Tag Archives: DJ Foster

Pac-12 Early Preview: Arizona State Sun Devils

It is safe to say that Arizona State wants to forget about the 2015 football season. High expectations that went nowhere left many alumni, fans, coaches, and probably even players wondering what the heck happened.

Simply put, the Sun Devils underperformed on all levels. Between the coaches and players, there is plenty of blame to go around for last season, but have the Sun Devils learned anything from the 2015 season that they can apply to the 2016 season? The proof will be in pudding for Head Coach Todd Graham who can’t afford another season like this past one.

However, let’s not dwell on the past. Time to focus on the future for Arizona State.

Schedule

With the Sun Devils being in arguably one of the toughest divisions in all of college football it’s going to be another challenging year for them to gain any traction in terms of a winning season. With the schedule they have there are some high points where they can get some wins and other areas where it’s going to be difficult to come out on top. Let’s start with the areas that could be positives for Arizona State.

The Sun Devils have three out of their first four games at Sun Devil Stadium. They begin with Northern Arizona, Texas Tech, and California at home. In between the Texas Tech and California games, there is an away game against the University of Texas at San Antonio that the Devils should be able to win. Obviously the best case scenario is coming out of this stretch 4-0, but as the Devils have proven before, that is not going to be the case for them. If they come out of this opening four-game stretch 2-2, I would almost considerate that mark a gift.

The part of the schedule that gets difficult for the Sun Devils is just about the rest of the season. After the California game, they take on in order, at USC, UCLA, at Colorado, Washington State, at Oregon, bye week, Utah, at Washington and at Arizona. With the talent that they are losing, I am hard pressed to find many wins in there. Four of those teams have returning quarterbacks while Arizona State does not and having that experience under center is so crucial to a winning season in college football.

Additions/Losses

If you haven’t paid attention to what has gone on with Arizona State’s coaching changes you should have been. It’s been a crazy offseason for the coaches of Sun Devil Nation. First of all, Mike Norvell, the offensive coordinator left to become the head coach at Memphis. Norvell took Chris Ball to be his defensive coordinator and took Chip Long to be his offensive coordinator. Once those dominoes fell for the Sun Devils, Graham had to act quick on their replacements.

Coach Graham hired Southern Mississippi Offensive Coordinator Chip Lindsey as his new offensive coordinator. Coach Graham did say that the common terminology between what ASU has run and what Coach Lindsey will run is similar and that was a big determining factor in making the Lindsey hire. Josh Martin moved from running backs coach to tight ends coach as well.

Another couple moves that may turn out to be the best hires for them are Joe Seumalo and Jay Norvell. Seumalo comes to ASU from UNLV, but is best known for his time at Oregon State as their defensive line coach. Seumalo had one of the most dominant units at Oregon State for a number of years. Jay Norvell on the other hand, comes to ASU from the Texas Longhorns. Norvell will be the Passing Game Coordinator/Wide Receivers Coach and will bring his immense experience to that part of the offense. Will these changes help or hinder the Sun Devils? We shall see as the team progresses through spring and summer practices.

As far as player personnel changes go, the Devils will be losing some good talent. They will have to replace some of the offensive line, Mike Bercovici at quarterback, and DJ Foster who played running back and receiver. The loss of Foster will be felt in a huge way because you could put DJ Foster in different places on the field and it would alter what the defense was doing. Who will fill that role now? That’s a good question going into spring practice and one that the coaching staff would like to figure out quickly.

Final Analysis

The Pac-12 Conference is a tough conference to have success in and there has to be continuity and stability in your program. I’m not sure that is the case at Arizona State. The 2016 season is going to be a season of transition for them. From the new coaches and schemes to the new players on the offensive side of the ball it could be a long year for the Sun Devil faithful. Coach Graham can’t have another year like 2015 or the fans will turn on him. The seat is warm for Todd Graham and it won’t take much for that seat to be at a broil. This could end up being the most important coaching job he does in 2016. Forks Up!

Territorial Cup: What Did the Sun Devils Gain from Winning?

The Territorial Cup is the rivalry game between Arizona State an Arizona, and to the fans of those two schools it is the only game that matters. The game is nicknamed “The Dual in the Desert” and for the most part it has been your typical rivalry game due to its intense nature, fights in the stands, fights on the field, and wanting to have 365 days of bragging rights in the state of Arizona.

However for most of this great rivalry, the game has not had much importance outside of the state of Arizona. The implications of this game have not resulted in much of altering of the national title picture. There have been a handful of times when this game has changed who may go to the Rose Bowl Game or maybe even the Fiesta Bowl, but has not determined who wins the National Championship.

Saturday was another one of those times where the implications were only revolving around which lower tier bowl either one of these two teams would be going to. The Arizona Wildcats were already bowl eligible, while Arizona State was teetering on going below the .500 level for the first time all season or becoming bowl eligible themselves.

When it was all said and done for day the Sun Devils made the plays when needed, finally decided to throw the deep ball with success, and used their better overall team speed to come out with a 52-37 win. But questions remain, what does this mean in the bigger picture? What is really gained by the Sun Devils by having an average season?

Every college football coach will tell you that it helps in recruiting. This is a double edged sword thought. High school athletes like to see a potential school that they may attend be in the post season, but it doesn’t help if your post season includes going to Sun Bowl, Foster Farms Bowl, or the Las Vegas Bowl. Players like to see the school going to the Rose Bowl, Fiesta Bowl, or to the College Football Playoff. Those are types of games that impress recruits and will help the Sun Devils get the four and five star recruits that they need to build their program.

