Pac-12: Mike Norvell

Pac-12 viewer's guide: Week 13

November, 21, 2014
Nov 21
After two weeks on a diet, a jam-packed Pac-12 slate is back Saturday. Here's the rundown:

10 a.m.

Washington State at Arizona State, Pac-12 Network

One word: early. This game kicks off at 11 a.m. local time, but keep in mind that the Cougars' body clocks will still be set to the Pacific time zone. Mike Leach said that Washington State's hotel pregame routine will start between 5 and 6 a.m. It'll be a chance for fans to watch the Pac-12 while munching on pancakes, French toast, or -- my favorite -- crab Benedict. And it'll be a chance for ASU to wash away the horrible memory of last week's 35-27 loss at Oregon State as quickly as possible.

12:30 p.m.

Arizona at Utah, ESPN

By lunchtime, there should be a craving for a good dose of backfield pressure. #SackLackCity should be a fun place for the Wildcats' Scooby Wright to visit: He's ranked in the top three nationally in sacks and tackles for loss, so why not put him on the same field as the Utes' Nate Orchard, who's currently at the top of the sack heap? Defensive star power is the name of the game here, but keep an eye on Arizona's Anu Solomon: He must step up to the challenge of the Rice-Eccles crowd.

1 p.m.

Stanford at Cal, Fox Sports 1

Stanford's offense has been bad, but the Cardinal have found a way to score against shaky defenses this season (they've been terrible in games against ranked teams, averaging only 11.4 points per regulation in those contests). Well, good news for the Cardinal: The Golden Bears are worse than shaky on defense (39.2 points, 518 yards per game). Bad news for Stanford: Cal is at home, and it is smelling blood. Let's see what gives in the 117th Big Game. Oh, and that matchup between Jared Goff and Lance Anderson's top-ranked Cardinal defense isn't too shabby, either.

1:30 p.m.

Colorado at Oregon, Pac-12 Network

The best team in the conference meets the worst team in the conference. Prediction-wise, that's about all that needs to be said about this one. Some extra, slightly unrelated food for thought: Colorado coach Mike MacIntyre asserted that the Pac-12 South was the best division in college football, better than even the SEC West. Imagine how absurdly strong the South would be if Oregon were in it, too (I bring this up only because the SEC's top team, Alabama, happens to reside in the powerful West).

5 p.m.


Statues have been vandalized, airports have received photogenic lighting decorations, and statues have been arguably vandalized some more by duct tape (intended to protect them, but still, that's going to be a pain to remove, right?). The pregame rituals of rivalry week were fun, but it's time for some actual football with Pac-12 championship hopes on the line. The matchup of Brett Hundley and Cody Kessler is fascinating one, as is the battle between USC's frontline explosiveness and a UCLA machine that appears to be peaking at the right time.

7:30 p.m.

Oregon State at Washington, ESPN

The Beavers need one more win to earn bowl eligibility for Sean Mannion in his senior season. It's amazing what one good week (paired with a bad one) can do: Both of these teams have lost four of their past five games, but the feeling surrounding Oregon State is much more positive than the one in Seattle. The Beavers notched a huge 35-27 upset win over ASU last weekend, while the Huskies dropped a bitter 27-26 decision to Arizona. Both have a chance to finish forgettable seasons on a high note.

LOS ANGELES -- In the literal sense, Arizona State coach Todd Graham was talking about Mike Bercovici, his backup quarterback turned Hail Mary hero this past Saturday night at the Los Angeles Coliseum. This was minutes after Bercovici connected with Jaelen Strong on a 46-yard bomb as the clock expired to give the Sun Devils an unlikely 38-34 win over the Trojans.

But in an allegorical, big-picture sense, Graham was really talking about his Sun Devils.

“Everyone told him he should transfer,” said Graham, who has gone with Bercovici the past two games while starter Taylor Kelly recovers from a broken foot. “What if he had quit? Every kid should learn from him. Every quarterback should learn from him. To just up and quit when things get hard? Man, if Mike Bercovici would have quit, he would have missed out on the best football moment of his life.”

And therein lies the metaphor for the 2014 Sun Devils. Let’s be clear -- ASU got absolutely blasted two weeks ago on a Thursday night, nationally televised game at home against UCLA. The Bruins trucked ASU in a 62-27 victory, and the Sun Devils' national reputation spiraled with the loss.

[+] EnlargeMike Bercovici
AP Photo/Gus RuelasBackup QB Mike Bercovici threw for 510 yards and five touchdowns in Arizona State's upset win over USC.
But this is the Pac-12 -- where no lead is safe and fortunes can turn with every pass attempt. This is where the concept of “culture change” comes into play. Some veteran ASU players mentioned in passing that the pre-Graham Sun Devils might not have been able to recover quite so well after a brutal loss -- let alone win at USC with their backup quarterback.

