Pac-12: Junior Onyeali

Arizona State Sun Devils

2012 record: 8-5
2012 conference record: 5-4 (Second in South Division)
Returning starters: Offense 6; defense 8; Kick/punt: 2

Top returners: QB Taylor Kelly, DT Will Sutton, LB Carl Bradford, RB Marion Grice, RB D.J. Foster, LT Evan Finkenberg, TE/H Chris Coyle, S Alden Darby, DE Junior Onyeali

Key losses: RB Cameron Marshall, LB Brandon Magee, WR Rashad Ross, P Josh Hubner, OL Andrew Sampson, OL Brice Schwab.

2012 statistical leaders (*returners)

Rushing: Marion Grice* (679)
Passing: Taylor Kelly* (3,039)
Receiving: Chris Coyle* (696)
Tackles: Brandon Magee (113)
Sacks: Will Sutton* (13)
Interceptions: Keelan Johnson (5)

Spring answers
  1. Dynamic duo (1): Running backs Marion Grice and D.J. Foster should make up one of the most prolific 1-2 punches in college football. This was the first time for both to go through full springs at a major college (Grice was a JC transfer, Foster is a sophomore) and the reports are both have added speed and muscle to their frames. With the way ASU uses its backs in the passing game, expect big total yardage numbers from both in 2013.
  2. Dynamic duo (2): On the opposite side of the ball, DT Will Sutton and linebacker Carl Bradford make up an equally dangerous tandem. There are only 10 players in FBS football returning with 10-plus sacks from 2012. And ASU has two of them. Sutton, the league's defensive player of the year, had 13 and Bradford notched 11.5. Combined with several other returning starters, the Sun Devils boast one of the top front sevens in the league.
  3. QB depth: Per head coach Todd Graham, Mike Bercovici had a fantastic spring. We know Kelly is entrenched as the starter. But with Bercovici surging and Michael Eubank bringing the dimension he brings, the Sun Devils have fantastic depth at the position -- something very important for a team hoping to make a championship run.
Fall questions
  1. WR questions: Help should be on the way. Graham called wide receiver his biggest need and the 2013 class includes Jaelen Strong, Ronald Lewis, Joe Morris, Cameron Smith and Ellis Jefferson. When they get put into the fold, it should make an immediate impact on depth and athleticism at the position. All five are at least 6-foot, giving Kelly plenty of options and wiggle room in the red zone.
  2. Line depth: It's always a concern. And while the Sun Devils look stacked on the defensive line, they are working to replace departed Andrew Sampson and Brice Schwab. The staff spent the spring working Sil Ajawara (LG) and Vi Teofilo (RG) into the starting five. Behind them is some versatility in Tyler Sulka, Devin Goodman and Mo Latu.
  3. Special improvements: Graham called ASU's special teams middle of the road last year -- stressing they need to improve in the kicking game if they want to be a better team. Departed punter Josh Hubner was one of the best in the league. Dom Vizzare looks to step in but will be pushed by incoming freshman Matt Haack. Zane Gonzalez was brought in to push returning kickers Alex Garoutte and Jon Mora.

Take 2: Best of Pac-12's non-BCS bowls?

December, 7, 2012
Kevin and Ted consider which non-BCS bowls they are looking forward to see this bowl season.

[+] EnlargeWill Sutton, Corbin Berkstresser
AP Photo/L.G. PattersonArizona State will be counting on Will Sutton to help stop Navy's fierce rushing attack.
Kevin Gemmell: I love watching Navy play. I love watching the triple option in its purest form. And that's why I'm geeked up for the Kraft Fight Hunger bowl between the Midshipmen and the Arizona State Sun Devils.

Navy runs the true triple out of the double wing (flex-bone), veer, arc motion, midline option, speed option, quarterback isolation. The roots of the offense go all the way back to Missouri in the 1940s with Don Faurot and the Split-T formation. It's just fun to watch. And that's why I think the matchup with Arizona State is so intriguing.

If you haven't heard, the Sun Devils have a pretty good defensive lineman by the name of Will Sutton. Ya' know, the guy who was named the Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year. Landed on a couple of All-America lists. That chap.

Watching Sutton, Carl Bradford, Junior Onyeali, Brandon Magee and the rest of the Sun Devils defense square off with the Navy offense is going to be one of the more fascinating chess matches of the postseason. We've heard a lot about Todd Graham instilling discipline this year in the ASU system. And to beat a team like Navy, it takes strict discipline.

There is no freelancing against a Navy team. Defenders have to stick to their option rules like a pilot to a flight plan. Deviation can mean disaster.

It can also be frustrating. Most coaches would prefer to use these extra practices awarded to bowl teams like an extra spring -- giving young guys some work and focusing more on technique and fundamentals. I'm sure ASU will do that. But a team like Navy takes a little extra time to prepare for because it's an offense you don't see in the Pac-12. If the Sun Devils were playing a pro-style or spread team, the prep time wouldn't be as demanding.

And, of course, anytime you play a service academy, there is always the highest level of respect for who the players are and what they will be doing after their football careers. That should resonate particularly loudly with Arizona State -- given the way it embraces the Pat Tillman legacy and the fact that defensive end Jake Sheffield was a Marine who served in Iraq.