The other aspect that of making the bowl season that coaches will say benefits the program are the extra practices that they get. I would agree that it helps, but it’s only helpful to the current team. Players that play behind DJ Foster, Mike Bercovici, or any other first team player on the Sun Devils don’t get the reps or experience, so the benefits for the team as a whole are a bit over exaggerated.

All the preseason thought was that the Sun Devils would be a team that could possibly make the Rose Bowl or even the college football playoff, but we know how that played out. What’s the overall gain for the Devils then? When your team has an average season at best nothing is gained.

This year for the Devils has been a season of “what might have been”. There have been injuries, but a team that is picked by some for the playoff overcomes those injuries. Any other excuse they may throw out there just doesn’t fit for this version of the Sun Devils. The Devils tried selling a type of Kool-Aid that in end, was just too watered down to make anything of consequence happen in 2015. They will be going bowling this year, but it was more of a Forks Down year than a Forks Up year. Time to start looking toward 2016 Sun Devil fans.

Sun Devil Disappointment in 2015

As college football goes through its late-season matchups and rivalry games you would think that teams would have their offensive and defensive schemes down, continue working on being consistent on both sides of the ball, and start peaking as we get to bowl season. However, if you are Arizona State you have a different way of looking at things.

During the summer we were told that this Sun Devil team had all the potential to be a possible college football playoff team. Once that possibility was spoke of, it just may have been the kiss of death for Arizona State because they have not even come close to resembling that team that was talked about in July and August.
What have been the issues for the Sun Devils? Where do you want me to start?

First of all, the Sun Devils can’t get any consistency on the offensive side at all. The consistency part starts with the offensive play calling and that starts with Sun Devil offensive coordinator Mike Norvell. Norvell by all accounts is considered a head coach in waiting for some school in the future, but if this season is taken into account Norvell may not be getting any head coaching possibilities anytime soon.

Norvell’s play calling has been predictable, boring, and unimaginative. Do you want me to keep going? For an offense that tries to go up-tempo and move the ball quickly it has rarely got to that. Against Washington State, they had tempo going, they were running the ball effectively, but when they got inside the 20 Norvell decided to start throwing the ball. By doing this he halted any rhythm the offense had and took the ball out of Kalen Ballage’s hands. That was only one instance in a season full of them.

The other aspect of Norvell and his high-flying offense is that he has a quarterback that is more of a pro-style type than a spread quarterback. Mike Bercovici inability to run the zone read is making this offense stagnant. Teams are literally having their defensive ends come crashing down off the edge knowing full well that Bercovici is not going to keep the ball and run. Having Bercovici back there not only makes it stagnant, but it also makes the offense predictable.

Defensively, the Sun Devils can’t tackle to save their lives right now. Last Saturday afternoon against the Washington Huskies there was at least 10-12 missed tackles and it just about cost them the game that they won 27-17. The Sun Devil defense wants to make the shoulder tackle even more popular than it is in college football. The art of tackling has been lost on college football players. They don’t do it anymore. What they do is try to bring them down with their shoulder(s). Maybe it’s a skill they don’t practice as much or feel they don’t need to, but in reality, it certainly is a skill that needs to be practiced. The Huskies had multiple times when they should have been stopped for a loss, only to end up getting a positive gain out of it because of the lack of wrapping up by the Sun Devils.

The defensive backs are letting receivers get wide open and run away from them. Something has to be done with the scheme because whatever schemes they have been using are not working. More jam techniques need to be employed and not giving free releases to these Pac-12 receivers.

At the end of the day, the Sun Devils had all the potential in the world to be a phenomenal team and to really make some noise in the Pac-12, and even around the country this year. It’s been a season of could have, should have, would have for Arizona State and as a consequence they’ll be in a lower-tier bowl game, or maybe not even make it to a bowl game. The Sun Devils need to give something to their fans that allows them to get excited for 2016. That something starts now with their rivalry game against Arizona.

Desperate Times Call for Desperate Measures for the Ducks

With the season getting to and past the half-way point it’s time for teams that are on the brink of disaster to step forward and avoid falling into a lost season. The Arizona State Sun Devils and the Oregon Ducks are in that desperate mode for a win. Desperation can breed focus for a team or it can cause a team to be nervous and tight. What will it do for the Devils and Ducks?

As usual the Sun Devils came out sluggish, couldn’t get anything really going, missed two field goal tries, and made their hometown fans feel real anxious. While the Sun Devils were struggling, the Ducks sprinted out to a 10-0 lead early behind a great 64-yard run by sensational running back Royce Freeman. As the Devils were struggling to find their way on the offensive side of the ball, I was starting to wonder if this early lead for the Ducks would turn into a blowout win for them.

The second quarter was when the Devils got the offense churning. Mike Bercovici led the Sun Devils on a three-minute drive that ended with a touchdown pass to Mike Lucien. That made the game 10-7 and the energy was back in the building. The crowd was back on its feet pleading for their beloved Sun Devils to continue their good play. The Ducks put an end to the good feeling.

The next possession for the Ducks was a quick two minute drill as Vernon Adams connected with Darren Carrington on a 39-yard strike to push the lead back up to 17-7. You could feel the humid air just get sucked right out of Sun Devil Stadium with that score. The Sun Devils were not done scoring though.

Momentum had shifted back to the Ducks and the Sun Devil faithful were back to their nervous selves. The Sun Devils decided that they were going to make this a game however.

The Devils struck quickly. Mike Bercovici hit wide receiver Gary Chambers for a 39-yard strike and all of a sudden it was 17-14 and momentum had once again come over to the Sun Devil sideline.