That attitude doesn’t fly in Tempe, Arizona, these days.

“That would be totally unacceptable,” offensive coordinator Mike Norvell said. “The way our guys work, we know it comes down to each guy waiting for his opportunity. We didn’t play our best against UCLA and we had to respond. I told them to play every play like it’s going to make a difference in this game.”

The past couple of weeks have put Norvell’s skills to the test. He said that despite losing Kelly, whose status for ASU’s home game against Stanford on Oct. 18 is still in question following a bye this week, the “entire playbook is open” to Bercovici. Though, he clearly has a different set of tools than the more mobile Kelly.

“We do our best to play to his strengths,” Norvell said. “Credit to USC, who didn’t let us run the ball as well as we wanted. We had to throw the football, and Mike won us the game.”

All he did was throw for 510 yards and five touchdowns with no interceptions on the road against a ranked team. In any other conference in the country, those numbers put you in contention for player of the year. But in the Pac-12, it doesn’t even get you offensive player of the week.

Not only was the “Jael Mary,” as it’s been cleverly dubbed, a signature moment for the Sun Devils, it was also a shining moment for Bercovici, who once played a Pop Warner game at the Coliseum and always dreamed of an opportunity to play there in college.

“Once Taylor went down, I got a text from [offensive lineman] Jamil Douglas that said, ‘You ready?'” Bercovici said. “And I knew all those guys had my back. We’re going to move the chains no matter who is in there.”

The bye week comes at an optimal time for the Sun Devils. Having just played two emotionally draining games -- one good, one not -- they have more time to scheme for Stanford’s defense and get healthier.

Further, they are right back in the thick of a very muddled South Division. At 4-1, 2-1 in conference play, they have showdowns with Stanford, at Washington and home to Utah before a nonconference meeting with Notre Dame. They have a tiebreaker over the Trojans, but not against the Bruins. In other words, the Sun Devils can ill afford any more losses if they hope to be back in the Pac-12 championship game.

And that journey starts with a home date with the Cardinal -- a team that knocked the Sun Devils around twice last year.

“They are the defending Pac-12 champions so the road still goes through them,” Norvell said. “It’s good to get some extra time to formulate an attack. Build on our strengths and improve on our weaknesses. But you see the heart and character of this team. Never put any limitations on them.”
TEMPE, Ariz. -- On Jan. 6, 2012, Mike Bercovici was chilling with some friends when he got a call from then-Arizona State receiver Aaron Pflugrad. There was some big news for the Sun Devils' backup quarterback. In a surprise to many, junior Brock Osweiler, the team's starting quarterback, had decided to enter the NFL draft.

That is how an article began in advance of Arizona State spring practices in March 2012. Thirty-two months later, Bercovici can still recall exactly how he felt upon hearing the news of Osweiler's departure.

“It was an opportunity I had been waiting for my entire life," he said this week.

In 2011, Bercovici had beaten out Taylor Kelly for the backup quarterback spot. That made him a slight favorite to win the job over Kelly and redshirt freshman Michael Eubank in advance of the 2012 season. When spring practices ended, Bercovici was viewed as slightly ahead of Eubank, with Kelly a fairly distant third option.

Things changed. Dramatically. Kelly won the job -- coach Todd Graham even admitted at the time that it was a surprise -- and has played his way onto Arizona State's all-time top QB list over two-plus seasons. Bercovici has had to settle for being considered one of the conference's more talented backups, not that he ever got comfortable viewing himself that way.

“My hunger to be a starting quarterback hasn’t changed since I lost that competition," he said.

Just as the vice president is a heartbeat from the Oval Office, so a backup quarterback is an unfortunate play away from taking over an offense. The backup quarterback is the irrelevant mop-up guy with a backward baseball cap on the sideline -- until he becomes a team's most important player.

For Bercovici, that transition happened when Kelly hurt his foot on the Sun Devils' final possession of the third quarter Sept. 13 at Colorado.

[+] EnlargeMike Bercovici
Mark J. Rebilas/USA TODAY SportsMike Bercovici will make his first career start against No. 11 UCLA on Thursday night.
Bercovici, who has thrown 24 career passes, will therefore make his first career start this week. As if that isn't big enough, it will be Thursday night against No. 11 UCLA.

So, yeah, big stage for a first start. But the relentlessly upbeat Graham said he is completely comfortable with Bercovici starting.

“We feel like we’ve got one of the best one-two quarterback combinations in the country," Graham said.

“He’s one of the last guys I’m worried about," he added later. "If this happened to any other team -- or any other team I’ve had -- it would be devastating.”

