Know Your Foe: ASU Edition

Hod Rabino of DevilsDigest.com answers some of our questions about this year's Arizona State squad, including Todd Graham's impact and Taylor Kelly's surprising success so far this year...

1. How would you rate the performance of first year coach Todd Graham? He obviously left previous jobs with a little bit of rancor from the teams he departed-- what has been your impression of him as a person?

I will say right off the bat that the amount of grief and media scrutiny that Graham received for leaving his job after one year was ridiculous. You would think he was some kind of negative trailblazer in the world of college football that threatened all that is good with this sport. And to his credit he never answered the critics, said it was a mistake accepting Pitt job to begin with and accepted the fact that his action would elicit strong disapproval.

When he arrived in Tempe he said all the right things, just like any other newly hired coach would. And sure, a lot of us thought his vision of ASU football was a pie in the sky theory that would take several years, if not more to even coming close to materializing.

Were we ever wrong.

The perception of the program, from whichever angle imaginable, is what drives Graham. During his first few months on the job, he literally didn't turn down any opportunity for speaking engagements promoting the program. He told his players that he would instill stronger discipline and accountability and he walked that talk 24/7. Graham is very passionate and relentless with everything he does, and he demands the same from his staff. Attention to detail is all the rage right now in Tempe and the program is better for it.

The culture change Graham instituted resulted in more than what some would perceive as a surprising 5-2 record. It also produced a disciplined team which, compared to years past, commits little to no turnovers and penalties every game, a team that carries itself with a lot of dignity on and off the field, a squad that plays at a high tempo (or high octane as Graham would coin it) on both sides of the ball for the entire 60 minutes, and more importantly shows a skeptical and fickle fan base that ASU football is in fact turning over a new leaf and that the future for this program is truly bright.

2. What was your opinion of Noel Mazzone's offense at ASU?

A classic case of a bag of mixed goods.

Let's start with the positives. Not only did Mazzone revive an extremely anemic ASU offense, but during his two years in Tempe, his offenses has made their mark on the school's record books. Most notably he developed quarterback Brock Osweiler, who in his only full season of starting became the first ASU signal caller to eclipse the 4,000-yard mark (4,036) and was drafted by the Denver Broncos in the second round, which was unexpected.

On the other hand, Mazzone more often than not abandoned the rushing attack and virtually eliminated the tight end's role. With players such as RB Cameron Marshall and TE Chris Coyle on ASU's roster, I'm not sure if that was the prudent approach to take. And then you had complaints about the predictability of his scheme, especially with the dreaded swing pass/bubble screen.

With ASU averaging over 37 points a game this year, fans feel that the offense is just as effective as last year's and, more importantly, more balanced and less transparent.

3. How much of an advantage is it for ASU's defense that they are familiar with Mazzone's offense?

That's a question that naturally will be asked all week, on whether Mazzone has the advantage knowing ASU's personnel or the Sun Devils have the upper hand being so familiar with Mazzone's scheme. I think both factors negate each other.

Even though Mazzone coached quarterback Taylor Kelly for two years, suffice to say that the sophomore is a different player now than he was under Mazzone. That goes double for Chris Coyle. The running game is led by D.J. Foster and Marion Grice, who are both newcomers.

On the other hand I wouldn't say that Mazzone is running a carbon copy of his ASU offense in Westwood, especially with the emphasis on the running game.

After seven games, I don't think there is much either team can still hide or surprise and ultimately what UCLA and ASU see on this season's game film will more than likely dictate their approach rather than heavily relying on 2011 and 2010 footage.

4. Obviously, this is the first many are seeing of Taylor Kelly. What are your thoughts on his performance to date, and what do you think the potential is for him?

By far the biggest surprise of the year. It has been well documented that he finished spring practice as the 3rd quarterback on the depth chart and had a slim chance of capturing the starting role once fall camp started. The first week of camp he outplayed the competition and never looked back.

