Generally speaking… What are the Sun Devils strengths and weaknesses? How many starters/key contributors return from last season? Who are the star players the team will be counting on?
On offense it is clearly the running game that is considered ASU's strength and that fits very nicely with first-year Head Coach Todd Graham's offensive philosophy of a downhill run team that would have a 60-40 run-pass play distribution. Senior Cameron Marshall is one of the best running backs in the Pac-12 and by the end of this year could really leave his mark on the ASU record book. Two talented newcomers at this position, true freshman D.J. Foster and JC transfer Marion Grice are the other primary ball carriers and this tandem has already shown a smooth transition to playing at the Division I level.
The offense has overall four returning starters. Another key returning starter on offense, aside from Marshall, is wide receiver Jamal Miles. He was suspended for last week's season opener but is back this week and I expect this dynamic player to be a big part of not only the offense but also instrumental in the return game.
The defense has four returning starters. This group's strength is its front seven. Its two defensive ends, Junior Onyeali and Will Sutton, both juniors are proven Pac-12 caliber players. The linebacker group is headed by senior Brandon Magee who sat out all of last year with an Achilles injury but thus far has been playing at the level he did in his junior year. JC transfer Chris Young had an excellent season debut with 6.5 total tackles, 2.5 of them for a loss.
Well, last week Kelly showed the potential to maybe be a little more than that and he certainly has his hands full this week with a very formidable Illinois defense. ASU technically has a two-quarterback system, but redshirt freshman Michael Eubank attempted just one pass last week as most of his plays were rushing the ball (seven carries, 36 yards). It will be interesting to see if the coaches elect to use Eubank versus Illinois the same exact way as they did last week.
Where do you expect the team to finish in the Pac-12 standings this season?
I picked ASU to finish 4th in the Pac-12 South with a 6-6 record. The Pac-12 media picked the Sun Devils to finish 5th. I don't like to revise picks weeks or months after the fact so I will stick with that prediction. I wouldn't be surprised if ASU could inch themselves to a 3rd place finish, because the Pac-12 South sans USC doesn't have any team that is clearly better than its foes. To me ASU still has to prove that they can be an efficient passing team given that they have a new starting quarterback and virtually an entire new wide receiver group. Defensively they need to show that they won't have the same tendency as they did in 2011 to give up big plays. Therefore, if ASU can answer those concerns my fourth place prediction will prove wrong for all the right reasons.
Is the team better or worse without Vontaze Burfict?
Excellent question and one that ASU fans have asked themselves on more than a few occasions. There is no denying the raw talent of this linebacker and the fact that he made the 53-man roster of the Cincinnati Bengals despite not being drafted says a lot.
The inmates were running the asylum when former head coach Dennis Erickson was at the helm and Burfict was the poster child of the undisciplined players that Erickson and his staff simply had no control over and in reality didn't seem to want to reign in anyway. When you're not able and/or not willing to discipline one of your best players, the damage that you create as a coaching staff is colossal if not irreparable.
I have no doubt in my mind that when Burfict heard of the hiring of new ASU head coach Todd Graham, a bona fide disciplinarian, he was more than ready to declare for the NFL even though he knew deep inside that his draft stock was plummeting fast because of his poor play and off the field antics. The irony is that he could improve so much more if he was coached by Graham and his staff and make a lot more money in the NFL as a result.
So ASU fans don't miss the 2011 version of Vontaze Burfict because he was everything that was wrong with that team. However, they do know that a 2012 version of Vontaze Burfict, under this new coaching staff, would flourish.
What are some of the noticeable changes, scheme and personnel-wise, on offense/defense due to the new coaching staff?
On offense ASU is now incorporating a tight end going away from a true spread scheme. You will see them also line up a fullback and two running backs in the backfield much more often than they did last season. The quarterback will occasionally go under center, but that aspect was virtually non-existent last year. Overall, it's still a zone read scheme but with more emphasis on running the ball.
