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Pac-12 preview: Arizona State

The SportsXchange

TEMPE, Ariz. -- Arizona State coach Todd Graham says "I can't remember a season I've been more excited about," and he has good reason for such enthusiasm.

The Sun Devils, predicted in preseason media polls to be a close second to UCLA in the Pac-12 South, have a well-balanced team.

They have experience with 15 starters returning. They have the kind of quarterback play needed to win the Pac-12 in junior Taylor Kelly. They have All-American senior defensive tackle Will Sutton. They have arguably the conference's top running back duo in Marion Grice and D.J. Foster.

Sutton had 23.5 tackles for loss, including 13 sacks last season. He is up to 305 pounds this fall and is taking on a bigger leadership role. Also look for Sutton this season to be a fullback in short-yardage and certain power.

Grice led the team in rushing last season in a three-way time share, carrying 103 times for 679 yards and 11 touchdowns. He also caught 41 passes for 425 yards and eight scores. But there still seems to be a higher level he can reach.

Foster, the gem of Graham's first recruiting class at Arizona State, had a good rookie season, rushing 102 times for 493 yards and catching 38 passes for 533 yards. The ASU coaches will find plenty of ways to get Foster and RB Marion Grice (679 rushing yards, 11 rushing TDs) on the field at the same time.

That's not bad for starters.

There is also excitement over wide receiver Jaelen Strong, a junior college transfer. He is a powerful, 6-foot-4 athlete with three years of eligibility remaining.

Strong was rated a four-star recruit by ESPN.com, and his other offers out of JC included Cincinnati, Illinois, Miami, Mississippi, Mississippi State, Oregon State, South Carolina and Texas Tech. He caught 67 passes for 1,263 yards and 15 TDs last season at Pierce College in the Los Angeles area.

And there is linebacker Chris Young, who had 14 tackles for loss last season in his first year as a junior college transfer. In the offseason he added about 20 pounds to put him around 240. That should fit his new role in 2013 as he transitions from the hybrid linebacker/defensive back Spur position to the weakside linebacker spot held last season by Brandon Magee.

"Last year we laid a great foundation, had a great buy-in from our players," said Graham, whose first ASU team went 8-5 and was third in the Pac-12 South with a 5-4 mark.

"We have a lot of talent. ... It's the best football team that I've ever coached and we have developed. This is a much more mature football team right now."

While the Devils look better on paper than they did a season ago, the burning question is this: Can they beat the best teams on their schedule? ASU beat one only team with a winning record in the regular season a year ago, needing an improbable fourth-quarter comeback to win at Arizona. Arizona State then routed Navy 62-28 in the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl.

This season's schedule is tougher, with Wisconsin visiting Tempe and a trip to face Notre Dame in Arlington, Texas. In conference, ASU gets Stanford rather than Oregon (pretty much a wash), but a tougher Washington team replaces Cal.

"We have on our wrists 'Any Challenge' and we don't look at that with any regret," Graham said of the schedule. "It's a great opportunity. These guys have worked hard and we have the highest standards in the country, I can tell you, as far as work ethic in character and how you do things."

SPOTLIGHT ON SEPTEMBER: ASU enters the season with a three-game winning streak and should easily make it four with a Thursday, Sept. 5, opener against lower-division Sacramento State. If there is any rust to knock off or any lingering issues (receiver play?), the Sun Devils need to figure it out in a hurry. September could be a make-or-break month. ASU definitely needs to be prepared for power football with back-to-back dates vs. Wisconsin (Sept. 14) and at Stanford (Sept. 21). A week later is a game against USC as September comes to a close. The gauntlet doesn't end there, though. October opens in Arlington, Texas, vs. Notre Dame. Can ASU win its share of battle in the trenches in that stretch?

KEYS TO SUCCESS: Graham instilled needed discipline into the program last season, vastly cutting down on the team's penalties and doing an acceptable job in turnover margin. Kelly, in his second season as the starting quarterback, was the key in those efforts. When he avoided throwing an interception, Arizona State was 8-0. On the other hand, Kelly was picked off nine times in the team's five losses.

AREAS OF CONCERN: ASU has tight end Chris Coyle (57 catches for 696 yards last season) and effectively uses its running backs in the passing game, but the Sun Devils need new wideouts to step up in order to complete the offense. Freshman Ellis Jefferson was an early camp revelation, and he was even running with the first team in some drills. ASU is counting on big contributions from Strong and Joe Morris. Cameron Smith and Ronald Lewis were two other freshman wideouts turning heads early in camp.

--Team correspondents for The Sports Xchange contributed material for this story.
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