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Tuesday, January 14, 2014
Will Arizona State take a step back?

By Ted Miller

It flew a little under the radar on Monday that Arizona State linebacker Carl Bradford entered the NFL draft because a pair of Pac-12 All-Americans -- Arizona RB Ka'Deem Carey and Stanford OG David Yankey -- also announced they'd be going pro.

Taylor Kelly
With the loss of key defensive starters, Arizona State may have to rely on QB Taylor Kelly and its offense to carry the load in 2014.
But Bradford's departure, though far from unexpected, is a big deal for the defending South Division champions, who now must replace nine starters and three key backups from its strong 2013 defense.

In fact, the Sun Devils will have only two of their top 11 tacklers, safety Damarious Randall and linebacker Salamo Fiso, back in 2014. The other returning starter is nose tackle Jaxon Hood.

Further, when we say "nine starters" we pretty much mean the 2013 defense's nine best players: Bradford, DT Will Sutton, S Alden Darby, LB Chris Young, CB Robert Nelson, DE Gannon Conway, CB Osahon Irabor, DE Davon Coleman and LB Anthony Jones.

Tackles, sacks, interceptions -- just about all the production from Todd Graham's aggressive, blitz-happy defense will be gone next fall.

While we are relentlessly raining on Arizona State's parade -- hey, want to talk about the Holiday Bowl? -- we'll also point out that the offense won't go unscathed, as it loses five starters, including two offensive linemen, tight end Chris Coyle and RB Marion Grice.

Here's the part, however, where we type "… and yet."

While the defense almost certainly will take a step back, and might require some scheme tweaks to fit the inexperienced personnel, the Sun Devils should have the firepower on offense to pile up points in high-scoring offensive slugfests, starting with QB Taylor Kelly and WR Jaelen Strong probably being the top returning pass-catch combination in the Pac-12.

Versatile RB D.J. Foster is a more than adequate replacement for Grice, while the offensive line should be solid, led by Jamil Douglas, who seems ready for his star turn.

As for the defense, it will be time for several promising young players to step up, such as linebackers Chans Cox, Carlos Mendoza and Viliami Latu and defensive lineman Corey Smith, cornerback Lloyd Carrington and safety Viliami Moeakiola.

Further, the development of defensive end Marcus Hardison could be critical. Graham expected the touted JC transfer to have a big impact this past fall but as often happens when touted JC players arrive, he wasn't ready for the demands of Pac-12 football -- in practice or games. That said, he showed improved gumption over the latter part of the season and certainly has the physical skills to be an impact player on the line.

UCLA, which also loses some key guys from its defense but has a lot of playmakers coming back on both sides of the ball, is the clear favorite in the Pac-12 South heading into 2014. USC will be a bit of a mystery in Year 1 under Steve Sarkisian. It lost some key players but has plenty of talent, though little depth, coming back. Arizona is looking for a new quarterback and running back, but it also could be in the mix.

Where do the defending champions fit in? Hard to say. Next fall will be a good test of the recruiting for which Graham has been generally receiving good reviews. The good money is on the Sun Devils finding a way to thrust themselves into the mix, even with a completely rebuilt defense. It helps that the schedule starts out gently -- Weber State, New Mexico and Colorado -- before a a brutal four-game gauntlet -- UCLA, USC, Stanford and Washington -- that likely will determine the ultimate trajectory of the season.

Don't count the Sun Devils out, only you probably should expect a few more high-scoring shootouts in Tempe next fall.