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College Football Preview 2015-2016: 14. Arizona State Sun Devils

D.J. Foster
14. Arizona State Sun Devils

2014-2015 Record: 10-3 (6-3 Pac-12)
Coach: Todd Graham, fourth year (28-12 overall)
Recruiting Rundown
Key Losses: WR Jaelen Strong, S Damarious Randall
Heisman Hopeful: RB/WR D.J. Foster
Breakout Player: LB D.J. Calhoun

How did the Arizona State Sun Devils follow up a breakthrough 2013 that saw them win the Pac-12 South and win ten games? With another 10-win season, and a near Pac-12 South title repeat, before a heart aching loss to archrival Arizona. 2014 was a clear statement to the rest of the Pac-12 and the college football nation that the Sun Devils had turned into legit players under Todd Graham. Entering Graham's fourth season in Tempe, it is reasonable to assume even bigger things will be expected of these Sun Devils after two straight ten-win campaigns. While the offense will be up to it's usual tricks, it is the defense that has most Sun Devils fans excited. Nine starters return to a solid group a year ago, and Graham has always been known as a defensive-minded head coach. With that stingy defense and plenty of experience offensively, big things could be in store in the Desert in 2015-2016.

Backfield: Mike Bercovici has seen plenty of adversity in his long career at ASU. First, he was passed on in 2012, losing the job to future NFL quarterback Brock Osweiler. And, then prior to 2013, he was once more benched in favor of Taylor Kelly this time. Bercovici decided not to transfer and stick it out with Graham and the Sun Devils, and he was rewarded with one of the greatest moments in college football last year, a late "Hail Mary" stunner to beat USC. Now, Bercovici takes over full time at the quarterback position for Arizona State (he saw action last season when Kelly was injured). Bercovici is a very similar player to Taylor Kelly, who led the ASU offense to enormous heights over the past two seasons. He has a great arm that can connect with Arizona State's multiple down-the-field threats, and he is a great athlete. Don't be surprised to see Bercovici make a lot of plays with his legs this season. Arizona State is likely to use the read-option a lot with an athletic quarterback and a number of playmakers surrounding him in the backfield. D.J. Foster, the former feature back for ASU, decided his NFL future would take a better turn with a move to slot receiver, opening up the running back position. The favorite has to sophomore Demario Richard, though Foster should still be carries; Graham and offensive coordinator Mike Norvell will be creative in getting him opportunities. Richard ran for 478 yards and four touchdowns last season and showed a clear ability to make plays. He isn't quite as quick or agile as Foster but he is slightly more powerful and a much more versatile back, giving Arizona State more options. Sophomore Kalen Ballage is sure to get plenty of carries as well this season after showing flashes of stardom a year ago. Ballage ran for 126 yards and three scores last year and is a short-yardage runner. ASU will use him in those short yardage situations and utilize him in the red zone. He will be a perfect change-of-pace to power, contrasting Arizona State's more speed and quickness style of offense. Joining those two will be De'Chavon Hayes, a junior college transfer who sat out last season. Hayes is as explosive as anyone, and the Sun Devils will also be sure to get him plenty of chances, after he sat out all of last year.

Receivers: Jaelen Strong's drop to the third round of this year's NFL Draft certainly shouldn't diminish at all just how dominant he was in a Sun Devil uniform. The All-Conference performer recorded 82 receptions for 1,165, along with ten touchdowns. Strong was the perfect blend of size (6'3") and speed and he will get an opportunity to shine at the next level with the Houston Texans. His departure leaves a big void in Arizona State's receiver corps, one that Graham hopes will be assuaged by the arrival of Foster to the unit. Foster is as quick as they come, and ASU will give him plenty of screens and short passes and just see what he does in the open field. Expect to see plenty of defenders receive broken ankles, from Foster's quick and effective jukes. Foster is already a proven playmaking receiver, as he picked up 688 yards on 62 catches last season, in addition to his 1,000-plus yards rushing. On the outside, Arizona State will most likely turn to senior Gary Chambers to take over as their primary deep threat. Chambers certainly showed he had the potential to be just that in 2014. Despite only reeling in 10 catches, Chambers picked up 204 yards, an average of 20.4 yards every time he touched the ball (he also had two touchdowns.) Chambers height, at 6'4", allows him to make tough catches that few receivers can make, and that size also enables him to power through weaker defenders. Joining Chambers will be junior Eric Lauderdale, who is a possible breakout candidate. Lauderdale was a prized JUCO recruit for Graham last season, but never got to see any chances on the field, as he did not clear academically. He has fixed his academic issues, and has made it clear that he is ready to contribute. Lauderdale made a living in junior college with his speed, and that should certainly transfer to ASU, though he will have to be smarter and more deceptive with how and when he uses that speed. Sophomore Ellis Jefferson is a solid weapon who showed real potential last season, with 11 catches for 144 yards; he should get even more targets this season. Senior tight end Kody Kohl hopes to make his claim as one of the best tight ends in the Pac-12 this season, after a very good 2014. Kohl had 16 catches for 167 yards last season, and displayed a real presence in the red zone, with four touchdowns. He has continued to work on his hands and route running ability this spring, and he could become a very formidable target. Reinforcements arrive for the receiver corps, with the arrival of UCLA transfer Devin Lucien and a couple talented prospects. Lucien is a proven big-play threat who also offers something in special teams, while guys like Terrell Chatman, out of Baton Rouge, along with three-star tight end Tommy Hudson offer real potential for down the road.