On defense ASU mainly plays a 3-4 front but the bigger system difference is the overall aggressiveness from its front seven and its corners. The Sun Devils employ hybrid defensive ends/linebackers and hybrid linebackers/safeties that give them great versatility. Perhaps the biggest difference, and this isn't a system aspect per se, and that is the increased discipline which this group plays with. The defense had no penalties last week and their mental miscues were kept to a bare minimum.
Is there a clear-cut No. 1 at WR or is that position more balanced or still searching for depth?
There is definitely no No. 1 wide receiver on the team. One may emerge later on in the year but in the off-season no one individual established themselves as the proverbial go-to guy. Jamal Miles is the most experienced player in this position, but this once utility man is in the process of being groomed as a classic wide receiver and the process has been anything but effortless. Nonetheless, the senior is by far one of the more explosive players in the Pac-12 and is capable of big plays everytime he touches the ball.
Is Marion Grice the type of back that can carry the ball 20+ times a game? Is there a commitment to running the ball under the new staff's direction?
The irony is that Grice is actually the third running back in the depth chart but looking at the box score you certainly couldn't tell that. Don't get me wrong, Grice is plenty talented and he has certainly shown that his accolades from the junior college ranks do carry a lot of merit. But barring injuries in this position I cannot see him carrying the ball over 20 times a game. The only one who I could see come close to that description is Marshall who was banged up for most of fall camp which is why he only got nine carries last week.
You're absolutely right that there is a genuine commitment under this coaching staff to run the ball and the offense is truly defined by that philosophy. Granted, the 51 rushing attempts in the season opener were also due to ASU's desire to not run up the score in the second half. However, I would be surprised if I didn't see ASU rush the ball at least 35-40 times a game. The strength of their offense clearly lies at running back and the number or rushing attempts will always reflect that.
The pass defense last year was a struggle for the Sun Devils -- has that been improved or is that an area that Illinois could exploit against the defense?
I think there are some concerns in this aspect because of the thin depth on this group. The cornerbacks are asked often not only to be on an island but also play in tight coverage which doesn't give them much leverage if they do get beat by the player they are covering. I also have my concerns about ASU's pass rush and this week's contest will reveal a lot about that area of the defense that can naturally aid the pass defense a great deal.
I don't know if I would consider Illinois a deft passing team (probably jinxed it right there) so I don't necessarily think they would hurt ASU in the air more than they would on the ground. But I believe every opposing coach will be eager to test the ASU secondary early and often every week.
Last year's game was a close battle… with ASU winning the opener by such a wide margin, how do you think the team will respond should another tough, hard-fought game take place? Given the new staffs at both schools, a close game would be a good measuring stick.
I agree that this game is a good early season measuring stick for both teams, especially in light of the fact that first-year head coaches are roaming each sideline. There may have been more heartbreaking losses in late 2011 for ASU, but there is no doubt that the loss to Illinois does still stick in the Sun Devils' craw and that was a game they should have had in the win column.
Looking at Illinois' schedule they know that ASU is the toughest game they will encounter for a while and win, let alone on the road, can both pad the record quite nicely let alone boost confidence. In Tempe, there is a lot of goodwill to go around after the win over NAU last week but a win versus a much higher caliber opponent such as Illinois could really provide a lot of hope for a program that is yearning to put a miserable 2011 season behind them.
I do see this game as very evenly matched and it seems as if any one team's advantage can be negated by the other. I think ASU can win but I would be shocked if the margin of victory was much more than a touchdown.
ASU wins if… Illinois wins if…
ASU wins is they don't beat themselves. This is something that has been and will be harped on all week. Mental miscues were all the rage in 2011 and Todd Graham has worked hard to eradicate that culture. As much as you can take away from a lopsided season opener it seems like this year's Sun Devils won't entertain old habits.
Illinois wins if their defensive line can control ASU's running game. As I mentioned, the ground attack is the Sun Devils' "bread and butter" and if the Illini can take that aspect away I think ASU would have a hard time moving the chains, let alone putting points on the board, if they had to put a heavier emphasis on the passing game.