There's a significant distance, however, between being theoretically good and proving it on the field. While Bercovici is well-versed with the Sun Devils' offense and has an undeniably strong arm, he remains an unknown commodity. The chief concern is that he too often believes he can use that strong arm to fire a pass through a window in the secondary that isn't much larger than a keyhole. He knows this just as well as his coaches. In fact, he recalls how it might have cost him the job during 2012 preseason camp.

“At the start of camp, something in the minds of every quarterback is not turning the ball over," Bercovici said. "That’s what we stress here at Arizona State. If you go back and look at film, I threw two interceptions. I knew from there I was playing catch-up. Taylor didn’t throw any interceptions.”

Said offensive coordinator Mike Norvell: “That’s huge. That’s part of his development. Obviously, he has a tremendous arm. He can make every throw on the field that needs to be made. But it’s also understanding progressions and getting to when it’s time to go to that next progression and taking what the defense gives you.”

Bercovici can't try to overcome two-plus years of frustration on every pass of every drive. Against UCLA, he needs to distribute the ball to his playmakers, of which he has plenty, and not force the action. Although he might get a few more shots downfield -- and fewer runs -- than Kelly, Bercovici's first priority is to protect the football. Considering the past two games between these teams have come down to the final possession, every miscue figures to be as critical -- if not more so -- as every big play.

It's probably a good sign, then, that Bercovici doesn't sound like a guy looking for personal vindication.

“I feel like it is my duty to have no setbacks with me at quarterback," he said. "It’s my duty to make sure we’re still undefeated when [Kelly] comes back. I owe that to him, and I owe that to the team.”

Such thinking shouldn't be too surprising, considering Bercovici's decision not to transfer already revealed him to be an unselfish guy. While many college quarterbacks quickly go looking for starting jobs after losing a competition -- Eubank is now the starting quarterback at Samford in Birmingham, Alabama -- Bercovici opted to stick it out. Yes, he thought about leaving, but those thoughts lost.

“Obviously, those thoughts race through your head, but it [would have been] a bitter taste to put on different colors," he said.

While the present is big enough for the 15th-ranked Sun Devils, there also is the future. Bercovici stuck around because he saw himself as the starter in 2015, when Kelly heads to the NFL. If anyone knows that's not a given, though, it's Bercovici. For one, there's a potential challenge from touted incoming freshman Brady White.

Playing well and winning while Kelly is out for what might be a month or more would significantly bolster his case for next year. Bercovici knew that question was coming.

“In theory, it would," he said. "But for these seniors, these guys I’ve been around for four years, it’s their time right now. My 100 percent focus is I want to be the best quarterback I can be on Thursday night for those guys.”

In other words, the future is now for Bercovici. It's not how he envisioned things 32 months ago, but he has too much on his plate this week to quibble with the whims of fortune.
It's time to start our preseason position reviews. Please, hold your applause until we are finished.

Here's how we do this. We provide three evaluative categories: "Great shape," "Good shape" and "We'll see."

Hint: You'd prefer your team to be in "Great shape."

"We'll see" doesn't mean you're going to stink at said position. It means just what it says -- we'll see because there's no way at present to know.

You can review last year's rankings here.

We continue the series with running backs.


Oregon: The combination of Byron Marshall and Thomas Tyner should be as dangerous as ever. De'Anthony Thomas never really grew into the role as an every-down back, but Marshall carried 168 times for 1,038 yards and 14 touchdowns. Tyner slowly picked up more carries and finished with 115 for 711 yards and nine touchdowns. Folks are also excited to see what incoming freshman Royce Freeman brings to the table. This is a scary corps, even before you realize that Marcus Mariota also carried 96 times for 715 yards and nine touchdowns last year.

USC: The emergence of Buck Allen was a pleasant surprise after he spent much time in Lane Kiffin purgatory. He boasted 5.8 yards per carry to go with 785 yards and 14 touchdowns. He'll be pushed by Tre Madden, Justin Davis and D.J. Morgan, who is back after missing all of 2013 with a knee injury. This is a group that could do damage in Steve Sarkisian's up-tempo offense. Think about what Bishop Sankey did last year.

Arizona State: Marion Grice was a touchdown machine. But D.J. Foster is no slouch after rushing for 501 yards and catching 63 passes for 653 yards in a dual-threat role. The local product is explosive and has big-play speed. Deantre Lewis and Kyle Middlebrooks, back from injury, provide depth since Mike Norvell won't want to pass up the opportunity to use Foster in the slot at times. The depth has ASU teetering on the Great Shape/Good Shape fence, but Foster's experience and explosiveness give ASU a perfect replacement for Grice. So we're confident saying ASU is in great shape with him at the helm.