Offensive Line: Playing in an up-tempo system like that of Arizona State's is never easy on the big guys in the trenches, but this offensive line has worked hard to become faster and have more stamina. Though, they still have quite a lot of bulk on the unit, and they can bulldoze anyone. The star of the unit has to be senior Nick Kelly, an All-Pac-12 talent in 2014. The senior center is as good as you can find at the position; a strong, vocal leader with a great football IQ, Kelly will once more be leaned on to teach the young guys and keep others in check. Joining Kelly on the interior of the offensive line will be another strong, vocal veteran in senior Christian Westerman. Westerman is the slated starter at the left guard position, and is known for his great run blocking abilities. He also has the athleticism to get down the field and make key blocks, which helps make this Sun Devils' offense so much more dangerous. Fellow senior Vi Teofilo is the other returning starter on Arizona State's offensive line, and the likely starter at right guard. Teofilo is also a very athlete for an offensive linemen and a very versatile linemen. Having those three and a number of backs that can do damage between the tackles means ASU may look to become a little bit more powerful and more effective in short-yardage situations, adding a whole element to the offense. The tackle positions are the questions in the unit, though there appears to be a number of players ready to step up. At left tackle, junior Evan Goodman is the favorite to be the starter. Goodman has seen action in his ASU career and will adjust quickly into ASU's offensive line. He will certainly play an important role on this offensive line, having to protect Bercovici's blindside. At right tackle, expect senior William McGehee to take over full time. McGehee has fantastic size but will have to quickly work on recognizing blitzes and different defensive packages. If he does, he could grow into a very formidable presence on the right side of this offensive line. Junior Stephon McCray offers depth to the middle of the unit, as he can see action at either guard positions or perhaps even center if needed. That depth at guard and in the interior of this unit means that highly touted offensive line newcomer, Zach Robertson, likely won't see much action this season. A four-star prospect by most recruiting services, Robertson should use this time to add even more muscle to his 315-pound frame and become an even more powerful presence at either guard spot.

Defensive Line: This Arizona State defense lost just two starters, but unfortunately they were both pretty important contributors. That includes defensive end Marcus Hardison, who quietly put together a very good 2014, racking up 15 tackles for loss and ten sacks. His absence means someone else on this line will have to pick up main pass rushing duties. Perhaps the most likely candidate to take over will be sophomore Tashon Smallwood. Smallwood was more of a rotational end than anything else last season, but showed significant promise in that action. He recorded 5.5 TFL and two sacks, and will continue to work on his finesse moves. He already is powerful and has enough strength to throw protectors of the QB off of him. The defensive end position opposite of Smallwood is more of a question mark. Junior Edmond Boateng is a good-sized defensive linemen who could certainly work his way to plenty of snaps after solid action in 2014; he recorded 2.5 sacks over last year's campaign. Senior Demetrius Cherry is another interesting defensive linemen, as he has the versatility and frame to play either on the inside or at end. He is more natural at defensive linemen, considering his 6'5", 300-pound frame but he does have some decent pass rushing abilities. He can use those to beat slower offensive linemen. Big things are expected of sophomore Alani Latu, who certainly has a chance to see starts at defensive end. The end has a very bright future, and has showed real promise in the spring, despite just nine tackles in all of last season. He is a very intriguing player to watch during fall camp and on into the early portion of this season. The defensive tackle position is an interesting slot. Cherry should most likely fill in one spot, though the other one is a little bit more of a question. Senior Jaxon Hood has experience and talent, while junior Villami Latu has the potential to grow into a dominant run stopper. Another player that should push for a lot of snaps, all across the defensive line is Joseph Wicker. Wicker is rated as a four-star linemen by ESPN, 247 Sports and much more, and he was a pretty big pickup for Graham and staff. He has the size and quickness to play either at defensive end or tackle. It will be interesting to see where defensive coordinators Keith Patterson and Chris Ball give him the most opportunities. Another newcomer that should push for snaps from the get-go is none other than DeOnte Reynolds. The JUCO transfer is seen as a three-star find by most, and he proved to be very productive at Contra Costa College right in the Bay Area.

