The Arizona State Sun Devils kick off their season Aug. 31 against New Mexico State, but fans can catch a glimpse of the Sun Devils this week at Pac-12 Media Days.
Todd Graham will take the stage next Thursday, July 27, as he tries to get the Sun Devils back to a bowl game after missing out last season. He’ll be joined in Hollywood by RB Kalen Ballage and DE JoJo Wicker.
Here are Arizona State’s biggest story lines and questions heading into Pac-12 Media Days:
Todd Graham hot seat watch is on
Yes, Graham has a 39-26 record in five seasons in Tempe, but the last two seasons have been losing ones, and not much is expected of the Sun Devils in 2017. Factor in an embarrassing loss to Arizona (its only win in the Pac-12) last year, and another season of regression for Graham no doubt will get decision-makers talking about considering making a change.
Blake Barnett or Manny Wilkins?
Manny Wilkins is the incumbent at QB, and while he put up solid but unspectacular numbers last year, all eyes this offseason will be on how Alabama transfer Blake Barnett performs in camp. Barnett was a 5-star recruit in 2015 and the class’s second-rated pro-style QB. If he can pick up the offense quickly, his talent and poise could vault him to the top of the QB depth chart.
My goodness, that defense was bad last season
How bad? The Sun Devils ranked last in the FBS in opponents passing yards per game, allowing 357 yards per game. Their scoring defense was nearly as bad, ranking 123rd (out of 128) in scoring defense with 39.8 points per game. Former Baylor defensive coordinator Phil Bennett takes over the same job for ASU, but he’ll have an enormous challenge to try and turn that unit around.
Take a moment and acknowledge what a beast Kalen Ballage is
We know about the record-setting 8-TD performance last year vs. Texas Tech. We know about the versatility that has seen him play QB in the Sparky package and as a pass-rushing outside linebacker. But Ballage is a bonafide athletic freak. NFL.com recently ranked Ballage No. 9 on it’s “most freakish” athletes list. SI’s Bruce Feldman similarly ranked Ballage at No. 14 on his workout warriors list. On his 75-yard TD run last season, he was clocked at 21.6 mph. ASU Football tweeted that he was recorded running 23 mph after a recent conditioning session. He has a 37-inch vertical jump, can squat more than 500 pounds, and his 4.03-second 20-yard shuttle would have been the fastest of any running back at the 2017 NFL Combine by a full 0.15 seconds. Actually, maybe he’s not a freak. With measurables like that, he might just be a cyborg.
Can the Sun Devils get back the Territorial Cup Trophy?
The worst loss of last season, and possibly of the entire Todd Graham Era, was last season’s 56-35 drubbing by Arizona in the Territorial Cup showdown. It was the Wildcats’ only conference win of the season. With both teams expected to be near the bottom of the conference again, and if ASU is out of bowl contention, this may be the Sun Devils’ most important game. Can they bring the trophy back to Tempe?