UCLA: No, we're not going to list Myles Jack as a running back. Get over it. Offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone told the Pac-12 blog he's been looking for Jordon James to make strides as a "one-cut" runner. He believes he has. And Paul Perkins and Steven Manfro will press for carries with the intriguing Craig Lee waiting in the wings. Keep in mind it was quarterback Brett Hundley who led the Bruins in carries (160), yards (748) and touchdowns (11). Maybe ... just maybe ... we'll see Jack also pick up a few carries. The Bruins are dedicated to the run (only Oregon has more carries over the last three seasons) and they have the depth to deliver.

Stanford: No Tyler Gaffney. Four of five starters on the line are gone. Surely this is the year Stanford's running game takes a step backward, right? Probably not. The line will feature five members of the heralded 2012 recruiting class and a committee approach with Remound Wright, Ricky Seale, Barry Sanders and Kelsey Young seems likely. Only Oregon and UCLA have attempted more rushes over the last three seasons, so the Cardinal are going to continue to be dedicated to the ground game. There is a lot of untapped potential with this group and they have a coach who loves to run the football. There are a lot of unknowns, but Stanford's recent history of success running the football warrants the benefit of the doubt to put them in the "Good Shape" column.

Utah: For now, it looks like Bubba Poole will be the primary back. But Kyle Whittingham and Co. are excited about the emergence of JC transfer Davontae Booker and the complementary role Troy McCormick might play. They aren't married to the idea of a single back. In fact, Whittingham told the Pac-12 blog he'd like to have situational flexibility. This trio provides that at Utah for the first time in a while. Spreading things out is a priority for new offensive coordinator Dave Christensen. But don't be surprised to see a balanced attack if these three see success.

Colorado: The Buffs are surprisingly deep in the running backs department, with seasoned players like Christian Powell, Michael Adkins II, Tony Jones and Donta Abron returning. Powell (562 yards, three touchdowns) provided the power while Adkins emerged as a fine complement with 5.2 yards per carry (103 carries, 535 yards and six touchdowns). Look for the coaching staff to keep using those two in unison as a thunder-and-lightning tandem.

Oregon State: The running game, or lack thereof, has been a sore spot for Mike Riley the last couple of seasons. However, with last year's combination of Sean Mannion and Brandin Cooks the personnel dictated 603 passing attempts. With Cooks gone, the staff will look to Terron Ward and Storm Woods (who combined for 240 carries, 998 yards and 11 touchdowns) to build off of last year's showing of 94.4 yards per game -- which was 11th in the conference. This tandem has the potential to be very good. It just has to go out and show it.

Washington State: That the Cougars return their top two rushers from last season, Marcus Mason and Teondray Caldwell, bodes well -- even in an offense in which the running back serves more to keep the opposition in check than to run the football. However, it might be Theron West and redshirt freshman Jamal Morrow who get the majority of the carries. The coaching staff was high on Morrow in the spring and if the Cougs can do just enough to keep the safeties guessing, it might open things up more for the Air Raid's primary objective.


Arizona: The Wildcats have to replace Ka'Deem Carey. No easy task. And it was made worse by the recent news that Pierre Cormier's won't be returning. That leaves carries to be divided among Nick Wilson, Zach Green and Terris Jones-Grigsby. Jonathan Haden is still waiting to get cleared and Jared Baker missed the spring with an injury from last year's ASU game. Look for special packages with DaVonte' Neal as well. The Wildcats are silly with wide receivers, which could help open things up in the running game.

California: The Bears averaged just 122.2 rushing yards per game last year -- ninth in the league. Despite the reputation for being a pass-happy team, the coaches would actually prefer more balance, so they'll need better production out of oft-injured Daniel Lasco and Khalfani Muhammad. The departed Brendan Bigelow had the most carries (105) last year, but Muhammad and Lasco combined for 141 totes for 762 yards and six touchdowns. Muhammad is the burner at 175 pounds while Lasco has the bigger frame at 200 and change. Incoming freshman Tre Watson is also an intriguing prospect.

Washington: Like Arizona, the Huskies must replace a phenomenal back in Sankey. But there are options. Dwayne Washington was the No. 2 behind Sankey last year, rushing for 332 yards and four touchdowns on 47 carries. Behind him are Jesse Callier, who was the original starter in 2012 before his injury gave rise to Sankey, and Deontae Cooper. Both have a history of knee injuries. Jomon Dotson and Lavon Coleman could see time. We'll see isn't necessarily a bad thing. It just means, we'll see.



Arizona State spring wrap

May, 2, 2014
May 2
Three things we learned this spring about the Arizona State Sun Devils:

1. Kelly rising: Taylor Kelly is heading into his third season as the starting quarterback, and it looked like it this spring. He was fully in command of both his team in the huddle and the nuances of coordinator Mike Norvell's offense. With a strong supporting cast around him, including WR Jaelen Strong, RB D.J. Foster and a good O-line, Kelly will be in the mix for All-Pac-12 honors, which will equate to All-American honors in 2014.