A sense of urgency with both these teams had become paramount in this game and the second half became much more interesting.

The third quarter was the quarter of fireworks.

Arizona State started with the ball in the third quarter and took it down into Duck territory, but only came out with a field goal. However, that was a major accomplishment for their kicker because he was a having a terrible evening. He had missed two field goals earlier and that may have been in his mind with this one, but he blocked it out and put the ball through the uprights. That made the score 17-17.

Oregon takes over and Vernon Adams immediately throws an interception. The momentum was back in favor of the Sun Devils and five plays later the Sun Devils hit pay dirt when their little stud running back Demario Richards ran the ball in from 22 yards out to make the score 24-17. That score seemed to demoralize Oregon to an extent. They appeared flat, disinterested, and just about ready to get back on the plane to Eugene, however, they were only down by a touchdown.

Oregon is a team that has been trying to find itself all year in this post Marcus Mariota era. It’s been a struggle for them because Mariota did so much for them and may have been able to hide some of their deficiencies, and the Pac-12 teams they have been beating up on for the past three years have exacted a bit of revenge upon the Ducks.
Oregon takes the ball and connects on a field goal to bring the score to 24-20, in favor of the Sun Devils. Could the Ducks take the lead and win this game?

The Sun Devils were not going to go quietly into the night for the Ducks. ASU came up with a quick score again. A 34-yard run by Kalen Ballage, a great pass to DJ Foster for 25 yards, and then a one-yard pass from Bercovici to Demario Richard in the end zone made the score 31-20 Arizona State and Sun Devil Stadium was rocking and rolling.
Desperation causes weird things to happen. Enter Charles Nelson of Oregon.

Charles Nelson takes the ensuing kickoff 100 yards to the house and the control that the Sun Devils had seized was GONE in the blink of an eye. That made it 31-27. The Ducks were not done with scoring in the quarter. They proceed to take their next drive and score on a 62-yard score by Kani Benoit and now Sun Devil fans were looking for anxiety pills because their 11 point lead had totally disappeared and became a three point deficit at 34-31.

In the fourth quarter all hell breaks loose.

ASU takes their opening drive of the quarter and ties the ball game up at 34. Now it’s anybody’s game and that feeling of whoever has the ball last will win the game is coming over me. Can either team take control of a game that they both need in a profound way? The answer came, at least I thought, a few minutes later when the Sun Devils got a five yard touchdown pass from Mike Bercovici to his tight end Kody Kohl to put Arizona State up by seven at 41-34.

We all know that as long as there is time on the clock, anything can happen, and that is exactly what happened. The Ducks, the team with the frantic offense, the team with the ability to score in bunches, and the team that can strike lightning fast does just that. They score with Vernon Adams falling away, throwing the ball to the back of the end zone and one of their talented receivers reaching up and snagging the ball for the score. Let’s not forget that there were 12 seconds left in the game. Tie game at 41 apiece. Sun Devil hearts were breaking all over the stadium.

We go to one overtime. Both teams score touchdowns and the score remains deadlocked at 48. How ASU is in this predicament is beyond me at this point because they have about 350 yards rushing and had the Ducks gassed, but crazy things happen in the Pac-12 on a Thursday night.

The second overtime begins. Both teams score touchdowns and we are knotted up at 55-55. The tension is thick and I have no idea who is going to win because neither defense is really playing well at all. They are tired and it looks like they will play until the next morning.

Play starts for the third overtime and the Ducks score on a touchdown throw, but it appeared that Bralon Addison had his foot out of bounds on the catch. It goes to replay. The controversial play is upheld. The Ducks, by rule had to go for a two point conversion, but it fails. Sun Devils take over and Mike Bercovici is intercepted by Duck defensive back Arrion Springs. Ball game.

At the end of the day, the Oregon Ducks made one more play than the Sun Devils. The play calling by the Sun Devils certainly should be called into question, but football is about making plays when needed. Arrion Springs of Oregon, made that play and maybe saved a season for his team.

Sun Devils Blitz the Bruins

The Rose Bowl Stadium. Not much more needs to be said when it comes to college football and this legendary stadium. All I needed was Brett Musberger saying “You are looking live at the Rose Bowl…” I have seen football here before and walked around these hallowed grounds and read every plaque about the history of this fine stadium, so I am familiar with the Rose Bowl. I have seen my beloved Oregon State Beavers win and lose here, but I have also seen in person the greatest college football game ever, The National Championship between the USC Trojans and the Texas Longhorns in 2006.

Walking up to the stadium my stomach was a bit on edge because this wasn’t an everyday type of thing. Iit’s reporting on a football game from the pressbox of the Rose Bowl. I was very careful to soak everything in. From the marching band practicing in the parking lot, to the fans setting up their tailgating fun, to the kids playing catch, and finally getting to the elevator to take me to the pressbox.

Talking with a few UCLA fans on the way in, they were in obvious high spirits about where the program is headed. They like head coach Jim Mora, but they want to hold off on all the Josh Rosen Heisman hype and the whole “Chosen Rosen” talk. All the fans I talked to basically said that the hype is fun to talk about, but they wanted to remind people that Rosen is still a freshman quarterback.

Jeff Jones, season ticket holder even said, “I took my grandson to the spring game and got to meet Rosen afterwards. He threw a pass to my grandson, but as he was throwing the ball I noticed how slight he was in the shoulders. It concerned me because if he takes a hit to his shoulder area it could be devastating for him. I like what I see so far, but he’s a freshman still.”

