Jun 23, 2014, 6:22 PM EST
Last year, Notre Dame’s most impressive win might have been its neutral site victory over Arizona State in the Shamrock Series. Limiting the Sun Devils possessions while playing extremely efficient football, the Irish beat a team that won the Pac-12 South in Todd Graham’s second season in the desert.
This year, Notre Dame travels to Tempe for a big non-conference showdown, continuing a rivalry between Brian Kelly and Todd Graham that had the Sun Devils’ coach spring an upset with Tulsa in 2010, lose a close game at Pitt in 2011, and fall short last year.
To get us up to speed with the state of Arizona State’s football program, Nick Krueger managing editor of the House of Sparky, was kind enough to answer some of my questions about the Sun Devils.
Todd Graham was named the Pac-12 Coach of the Year after winning the South division and 10 games. Can you assess the state of the program with Graham heading into his third season? How is Graham viewed by Sun Devil faithful, considering his hiring wasn’t a consensus home run at the time.
If Todd Graham ran for mayor of Tempe, he would probably win right now. Despite the bowl loss last season, fans are incredibly pleased with what Graham has done so far. He’s very focused on the character and attitude of his players (he calls it “speaking victory”) and brings a passion to the ASU football program that hadn’t been seen around here in awhile. It’s evidenced by former players coming back to support the program in a big way which didn’t really happen before Graham arrived.
It’s no secret that Graham’s goals for this program are a Rose Bowl and National Championship victory and he’s not going to settle for anything less. Almost everyday talking with media after practice he’ll evaluate whether or not the team put in a, “championship effort.” He even put a sticker of the Pac-12 championship trophy on the back of each player’s practice helmet as a consistent reminder about the goal.
The Sun Devils have also continued to strengthen their recruiting class reaching deeper into SEC country for more talented players while also convincing more local players to stay put.
The one thing that really convinced me that he is committed to this program was when former athletic director Steve Patterson left for more money at the University of Texas. Graham is from Texas and contract details aside, he could have jumped ship for what many believed was his dream job. Graham elected to stay put stating he wants to become the winningest coach in ASU history.
Offensively, the Sun Devils are expected to score a bunch of points again. The engine that drives it is quarterback Taylor Kelly. Is there a more under-the-radar player in college football? Irish fans saw him last season, but what makes him so perfect for Graham’s offense?
One of the biggest storylines coming into this upcoming season will be whether or not Kelly can make the jump from solid starting Division I quarterback to a true Heisman Trophy contender.
Todd Graham is very defensive minded and offensive coordinator Mike Norvell is in charge of running the offense and shaping Taylor Kelly as a quarterback. It is tough to find such a talented player in a power six conference as off-the-map as Kelly but it’s not in his nature or personality to soak up the spotlight. He’s just a kid from Idaho trying to improve as much as he can.
What makes him such a great fit for Norvell’s up-tempo zone read offense is his instinctual ability to read the edge rusher and make a quick decision whether to pass or run. The ability that Kelly has to make plays with his feet is incredibly underrated too. Unfortunately for Kelly, the zone-read lives and dies with the play of the offensive line, which struggled against Notre Dame last season.
It’s almost a complete reboot on the defensive side of the football. The Sun Devils return just two starters — the biggest overhaul of any squad in the preseason Top 25. Did spring help answer some questions? What needs to be solved before the Sun Devils kick off 2014? What are the biggest challenges for Keith Patterson’s defense?
The defense is a big mystery right now and the Sun Devils have a lot of pieces to put together as you said. The one huge standout in the Spring was early-enrollee freshman DJ Calhoun, a four-star linebacker out of California. He ball hawked really well and made some outstanding plays in practice. he definitely turned heads and has a starting spot as it stands right now.
Rashad Wadood, who would have most likely started at cornerback, left the program last week which only added to the Sun Devils issues. The biggest problem will probably be at the cornerback and safety positions where ASU didn’t recruit as strongly as they did at linebacker or defensive line.
The good thing for the Sun Devils is that they got some impressive junior college commitments such as Dalvon Stuckey and Darrius Caldwell on the defensive line to help with the inexperience. Connor Humphreys, Tashon Smallwood and Renell Wren are also three names to remember as true freshmen who could help in the trenches.
Last year, the Irish held off the Sun Devils in AT&T Stadium despite big games from Jaelen Strong and D.J. Foster. Do you expect more of the same from the ASU offense, or will new game-changers emerge? Is the formula for victory the same this year as last?
There are certainly some new players that could come out of the woodwork. The offensive line returns almost all of the starters from last season and adds Christian Westerman who was a four-star recruit and transferred from Auburn. Taylor Kelly should have some more weapons to play with as well. Jaelen Strong and D.J. Foster return but the Sun Devils also have high expectations for incoming wide receivers Eric Lauderdale, a four-star JUCO transfer, and 6-foot-4 redshirt freshman Ellis Jefferson who showed a lot of potential in spring practice.
The formula for victory comes down to the Sun Devils being more balanced. ASU only had 51 rushing yards against Notre Dame last season so they will have to find more success there. Taylor Kelly also has to limit turnovers. He threw two interceptions against the Fighting Irish last season and the stat that everybody at ASU loves to cite is that Kelly is 6-8 in games when he throws an interception and 12-1 when he doesn’t.
Where do you set the bar for the 2014 season? A veteran quarterback and a big-time offense return. But questions on defense and a solid Pac-12 slate is in front of the Sun Devils. Do you expect ASU to challenge for the South title again? What’s your definition of a good season?
As you touched on, the uncertainty on defense makes this difficult to gauge. The Sun Devils will certainly be involved in some high-scoring affairs next season. With Brett Hundley and Myles Jack returning to UCLA, I would put them as favorites to win the Pac-12 South but I wouldn’t put ASU too far behind them. The Sun Devils have potential for a better defense than many might expect. Given that the Pac-12 is only getting tougher, I’ll say anything less than eight wins would be a disappointment next year.
Notre Dame’s visit to Tempe was one that former athletic director Steve Patterson fought hard to keep. How highly anticipated is the Irish’s visit to Sun Devil Stadium?
I can’t speak for everyone at ASU but I believe there is still a sense of bitterness in Tempe about that whole situation that the Sun Devils will probably try to use as motivation.
The chance that both ASU and Notre Dame could be ranked in the top- 25 when the game rolls around and the “rematch” aspect definitely adds to the local excitement about this matchup.
Mizzou and Wisconsin came to town in 2011 and 2013 respectively but as far as out of conference traditional football powerhouses visiting ASU is concerned, this game is in my opinion the most anticipated out of conference home game for the Sun Devils since Matthew Stafford, A.J. Green and No. 3 Georgia came to Sun Devil Stadium in 2008.