2. Speaking of that O-line: While the Sun Devils are replacing two quality starters on their offensive line, the general feeling is the crew should be saltier in 2014. Nick Kelly is an upgrade athletically at center, and Auburn transfer Christian Westerman is a physical presence who has impressed with the way he finishes his blocks. The big question is whether Jamil Douglas, an NFL prospect at guard, will stick at left tackle. In any event, this group goes eight deep, which is the sign of a maturing program.

3. Foster is ready: Foster was a dual threat last year running and catching the ball, but he was second fiddle to TD machine Marion Grice. With Grice gone, Foster stepped up this spring. For one, he showed up bigger and stronger -- tipping the scales at 210 pounds, 15 more than a year ago -- while looking just as quick. While he will still be a versatile guy who can play slot receiver, Foster seems headed for 1,000 yards rushing.

Three questions for the fall:

1. Replacing nine: The Sun Devils' 2014 season hangs on how well it replaces nine starters on defense. And that's not just nine warm bodies. Six of those guys were first-team or second-team All-Pac-12 last year. On the positive side, the defense mostly held its own this spring against a very good offense.

2. Incoming! Arizona State expects many of its incoming players -- JC transfers and freshmen -- to immediately battle for spots on both sides of the ball, though most particularly on defense. Already this spring, early enrollee D.J. Calhoun made an impact by pushing for a starting job at weakside linebacker. Players such as Dalvon Stuckey, Darrius Caldwell, Kweishi Brown, Connor Humphreys and Tashon Smallwood are being counted upon to immediately contribute or even start. Will they be ready?

3. Special teams? Coach Todd Graham was frequently chagrined by his special teams play in 2013, particularly in punting. Can sophomore punter Matt Haack carry the consistency that he showed this spring into the fall? The lefty was booming kicks in practice, but will he be able to produce the same results in games?

One way-too-early prediction

Senior safety Damarious Randall is going to make a bid for All-Pac-12 honors and the interception lead in the Pac-12 this fall. He was a standout this spring as one of the few returning starters on the Sun Devils defense. The unit's fourth-leading tackler a year ago, he also grabbed three interceptions. In what figures to be a pass-happy league -- and with an inexperienced defensive front -- Randall should get plenty of opportunities to showcase his best ball-hawking.

Pac-12 Top 25 for 2013: No. 11

January, 28, 2014
Jan 28
Our countdown of the Pac-12’s Top 25 players from the 2013 season continues.

You can review our 2013 preseason Top 25 here.

No. 11: Marion Grice, RB, Arizona State

2013 numbers: With an average of 10.9 points per game, Grice led the Pac-12 in scoring average. And had it not been for an injury that kept him out of the final couple of games, there’s a good chance he would have led the league in total touchdowns. As it stands, he crossed the goal line 20 times in 2013 -- 14 times rushing and six more receiving. He rushed for 996 yards and also caught 50 balls for 438 yards.

Preseason ranking: No. 24

Making the case for Grice: A day or so after Grice hauled in a one-handed catch during ASU’s 53-24 win over Washington, head coach Todd Graham and offensive coordinator Mike Norvell asked each other, “Who does he remind you of?” Neither had an answer. Because Grice brought a very unique skill set that was a perfect fit for what the Sun Devils wanted to do offensively. He’s not the fastest runner, but he has a way of sliding off tackles and, of course, finding the end zone. Whether it was picking up 15 yards in the red zone, selling his role in the option or bringing in the aforementioned one-handed catch, Grice was a do-it-all back. He was named second-team all-conference and led all running backs nationally with six touchdown receptions. And perhaps his greatest stat, the one all coaches hold most sacred, is that he tied nationally for first with zero fumbles lost.

The countdown:
No. 12: Xavier Su'a-Filo, OL, UCLA
No. 13: Tyler Gaffney, RB, Stanford
No. 14: Taylor Kelly, QB, Arizona State
No. 15: Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, CB, Oregon
No. 16: Deone Bucannon, S, Washington State
No. 17: Paul Richardson, WR, Colorado
No. 18: Shayne Skov, LB, Stanford
No. 19: Scott Crichton, DE, Oregon State
No. 20: Trevor Reilly, DE/OLB, Utah
No. 21: Sean Mannion, QB, Oregon State
No. 22: Austin Seferian-Jenkins, TE, Washington
No. 23: Hroniss Grasu, C, Oregon
No. 24: Josh Huff, WR, Oregon
No. 25: Myles Jack, LB/RB, UCLA

Season review: Arizona State

January, 13, 2014
Jan 13
We continue our team-by-team review of the Pac-12 with Arizona State.

