Entering the 2014 season, there were questions a plenty for both schools in the Grand Canyon State. Who would fill the very big shoes of Ka’Deem Carey? How will Arizona State replace nine defensive starters that wreaked havoc in the 2013 season? Can DJ Foster carry the load of being the featured back? Who isn’t a potential quarterback for the Wildcats?
As both teams close the season, it turns out Nick Wilson did just fine when he was on the field. There were some growing pains, but the Arizona State defense was productive in the post-Sutton/Bradford/Young et al days. Foster continued his emergence as one of the most versatile backs in the country, and thanks to Demario Richard and Kalen Ballage, didn’t have to shoulder the load completely. And after what seemed like a dozen names that were linked to the Wildcats signal caller, Anu Solomon emerged as the starter and had a very impressive freshman season.
Here are some of the takeaways from each team’s season, and what to look forward to:
Do you hear that sound? That’s Pac-12 defensive coordinators furiously cheering Strong after he declared for the NFL Draft. Strong’s stint in Tempe was short, but man, was it memorable. He leaves the Devils with a highlight reel of “jaw-dropping-stop-what-you’re-doing-HOW-DID-HE-DO-THAT???” plays. If Strong wasn’t a name to remember after the Jael-Mary against USC, then he caught college football fan’s attention with incredible one-handed touchdown grabs against Notre Dame and the University of Arizona. Strong is an incredible receiver and the model of efficiency: Why use two hands when you can use one?
Arizona’s Youth Movement:
The tandem of Anu Solomon and Nick Wilson burst onto the scene in 2014 and have a lot of Wildcat fans excited for the future. Despite a rough Fiesta Bowl, Solomon ends the year with 28 touchdowns and nine interceptions. Wilson, who had some injury struggles this year, was magnificent when he was on the field. He notched nearly 1,400 yards and 16 touchdowns. He even made some say, “Ka’Deem Who”? Ok, not really. But he was pretty darn good.
Scariest part? These guys are freshmen. It’s pretty safe to chalk these guys into the backfield for years to come.
Hard-ison To Block
There was no bigger surprise defensively for the Sun Devils than Marcus Hardison. Many thought he would be good in 2014, but not this good. Hardison was a constant in the backfield, and made the lives of Pac-12 quarterbacks very difficult.
His real coming out party was Arizona State’s win over Notre Dame, where he had a sack, tackle for loss, intercepted a pass, and then tipped another pass that led to a Damarious Randall pick-six. Not a bad day at all. He ends the year with 15 tackles for loss and 10 sacks on the year.
Scooby Runs Onto The Scene
Perhaps the biggest surprise of the 2014 season was the emergence of Scooby Wright as a dominant defensive source for the Wildcats. Like Scooby Doo’s ability to find hijinks and solve mysteries, “Two-Star Scooby” shares that same ability to chase down the football. As a Pac-12 Pat Tillman Defensive Player of the Year winner, the award has not left Arizona for three seasons (Will Sutton won the previous two awards), and odds are Wright will be in the mix for this award, as well as the Bednarik and Nagurski Awards among many others, again.
With both teams ending their 2014 respective campaigns ranked, more national attention will come to the Valley. Both teams want to, and can, make that habitual.
On the Wildcats end, they have young talent at the quarterback and running back locked away, and if you know one thing about Rich Rodriguez, you know he loves playmakers at the skill positions. The Wildcats are knee-deep in young talent in that regard. They lose wide receiver Austin Hill, but can run about five deep at the receiver position with big play capabilities. They will lose some key pieces along the offensive line and defensively, but are in a great position to hit the ground running, literally and figuratively, in 2015.
ASU will be in a similar situation. Playmaker Jaelen Strong will forego his senior season and enter the 2014 NFL Draft. Quarterback Taylor Kelly’s time in Tempe is also up, but the Sun Devil faithful can take comfort in Mike Bercovici’s play this year when Kelly was injured, as he showed the offense can run through him. Defensively, a majority of that inexperienced unit entering the 2014 season returns. They do lose Marcus Hardison along the defensive line, and Todd Graham and co. will have to replace Damarious Randall in the secondary.
In a year of uncertainty, these teams combined for 20 wins in 2014. Not too shabby. Now, both teams have experience, and expectations to take that next step towards becoming elite programs.
Buckle up for 2015.