This game was a tough one for me to really call a winner. I know what you’re thinking, ASU has struggled mightily and UCLA comes in 4-0. So what is so tough to call about a game like that? Well, this is the Pac-12 and every week things happen that you don’t see coming. Oregon fans can attest to that. To me, this had the feeling of a trap game. A game in which one team may think that they can just show up and win because of the struggles of the opposing team. Would I be right?

Through the first quarter there was not much flow to the game. Neither team could impose their will on each other. There were a few big plays, but nothing that broke the back of either side. Josh Rosen could not get on track due to pressure blitzes from the Sun Devils, and Mike Bercovici wasn’t able to establish much of anything with Devil offense. It was mostly a field position type of quarter. The only constant up to this point was the pressure put on by the Sun Devil defense.

The pressure kept coming in the second quarter. Every time I looked down on the game, another blitz was coming off the edge of the defensive line or up the middle. The tsunami of pressure kept coming as the quarter went on.

The halftime score was 15-10 Arizona State.

Still, there was no flow to the game, and neither team looked like it was going to pull away from the other. However, the Sun Devils had made enough plays to take the lead and they were making life miserable for Josh Rosen.

What were the Bruins going to do coming out of the half? What were the Sun Devils going to do? The answer came pretty quick in the form of Sun Devil scoring. The Devils started getting chunks of yardage on the ground and loosening up the up the secondary with some intermediate throws. Then, to cap off a great drive by the Devils, Mike Bercovici rambles 34 yards for the score. All of sudden it was 22-10 and the UCLA fans were concerned.

UCLA was not doing anything offensively. Josh Rosen was throwing off his back foot, scrambling for his life, and was not completing anything to his receivers. It was the dictionary definition of a struggling quarterback.

The scoring was not over for the Sun Devils though. After another miserable three and out for the Bruins, the Devils put together a drive that ended with Bercovici finding DJ Foster in the end zone for the score. Now it was 29-10 Sun Devils. They had taken control of the game and were forcing some of the Bruin faithful to the exits with plenty of time left in the third quarter.

The game was officially on upset alert for the 80,113 people in attendance.

However, there is always the fourth quarter.

Nobody said this was going to be easy for the Sun Devils. They had momentum, the lead, and consistency with their offense. Josh Rosen and the Bruins had other ideas.

Suddenly, everything that the Devils had worked so hard for was gone. Play calling got stagnant and Bercovici threw an interception. Then Rosen starts getting comfortable in the pocket and making plays. The Bruins roar back to get within six points, 29-23, with nine minutes left in the game. The UCLA crowd is on their feet urging their team on. The Sun Devils look as if they are on the verge of collapsing, but as Lee Corso would say, “Not so fast my friend.”

What the Devils needed was a drive to take time off the clock. They got two huge plays on fourth down to keep the drive alive. The drive did stall, but this was a moment for a punter, yes, a punter, to come up big. Mike Haak, the Sun Devil punter, booted the ball inside the Bruins’ one yard line.

With the Bruins pinned against the wall, the Sun Devils came with pressure and got their second safety of the game. The score was now 31-23.

The scoring was not done though. The Sun Devils capped off their miraculous win with a crazy 34-yard touchdown run by Kalen Ballage, helped by the offensive line pushing him into the end zone. Game over.

If asked if I was shocked by this I might tell you yes, but as we all know, this is the Pac-12 Conference where you can’t take anything for granted. This is a huge win for the Sun Devils and a huge boost for their confidence which was severely lacking in the past month. How do they respond next week? It’s anybody’s guess because we have seen them play well like on Saturday night, but then we have seen them look like the JV squad against USC and even Cal-Poly. Where does UCLA go from here? They looked as if they were sleep walking for a good portion of the game. They couldn’t deal with the constant blitzing of Arizona State and that is something that needs to be addressed for them.

In the end, the better team won this game, however, questions remain for both squads. The coming weeks will tell us how they respond to this game. For the time being, the Sun Devils can bask in this win and enjoy the spoils that come with it. Forks Up Sun Devil nation.

 

 

Pac-12 Notebook: Devils Dealing with Defeat

Week one is in the books and if you’re attached to the Sun Devil football program in any way you had a rough weekend. The much anticipated match-up between Arizona State and Texas A&M went the way of the Aggies on Saturday night to the dismay of Sun Devil fans, coaches, and anybody who roots for the Devils.

The Sun Devils came into the game as a team that could take down a similar team to them from the SEC, but the Aggies were the ones who made the plays when needed and didn’t make as many critical mistakes, and as a result, they were the ones who came out victorious 38-17 in Houston, Texas.

What went wrong for the Devils? During his Monday press conference Head Coach Todd Graham seemed to point the finger at break downs in the coaching of his players. He did not like the play of the special teams which gave up two huge returns for touchdowns from Phoenix native Christian Kirk, but pointed out the deficiencies in special teams coverage is a coaching mistake and that it can be corrected.

“We underachieved in the punt game. That’s coaching though. We need to have the best guys out there. We didn’t have the best guys out there during special teams.” Coach Graham stated.

Yeah. That would be a good move to make sure that their best guys are out there, and by that I mean the guys who should be out there during those special team moments. Coach Graham is right when he says it’s a coaching mistake. He talked about his players trying to be in the right spot, but they went to the exact opposite spot on special teams allowing the big returns for touchdowns with Christian Kirk.

During the press conference Coach Graham was upbeat and talking about how the team was remaining positive and seeing that their team goals were still right in front of them. Something echoed by quarterback Mike Bercovici.