Offense: With 63 total touchdowns and an average of 39.7 points per game, the Sun Devils were one of the most explosive offenses in the country. They eclipsed at least 50 points in half of their games and were very balanced, ranking in the top half of the league in rushing and passing offense. A lot of that has to do with quarterback Taylor Kelly, who really came into his own in his second season as a starter. His numbers weren’t as great as 2012, but from a leadership and control standpoint, you could see him making this “his team.” His adjusted QBR was seven points higher than last season -- which speaks volumes because the schedule in 2013 was much tougher than in 2012. Chris Coyle was the league’s first-team all-conference tight end and Kelly, Marion Grice and Jaelen Strong all earned second-team honors. And offensive coordinator Mike Norvell was one of the most sought-after assistants in college football. The name of the game is scoring points and the Sun Devils were 11th nationally and second only to the Ducks in the Pac-12. Grade: A

Defense: The one area the Sun Devils really wanted to improve in 2013 was their rushing defense. And they did. After allowing 182.8 yards per game in 2012, they cut the yards allowed to 137.6. But they allowed more points per game and had fewer sacks and fewer tackles for a loss per game than in 2012. The change in scoring defense wasn’t dramatic, they went from 24.3 ppg in 2012 to 26.6 ppg in 2013. But it was still right in the middle of the national average. Where they did excel, however, was in the turnover department. ASU boasted a plus-15 turnover ratio, including a league-high 21 interceptions. They were aggressive and opportunistic, landing three players on the first-team all-league squad (Will Sutton, Alden Darby, Robert Nelson) and three more on the second team (Carl Bradford, Chris Young and Osahon Irabor). Plus Sutton was the league’s defensive player of the year for the second straight season. Head coach Todd Graham personally oversees the defense and in some aspects there was legitimate improvement. In others, minor setbacks. But not enough to really ding them for a pretty good year. Grade: B

Special teams: Freshman kicker Zane Gonzalez was a very solid 83.3 percent on his field goals, converting 25 of 30 kicks -- including 4 of 6 from beyond 40 yards. The punt team was a mess and the Sun Devils were last in the league in net punting. They didn’t return any punts or kickoffs for touchdowns and they allowed one kick off returned for a score -- in the bowl game against Texas Tech. They were middle of the road in terms of coverage, though Grice was one of the better kick returners in the league with an average of 24.1. But Gonzalez was really the strength and Graham went out of his way to note that special teams are an area of concern moving forward. Grade: C-

Overall: The loss to Texas Tech -- particularly the way the Sun Devils lost -- naturally leaves a sour taste on what should otherwise be viewed as a very good season. The Sun Devils started the year outside of the top 25 and finished 21st. They did win 10 games, won their division and had the best record in Pac-12 league play. If you’re able to look beyond the disappointment of the bowl game, it was a very strong season given the schedule they played. Graham, rightfully, shouldered all of the blame for the Holiday debacle. But he was also named the league’s coach of the year for the job he did. Perhaps the Sun Devils didn’t achieve their full potential. But they didn’t collapse down the stretch, either, and they proved they deserved to be a top 25 team. Grade: B+

ASU investing in Mike Norvell, future

December, 19, 2013
Programs aren’t made in a year. They aren't made in two, or even three, years. It takes time. And most importantly, it takes continuity.

Of the many promises Todd Graham has made since coming to Arizona State, one of the signature commitments was that he was going to build the Sun Devils into a competitive program.

To do that, you need consistency. And he and the ASU decision makers took a major step forward toward that consistency on Wednesday when they promoted offensive coordinator Mike Norvell to deputy head coach.

[+] EnlargeGraham/Norvell
AP Photo/Ross D. FranklinArizona State's promotion of offensive coordinator Mike Norvell (left) to deputy head coach shows how committed it is to keeping Norvell and head coach Todd Graham (right) together.
It’s a nice title bump and a nice raise. But more importantly, it hitches Norvell’s wagon to Graham’s for at least another year and shows that ASU is serious about being a national player.

If you’re not familiar with Norvell, you should be. The rest of the college coaching community certainly is.

It was just last year that Norvell turned down an offer from new Auburn coach Gus Malzhan to be his offensive coordinator. The move would have nearly doubled Norvell’s salary. He politely declined.

Norvell is too humble to talk about the schools that have approached him. But according to a source close to the team, he’s been approached by Florida, Notre Dame and “pretty much every team in the country that needs an OC,” since the end of the regular season. He was also reportedly linked to the head coaching job at Arkansas State. Again, Norvell politely declined.

“Obviously his goal is to be a head football coach,” said Graham, speaking in San Diego Wednesday night at a media event for the National University Holiday Bowl. “That’s the only thing we want to lose him to is a head coaching job. He had some offers from some Division I schools to be a head coach which he declined and he stayed committed to us. We’re awfully thrilled to have him.”

But Norvell doesn’t look at it as passing up other opportunities. For him, it’s simply continuing on the path he started years ago with Graham.