We'll start getting into predictions later, but based on pure athletes alone, Arizona State should win this game. They are superior on both lines which is where games are won and lost. But Navy's offense has a way of leveling the playing field. And if the Sun Devils aren't disciplined, this could be closer than at first glance.

[+] EnlargeMarkus Wheaton, Brandin Cooks
Rick Scuteri/US PresswireA win over Texas would surely give Oregon State receivers Markus Wheaton, left, and Brandin Cooks a reason to get excited.
Ted Miller: I'm excited about Oregon State messing with Texas, in large part because one of college football's richest programs -- the Longhorns -- is an underdog to the Beavers.

Texas looks more like a middling Pac-12 team. It scores fairly well -- 36 points per game -- but is questionable on defense. That the Longhorns are so weak on defense when they sit in the middle of some of the richest recruiting land in the nation is utterly baffling.

It will be interesting to see how the Beavers defense, which has been strong all season, matches up against the Longhorns. And how the Longhorns handle receivers Markus Wheaton and Brandin Cooks, the best tandem they will have seen this season.

Speaking of passing, both teams bring QB intrigue to the game: Will Oregon State go with Sean Mannion or Cody Vaz and what does that mean for next year? And what about Texas with David Ash and Case McCoy? That's another indicator of what the Longhorns might look like next year, in what figures to be a critical year for coach Mack Brown.

And next year is what this one is about.

If the Beavers win, even against a middling Texas team that has disappointed its fans, it will give this turnaround season more credibility, which will boost the 2013 perception. As in nice preseason ranking.

And a 10th win would be nice. That's happened just twice before in program history.

Beavers start slow, finish fast

November, 4, 2012

In the battle of teams needing to bounce back, it was the No. 11 Oregon State Beavers who proved to be the springier team with a 36-26 victory over the Arizona State Sun Devils.

The new-look OSU backfield of Cody Vaz and Terron Ward helped the Beavers overcome an early 14-3 deficit. Filling in for the injured Storm Woods, Ward rushed for 146 yards and a touchdown on 19 carries. Vaz, who was named the starter following Sean Mannion’s four-interception performance in the loss to Washington last week, completed 14 of 33 passes for 267 yards and three touchdowns with an interception.

Markus Wheaton and Brandin Cooks each eclipsed the 100-yard receiving mark. Wheaton had four catches for 108 yards and two touchdowns. Cooks led the Beavers (7-1, 5-1 Pac-12) with six catches for 116 yards and a score.

For the Sun Devils (5-4, 3-3), who have now dropped three straight following a 5-1 start, it was the second consecutive week they had jumped out to an early double-digit lead but were unable to hold it. On Oct. 27 they were up 14-0 on UCLA before losing a back-and-forth contest on a last-second field goal.

Quarterback Taylor Kelly was held to just 153 yards passing, completing 22 of 41 attempts with a touchdown and an interception.

ASU jumped ahead in the first minute when Junior Onyeali recovered a Vaz fumble deep in Oregon State territory and returned it 1 yard for the touchdown. A Trevor Romaine field goal cut the lead to 7-3 before a 1-yard Cameron Marshall touchdown put the Sun Devils ahead 14-3.

But that was ASU’s only offensive touchdown until the very end of the game. The rest of its points came on a Keith Kostol blocked punt for a safety and a 31-yard Jon Mora field goal. A 2-yard touchdown pass from Kelly to Marion Grice prevented the second-half shutout.

The Sun Devils are back on the road again next week when they travel to USC in search of that crucial sixth victory.

Oregon State’s win sets up an interesting showdown next week at Stanford.
Arizona State and Oregon State find themselves in very similar situations this week. Both are still in contention for their respective Pac-12 division titles, but both need to bounce back from very difficult losses.

For ASU, it was a last-second field goal at home by UCLA freshman kicker Ka'imi Fairbairn that sunk the Sun Devils. The Beavers slogged their way through a four-turnover performance against the Washington Huskies, who handed Oregon State its first loss of the season.

When they meet in Corvallis, Ore., on Saturday night, both the Devils and the Beavers will be looking to clean up the errors that led to their tough losses the week before.

Yet neither coach is letting said losses linger.

"What you do is you pick yourself up off of the mat," said Arizona State coach Todd Graham, whose team fell to 5-3 (3-2 in conference). "You are in November and you are still competing for a championship. Heck, this thing's wide open. Our guys have a great spirit and a great attitude. You evaluate things at the end of the year. Right now, we have a good football team. Any team in this league and any team in the South can beat any other team. It's going to be a barn-burner. We're sitting at the top of the league and we've got a lot of things to play for."

[+] EnlargeCody Vaz
Joe Nicholson/US PresswireCody Vaz is back at starting QB as Oregon State tries to rebound from its first loss of the season.
No. 11 Oregon State (6-1, 4-1), which was off to one of the best starts in school history, saw its chances of playing for the BCS championship -- slim chances, but chances nonetheless -- dashed in a wave of turnovers and inefficiency. Head coach Mike Riley said that, so far, he's liked the way his team has responded.

"I think it's been good, but I didn't expect any different," Riley said. "This group has been good on every Monday. We played another game well into the fourth quarter and this time we lost. And there are real reasons why we lost. We turned the ball over for the first time more than the other team did and in bad situations and we gave it to them in good situations and they took it away from us in scoring situations. It's easy to see the reasons. But I think the team as far as work and getting ready for the next game has started well."

