Arizona State started strongly in 2011 and many had them picked as the top team in the Pac-12 South, even ahead of USC (if the Trojans had been eligible). The Sun Devils began 6-2 with a feature win over USC, with their lone conference loss being to Oregon . Then the implosion at UCLA and it spiraled from there, finishing out the season with five straight losses, which ended Dennis Erickson's tenure as head coach. It was a senior-laden team and ASU has the least amount of returning starters of any Pac 12 team for 2012.
QB Brock Osweiler, 4,036 yards passing
WR Gerell Robinson, leading WR, 1,397 yards
WR Aaron Pflugrad, #2 leading WR, 665 yards
WR Mike Willie, #3 leading WR, 455 yards
OL: Garth Gerhart, Mike Marcisz, Dan Knapp
LB Colin Parker, #1 leading tackler, #4 sack leader, #3 TFL leader
DB Clint Floyd, #2 leading tackler
LB Vontaze Burfict, #3 leading tackler, #1 sack leader, #2 TFL leader
DB Eddie Elder, #4 leading tackler
LB Oliver Aaron, #5 leading tackler, #1 TFL leader
LB Shelley Lyons, #7 leading tackler
DT Boo Moos, #4 TFL leader
Last year, ASU was ranked 108th in pass defense. Now, the Sun Devils will run multiple sets with the 3-4 as their base, but will also go to a 3-3-5 and a 4-3 set. ASU ran a fairly basic defense the last couple of years, but the new coaching staff looks to transition to a more attacking defense.
Top returners are Will Sutton, Corey Adams, Davon Coleman and Junior Onyeali (assuming he returns to the team from suspension). Will Sutton is the best of the lot, and there are a good amount of bodies, but it is a very pedestrian group.
ASU loses their top 4 linebackers from last year, and replacing an entire unit will be difficult. The bright spot is that Brandon McGee is coming back from an injury. Many think that his injury led to Burfict's downfall, due to lack of his leadership. Still, it will be a unit thin on experience.
They lose Clint Floyd, Eddie Elder and Omar Bolden (although he did not play at all last season due to a knee injury). The unit played solidly at the start of the year but, starting with the UCLA game, they broke down. WSU, then, passed for almost 500 yards against them with their third-string quarterback. They do have some younger talent that could step into starting roles, but that still leaves a good deal of uncertainty. ASU will have to get more pressure on opposing quarterbacks this year for this unit to survive.
With new coaches there is always a transition, and it helps to smooth over that transition if you have the cupboard full with talent. That's not the case for ASU's first-year coordinator Paul Randolph. They'll have to replace the vast majority of their back seven. They should probably be okay up front but a crapshoot in the back.
Of course, UCLA hired ASU's Offensive Coordinator from last season, Noel Mazzone. And ASU will be the opposite of UCLA in this transition year. Last year, UCLA was run-dominant and is making the move to a more pass-oriented team. Last season ASU was a pass-happy team and this year will be a run-first offense under new Head Coach Todd Graham and Offensive Coordinator Mike Norvell. They'll still operate a spread but the word is that Norvell's philosophy will be to run more out of it.
Much of the reason behind a move to a more run-oriented attack is trying to get over the loss of Osweiler, who broke a number of school passing records. ASU has three quarterbacks to choose from: Mike Bercovici, Taylor Kelly and Michael Eubank. None have any meaningful experience, and really not one of them clearly emerged from ASU's spring practice. All three are vastly different quarterbacks with three different skill sets, so you think ASU might want to choose a starter fairly soon to tailor its offense for its starter. Bercovici isn't particular athletic but is the best pocket passer; Eubank, at 6-5, is the best athlete and probably best runner, but still raw throwing the ball, and in making reads and decisions; and Kelly is mobile, probably throws a bit better than Eubank but not as well as Bercovici. The offense will utilize zone reads quite a bit, and roll the quarterback some, so it could be better suited to Eubank, who is the fan favorite because of his flash and upside.
ASU loses three starters from this unit, with the biggest loss being Garth Gerhart, an All-Pac-12 selection. Recently, in the last several years, ASU has been quite a bit like UCLA in its o-line production -- spotty. They will now have to transition from pass blockers to run blockers (while UCLA will do mostly the opposite). If they cannot do this effectively then ASU will struggle. With a new quarterback, ASU will emphasize ball control, kind of like UCLA has done the last few years. Contrasted against pass-happy teams that score quite bit In the Pac-12, this might be a struggle to keep up. (as it was for UCLA). One thing going for them is that they very well, from a talent perspective, as a unit, might be better suited as run blockers than pass blockers.
This might be the deepest unit in the Pac-12 assuming Cameron Marshall is healthy. Last season, he was ASU's first 1,000-yard rusher since 2006. They'll also have two more veterans and benefit from the return of Deantre Lewis, who missed all of 2011 as a result of injuries suffered from a random gunshot incident. As a freshman in 2010 he showed a great amount of potential.
They will need to be strong and deep because they are definitely going to run quite a bit.
Another reason ASU will run a lot is the loss of its top five receivers from last season. The unit will not be without hope, though. Rashad Ross and Jamaal Miles are both good receivers, and ASU won't need the stable it had because they won't be using as many four-receiver sets like they did last season. Also, ASU is saying they plan to use their tight end more.
So much will depend on who the quarterback is and whether he flourishes or struggles in his first season as a starter. With Marshall and a deep running back crew, an inexperienced quarterback and a new offensive coordinator saying his run-to-pass ratio is going to be 60-40, it's clear ASU is going to try emphasize the run. It's difficult to imagine that they'll be nearly as productive as they've been with Mazzone and Osweiler.
State of the Team for 2012
Like many programs in the Pac-12, ASU is transitioning to a new coaching staff. Graham was a bit of a desperate choice, after ASU had missed on a few other candidates. His departure from Pittsburgh, after just one 6-6 season there, wasn't exactly smooth either. He has a rep for being a bit prickly, and overall the ASU faithful, while trying to be optimistic, already have some built-in concerns about Graham. That probably won't help if the team starts off rocky in 2012. And similar to UCLA, ASU has been through a series of unsuccessful coaches in the last dozen years or so, so the fans' collective patience is thin. It, quite plainly, seems like a potentially explosive situation in Tempe.
Head to Head
UCLA travels to the desert to play the Sun Devils on October 27th, the Bruins' eighth game of the season. It very well could be a key game for UCLA, a road match-up against a marginal team, one that could go a long way to determining whether UCLA has a successful season or not. UCLA has been pretty dismal on the road for quite a while. ASU will be coming off a home game against Oregon, which more than likely will be a beating, and probably be teetering on a .500 record, so for the Sun Devils the UCLA game could be a rally-the-troops moment, or a roll-over moment. Given the sentiment in the program, and Graham's rep, it will be interesting to see if there's enough in the tank for the former.