Weber St.-Arizona St. Preview
(AP) - Arizona State's offense has been explosive in two seasons under coach Todd Graham and has a chance to be even better this season with so many playmakers returning.
But as the Sun Devils head into the 2014 season, it seems all anyone wants to talk about is the defense.
And for good reason. With just two returning starters, even Graham understands why there's so much focus on that side of the ball.
''Obviously, if I was asking the questions, that's what I'd be asking questions about,'' Graham said.
Arizona State complemented its dynamic offense last season with an athletic, disruptive defense while winning 10 games and the Pac-12 South. There were plenty of star players on D, too, including tackle Will Sutton and linebacker Carl Bradford, both selected in this year's NFL draft.
That means the No. 19 Sun Devils will have to rely an awful lot on young, inexperienced players on defense.
Arizona State does have some talent coming back, including safety Marcus Ball, who was on pace to start as a freshman last season before a collarbone injury in preseason camp forced him to redshirt.
There's also talent among the youngsters. Graham brought in some quality junior college players and his latest recruiting class was among the best in the country.
Still, most of these Sun Devils will be learning on the job, hopefully not making too many mistakes in a schedule that gets tough quickly after the opener against FCS member Weber State on Thursday night in Tempe.
''Will we be as talented and experienced on defense? Well, no,'' Graham said. ''But I do think we'll surprise a lot of people with the productivity in the country.''
On offense, Taylor Kelly had to win a tight battle as the Sun Devils' starting quarterback as a sophomore. It's hard to imagine anyone else leading them now. Heading into his senior season, Kelly is one of the nation's top QBs, a player who can hurt teams with his arm and his ability to avoid tacklers. Kelly's name dots Arizona State's record books and he's also its undisputed team leader, a by-example type of player who teammates naturally look to.
De'Marieya Nelson has been Arizona State's best tight end and could put up some big numbers in that dynamic offense. But the Sun Devils also need help on defense and Nelson just happens to be a pretty good defensive end. With that in mind, Graham has been working the senior on both sides of the ball, saying he will likely play 40 snaps on defense, about 20 on offense and play on special teams, where he excelled last season.
Jaelen Strong was the top target for Kelly last season as a junior college transfer, catching 75 passes for 1,122 yards and seven TDs. With a year under offensive coordinator Mike Norvell's system, Strong is expected to have an even bigger year in 2014. NFL scouts also seem to love Strong, who's big at 6-foot-3, 212 pounds and has a knack for coming up with big plays.
D.J. Foster is getting his shot at being Arizona State's featured back. A prized local recruit in Graham's first class two years ago, he showed off some big-play capability as a slot receiver last season, catching 63 passes for 653 yards. Foster got a shot in the final three games last season after Marion Grice suffered a foot injury and he played well, scoring a pair of long touchdowns against Stanford and rushing for more than 100 yards the other two games.
Arizona State had some disastrous games on special teams last season, from bad snaps to poor kick coverage to mediocre returns. The lone bright spot was kicker Zane Gonzalez. Last season, he tied the NCAA freshman record by making 25 field goals and set an ASU record by hitting 18 straight. He also hit all 63 of his PAT attempts and set a school record for points by a kicker with 138.
The addition of defensive coordinator Keith Patterson, who worked with Graham before, should help shore up the rest of Arizona State's special teams.
The Sun Devils are the first team with an active openly gay Division I football player, as offensive lineman Chip Sarafin revealed his sexual orientation to Compete, a Tempe-based magazine for gay sports, for a story in its August issue. The fifth-year senior follows in the footsteps of Michael Sam, the St. Louis Rams linebacker who came out after his playing days at Missouri were over.
Sarafin, who graduated last spring before enrolling in Arizona State's master's program, provides depth on the offensive line and has worked on the scout team.
''I'm really proud of our guys. It's not something that's a surprise to us,'' Graham said. ''Obviously, our guys were aware of that and we're proud of Chip just like we're proud of the rest of our guys. Really proud of him and the courage he has. Our guys are behind him 100 percent.''
Defense was a problem in the Sun Devils' final two games last season, a 38-14 loss to No. 7 Stanford in the conference title game and a 37-23 defeat to Texas Tech in the Holiday Bowl. Arizona State should be able to put that rough ending to the season behind it in the matchup with Weber State, which went 2-10 in 2013.
The Wildcats allowed 41.4 points and 475.8 yards per game, among the worst marks in the country.
BYU sophomore transfer Billy Green appears to be in line to start at quarterback for Weber State after the departure of sophomore Austin Chipoletti, who transferred to UAB after throwing for 1,655 yards with eight touchdowns and nine interceptions in 2013.