As Fall Camp 2014 begins, eyes on the defense to out-perform expectations

Todd Graham is nothing if not resolute.

Even with the recruiting dead loss of highly anticipated impact junior college transfers Dalvon Stuckey and Darrius Caldwell to academic issues and the need to replace six all-league players from his defense in 2013, the Arizona State head coach is confident. He expects to field a defense that will enable his team to accomplish its goal of winning the Pac-12.

Why? It’s simply his belief that his ultra-aggressive attacking scheme is that foundation upon which all of the success over his first two season has erected.

“Well, I guess two years ago when I came in, we graduated eight players on defense. (Two-time Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year) Will (Sutton) wasn’t even honorable mention. (All-conference player) Carl Bradford never played,” Graham said at Pac-12 Media Day in Los Angeles recently. “We were able to adapt because we had guys that could run, and we had players we were able to adapt to them. Luckily enough, those guys played almost every snap, every down. We’re going to be young, but we’re very talented. We have guys that have talent and we’ve just got to adapt to them in the same way.”

Graham is first to admit the loss of battle tested high level players will be a challenge, but one he believes his squad will overcome.

We’re about to find out.

We know the Sun Devils, after averaging 39.7 points last season, are going to put up big numbers again in 2014. Senior quarterback Taylor Kelly returns along with his top receiving target, junior Jaelen Strong, both all-league candidates. Junior D.J. Foster is another very capable offensive skill weapon, and there are others, and the Sun Devils should have one of their better offensive lines in recent years.

The question is whether this team is going to have to win a lot of shootouts, or it Graham’s right and the defense will outperform expectations because he and his fellow defensive coaches will be able to squeeze the most of their personnel.

“Will we be as talented and experienced on defense,” Graham asked rhetorically. “Well, no. But I do think we’ll surprise a lot of people with the productivity in the country. The last two seasons we’ve been in the top (teams nationally) in takeaways, [tackles for loss], sacks, explosive plays, three-and-outs. We’re a very disruptive team in how we attack and initiate. So I have a lot of confidence that we’ve gotten guys that can execute what we’re trying to do. But there is no substitute for experience. They’ll need experience to get better. We better get it in a hurry, because we have a tough early part of that schedule.”

There’s some clear truth to a lot of what Graham is saying and it bears out in the numbers. Certainly Sutton and Bradford weren’t the most prolific pass rushing tandem in the country — as they eventually became — or anything remotely close to it before Graham arrived.

But there’s another side to that. Chris Young was terrific at Spur in 2013 but had to move inside to WILL last season, and his replacement Anthony Jones had just one sack and 2.5 tackles for loss despite blitzing dozens of times.

The Sun Devils, truth be told, were one linebacker shy of being a truly elite defense last season, and Graham candidly admitted to it.

What we observed in the team’s 15 spring practices is a lot of questions without clear answers on defense. Stuckey and Caldwell were expected to help provide some of those answers but they won’t be in camp. At Devil backer and the 3-technique Tiger positions, where those guys would have played, no players on the roster showed dynamic pass rushing ability in the spring, the hallmark of Graham’s defense.

So we’ll learn just how much is scheme and just how much is personnel. It’s some combination, to be sure. For ASU and Graham, the hope has to be that it’s more being able to out-scheme and overwhelm opponents.

Or, maybe it’ll have to resort to just outscoring them.  It should be pretty good at that.