns on offense as they do on defense, one of the team's biggest overall concerns heading into is filling the void at running back left by Marion Grice. In just two years at Arizona State, Grice started in 24 games while rushing for 1,675 yards. He also tallied 863 receiving yards and 39 total touchdowns, the fifth most in school history.
Graham announced on Monday that junior tailback/wide receiver D.J. Foster, who replaced Grice in the backfield for the final three games last year after the senior suffered a season ending leg injury, will remain in the backfield and is expected to the be the team's starting tailback heading into the new season.
"I think D.J. is a really special back," commented Graham. "One of the things that D.J. has, that I think you saw against Stanford, is that he's very versatile. He's explosive. He breaks the line of scrimmage, whether he catches a bubble pass or breaks a run, and it's going to the house. He's stronger and faster now than he was during the season. He's definitely our premiere back and the guy we're looking for."
In three starts last season, Foster rushed for 318 yards and four touchdowns, including a career-high 132 yards on 20 carries against Texas Tech in the Holiday Bowl.
For the season, Foster rushed for 501 yards and caught 63 passes for an additional 653 yards. The versatile playmaker also scored 10 total touchdowns for a Sun Devil offense that ranked 11th nationally in scoring (39.7).
"One of the things I'm probably most excited about, offensively, is we want to continue to develop our ability to have one play touchdowns," Graham added. "That's one of the big areas where I think we'll be much improved. We're going to have a lot more explosiveness as far as developing those kinds of plays and D.J. is going to be the catalyst behind that. We're going to utilize the skills and talents of our players.
"Will D.J. Foster catch passes? You know he will. That's how we utilize our backs anyway. But he is going to be the premiere tailback in our system. The sky's the limit for what he can achieve. Obviously we're working really hard at developing him mentally and physically to be able to handle all those reps. That's the other thing, his reps are going to increase dramatically."
Anchoring the Offensive Line
Last season Arizona State started the same five players along the offensive line in all 14 games. While the Sun Devils lose two starters from last season in Evan Finkenberg and Kody Koebensky, they also return a plethora of talent, including local standout Christian Westerman.
Westerman, who was once rated as the nation's top guard and one of the top tackle prospects coming out Chandler Hamilton High School in 2011, figures to be one of the many Sun Devil linemen looking to compete for a starting position up front, along with Evan Goodman, Stephon McCray and Nick Kelly.
"He obviously was a guy who was number one player in the state in 2011 coming out (of high school)," said Graham. "Having to transfer back here and sit out was something that he probably wouldn't recommend. But to end up here, he's made a great choice. He's a guy who we think will be very impactful for us and I can tell how hungry he is to get in there and compete and get after it."
With Jamil Douglas back at left guard and Tyler Sulka returning at right tackle, Graham envisions Westerman lining up at right guard while Goodman competes for the starting left tackle position.
"Christian brings a level of toughness and explosiveness," he said. "We want to be a team that continues to get better in our direct running game and with or downhill runs. That means having guards who can move people and be able to create movement at the point of attack. He's going to help us tremendously there and I think he had a lot of development being able to go to work with the scout team and that's different than actually playing in our system."
Marcus Ball at Boundary Safety
Marcus Ball was a leading candidate to start at boundary safety last season until a shoulder injury in the team's final scrimmage at Camp Tontozona forced him to redshirt and sit out the 2013 season. Ball's absence paved the way for Damarious Randall to come in and star alongside senior Alden Darby in the Sun Devil secondary where the junior college transfer recorded 71 tackles and three interceptions.
While Ball continues to rehabilitate his shoulder and will most likely be withheld from contact drills throughout the spring, Graham made it known on Monday he feels confident that the freshman will return to his safety position in 2014.
"I personally think Marcus is a safety," said Graham. "One of the things that we want is to get longer. I like the fact that he's a 6-3 guy. The team that has had the best run defense in our league has won it the last two years. The team that has had the best (overall) defense has won it the last three years. So, when you look around the country, that's the key and I like having a bigger physical safety at the boundary position."
"I don't see him being a guy who moves to the SPUR position because as Carl (Bradford) and Will (Sutton) and those guys graduate, we are adapting to what our players can do. We're talented and have different talents. You'll see, schematically, some variations that are very different even though we're going to be in an attack, four man front defense and be multiple in our looks. You'll see the Devil backer more to the field (side) in the end than to the boundary, is what I'm saying."
Randall and Ball will be backed up by a pair of freshmen, James Johnson and Jayme Otomewo, who also figure to contend for significant playing time in 2014.
"One of the great challenges of coaching is to adapt to the skills and talents of your players and that's something where if you really evaluate and you look at the running game last year, the direct runs weren't where we got hurt. We got hurt on the perimeter and angle flow runs to the boundary. I think we're looking at how we can (scheme) our defense a little bit differently to put bigger guys at that end position into the boundary where the Devil backer usually is, as well as having a bigger boundary safety being able to support."
Kelly Providing Leadership at Quarterback
In college football, there's no substitution for having a senior quarterback, especially one with experience. Taylor Kelly provides the Sun Devils with both. In his first two seasons as the Arizona State signal caller, Kelly passed for 6,705 yards and 57 touchdowns while guiding the Sun Devils to 18 career victories and being named to the All-Pac-12 Second Team in 2013.
"If you want to win a championship, it's simple - you've got to have a quarterback," Graham remarked. "If you don't have a quarterback, good luck. I don't care how good you play defense. And what I mean is that a quarterback is not just some guy who can throw the ball. It's not just some guy who can run. It's a guy who's a leader.
"Taylor's a guy I completely trust because when I evaluate his character, it's the best in the program. I think Taylor is probably the most respected person that walks on this floor and that says a lot. He's the hardest working guy on the team."
For a team looking to re-load, not re-build, and continue to contend in the Pac-12 South, the experience and leadership of Kelly is instrumental for a Sun Devil team who will need to replace six starters on offense.
"My mother asked me what makes him so special," Graham said. "He's just a giver of respect. I'll watch how he interacts with a 10 year old trying to get an autograph and how he interacts with me or Ray (Anderson) or whoever he's talking to, and man, you just feel like you're the only person in the room. He's a guy that gets it.
"Our players, our staff, we have a love for that guy and a respect for that guy because of the walk that he walks every day. How good do I feel about? Pretty good.
Kelly is one of just two Sun Devil quarterbacks on the roster as the team opens camp this week following the transfer of Michael Eubank. He is joined by junior Mike Bercovici, who was once considered a possible transfer candidate as well but opted to return to Arizona State, giving Graham what he considers the best two quarterbacks in the conference.
"I tell Taylor every day, 'I wouldn't miss many meetings or many practices,' because we have a lot of confidence in the young man behind him," he said. "How many people thought he'd still be here? Everybody thinks he should just pack up and go somewhere else but he's a Sun Devil.
"You know what he told me? He said, 'Coach, I'm going to compete every day and I'm going to compete to be the starting quarterback every day. And you know what? If I only start one year as a Sun Devil, it'll be worth three anywhere else.' That's the kind of guy you want in your program."