“We’re excited for next Saturday. Coach Graham is keeping our heads up and keeping us positive despite the loss on Saturday.” Bercovici said.

When asked about the absence of running back Kalen Ballage and how that affected things with the offense. Ballage who flew back to Phoenix before the game due to contracting mono was a big missing piece for the Devils and Coach Graham wasn’t happy about sending him back to Phoenix.

“That is something that I can’t control and I have to do what is best for the team and the player in those type of situations.” Graham added.

Not having Ballage available for the offense was a big loss. Anytime you lose a player that is 6’2’, 225lbs and can run like a deer it’s a loss that is hard to overcome. The return for Kalen Ballage to the team is about 10-14 days, but it’s hard to tell with mono. With Kalen out, they had to play guys in spots where they may not have been ready and that can hurt a team’s offensive flow.

“Kalen is a huge part of what we do offensively, especially on special teams.” Graham added when asked about how Ballage’s absence affected rotations on the team.

“He’ll return when he’s 100% and our doctors say he is healthy.” Coach Graham said.

With the “coach” speak going on between Coach Graham and quarterback Mike Bercovici to the media on Monday, there is a certain amount of spin happening, so that the Devil fans don’t lose their faith after just one game.

“I have a lot of confidence in what we are doing. The sky is not falling. We will rise again.” Graham added as he left the podium.

I do have confidence in Coach Graham to keep the players heads up and to keep thinking positive. To think that this is the end of the Sun Devils dreams for the 2015 season would be a bit premature at this point. The Devils next two games are against inferior competition and they should be coming out of the first three games 2-1.

What the Devils need to worry about is the next two games after that. USC at home on September 26 and an away game at UCLA the following week. Kalen Ballage needs to be back by then to give the Devils as much firepower as needed against the upper echelon of the Pac-12 South.

Somehow they need to get D.J. Foster more involved in the offense. Against Texas A&M he seemed a bit out of sorts. He has switched to being a receiver, but earlier in the summer Coach Graham said he would see plenty of touches as a running back. Well coach, where was it on Saturday night? Foster is a difference maker for the offense and opens things up for other players like Mike Bercovici. The quarterback knows how valuable D.J. is and the type of pressure he puts on opposing defenses.

When asked about the importance of D.J. Foster to the offense, Mike Bercovici stated, “D.J can make a meal out of a crumb.”

That is true. I’m positive that OC Mike Norvell knows that and will do whatever he needs to do to make sure that Foster is more involved next Saturday night against Cal-Poly.

At the end of the day, the Devils know that they did not perform to the best of their ability against the Aggies. The team can spin the negative any way they want, but there are things that need to be addressed and fixed. Special teams play, creating offensive flow, and making sure Bercovici gets the ball out quicker to create “tempo” for the Sun Devils. As I stated earlier, the next two opponents will probably allow the Devils to do just that.

Don’t lose faith Sun Devil fans. Get your Forks Up next Saturday night and enjoy the 2015 ride.

Game Prep: Arizona State Sun Devils

It’s that time of year college football fans. Coaches and their respective teams are gearing up for their season openers. Getting a team ready for the regular season is tough task for any coach and when the team has a tough opener the pressure gets added exponentially. Arizona State is in that situation with its season opener in Houston against a talented SEC team in Texas A&M.

In the last month I’ve seen how the Sun Devils have progressed with their preparation for their season opener. Being at their media day, scrimmage, and practices, it is apparent that the coaches and players are doing the necessary things to be ready for the season opener. The biggest thing that I have gathered about this version of Arizona State is that the team takes its lead from Coach Graham. The head coach is the definition of a leader. He has rules, consequences, and doesn’t waver from them. He instills discipline that every player has bought into because these players know they have to “Live right, eat right, sleep right” to play for him. That phrase is a creed for Sun Devil coaches and players and something that reminds them to do what they need for the betterment of themselves and the Sun Devil football program.

The minimum expectation for the program is to win the Pac-12 Championship, as it is with every other Pac-12 program. After hearing Coach Graham talk, interviewing players, and seeing how they interact with one another on the sidelines it is clear that they believe that the Pac-12 title is within their grasp, as well as even greater things during the 2015 season.

The belief has been started by Coach Graham and now they are implementing that thinking into how they are on the field. While viewing Sun Devil practices everything is up tempo, players are never walking between drills, coaches trying to get the best out of the players during everything, and players expecting the absolute best out of each other.

When the coaches don’t get what they want the players hear them loud and clear. During one drill where players were working on angles with tackling and they were not doing it correctly, Graham used motivation only a football coach could. “Get your ass down, and go to work.” The coach shouted at the players. Soon after that the players were doing the drill correctly and the players were on each other to continue the correct way of doing the drill. Accountability. It’s something that also is part of the belief system with the Sun Devils.

Being at the media day and practices it is also evident that accountability is a part of the thought process. Kalen Ballage stated to me that “This team is a brotherhood, we hold each accountable on and off the field, and if we don’t hold each other accountable, the coaches are right there to hold us to the high expectations we have set for this program.”

DJ Foster stated as much to me, too. “We are team first, nobody bigger than the team or each other.”

Impressive to hear such things from different players in the program, but once again, if you listen to what their head coach preaches to them it is no wonder why the players imitate their coach.

Bottom line for the Arizona State football program is that they have a great leader in Todd Graham who is in total control of the program, wants the best out of his players and coaches, and demands that accountability be a part of everybody’s mind set who is in the program.