Part of that preparation is getting behind quarterback Cody Vaz, who will reprise his role as starter in place of the benched Sean Mannion. The Washington game was Mannion's first back after missing two games with minor knee surgery. And in his place, Vaz guided the Beavers to victories at BYU and home against Utah. Mannion threw four interceptions in the loss to the Huskies.

Riley said he doesn't expect the move to shake up the locker room.

"I think both quarterbacks have a lot of respect amongst the team," Riley said. "I haven't seen any really any response either way. They have faith in both of them and we have to pick one and I think they're good with it."

Arizona State is hoping to have defensive linemen Will Sutton and Junior Onyeali healthy for this game. Sutton, who was injured on the first series two weeks ago against Oregon and then missed the UCLA game, was having the best season for a defensive linemen in the conference prior to his injury. Well, one of the best. Oregon State fans will argue that Scott Crichton was having just as good of a year -- if not better. So if Sutton returns, a good sidebar to this meeting is which defensive line can make the stops.

"Their defensive line is a strength for them," Graham said. "It starts up front and they are very sound about what they are doing. They have stayed pretty healthy and haven't had too many guys get hurt, so they are pretty solid there. Really impressed with how well they cover in space in the secondary. They are not going to make stupid mistakes and they are very, very well coached on both sides of the football. They are very sound in what they do and as good a coached team as we've played."

TEMPE, Ariz. -- This was not a test of the Oregon football system. If this had been an actual test, you would have seen Arizona State still in the game after the first quarter.

Some test? After an odd flurry to start the game, No. 3 Oregon was never challenged by Arizona State in a 43-21 victory Thursday night in Sun Devil Stadium, which was less than half full to start the third quarter.

We all know that Ducks coach Chip Kelly is not much for media scripts. The Washington game is supposed to be a bitter rivalry. Kelly gave that a shrug and a "Neh," and announced how much he liked and respected Huskies coach Steve Sarkisian.

The visit to Arizona State on Thursday was supposed to challenge the Ducks. It was supposed to give us a measure of redshirt freshman quarterback Marcus Mariota in a frenzied, hostile environment.

But after a horrible start -- a fumble on the second play, a 28-yard Sun Devils touchdown pass on the third -- the Ducks simply rolled. Test Mariota? He didn't need to throw. It was 22-7 after the first quarter and 43-7 at the break.

"One thing I love about this team," Kelly said, "is we don't flinch."

Oregon rushed for 329 yards. By halftime.

Mariota didn't play in the second half, yielding to Bryan Bennett and the second unit.

[+] EnlargeOregon's Marcus Mariota
Matt Kartozian/US PRESSWIREMarcus Mariota and Oregon have more challenges than just USC awaiting them in Pac-12 play.
Arizona State entered the game 5-1, ranked 24th in the coaches' poll. The Sun Devils topped the Pac-12 in most major defensive categories and were led by quarterback Taylor Kelly, who was No. 1 in the conference in passing efficiency. While the naysayers are sure to come out -- they lost to Missouri! -- this was, at least, a solid team.

And Oregon simply decimated them.

Just as they had done to the rest of their Pac-12 schedule thus far. Average margin of victory in four games: 31.8 points. And that includes three teams that have been ranked at some point this season.

In defense of the Sun Devils, they lost their best player -- defensive tackle Will Sutton -- to a knee injury just after he forced a fumble from Mariota on the game's second play. Shortly thereafter defensive end Junior Onyeali went down with a shoulder injury.

Those were major blows to the Sun Devils' defense, without a doubt.

"Losing Will was very disruptive and we did a poor job being prepared for that as a staff," Arizona State coach Todd Graham said. "So much of what we had planned was around him and you have to have a plan B and it took us well into the game to figure out what to do there. Making no excuses, we got beat by a team tonight that's a lot better than us, but we made them look a lot better by making a lot of mistakes."

The Ducks' defense fully matched the offense. It grabbed four interceptions, two which in the first half were returned inside the Sun Devils' 10-yard line. It also relentlessly pressured Sun Devils quarterbacks, recording five sacks. The first-team defense only gave up the early touchdown on a 28-yard pass. The other Arizona State scores came in the fourth quarter on a pick-six and a late tally against backups.

The Sun Devils finished with 408 yards, but gained only 202 through the first three quarters.

Mariota had an 86-yard TD run, a beautiful 6-yard scoring toss to Bralon Addison and even caught a touchdown pass from Bennett. He completed 9 of 12 passes for 46 yards, bouncing back from the early fumble to demonstrate plenty of poise. In his first road game, in Seattle against Washington State, he threw two interceptions. This was a more polished outing.

"Up in Seattle, I tried to do too much," he said.

But the Ducks aren't going to say too much. They're not into the idea of making statements.

Asked what statement a blowout win made, safety Avery Patterson deadpanned, "That we're 7-0."

Said Mariota, "I'm happy about tonight, but it's just one game."

Oregon's next, er, Super Bowl is at back at home against Colorado on Oct. 27. Then comes the much-ballyhooed trip to USC on Nov. 3.

Whether the Ducks admit it or not, they made a statement: This team is clearly good enough to contend -- again -- for the national title. But, as Kelly and players said, there's plenty of work ahead. Starting with, yes, the woeful Buffaloes.

Said Kelly, "We're going to get everybody's best shot. We know that."