Kelly had the dreaded stigma of being the proverbial "game manager" which is another term for a signal caller who you consider a low risk/low reward quarterback.

The sophomore blew that theory out of the water early in the year. He ranks tops in the Pac-12 and 8th nationally in pass efficiency and 3rd in the conference in total offense. He's a classic dual-threat quarterback and to his credit has been able to play very well this year despite a very inconsistent wide receiver group. I don't if his ceiling is that high but if he can maintain his overall performance level and decision making for the rest of the year the ASU offense should thrive as it has thus far this season.

5. ASU at 5-2 is having, likely, a better season than expected. What do you think have been the biggest factors in their unexpectedly good start to the season?

Taylor Kelly, as we just mentioned, is a big part of that, and the offensive scheme in general isn't asking much of him and relies on a very strong running game. On defense, you have Will Sutton emerging as one of the nation's top defensive linemen, a stout linebacker crops led by Brandon Magee and a surprisingly effective secondary that collectively make up the top defense in the conference.

But more than anything it's the culture change that Todd Graham has implemented. Discipline and accountability is exactly what this program needed. This goes beyond committing fewer penalties and turnovers than last year, but just putting the players in the right frame of mind as they prepare for games and maximizing their talent.

6. ASU is one of the least penalized teams in the country. How much of an emphasis has that been in practice, and have you seen other reasons to think that discipline is much improved from where it was last year?

Huge emphasis to say the least. Graham has no patience whatsoever for mental miscues, such as penalties, and he has made that crystal clear ever since he was hired, really laying down the law in the spring. From that point on the Sun Devil squad has kept on the straight and narrow in many areas and committing fewer penalties is just one manifestation of the increased discipline. The players are just carrying themselves with much more dignity than last year, allowing themselves to be coached and finally becoming the cohesive group that they never were the last few seasons. All of those changes are strongly and directly attributed to increased discipline.

7. Obviously, Oregon was able to generate a lot of running yards off of the zone read against the Sun Devils. How much of that was Will Sutton being hurt from The Opening quarter?

When you have someone of the caliber of Sutton virtually sitting out of the entire game, against one of the best offenses in the nation, of course that hurts you as a team. In his second and last snap of the game he caused a fumble and even the Oregon players knew that if not injured Sutton would continue to harass their offense all night. After Sutton went out, fellow lineman Junior Onyeali missed a good portion of the contest as well with an injury and further exposed an already thin group.

But in all honesty, the ASU linebackers played poorly as well and didn't exercise the gap and assignment discipline that is paramount to even having a chance to slow the Ducks' offense. Granted, Oregon has and will make your defense look at its worst no matter who is on or off the field, so Sutton's loss was significant but wasn't the sole reason for the defense's performance.

8. What is your expectation for Sutton on Saturday? Is there a chance he'll play?

Graham said on Tuesday that Sutton was progressing and that every effort is being made to get him ready for Saturday. Graham added that he was going to update Sutton's status on Thursday. As media, we don't get to see the entire practice so I can't speak to how he looks during those sessions which makes it hard to predict whether he will suit up against UCLA or not.

9. I'll pose this one right back to you: Fill in the blanks. If ASU does __________ they will win the game. If UCLA does __________ they will win the game.

If ASU, with or without Sutton, is able to effectively stop the run and execute their offense as they have for most of the season they will win the game.

If UCLA is able to impose their will with the running game and at the same time neutralize ASU's rushing attack they will win the game.

10. What's your prediction for the game?

The term "make or break game" is one of the more worn out clichés in sports, but I still feel that it certainly applies to ASU and this contest. The Sun Devils have to prove to themselves, and its fans, that it has successfully bounced back from a humbling Oregon loss. With three road games in November, two of them being back to back at Top 25 teams (Oregon State and USC) it would behoove ASU to protect its home field this week, and earn a sixth win on the season and bowl eligibility status.

So with all this riding on the line for the Sun Devils, and the fact that more often than not they have played very well at home, I see ASU coming away with a 10 point win.

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