As for as their opener with Texas A&M, the players feel they are pretty close to being ready for the big match up. DJ Foster, told me, “We are looking forward to the match up against a quality team. I love kicking off with a big team like this.”

Coach Graham likes how everything has progressed through the scrimmage, camp, and fall practices so far. At Saturday’s practice I asked Graham if there were any concerns that he still had. “I don’t spend a lot of time worrying,”he quickly said. “We are working to be better every day. The big thing in week one is to not beat yourself by giving up big plays.” Graham added.

With all the film sessions that the players go through and the attention to detail that the coaches demand of the players the Sun Devils will be ready to go against Texas A&M. This is a great match up to start the year with because of all the talk about which conference is better, the Pac-12 or the SEC?

As DJ Foster put it when I asked him about the conference talk, “I think we’ve proved the kind of ball we play in this conference. We bring a lot of intensity, and we have speed.”

The players are confident, the coaches are confident, and I think the Sun Devil fans are confident that this season opener could be the start of something special. Forks Up Sun Devil fans, it’s going to be fun ride!

 

Media Day: Arizona State Sun Devils

The Sun Devils are looking to go where no other Sun Devil team has ventured in a long, long time. That place? They are looking to win the Pac 12 South Division, winning the Pac 12 Championship game, and then getting to the playoff and winning the National Championship.

In fact, that thought is on the walls around the offices of the Sun Devils coaches, administration, and the athletic center for the players. It is one of the first things you notice when you enter the Sun Devils athletic center. “One Purpose: National Champs” is the thought that Coach Graham has put into the minds of his players, coaches, and fans. Spending the day with the Sun Devil players and listening to Coach Graham talk to the media, one thing was certainly apparent. Graham has the ear of everybody at Arizona State and he is running his program the way that any college football fan would want their football program run.

“Winning the Pac 12 Championship is the minimum expectation for us. We are climbing the mountain of success and the closer we get, the mountain gets steeper, but we expect to get there.” Coach Graham replied when asked about expectations for the program.

Coach Graham told the crowd of media that since he has been the coach for the Sun Devils that he is always working on making his players “mentally mature and that they are always working on being mature in every aspect of life. Being mature takes discipline and it’s something that is expected of my players.”

He expects his players to be disciplined in the classroom by going to class, doing the work, and passing those classes. Graham has the “Scholar-Baller” program where his players who have earned a 3.0 GPA in during the previous year get to have a special patch on their jerseys that designate that they are doing well in the classroom. The program has been around since the early 2000’s for the Devils and has shown amazing success with the program.

The other area of discipline that Graham wants is that his players buy into what they are trying to do in Tempe. He has a saying of “Live right, eat right, sleep right.” Each player that I talked with reiterated that saying and explained what it had done for them to develop as a player. Kalen Ballage, sophomore running back, from Denver, Colorado who will see plenty of time in the backfield this upcoming season said to me “I wasn’t sleeping right at all last year. I was so worried about why I wasn’t playing, that it affected how I performed.”

Ballage continued on saying that “this team is a brotherhood and that is what Coach Graham preaches.

When asked about the one team that he would like to beat, the answer came swift. “UCLA because of the beat down that they gave us last year.”

To Kalen Ballage, the games with UCLA are giving rise to an intense rivalry that he welcomes. Here’s the reason why Ballage wants to beat the Bruins so bad. UCLA was the first team in Sun Devil history to put 60 points on the scoreboard AT Sun Devil Stadium. Revenge is on the mind of these Sun Devil players.

DJ Foster. Starting running back/receiver for Arizona State. Foster has made the move from running back to receiver for the upcoming season, but according to Coach Graham that doesn’t mean we won’t see Foster line up in the backfield during the season. I asked Coach Graham how DJ was handling the move to receiver. He replied that the media has made this a bigger deal than it is for the team.

“DJ has handled it with the amount of maturity that we have come to expect from him. DJ has been the MVP of camp so far. DJ is the most dynamic, versatile player I have ever coached. He’s taking himself to the next level. He will get his touches at both positions, but DJ has humbled himself to accept the new role that he has.” Said Graham in a matter of fact tone.

The coaching staff has no doubt that the move for DJ Foster will reap benefits in 2015, but want us to remember that Foster is such the athlete that he will cause havoc for the defense no matter where he lines up on any given play.

After talking with DJ myself, he is excited that the season is getting underway, but when I asked him about the change in position, he hesitated a little bit and responded by saying that “learning the small things that go with the position has been a little tough. I know I have had to concentrate on being a better route runner, but I will do anything to help the team win.”

After talking to these Sun Devil players about all the hype going around the program, they all repeated the same line. They will be “humble, take it one game at a time, and try to go 1-0 every week.” It is obvious that Coach Graham is not going to let the players get ahead of themselves or let them lose their focus on what the goal is week to week.

DJ Foster put it pretty good when he said, “The South division is so loaded and we can’t really look ahead or we take our eye off the current opponent and that’s when we will lose.”

After saying that, the Oregon State game from last year popped into my head because ASU was upset by the Beavers in Corvallis and lost out on a chance to really cement their claim to the Pac 12 South. Don’t overlook anybody, especially in the Pac 12 or all other goals go by the wayside for the team.

Media Day was a chance to hear the players and coaches talk about their expectations and vision for the 2015 season and that is exactly what we got from Todd Graham and his players. There are lofty expectations for the program this year with all the depth and experience coming back. Can the Sun Devils meet those expectations? Time will tell, but don’t put anything past this group of Sun Devils and Coach Graham. Forks Up Sun Devil fans!