Another part of this evening's statement? Everybody else's best shot may not be enough to even get close to the Ducks.

Best case-worst case: Arizona State

August, 14, 2012
This is the second in a series looking at potential dream and nightmare scenarios for all Pac-12 teams.

Understand: These are not predictions. They are extreme scenarios and pieces of fiction. You can read last year's versions here.

We're going in reverse order of my post-spring power rankings (which might not be identical to my preseason power rankings).

Up next: Arizona State

Best case

While a 40-7 win over Northern Arizona wasn't terribly revealing, it became clear in la ast-second victory over Illinois what new Arizona State coach Todd Graham saw during preseason practices when he lauded quarterback Taylor Kelly's scrappiness.

The homestanding Sun Devils lined up fourth-and-goal on Illinois' 7-yard line with 10 seconds left and the Illini leading by four. Kelly took a quick drop but was immediately surrounded by orange helmets. He rolled to his right, reversed field around the pursuit, back-peddled and then, just after delivering a punishing stiff-arm to Illini end Michael Buchanan, he lobbed a ball across his body to the far corner of the end zone.

Where J.J. Holliday outleaped two defenders for the game-winning touchdown.

"Exactly how we drew it up," Graham quips after the game. "No, that's just a guy making a play on his own. That's what we saw this preseason and, more important, that's also what his teammates saw."

Also important: The Sun Devils have just one turnover and four penalties for 30 yards. None are personal fouls or unsportsmanlike conducts.

"That's still too many mistakes," Graham says.

The Sun Devils produce another thriller at Missouri, which was held to just 45 points in a SEC-debut win over Georgia. With the Sun Devils up 28-24 late in the fourth quarter, the Tigers face a second-and-goal on the Arizona State 1-yard line. Quarterback James Franklin tries to sneak it in, but he's met inches from the goal line by linebacker Brandon Magee, whose blow knocks the ball loose.

Mike Pennel, the 340-pound defensive tackle, nimbly scoops up the ball at the 10-yard line, and then takes an amusing minute and a half to rumble the other way for a touchdown -- Tigers bouncing off his rotund 6-foot-5 frame all the way down the field.

It's the ESPN Play of the Day, provided musical accompaniment by Henry Mancini's "Baby Elephant Walk."

The end result is a No. 20 ranking with No. 18 Utah coming to town.

"It's a battle of unbeatens in Tempe, the winner perhaps looking like the top contender against USC in the South Division," says Chris Fowler of ESPN's "College GameDay."

"And with Missouri stomping South Carolina earlier today, you might call the winner the early favorite in the SEC East," adds Kirk Herbstreit.

It proves to be a Cameron Marshall-John White IV battle, as both running backs eclipse 150 yards and score twice. The difference, however, proves to be Marshall turning a screen from Kelly into a 44-yard TD. Junior Onyeali's fifth sack of the season snuffs a late Utes drive and seals the 30-24 victory.

The Sun Devils are flagged just once for five yards.

"Still too much," Graham says.

It's not easy, however, for a program to cure all its bugaboos in a single season. The Sun Devils just don't win in the state of California very often and that holds true during a 20-17 loss to Cal in Berkeley.

The Sun Devils bounce back with a 42-17 victory over Colorado and, at 5-1, move up to No. 19 in the nation, but they get drubbed 44-19 by No. 3 Oregon the following weekend.

"This is about where we lost it last year," Marshall says. "We fell apart like we were Snooki taking the SAT."

A date with UCLA certainly doesn't bring back good memories. This is a different team, with different leadership, though. Alex Garoutte kicks field goals of 38, 48 and, with five seconds left on the clock, the winning 56-yarder in a 30-28 victory over the Bruins. That winning drive included the Sun Devils converting on a third-and-29 play.

The Sun Devils slip Oregon State 31-27, but get rocked 45-21 at No. 1 USC. A 44-40 win over Washington State pushes them to 8-3 and back into the top 25.

And so it's off to Tucson to try to take back the Territorial Cup from Arizona. The Wildcats need a victory to become bowl-eligible. An Arizona State win sends the Sun Devils to the Holiday Bowl in San Diego. A loss means El Paso, Texas, and the Sun Bowl.

Magee gathers his teammates.

"We've had a lot of bad times in this program since I've been here," he says. "But I wouldn't trade them for anything because that's how I got here tonight -- this moment -- with you guys. This is the best place to be in the world, right here in this locker room before we open a can of whup-butt. We are the beginning. We are the foundation. And for that, we will always be remembered. When Arizona State wins a Rose Bowl, wins a national championship, we will all celebrate together as Sun Devils. And then everyone that wears our colors will raise their hands and point at us and say, 'But it started with you guys.'

"Now let's go bust those guys to pieces."

Arizona State rolls 38-20 and earns a berth in the Holiday Bowl opposite Texas. A 41-28 victory over the Longhorns earns the Sun Devils a 10-3 finish and final No. 14 ranking.

The Sun Devils lead the nation in fewest penalties per game.

Pittsburgh finishes 3-9, with players taking to Twitter saying how much they miss Coach Graham.

"I've got great news," says Steve Patterson, ASU vice president for athletics. "Now that the economy is rallying and local housing prices are soaring, we are pleased to announced a $200 million anonymous donation that will help finance a $300 million renovation of Sun Devil Stadium."

