Hod Rabino of Devils Digest: It's no secret that ASU's coaching search was generally a fiasco and that's putting it mildly. How bad was it? The Sun Devils came dangerously close to hiring June Jones and luckily broke off advanced contract negations after pressure from prominent boosters. Truth be told, the hiring of Todd Graham didn't excite the fan base and the backlash that followed him after his one-year stint with Pittsburgh put ASU is a very negative and unwelcoming light.
Today you can look at those turbulent times and just laugh. So far things have worked out quite nicely.
Critics say that Todd Graham talks in clichés. Guess what? His message of discipline and accountability, as well as fats paced scheme has paid pretty dividends in this young 2012 season. The veteran players know that Erickson's lax, borderline apathetic approach, caused the Sun Devils to choke away what could have been a very special 2011 campaign. Once the team embraced Graham's way of doing things this squad became a hard working no nonsense group who let their talents speak for themselves and one who wasn't interested anymore in extracurricular activities. A dramatic culture change to say the least.
With every win Graham's approach gets validated that much more. When the team veered away from it, they lost a close game at Missouri learning a valuable early season lesson. Bottom line is that this ASU team knows which approach will work and which one won't and I expect them to play accordingly every week.
CSD: Taylor Kelly was barely given a shot to start at quarterback coming into fall camp, yet he ranks ninth nationally in passing efficiency and leads the Pac-12 in that metric. What has he done so well to exceed all possible expectations, and has he secured the role as Arizona State's signal-caller of the future ahead of physically gifted redshirt freshman Michael Eubank?
HR: Might sound cliché or simplistic, but it was old fashioned hard work that propelled Kelly to prominence. While the sophomore did end spring on a strong note, it appeared that sophomore Michael Bercovici was going to earn the starting position in fall camp but would be a part of two-quarterback system with redshirt freshman Michael Eubank.
The staff wanted to start fall camp giving Bercovici and Eubank the majority of the reps, but their gut told them that for the first few days Kelly should receive equal number of reps. The rest as they say is history.
Kelly was more accurate than Bercovici, and while no one will mistake his athletic ability with that of Eubank's he was ultimately just as effective running the ball and certainly a better passer than Eubank. Kelly started fall camp on fire and never cooled down, but he isn't a gun slinger but rather a competent game manager that Graham covets for this ASU offense. More importantly his even keel approach has been significant for this first year starter.
CSD: After scoring 18 touchdowns last season, running back Cameron Marshall seemed like a dark-horse candidate to challenge for first-team All-Pac-12 honors. But he has been unable to get on track so far, with only 95 yards on 32 carries, while touted freshman D.J. Foster leads the team in rushing. What's the cause of Marshall's slow start, and how does Foster factor in?
HR: With a talented stable of running backs, the staff wasn't in a rush to start giving Marshall 15-20 carries, let alone more than that, every game. He has already recoded a couple of fumbles this year which is obviously not helping his confidence, nor that of the coaching staff in him. Additionally, I don't believe he's truly 100 percent healthy even though he was held out of contact for the second half of fall camp. So Marshall has a few elements already working against him and undoubtedly no one expected the running back to have such a slow start, albeit scoring already five touchdowns on the year.
D.J. Foster, as well as fellow newcomer, junior college transfer Marion Grice, have both come blazing out of the gates providing the quality depth at running back everyone expected to see. Both players are extremely dynamic, if not flat out explosive and are just as effective catching the ball as they are running it. Suffice to say that even if both don't stare the game, they stand an excellent chance every contest to get involved early and often. With the success the ASU offense is enjoying so far, no reason to see that approach changing any time soon.
CSD: Arizona State has faced three consecutive backup quarterbacks. How much is really known about the Sun Devils defense after four games?
HR: It's actually in a way four quarterbacks since the starting Northern Arizona signal caller was forced out during the season opener due to injury. On the other hand, I wouldn't call Utah's Jon Hays a backup since he played in over a handful of games last year. Despite the competition, or perhaps lack thereof, I still feel the Sun Devil defense should be given their proper due and their lofty rankings in the Pac-12 are nothing anyone should dismiss or place an asterisk next to.
This defense features a quick and relentless front seven, complemented by an effective secondary. While the front seven does a solid job harassing the quarterback, disrupting the passing game and recording sacks, their ability to consistently stop the run fails in comparison to the other aspects of this group. Overall, the coaches are pleased with the defense and they have every right to be so.
CSD: If the Sun Devils win in Berkeley, they should be undefeated in conference play and could be ranked in the polls when they host Oregon on a Thursday night in mid-October. What would represent a successful season now, and how does that compare to pre-season expectations among the fan base?
HR: You're absolutely right about a win this potentially putting ASU in a very strong position in the Pac-12 South, as well gaining more national recognition. I personally expected a strong start in September, but wasn't sure how the rest of the season would play out and naturally the jury is still out on that one. I've said in recent weeks that it's not that ASU is just winning games, but it's the manner in which they are achieving those results that gives you even more confidence that they can make a run at an improbable and successful season.
I'm sure people outside of Tempe would roll their eyes when they hear Todd Graham utter "High Octane" and "Left Lane, Hammer Down." And those same folks would claim ASU having a high level of discipline is overrated and is just done to mask talent shortcomings. But the results speak for themselves and generally this team has exceeded expectations. There is no question that at minimum anything short of going to a bowl game would be a colossal disappointment, but in the event of a couple more wins you are likely to hear the expectations spike up to a Pac-12 South crown, if not a conference championship. Those are feats that were simply unfathomable before the season began.
Dan Greenspan is the publisher of Cal Sports Digest and writes about the Pac-12 for Fox Sports Next. Follow him on Twitter @DanGreenspan.