Leave a comment below, follow Mike on Twitter @pigskinopinion or e-mail him at [email protected].

Players to Watch in 2015

We’ve just entered the dead zone for most sports fans. Save for the Super Bowl this Sunday, football is over at both the college and professional levels and it will be six months before pre-season coverage really starts to kick into high gear. I’d consider myself a fairly big NBA fan, and though it’s enough to get me by until the start of baseball and summer, nothing is the same as football weekends. And if you are like me and live in the Midwest or another northern state, you’re dealing with weather that makes you not want to leave the house for weeks at a time AND no football. Sometimes you wonder if it’s worth getting up in the morning (ok, slight exaggeration). Reading absurdly premature 2015 college football articles helps me get my football fix, and here is a list of players that I can’t wait to watch play this coming fall.

Deshaun Watson – QB Clemson (featured image)

It was unknown if Watson would play much in 2014 with Senior QB Cole Stoudt on the roster, but it didn’t take long to tell who was the far superior player. By the third week Watson was getting the majority of the snaps and provided a three game taste of what the future would be like for the Clemson offense. Unfortunately it was mostly a tease since the quarterback’s season was disrupted and ultimately ended by injuries. Still, Watson completed 68% of his passes to go along with 19 total touchdowns and only 2 interceptions.

Joe Yearby – RB Miami (Fl.)

This is somewhat of a homer pick, but it’s not exactly unwarranted. Yearby did a fine job as a freshman rushing for 500+ yards and 5.9 ypc while backing up Duke Johnson. With Duke Johnson now gone there are plenty of carries available in the Hurricane backfield. With Brad Kaaya keeping defenses honest, I’m excited to see what Yearby can do with 200 carries.

DJ Foster – RB Arizona State

Photo by Dominic Velente
Photo by Dominic Velente

It may be because of a lack of consistency, but Foster’s season seemed like somewhat of a disappointment. Then you look up and realize he had 1,700 yards of offense and 12 touchdowns. His four 100-yard rushing games came in the Sun Devils’ three non-conference games and Colorado (who might as well be a non-conference doormat) but only topped 59 yards two other times. On the flip side he was used quite a bit in the passing game, especially with the emergence of fellow RB Demario Richard. That athleticism and versatility is what makes Foster fun to watch and he will be leaned on just as much with the departure of WR Jaelen Strong.

Artavis Scott – WR Clemson

Scott burst onto the scene as a freshman last year and helped ease the minds of Tigers fans mourning the departure of Sammy Watkins, one of the best players in school history. Scott racked up 965 yards and 8 scores and finished the year strong with 7 for 185 and two scores and 8 for 114 and one score in the Tigers final two games. Scott and DeShaun Watson will be lighting up defenses for at least the next two years.

Adoree Jackson – Everywhere USC

Jackson did it all for the Trojans in his 2014 freshman campaign, playing WR, CB, and returning kicks. His full repertoire was on display in USC’s bowl game as Jackson had a 98 yard kickoff return for a touchdown, a 71 yard touchdown catch, and 7 tackles on defense. No matter what position Jackson is playing this fall, he’s the only reason you need to tune into USC games.

Jeremy Johnson – QB Auburn

Though Auburn’s offense was pretty dynamic with Nick Marshall at the helm, many feel it could be even better in 2015 with Jeremy Johnson. Johnson’s size (6’5’’ 230 pounds) will remind you of Cam Newton, but he’s a much better passer than Newton or Marshall and not near the runner as either of them. Johnson has only seen limited action in the last two years, but he’s completed better than 70% of his passes with a 4.5/1 TD/INT ratio and has shown enough to make me think he’s a dark horse Heisman contender for 2015.

Corey Clement – RB Wisconsin

The Badgers have had no shortage of quality running backs in the last decade and a half and the pattern seems to be: RB excels in a backup role, RB puts up ridiculous stats in a full-time role, RB leaves for NFL. Clement will be on the second leg of that cycle after rushing for just under 1,000 yards backing up Melvin Gordon last year. Clement averaged 6.5 ypc and could easily double that as the lead back in 2015.

Dalvin Cook – RB Florida State

Dalvin Cook started the year slow and didn’t really contribute fully until halfway through the season. Once he did, the rest of the country wished Florida State hadn’t taken the reins off him. Cook tore it up, rushing for just over 1,000 yards even though he received more than 15 carries in only three games. Cook saved the Seminoles’ season in multiple games and will be relied upon even more now with Jameis Winston headed to the NFL.

KD Cannon – WR Baylor

USATSI
USATSI

Cannon was the 4th highest rated 2014 WR recruit and he didn’t disappoint in his freshman season. He took off from the get-go with star WR Antwan Goodley banged up, before slowing down upon Goodley’s return. He still managed to put up 1,030 yards and 8 touchdowns due to an explosive 17.8 yards per catch. Cannon capped off 2014 with 8 catches for 197 and 2 touchdowns in Baylor’s bowl game and could be one of the nation’s top receivers this fall with Goodley playing on Sundays.

Jamal Adams – S LSU

In the time since the national championship, I’ve read a few articles talking about breakout players for 2015. Every one of them has listed Adams on it, so that’s reason enough for me to get excited about his potential this fall. Adams is 6 feet and over 200 pounds and managed to make a significant impact as a freshman in an LSU secondary already full of NFL talent. Plus I’m a sucker for safeties with size.