It turns out that ASU alumni Nick Nolte, Jimmy Kimmel and David Spade pooled their money and gave the school the $200 million.

Says Spade, "Hey, 'Joe Dirt' was huge in France."

Worst case

It takes more than optimism and saying all the right things to transform a program. It doesn't take long for Graham to find out that talking about unity and discipline is one thing. Imposing it in the Arizona State locker room is another.

After whipping Northern Arizona in the opener, things go down hill quickly. Illinois sacks quarterback Taylor Kelly six times in a 28-10 defeat. Missouri QB James Franklin accounts for five touchdowns in a 40-17 loss, with Michael Eubank replacing Kelly in the second half but failing to rally the Sun Devils.

Eubank gets the start against Utah, but the Sun Devils turn the ball over three times in the first half and gain just 97 yards against a physical Utes defense. Kelly starts the second half but things don't get any better. Players are seen mouthing, "Put Mike Bercovici in!" on the sidelines.

After a blowout loss at California, the Sun Devils are averaging 105 yards in penalties per game.

Bercovici leads the Sun Devils to a 35-30 victory at Colorado, but he gets into a brief skirmish with Graham after he tells the punt unit to get off the field before a fourth-down play from the Buffs' 44-yard line.

It appears the Sun Devils completely surrender in a 52-3 loss to Oregon.

"This obviously isn't going to get fixed overnight," Graham says amid rumors of a post-game locker-room fight between offensive and defensive players. "It takes time to change a program's culture."

Just 24,000 fans show up to watch the Sun Devils fall to 2-6 against UCLA. The season further spirals down the toilet after a loss at Oregon State, a 56-6 evisceration at USC and a 42-21 home defeat to Washington State.

"I know this team will show up with some fight at Arizona," Graham says. "We always fight against the Wildcats."

Arizona whips the Sun Devils 44-24 and advances to the Holiday Bowl, where the Wildcats beat Texas and finish the season 9-4 and ranked 25th.

Tempe's own Priest Willis commits to Arizona, as do Jalen Ortiz and Cole Luke.

Arizona alumni Linda Ronstadt, Geraldo Rivera and Garry Shandling give the Wildcats athletic department $200 million dollars.

"We just want all their stuff to be way better than Arizona State's," Ronstadt explains. "Bear down!"

Pittsburgh wins the Orange Bowl.

Graham texts his players at 4 a.m. on Dec. 25 that he's leaving for the head coaching job at McNeese State.

"It's always been my dream to coach the Honey Badger," he types.

Tyrone Willingham hired to replace Graham.
TEMPE, Ariz. -- There's a difference between horrible and bad.

For example, Arizona State had a bad season last year. It started off great, climbed in the national rankings and looked like a certain Pac-12 South Division champion, but then it went rear end over tea kettle, losing five consecutive games to end the season, which provoked the firing of coach Dennis Erickson.

That's bad.

Sun Devils defensive end Junior Onyeali had a horrible season last year. The Pac-10 Defensive Freshman of the Year in 2010, he missed much of the 2011 season with a knee injury, didn't play well when he was healthy and then got suspended from the Las Vegas Bowl by Erickson, who already had been fired. When Todd Graham replaced Erickson, he reviewed Onyeali's case and put him on indefinite suspension. Onyeali had a lot to get straight, both on and off the field.

"He was the only guy when I came in here who didn't start over with a clean slate," Graham said. "There were some things that had happened that I was concerned about."

So Onyeali went from a player who looked like a budding star and a centerpiece of a nationally ranked team to a player in career limbo, one who wasn't playing well enough for an attitude problem to be overlooked.

One person who nods his head over such negative assessments is Onyeali, who felt overwhelmed with myriad frustrations last fall.

"It was the injury. I had lost my grandpa. It was a couple of things going on at the same time," he said. "I didn't handle it well at all. I started rebelling instead of being disciplined and focusing on what I needed to focus on."

Junior Onyeali
Rick Scuteri/AP ImagesJunior Onyeali has "busted his tail and done nothing but impress me since I've been here," said coach Todd Graham.
He was given what Graham called "an extensive plan of improvement." He was forced to sit out spring practices while he focused on his school work and winning over his new coaches with his attitude. He produced a 3.0 GPA, spent time doing community service work and hit the weight room to get in shape -- he's now listed at 230, 14 pounds lighter than last year after moving from defensive end to "Devil-backer," a hybrid linebacker/defensive end position.

Said Graham, "I'm extremely proud of him .... He's busted his tail and done nothing but impress me since I've been here."

With all due respect, Onyeali disagrees with that assessment. He believes Graham's demands weren't difficult once he made his own changes, though his plan of improvement started inside.

"I wouldn't say it was hard at all," the 5-foot-11 true junior from Denver said. "I had to make a change in myself. When I did that, I truly found God and it made the whole process easier. I had no issues following the rules or doing what they asked me to do. It was very simple."

The question is whether Onyeali can rediscover and then eclipse his freshman form. He led the Sun Devils in tackles for a loss (11.5) and sacks (6.5), despite starting just five games. While he lacks height, Onyeali is powerful and quick. He seems like a perfect fit for the "Devil backer" spot in Graham's scheme. While he's competing with the promising Carl Bradford for the starting spot, Graham made clear that he expects both of them to be on the field in passing situations.

