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Originally published August 18, 2014 at 6:59 PM | Page modified August 19, 2014 at 3:32 PM

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Coach Todd Graham is upbeat as usual about his Arizona State football team

Sun Devils, who won the Pac-12 South last year, brings back an experienced offense, but is young on defense


Seattle Times college football reporter

Arizona State

Last year: 10-4 (8-1, won Pac-12 South).

Coach: Todd Graham (19-8, third year at ASU).

Leading lights: QB Taylor Kelly, RB D.J. Foster, WR Jaelen Strong, OL Jamil Douglas, K Zane Gonzalez.

Key stat: Sun Devils allowed a league-low 17.4 first downs a game last year.

The schedule: ASU should ease to a 3-0 start. The next six are UCLA, USC, Stanford, Washington, Utah and Notre Dame.

Bud Withers

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It’s 20 seconds into Arizona State’s segment at the Pac-12 football media days, and Todd Graham is doing what he does best: Spread the gospel of the Sun Devils and make coffee jumpy.

With hardly an introduction, the ASU coach says the 2014 Sun Devils will be the best offensive team he’s had at four head-coaching stops. They’re the closest team. They’ve got 70 players with a 3.0 GPA or better, so they must be the smartest.

You expect him to say this team sleeps better than any other. You know, no extraneous tossing and turning.

“There’s times he’s yelling at us in stretching in warmups,” said offensive tackle Jamil Douglas. “ ‘Speed it up, let’s go, let’s go.’ ”

It figures that when ASU came up with motivational wristbands — “NC 15” for national championship in January 2015, plus a reminder to aspire to the personal excellence of ASU icon Pat Tillman — Graham would have to have two, one for each wrist.

“He’s a live wire,” said quarterback Taylor Kelly. “I’ll stop in the hallway to ask him a question, and I’m there 45 minutes later.”

That’s Graham. ASU’s hire was widely mocked — here and elsewhere — when the Rich Rodriguez-Mike Leach-Jim Mora-Graham class swept into the league two years ago. Graham, though, has more than held his own, taking a Pac-12 South title last year.

Now the big challenge is defense. ASU lost nine defensive starters on a marauding unit that had 40 sacks and 21 interceptions, and nine of 12 first- or second-team all-league players on both sides of the ball.

Naturally, Graham doesn’t think that’s a death knell for 2014, while conceding, “If I was asking questions, that’s what I’d be asking about.

“We’re very young but we’ve got guys who have talent. I do think we’ll surprise a lot of people with our productivity and the speed we’ve recruited and developed.”

Indeed, Graham upped the ante recently, telling Sports Illustrated, “This is going to be the best football team we’ve had.”

The defense lost studs like league player of the year Will Sutton and linebacker Carl Bradford, but Graham seems determined to will the successors to productivity.

“If you want to win a championship, you’ve got to play great defense,” said Graham. “We’ll adapt. Obviously, early in the season, we need to score points and really be dominant when it comes to offense and special teams, to help us grow those (defensive) guys.”

Graham said he believes a major staff change will be a boon to the Sun Devils. When he got the job late in 2011, he wanted to bring along his former college roomie at East Central University, Keith Patterson, who was his defensive coordinator at Pittsburgh. Graham had him lined up, but West Virginia outbid him, so Graham has been the de facto coordinator.

Belatedly, Patterson has come west, and now Graham cedes some of his defensive oversight, leaving him more time to afford input to the offense and combine with Patterson to coordinate special teams. ASU was worst in the Pac-12 last year in net punting at 33.2 yards.

“I think getting coach Patterson completes my staff,” Graham said. “I won’t lie to you, I’ve been a little bit out of balance, having to commit so much time to one thing.”

Now he gets to enjoy an offense about which he can’t seem to say enough. It’s led by the resourceful Kelly, who threw for 28 touchdowns (with 12 interceptions). Graham seems undaunted by the fact ASU allowed a league-high 41 sacks.

“We led the Pac-12 in scoring points,” Graham said, referring to the nine league games, “and we’re going to be a lot better than that. I think we’re going to be a lot more explosive, being able to knock people off the football.”

Last week, though, that unit lost promising freshman runner Kalen Ballage, whose back injury will sideline him indefinitely.

Meanwhile, Graham hints of some Myles Jack-style versatility in the offing.

“There might be guys going to play positions that people might be surprised,” he said.

Whoever they are, they’d better do it at full speed.

“If I’m coaching you, I want everything you’ve got,” Graham said.

Momentarily turning devil’s advocate, he added, “Well, everybody’s doing that. I just want a little more.”

Bud Withers: 206-464-8281 or bwithers@seattletimes.com



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