Will ASU be able to replace its departed offensive tackles among those who are available for spring football?
Perhaps nowhere is their a bigger personnel question mark on the Sun Devil roster than at offensive tackle. A quick look at the defense reveals returning starters all over the field and ASU should have enough offensive skill firepower to remain potent and versatile if the offensive line allows it. With senior quarterback Mike Bercovici more of a pocket passer than outgoing Taylor Kelly, and given his big play capability down the field, the Sun Devils are going to need to protect him effectively and that starts at the tackle position. Jamil Douglas was one of the team's best overall players in recent years and Tyler Sulka was probably underrated in terms of his competency and value given some of the problems ASU has had over the years at tackle.
We know without question that fourth-year junior Evan Goodman is one of the most athletically gifted and best looking players on the roster. Position coach Chris Thomsen candidly said Goodman has more potential than Douglas. But Goodman, who will start out with the first-team this week at left tackle, hasn't always practiced on the field or prepared off the field with the intensity and focus needed to maximize his potential. Perhaps that's because he's known he was going to be a back up. But now it's his time and ASU needs him to solidify his status and play to his capability. At right tackle, senior Billy McGehee has steadily improved as a practice player in the last two years. He's 6-foot-6 and 300-plus pounds with better than adequate size, length and mobility, but would be well served to play with a little more of a chip on his shoulder. If ASU coaches feel the need to, they might consider bumping 2015 starting left guard Christian Westerman over to right tackle for his senior year. Depth and talent is better at guard, and if junior Stephon McCray and/or redshirt freshman Sam Jones continue to show signs of progress they could be ready to start inside and allow a Westerman move.
One last possibility is true freshman Steve Miller, who is huge and in shape at 6-foot-4 and 319 pounds, much more ready to play than most incoming high school graduates. He's going to start working out at left tackle behind Goodman. Others, including redshirt freshman Quinn Bailey and sophomore Jack Powers, probably need more seasoning.
Will Devil be substantially upgraded in 2015 and allow ASU coaches to schematically play the way they prefer?
The cupboard was so bare at this feature pass rushing position last season that ASU essentially abandoned it completely in the middle of the 2015 season in favor of a totally different approach. But that was done out of necessity, not out of desire, and Todd Graham wants to have a potent, attacking Devil it can rely on to get after opposing quarterbacks, and there may be two options available this spring that are better than anyone eligible on the roster last season.
Mid-year transfer Davon Durant earned five-star status as a recruit and is rated by SunDevilSource.com as highly as any player singed by the Sun Devils in the Graham era. He's probably a bit undersized for the Devil position, but has a rare combination of explosiveness and power for 230 pounds. He's got extensive experience as an edge pass rusher at the junior college level and should be an immediate upgrade, though we won't know for sure until seeing Durant in practices this week.
ASU also returns redshirt freshman Ismael Murphy-Richardson, who oozes pass rushing potential at 6-foot-4 and 230 pounds. If anyone has a chance to beat out Durant, it's probably Murphy-Richardson, who caught our eye more than any other ASU defensive player during bowl practices in December. If both Durant and Murphy-Richardson are ready to play at a high level, ASU's defense will overall be better in 2015, almost without question given what also returns in terms of starting talent more broadly. It may only take one of them to make that happen.
How much of an impact is newly hired special teams coordinator Shawn Slocum going to make and how quickly?
In an off-season conversation with select reporters, Todd Graham was candidly very critical of his team's special teams productivity during his three years at ASU and especially the last two seasons. He felt like this deficiency contributed to ASU not reaching some of its high aspiration goals despite back-to-back 10 wins seasons, and cited it as one of the biggest areas in need of improvement for ASU to get to a higher plateau.
Just weeks after this acknowledgment, which was the latest in a series of such admissions over the course of a multi-year period that a season earlier resulted in the jettisoning of a previous special teams coach off the staff, Graham announced the hire of Slocum to head ASU's special teams. Slocum was fired by Green Bay earlier this year after being its special teams coordinator for a number of seasons, including being the Pro Bowl coach for the unit on two occasions.
The units that really need the most help from Slocum, it would appear, are kickoff coverage and punt return, both of which have contributed significantly do a field possession disparity ASU has regularly been in when compared with opponents. Additionally, ASU's punt unit has underachieved since the departure of punter Josh Hubner several years ago. ASU has better athletes now to play on special teams, and is deeper, so that should help, but Slocum has his work cut out for him from an implementation and skills standpoint.
Will ASU be able to impose itself on opposite defenses more in the year ahead and projecting to the future?
Graham is big on the mandate that his teams will be a "run-play action-pass" ideology, which is football-speak for a desire to have a pro-style run capability that is reliable and creates opportunities in the passing game. This hasn't always proven itself out as far as how ASU has had to win games from a practical standpoint, but as it transitions to less of a read option and more of a pro style quarterback from Kelly to Bercovici, and with Jaelen Strong no longer on the roster, there is probably more of a sense of urgency than ever to be able to back up that philosophy with action.
What is going to enable this, ultimately, is bigger, stronger and longer offensive linemen and tight ends that can more easily and consistently win battles at the point of attack against defensive fronts that are also full of high level players. Having an all-league caliber senior center, Nick Kelly, will help, as will having seniors at guard, Westerman and Teofilo. But tackle is kind of an unknown from this standpoint and ASU will need those players to continue to make strides from a physical standpoint, and Goodman in particular is certainly capable of this.
To supplement this, ASU has worked to get bigger at the tight end position through recruiting with mixed results. Incoming freshman Tommy Hudson and spring enrollee Raymond Epps should help in this regard. But overall, especially with Bercovici at the helm and the read option game likely becoming a bit less relied on, ASU is going to have to become more potent at the line of scrimmage in order to sustain offensive balance, control game flow and wear on defenses, as well as close games out more easily with a lead.
Are ASU's inexperienced receivers continuing to make strides?
The loss of Strong -- as with any similar player -- will be felt but if the transition of senior D.J. Foster to receiver is seamless and junior Cameron Smith and senior Gary Chambers continue to progress, it can be offset to some degree, especially with the Sun Devils adding electric junior De'Chavon Hayes into the fold at the hybrid slot position. ASU probably will have more dynamic athletes on the field together at the skill positions in the year ahead even as they've lost their No. 1 best player.
What will be key for ASU to cement this is if some promising returning players who haven't yet had it all click together at receiver, especially sophomore Ellis Jefferson, or perhaps junior Eric Lauderdale or one/both of redshirt freshmen Jalen Harvey and Tyler Whiley. Jefferson in particular has a lot of potential, especially if he can defeat bump coverage more easily at the line of scrimmage now that he's added more strength and worked on technique for the last year and a half. With Foster and Chambers seniors, and only one incoming freshman, Terrell Chatman, ASU needs several others currently on the roster to make strides and show they're ready to be impact players in 2016, if not sooner.