“He’s someone I believe in,” Norvell said Wednesday night via phone. “I have a great deal of respect for him. Getting a chance to come to work every day for someone who has a tremendous vision and a way of treating our players and the highest expectations to be the best we can be is something I take a great deal of pride in. The university have made a tremendous commitment to me and I think we have something special happening in Tempe and I’m happy to be a part of it.”

At age 32, Norvell one of the hottest, most sought-after offensive minds in the country. And he’s fiercely loyal to Graham, whose coaching tree includes Malzhan, Chad Morris, Major Applewhite and Bill Blankenship, among others.

“I like growing my own,” Graham said. “The university has made a long-term commitment to me and, in turn, my staff. I’ve hired great people. I gave Mike his first job and he’s been with me ever since. He’s like family to me and he does a tremendous job. It’s nice to work at a university that is willing to reward that.”

When Graham, Norvell et. al announced before the 2012 season that Taylor Kelly was going to be their starting quarterback, a lot of eyebrows shot north. Public opinion was that physical specimen Michael Eubank should be the guy. But Graham said to wait and see what Kelly was capable of once Norvell got ahold of him. The end result is an offense that has totaled more than 12,000 yards and more than 1,000 points in two years with Norvell as offensive coordinator.

Since the start of the 2012 season the Sun Devils have averaged 39.7 points per game -- 11th nationally and second in the Pac-12 only to Oregon’s 48.2.

How big of a deal is this? The university president, Dr. Michael Crow, made a statement in the press release ASU sent out yesterday. School presidents don’t make comments about assistant coaches.

“I am committed to the long-term success of this program under the leadership of Todd Graham,” Crow said. “Rewarding the skills of a master teacher like Mike Norvell is a demonstration of that commitment. Coach Norvell’s performance as offensive coordinator has been nationally recognized, and this promotion reflects the remarkable track record he has established in the last two years at ASU.”

That sounds like something you’d hear from the head coach. It’s a not-so-subtle way of saying we want to keep Graham and his staff happy. And a happy staff is a productive staff.

“In two years, we’ve gotten on the doorstep of our goals,” Norvell said. “To be able to grow and get to where we want to, you need that continuity. It’s great that Coach Graham has that trust in me and the university has that trust in me to do my job and do it at a high level. It’s nice knowing I’ve got that support.”
PASADENA, Calif. -- There was a good chance history was going to repeat itself. You give UCLA quarterback Brett Hundley 3 minutes and 21 seconds -- at home -- to move his team 65 yards and negate a five-point deficit and more often than not you’d probably take those odds.

Faced with a similar situation last year, the ASU defense played on its heels and watched Hundley march the Bruins 60 yards in the final 1:33 to set upKa'imi Fairbairn’s game winner as time expired, giving UCLA a 45-43 victory in Tempe.

But that’s the thing about history. That’s all it is. This time around, the Sun Devils were determined not to make the same mistakes. So when Hundley got the ball with 3:21 left and his team trailing 38-33, ASU coach Todd Graham made a declaration to his defense: We’re going to bring it.

“We had some regrets last year down the stretch in that last minute of that game,” Graham said. “We talked about it as a team. I talked to the seniors ... we had some regrets last year that we defended instead of attacked. We sent it every play that last drive. Even on the last play, because we came to win.”

The end result was two sacks on Hundley, who could move his team only 11 yards on eight plays after penalties and the losses stalled the come-from-behind effort. The 38-33 margin held, and the Sun Devils celebrated as the Pac-12 South Division champs.

[+] EnlargeRichard Smith
Robert Hanashiro/USA TODAY SportsArizona State built a large first-half lead and then hung on to win the Pac-12 South.
“Everything felt different this time around,” ASU safety Alden Darby said. “We’re a different team. The mindset was different. We know we have a championship defense. There was a different vibe this year on the sideline and on the field.”

Those two sacks on the final drive were part of a nine-sack effort from the Sun Devils, who pressured Hundley and UCLA’s young offensive line. Hundley rushed for 66 yards, but when you factor in the sacks, he netted only 5.

“The main concern was tackling Hundley,” ASU defensive line coach Jackie Shipp said. “He’s very good with the ball. He reminds me of Vince Young from when I was in the Big 12. The main thing was getting him down. We knew they were hurting on the offensive line. I knew we could get there. We just had to make sure we got him on the ground.”

Through the first 30 minutes, a game-winning drive seemed like a long shot for the Bruins. Behind an efficient and calculated performance from ASU quarterback Taylor Kelly, the Sun Devils built a 35-13 halftime lead. Kelly was elusive on the ground, rushing for 99 yards and a touchdown, and accurate through the air, completing 20 of 27 passes for 225 yards and a touchdown. Rushing scores from D.J. Foster and Michael Eubank, along with a 19-yard touchdown from Kelly to Jaelen Strong and a pick-six from Carl Bradford gave the Sun Devils a 22-point advantage at the break.