"Because I know in the Pac-12 you've got to find a way to impact the quarterback," Graham said.

While his horrible season was going on, Onyeali got a good view of what was making things so bad for the Sun Devils. Though injuries were a major issue, the Sun Devils still were too talented to finish 6-7. They lacked discipline and leadership, and when things went wrong the locker room fractured. It's not much of a stretch to say a figurative white flag was hoisted by some.

"Once we lost, we didn't have a good attitude about winning more games," Onyeali said. "Especially after the UCLA game [on Oct. 27]. It wasn't pretty after that."

The 2012 Sun Devils were picked fifth in the Pac-12's South Division. Unlike last year, this team is not burdened with high expectations. Just 10 starters are back, which is the fewest in the conference. Onyeali admitted he understands why many have such low expectations. But a guy who was laid so low a year ago isn't having a difficult time seeing things differently.

"In our heads, they are not seeing the vision we are," he said. "In our heads, we have a vision of winning. It's a vision of shocking the world."

There's a difference between expectations and reality after all.
College football beat writers this time of year can often seem like Debbie Downers. They report this touted recruit hasn't qualified, or this injured starter is still injured, or this guy got arrested for stealing a sheep.

Arizona State fans -- at least for today -- should all send Doug Haller flowers, because that's mostly all he has for you with this notebook -- flowery good news!

He opens:
[RB] Marion Grice and [NT] Mike Pennel -- two key players in Todd Graham's first Arizona State recruiting class -- have completed academic requirements and are expected to be with the Sun Devils when camp opens Aug. 3.

By all accounts, these two guys are legit and are almost certain to contribute, even though the Sun Devils are in great shape at running back and are solid at DT. Pennel, a 340-pounder, in particular, gives the Sun Devils something they lack on their interior line -- size -- which is important in their new 3-4/hybrid defense.

Haller has information on several other incoming players, almost all of it good. He also notes that suspended LB/DE Junior Onyeali remains on track to rejoin the team, and that RB Cameron Marshall, coming back form ankle surgery, is in the "best shape of his life."

The only caveat the Pac-12 blog will offer -- a moment of Debbie Downer -- is that fans often expect touted JC transfers to smoothly transition into key roles. And, no, it doesn't escape me when I do preseason position rankings that some fans lambaste my lack of acknowledgement for incoming players. That's certainly their right. But I'm mostly a skeptic on penciling guys onto the depth chart before their first practice. After doing this a few years, my feeling on JC transfers is they live up to expectations about a third of the time. And a third of the time they are complete busts.
I always gagged on the silver spoon.

ASU suspends Junior Onyeali

January, 4, 2012
New Arizona State coach Todd Graham has indefinitely suspended defensive end Junior Onyeali "for not meeting the high standards of the Sun Devil football program," according to Doug Haller of the Arizona Republic.

Onyeali was previously suspended from the Maaco Las Vegas Bowl by outgoing coach Dennis Erickson. According to Haller, that was due to a "heated exchange" with Erickson at practice.

It would appear Graham also is unhappy with the incident and, perhaps, how Onyeali reacted thereafter.

Onyeali, the Pac-10's 2010 Defensive Freshman of the Year, looked like a potential All-Conference player in the preseason, but he missed five games with a knee injury and didn't play particularly well when he returned.

Graham appears to be sending an early message about discipline. It will be interesting to see when — if? — Onyeali gets reinstated.

Will ASU show up against Boise State?

December, 21, 2011
Is the Arizona State team that whipped USC 43-22 still somewhere inside the Arizona State team that lost 31-27 to Arizona? That Sun Devils squad that lost four in a row to finish the season -- cumulative record of foes: 21-28 -- can't possibly transform back into the hard-nosed, opportunistic unit that won 35-14 at Utah, can it?

Other than Illinois, which beat Arizona State during a 6-0 start but lost its final six games, no other team in the country captures that whole Jekyll-and-Hyde thing quite like the Sun Devils.

They started 6-2, earned a national ranking and were almost certain to win the Pac-12 South Division title. Then they completely collapsed. It's still difficult to figure out exactly what happened.

"It's not one thing you can put your finger on," senior linebacker Colin Parker said. "It was a combination of things. Every game was different. Sometimes our problems were on special teams. Sometimes our problems were on defense. Sometimes our problems were on offense. It was never the same."

The current problem the Sun Devils have is Boise State in the MAACO Las Vegas Bowl. Boise State went 11-1. It is ranked eighth. It is unhappy to be in Las Vegas -- again -- instead of the BCS bowl game it deserved, but the Broncos are not the sort of program that mopes and whines and turns in a flat performance. In fact, when the Broncos see an AQ-conference team on the opposite side of the field, they go all Bruce Banner-to-Incredible Hulk.

They last lost to one on Sept. 8, 2007 -- Washington, of all teams.

Meanwhile, it's reasonable to ask if the Sun Devils, a 14-point underdog, will show up. We already know that defensive end Junior Onyeali won't. He's been suspended. And we don't know what will happen with linebacker Vontaze Burfict, whose been running with the second team since he got benched against California in the season finale for a pair of personal foul penalties.

And, of course, this will be Dennis Erickson's last game as Sun Devils coach before Todd Graham takes over. Players might want to win one for Erickson, or they might not care because he's out the door.