Salamo Fiso
Linebackers: Graham and his staff have quickly built a linebacker corps full of talent and playmakers, and a ton of different weapons will vie for increased snaps. The star of the unit has to be junior Salamo Fiso. Fiso showed that he could make plays all over the field in 2014, picking up 83 tackles with 11 of them coming for a loss. Blessed with a great football mind and now comfortable in the ASU system, Fiso is sure to continue to be a tackling machine for the Sun Devils this season. He has the versatility to play a number of different roles for this Arizona State team. Also back is another player who prides themselves on tackling, in senior Antonio Longino. Longino, the rare Sun Devil from the Midwest (East Cleveland), showed his playmaking ability throughout his junior campaign. He had 94 tackles, six tackles for loss, two sacks and a forced fumble that he would return all the way to the house. He should once more a very important role for the ASU defense, and he could also play a variety of different positions and roles. The most likely breakout player on this team and defense has to be sophomore D.J. Calhoun. Calhoun showed some real potential last season as a backup, with 35 tackles, with 6.5 of them going for a loss. Calhoun is a wonderful athlete who is gifted as a coverage 'backer and also blessed with excellent versatility. He has some real talent, and he could even usurp either Fiso or Longino from their starting gigs. Fellow sophomore Christian Sam is another guy that impressed in a reserve role last season, and should compete for important snaps. Sam is a gifted pass rusher with explosiveness who also recorded an interception a season ago. Junior Villami Moeakiola is a well-rounded linebacker with a great feel for the game who could also see starting snaps. Arizona State's linebacker corps did take a hit this spring, when highly regarded junior college transfer Davon Durant was arrested for domestic violence. Durant is rated by most as a four-star talent, and is rated as the top outside linebacker coming out of the JUCO ranks by ESPN. He was almost certain to add even more pass rushing potential and explosiveness to the unit. His future with the team is now in question, but there is still some hope he might suit up this season for Arizona State. Even with all the talent and potential in the unit, perhaps the most intriguing player in it this season will be none other than Kalen Ballage, who will also spend time at linebacker as well as running back, as earlier mentioned. Ballage will most likely see some serious action as a hybrid end-rush linebacker and he will find ways to change games.

Secondary: While the loss of Marcus Hardison severely hurt Arizona State's defensive line, the loss of Damarious Randall may hurt the defensive backfield even more. Randall did it all for the Sun Devils a season ago, recording 106 tackles, 9.5 TFL, three interceptions and nine pass deflections in 2014. Now, he is off to the NFL, where he hopes to make an impact in the Green Bay Packers' secondary. His departure leaves a major void in the Arizona State secondary, but luckily there is still plenty of talent and experience at other places in it. Senior Lloyd Carrington is a proven shutdown cornerback, who picked up 59 tackles, along with five pass deflections. Carrington also showed his ability to get after the quarterback and make big plays in the backfield. He had three sacks last season, pretty impressive for a corner. Also back in the secondary is going to be senior Jordan Simone, who is ASU's leading returning tackler. Simone had 100 tackles last year, with 74 of them coming solo, showing his great form in tackling in the open field. Having great tacklers in open space is a major plus for the Sun Devils, considering the vast amount of spread offenses and speed inside the Pac-12. Simone also added two interceptions and a forced fumble. Simone is slated to start at the free safety position. Don't be surprised to see him making big plays and big hits all over the field this season. Senior cornerback Kweishi Brown also returns alongside Carrington. Brown is a great athlete with the strength to hang with some of the conference's bigger receivers. He was prone to mistakes at times last season, but another year under his belt will help, and he is a proven interception magnet, with three last season. The big question comes at Randall's former position, the strong safety spot. Sophomores James Johnson and Marcus Ball are two of the names that are most likely to replace Randall. Both are great athletes and offer real potential, but don't be surprised at all to see some growing pains early in this secondary. Beyond Brown and Carrington, who could form one of the conference's best cornerback duos, a number of freshman are waiting in the wings. These include four-star prospect Stanley Norman, a versatile playmaker. The former U.S. Army All-American should see opportunities this season. Three-star gem Kareem Orr is a gifted safety who was a steal from SEC country and could offer something down the line.

Special Teams: ASU's special teams could be a considerable strength this season, especially with kicker Zane Gonzalez returning. Gonzalez earned All-Conference honors last year, after knocking down 22 of 27 last season. Punter Matt Haack is back for his junior campaign as well, after a productive 2014.

It is a serious testament to how quickly ASU has risen under Graham that some very high profile NFL prospects (Randall, Strong) can leave and the Sun Devils aren't expected to miss a beat, even with a technically new quarterback. Though, Bercovici is no usual first-year starter. He has played in big moments and he knows how to get the job done. Playmakers like Foster, Demario Richard and Kalen Ballage will only help Bercovici. The defense is full of veterans and full of talent, and could turn into one of the conference's most stout units. An interesting season opener against Texas A&M could give ASU a nice, quality opening victory. The start of the conference schedule, though is pretty brutal and it will test the gifted Sun Devils. Though, Arizona State has proven they are a mainstay in the Pac-12 South title race and they should once more be a serious challenge for a conference championship and possibly a trendy dark horse Playoff contender.

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