Sun Devils' confidence riding high
TEMPE, Ariz. (AP)
Todd Graham arrived at Arizona State last year and turned the program upside down, changing everything from the styles of offense and defense to the look of the football offices and what the players could wear.
It worked. The Sun Devils won eight games and finished with a flourish, beating rival Arizona before closing out with a record-breaking bowl victory.
Heading into his second season in the desert, Graham has changed something else about the program: The momentum.
''I feel like there's as big of a buzz as there's been in a while,'' Sun Devils offensive lineman Jamil Douglas said. ''People are excited to see what we've been working on this offseason.''
The Sun Devils needed a lift after five years of mediocrity under previous coach Dennis Erickson.
A winner nearly everywhere he had been, Graham overhauled Arizona State's program, adding a level of discipline that had been missing under Erickson while drumming up interest for the team and assuaging concerns that he would bolt if a better job opened up.
The Sun Devils embraced Graham's approach, finishing off an 8-5 season - one win short of playing in the Pac-12 championship game - with a comeback victory over Arizona to close out the regular season and a 62-28 win over Navy in the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl, their first bowl victory since the 2005 Insight Bowl.
With a solid core of returning players, led by quarterback Taylor Kelly and defensive tackle Will Sutton, a quality group of newcomers and plenty of confidence, the Sun Devils have their sites set even higher this season.
''I can remember growing up watching the Rose Bowl on an old black-and-white TV,'' Graham said. ''I'm excited. This is the closest I've ever been to something like this and that's why I made the moves that I made because I wanted to have an opportunity to be in this situation.''
They're certainly on solid ground.
Arizona State got a big boost during the offseason when Sutton, the Sun Devils' first consensus All-American since Terrell Suggs in 2002, decided to return for his senior season. He was the Pac-12's defensive player of the year last season despite missing nearly two full games due to injury and has added bulk to his 6-foot-1 frame, up to 305 pounds this season.
With rushing linebacker Carl Bradford back, Arizona State will have one of the toughest-to-stop defensive tandems in the Pac-12.
Kelly earned the starter's job last season after a tight preseason race with two others and proved to be a dynamic leader, setting a school record with a completion percentage of 67.1 percent while throwing for over 3,000 yards and 29 touchdowns.
He'll be surrounded by athletic playmakers, including running backs Marion Grice and D.J. Foster, tight end Chris Coyle and Jaelen Strong, who was one of the nation's most productive junior college receivers at Pierce College.
And, after a season of playing in Graham's attack-all-the-time system and seeing how successful it can be, the Sun Devils will be much more comfortable and confident heading into this season.
''Something the coaches were focusing on in spring ball and all through this summer training program is building off where we ended last year,'' Coyle said. ''We had a positive end to the season and we want to take that and have a better season than that.''
The key to doing that will be Arizona State's opening gauntlet of a schedule.
After their season opener against Sacramento State on Sept. 5, the Sun Devils face Wisconsin and Stanford on the road, Southern California at home, and Notre Dame, last season's national runner-up, at Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Texas, on Oct. 5.
It's a daunting stretch, one that will likely define the Sun Devils' season, but a challenge they're looking forward to.
''It's a great schedule, to be honest,'' Douglas said. ''If we can win those games, no telling where we could be ranked in the country, so more than anything, we're excited. We don't look at as a negative thing. We're excited about the challenge.''
And a chance to keep the momentum going.