Parker says the Sun Devils will be motivated.

"It's about sending the seniors out and especially the coaching staff out," Parker said. "Everybody here has only played for Coach Erickson and his staff. We've grown close together and none of us want to see him go. But it is what it is."

Parker said the time off away from the field has helped the team heal mentally and refocus.

"We've cleared our minds a little bit," he said. "We know what we are capable of. We've just got to go out and play like we did our first six games. We feel like we can play with anybody in the country."

The team that started 6-2 certainly could go nose-to-nose with Boise State. The team that went 0-4 in November, however, doesn't stand a chance.

So who shows up?

ASU suspends DE Junior Onyeali

December, 20, 2011
It's been a tough year for Arizona State, and it's not getting easier as the Sun Devils prepare for the Maaco Las Vegas Bowl on Thursday.

Coach Dennis Erickson, who is coaching his final game after being fired on Nov. 28, has suspended sophomore defensive end Junior Onyeali from the bowl game against Boise State, the Arizona Republic reported.

The newspaper, citing sources, said Onyeali and Erickson had "a heated exchange at Monday's practice." Onyeali did not travel with his teammates to Las Vegas.

Onyeali, not unlike Erickson, hasn't had a great year. The 2010 Pac-10 Defensive Freshman of the Year, missed four games with a knee injury this season and didn't look like his old high-motor self when he returned. He finishes the season with just 11 tackles and a sack.

Davon Coleman, who had 41 tackles this year, likely will start in Onyeali's place.

LB Vontaze Burfict's status is also uncertain. While Erickson has denied that Burfict refused to re-enter the season-finale against California after getting benched, he's been practicing with the second-team defense.

More bad news: the Republic also reported the Sun Devils "may be without junior receiver/returner Jamal Miles, who was not at Sunday's practice. His status is unknown."

Miles is a multipurpose threat as a runner and receiver, but scored three TDs returning punts and kicks this year.

Pac-12 lunch links: Onyeali shaking off the rust

November, 2, 2011
Loneliness has followed me my whole life, everywhere. In bars, in cars, sidewalks, stores, everywhere. There's no escape. I'm God's lonely man.

What to watch in the Pac-12: Week 9

October, 27, 2011
Issues to consider heading into the ninth week of games.

Barkley vs. Luck: Stanford's Andrew Luck is the best quarterback in college football, the Heisman Trophy favorite and is almost certain to go No. 1 overall in this spring's NFL draft. USC's Matt Barkley is pretty good, too, and could be picked in the first round. He certainly could help his stock -- and his team -- by outplaying Luck on Saturday. For USC to notch the upset, Barkley almost certainly will need to match or, more likely, exceed Luck's numbers. Last year, these two combined for six TDs and no interceptions as Stanford won 37-35 with a field goal in the waning moments.

[+] EnlargeAndrew Luck
Cary Edmondson/US PresswireStanford's Andrew Luck puts his Heisman campaign on the line Saturday against another marquee quarterback, USC's Matt Barkley.
James and Thomas watch: Oregon is probably not going to have much trouble with Washington State at home on Saturday, though, of course, you never know. The big issue will be whether quarterback Darron Thomas or running back LaMichael James play. It's not really about how much they play or even how effective they are. It's more about them being ready to go for a crucial two-game road trip: at Washington on Nov. 5 and at Stanford on Nov. 12. Those are games when the Ducks will want -- need? -- to be at full strength.

Return of Onyeali: Arizona State appears poised to dash to the Pac-12 South Division title, and a visit from 1-7 Colorado doesn't figure to slow the Sun Devils down. But the return of defensive end Junior Onyeali from a knee injury is big news. Onyeali, the conference's defensive freshman of the year in 2010, was hurt Sept. 17 at Illinois. The Sun Devils' defense has mostly played well in his absence, with Greg Smith and Davon Coleman stepping up opposite Jamaar Jarrett. But four good DEs is a good thing. A really good thing.

Maynard sharp II? California QB Zach Maynard had perhaps his best game in the Bears' 34-10 victory over Utah, passing for 255 yards and a touchdown and rushing for 36 yards and a score. He rolled out and moved around in the pocket and seemed to be sharper, more confident and, most important, more accurate with his throws. Was the win over the Utes a turning point game for him, and therefore the Bears' offense? If so, the Bears should roll over UCLA, which is awful on defense.

Where's the O, Utah? Speaking of the Utah-Cal game, the Utes' offense didn't show up. It turned the ball over four times -- three interceptions from QB Jon Hays -- and gained just 178 total yards, including just 13 yards rushing. It's certain that the Utes won't have a juggernaut offense anytime soon. They didn't have one approaching that even when Jordan Wynn was playing quarterback. But if the season is to be salvaged, they are going to need to figure out ways to get a few points on the board. A solid defense can keep things close, but it's hard to win if you can't score.

Price vs. the Arizona secondary: Four Arizona players are suspended from Saturday's game at Washington for their role in a brawl with UCLA just before halftime last week. All four are from a secondary that has already lost two starters to injury. Cornerback Shaquille Richardson and nickelback Jourdon Grandon are suspended for the entire game; cornerback Lyle Brown and strong safety Mark Watley are suspended for the first half. While Richardson is the only starter, things are still going to be tough against a Huskies passing offense led by quarterback Keith Price and a deep crew of receivers. Price leads the Pac-12 with 22 touchdown passes and ranks sixth in the nation in passing efficiency. Even before the suspensions, the Wildcats ranked last in the conference in pass efficiency defense, with opponents completing 71 percent of their throws.