Leonard Fournette – RB LSU

Another LSU Tiger, but this one’s just a little bit more known nationally. Fournette came into last season with about as much hype as possible, but started the year slow before taking off in the middle of the year. Fournette’s stat line looks impressive, but he needs to be more consistent going forward, especially in conference play. He did finish the year with back to back 140 yard games, giving Tiger fans reason to believe he will live up to the hype.

Jabrill Peppers – DB Michigan

Peppers was another highly touted recruit coming into the season but unlike Fournette, injuries robbed him of the ability to show off that potential. On the bright side, Peppers was able to get a medical redshirt, saving all of his eligibility while getting a few games of experience at the college level which will help this year. Whether Peppers plays corner or safety, he’s a ball hawk who you’ll want to keep your eye on.

Kenyan Drake – RB Alabama

Even in a crowded backfield Drake was supposed to have a breakout season last year after averaging 7.5 ypc in 2013. He was having that type of season until a gruesome injury ended his season in the Tide’s fifth game. Most of the focus will be on fellow running back Derrick Henry, but a healthy Kenyan Drake could throw his name into the list of best SEC running backs in a league stacked with good ones.

Wayne Gallman – RB Clemson

You should probably just watch any time Clemson is on offense because they have a handful of players who can turn heads. Gallman didn’t receive consistent carries until the Tigers’ 7th game but once he did he took off. The freshman rushed for over 500 yards on just under 5.5 ypc in the team’s last five games and should shoulder a similar load over the whole season in 2015.

Jalen Ramsey – DB Florida State

Jon Durr / Miami Herald Staff
Jon Durr / Miami Herald Staff

I’m not totally sure what to say about Ramsey other than he’s just fun to watch and you won’t regret it. Ramsey has the size to play up close and the athleticism to cover guys in the open field. One of those prototypical guys who always seems to be around the ball.

Joshua Dobbs – QB Tennessee

Dobbs was thrown into a tough situation as a sophomore on a young Vols team but performed admirably. He threw only 9 touchdowns to 6 interceptions in the half year he played but added 469 yards and 8 touchdowns on the ground. His versatility should make Tennessee’s offense interesting to watch in a backfield that already has stud RB Jalen Hurd.

George Campbell – ATH Florida State

Campbell is one of the top recruits in the country and could line up at WR for the Seminoles. It might be a little crazy to put someone on this list who has yet to suit up for his school but if Campbell gets playing time it could be warranted. Campbell has rare size and speed being listed at 6’4’’, 190 pounds, with a 4.35 forty yard dash and 38” vertical to boot. On a team that just lost its top two receiving threats, Campbell could make an immediate impact.

Momentum Teams Heading into the Off-Season

The championship game is somehow already two weeks behind us after capping another exciting bowl season. Now if only the off-season would go this fast. Whether it actually carries over to the next fall or not, big bowl wins seem to give teams momentum. They also seem to help boost a team’s pre-season ranking (even if that shouldn’t be the case) which is probably more important. We’ve already seen a few “too early” Top 25s rolled out since the championship game and combining that with the bowl results you can get a feel for some of the teams which have finished the year strong. Here are some teams I believe have the most momentum heading into the off-season.

Ohio State
This one is pretty obvious, but it’s hard to not feel good about yourself when your school is coming off a national championship. And not just a national championship, one in which you dropped the unbeatable SEC, silenced doubters, and put a conference back on the map along the way. If that wasn’t enough, the Buckeyes return a litany of important players from their championship squad. Star running back Ezekiel Elliot joins a Heisman contending quarterback (take your pick of Braxton Miller, JT Barrett, and Cardale Jones) to lead an offense that won’t be slowed often in 2015.

TCU
The Horned Frogs represent the other school which will likely be in the Top 2 of many pre-season ballots. Though the team that got in the playoff at four ended up winning the championship, the Horned Frogs still have solid backing as a team that deserved a shot this year. They stamped that backing with a demolition of Ole Miss in the Peach Bowl. Now you have a 12-1 team with a chip on its shoulder, coming off a bowl win that returns a potential Heisman contender in Trevone Boykin at quarterback. Sounds like a recipe for a pre-season title contender even before you throw in the fact that Boykin will have nine other returning starters with him on offense.

USC
USC has been struggling to get back to its college football front runner days that have escaped them since Pete Carroll left for the NFL. A few years here and there they have gotten some pre-season buzz as potentially being “back”. 2015 looks to be one of those years as well. The Trojans finished the year 9-4 after winning a shootout over Nebraska in their bowl game and return QB Cody Kessler who closed the year with 39 TDs and only 5 INTs all while completing just under 70% of his passes. 3 of their 4 losses were by six points or less and they’ll be battling in a Pac-12 conference that has no clear-cut favorite going into 2015.

Arizona State
The Sun Devils are another Pac-12 team that could take advantage of Oregon taking a step back with Marcus Mariota’s departure. Arizona State went 10-3 and returns most of its starters from a defense that nobody, save for UCLA, had fun facing. They do have to replace potential first round pick at WR Jaelen Strong, but versatile playmaker DJ Foster returns and QB Mike Bercovici played well in Taylor Kelly’s absence so there may not even be a downgrade under center.

A few others to watch:

Clemson
Dominated Oklahoma in their bowl game and DeShaun Watson could lead one of the nation’s most electrifying offenses if he’s back healthy from a torn ACL by fall camp.

Missouri
Coming off back to back SEC East crowns and returns four offensive lineman, RB Russell Hansbrough, and QB Maty Mauk.

Arkansas
The Razorbacks may not have arrived just yet, but QB Brandon Allen was improved and the Hogs return two 1,000 yard rushers after finishing the year strong.