Other than Woods? Before showing balance at Notre Dame, USC's offense was all about Barkley throwing to receiver Robert Woods. Stanford's defense, which got gashed by Barkley-to-Woods last year, figures to be all over Woods with bracket coverages with safeties helping cornerbacks on just about every play. Woods still figures to have his moments. It's not like he's a secret, yet he still ranks second in the nation with 129 receiving yards per game. But the Trojans need other receivers to step up and help Barkley. Or, even better, what if the running game, which piled up 219 yards against the Fighting Irish, comes through again?

ASU can't overlook 'easy' games

October, 25, 2011
Our lesson today comes from the Football Scriptures, Bear Bryant, Chapter Four, Verse Eight, which includes the 10 Sacred Football Commandments. See just after Commandment V, "Thou shall play one game at a time."

Commandment VI: "Thou shall not take any opponent lightly, for thenst thou surely will get thou butt kickest."

(Note: We prefer to use the Codex John McKay, as translated by the Venerable Bede, instead of the Codex Fielding Yost, translated by Alcuin, per a directive from Charlemagne).

Woe to the team that overlooks an apparently weak foe. Ask any team that's lost to an FCS program. Or USC in 2007 against Stanford. Or Oklahoma last weekend.

[+] EnlargeArizona State's Omar Bolden
Mark J. Rebilas/US PRESSWIREArizona State is getting healthier. All-league cornerback Omar Bolden, who has missed the season, has been cleared to play.
Arizona State should take heed. It is very easy to look at the Sun Devils schedule and have one reaction: Piece of cake!

Of the Sun Devils five remaining opponents, just one -- 4-3 California, which must come to Tempe for the season finale on Nov. 25 -- owns a winning record at present.

Further, the Sun Devils, 3-1 in Pac-12 play, appear to be in complete control of the conference's South Division. USC also is 3-1 in the conference but is ineligible for the postseason. Three of the four remaining South Division foes already have four conference defeats. The lone team in striking distance? UCLA, at 2-2.

Who believes UCLA, a 48-12 loser at Arizona last Thursday, is going to win the South? Anyone? [Crickets] Anyone? [Crickets].

So it would be very easy for the Sun Devils to start looking ahead to the Pac-12 championship game on Dec. 2.

Colorado coming to town on Saturday? Pfftt. The Buffaloes are 1-7 and have surrendered 145 points in their past three games. Just about all their good players -- receiver Paul Richardson, linebacker Doug Rippy, running back Rodney Stewart, etc. -- are hurt. Heck, QB Tyler Hansen is questionable after suffering a concussion in the 45-2 loss to Oregon.

At this point, one should re-read Commandment VI.

“I think in the game of football, sometimes you’ll see a team looking past another team," Sun Devils quarterback Brock Osweiler said. "[This week] it will be a good test for us."

No doubt. The entire five-game stretch will be a good test of ASU's focus, which, if true, could yield substantial rewards. And things are looking up in other ways, too.

Sure, the 41-27 loss at Oregon still smarts, but as solid as the Sun Devils have been so far, they might bring a substantially better team to the championship game (sportswriters have no such prohibition on looking ahead). Recall how injury ravaged this team once was? Well, it's getting healthier after a bye week.

For one, defensive end Junior Onyeali, only the team's best pass-rusher, is expected to play against Colorado, his first action since hurting his knee at Illinois on Sept. 17. Offensive tackle Evan Finkenberg (knee) could be back this week but more likely will be ready for the trip to UCLA on Nov. 5. Further, running back Cameron Marshall and offensive tackle Aderious Simmons, who both have ankle injuries -- Marshall has continued to play through it; Simmons returned for the Oregon game -- used the bye week to get healthier.

Finally, there's the Omar Bolden question. Bolden, perhaps the best defensive back in the conference, who has not played this season after tearing his ACL in spring practice, has been cleared by doctors to practice.

"He was actually on the scout team the other day," coach Dennis Erickson "He’s moving around pretty well. I don’t know if or when he will play. It’s up to him and the doctors."

Adding an A-list cornerback -- he was a unanimous first-team All-Pac-10 pick last year -- to an already solid Sun Devils defense would be, well, huge.

You can follow Omar's progress on his Twitter page, where he Monday tweeted: "Cleared by my doctor from a medical standpoint..... Now I gotta get my #Swagger back!!!" And "I won't play unless I'm just as effective as I was 6 months ago.... Refuse to damage stock!"

So stay tuned.

As for not taking teams lightly, Erickson said the good news is his team is mature and senior-laden. And if they need a reminder of what can happen when they give a less-than-focused effort, they can just reference the Sept. 17 trip to Illinois, a 17-14 loss to a team that had no business being within two TDs of the Sun Devils.

There's no escaping the reality of the schedule. The Sun Devils should win their next five games and finish at 10-2, a record that should have them within striking distance of the top-10.

And who knows what could happen in one-game playoff to get to the Rose Bowl?

"We have some goals that we can achieve," Erickson said. "We will not achieve them if we do not win the next game and the next game and the next game."

And, of course, it all starts with THE next game, and nothing else.