But as UCLA tends to do, it exploded in the second half, outscoring the Sun Devils 20-3 behind a pair of touchdown runs from Myles Jack and Paul Perkins and a 27-yard touchdown strike from Hundley to Shaq Evans. That set the stage for some last-minute drama that ultimately ended with the Sun Devils' defense making the plays it failed to make last season.

“We got ourselves into a hole in the first half and were not able to recover,” UCLA coach Jim Mora said. “They fought tooth and nail for that thing, and it was just a little too much to overcome. The loss is bitterly disappointing.”

What Mora laments most was his team’s inability to control Kelly on the ground. ASU’s quarterback rushed for 84 yards in the first half alone.

“He kept plays alive, he frustrated us, we couldn’t find the ball,” Mora said. “We got caught out of position on some things. That’s what was frustrating me -- not being able to handle the quarterback defensively.”

ASU offensive coordinator Mike Norvell said getting Kelly involved in the running game was by design. They wanted to force the Bruins into making decisions on zone reads. From there, Kelly was making all the right calls.

“We were able to present some different looks to make sure he’d get a good pull-read and he made some great reads,” Norvell said. “... When you’ve got the defending Pac-12 South champs the last two years, you’re coming into their place, you knew it was going to be a battle. I was really proud of our guys and the way they played. That really showed the character of our team.”

The Sun Devils will represent the South Division in the Pac-12 championship game against Stanford, which claimed the North by virtue of Arizona’s win over Oregon. The only question is whether it’s in Tempe or Palo Alto. If Arizona State tops rival Arizona next week, it will host the Cardinal. If the Wildcats win, the title game will be at Stanford for the second straight year.

ASU RB Grice full of 'wow' moments

October, 31, 2013
Marion Grice has provided the Arizona State faithful with plenty of “wow” moments, but few that actually make him say “wow” about himself.

Two Saturdays ago in a 53-24 win over Washington, the ASU running back had a self-actualized “wow” moment when he elevated to haul in a Taylor Kelly pass in the end zone with one hand. Though his entire body was already out of bounds, he was able to rotate and contort and land with his left elbow in bounds. Initially called out of bounds, the play was reviewed and ruled a score.

[+] EnlargeMarion Grice
AP Photo/Matt YorkMarion Grice has a nose for the end zone, as he has already scored 18 touchdowns this season for Arizona State.
That was touchdown No. 16 of the season, and the first of three he would have in the game to give him a nation-leading 18 touchdowns on the season.

“I told myself, ‘You’re out of bounds. Get up and try again,’” Grice said. “When they replayed it and said I was in bounds, I was like, ‘Wow.’ I knew some part had to touch in bounds. When I was in the air, I was like, ‘Well, I already know my whole body is out of bounds, let’s see if I can get my elbow down first.’ I didn’t actually think I could do that.”

While Grice doesn’t wow himself often, he’s been wowing his teammates and the Arizona State coaching staff for quite some time. When Grice gets inside the 20, something happens. Call it a nose for the end zone. Call it a switch flipping in his head. Call it good old-fashioned sticktoitiveness. Grice simply scores. And at the end of the day, that’s what this game is about.

“That’s exactly the conversation I had two weeks ago with coach [offensive coordinator Mike] Norvell,” Arizona State coach Todd Graham said. “What is it about him? We can’t put our finger on it. He has a knack for sliding, slipping; he had that unbelievable catch; he’s got a knack for it. We ask each other, ‘Who does he remind you of?’ And he doesn’t remind us of anybody. He’s really unique. And I think that’s what makes him a special back. He wants to get in that end zone. He never takes a direct hit. He slides. He’s a glider and obviously tremendously talented.”

Besides leading the nation in scoring with 18 touchdowns, here are a few other notable Grice numbers to consider, courtesy of the good folks at ASU:

  • Grice has scored a touchdown in 10 consecutive games.
  • He led the nation’s running backs with eight receiving touchdowns last year and is on pace again to do it this year. He leads all backs with six receiving touchdowns.
  • Grice was one of just four FBS players in the past decade to score 12 touchdowns before October and one of two players to do it in just four games (Temple’s Bernard Pierce was the other in 2011, Texas Tech’s Michael Crabtree had 14 in five games in 2007 and MSU’s Javon Ringer had 12 in five games in 2008).
  • Grice is averaging a touchdown every eight touches, second in the league among players with 90 touches behind Oregon State receiver Brandin Cooks.
  • And perhaps the two most ridiculous stats: Grice has more touchdowns this season (18) than he does negative plays for his career (16); and in 301 career touches (214 rushes, 74 receptions and 13 returns) Grice has yet to fumble.
What Grice doesn’t have are the gaudy rushing numbers that many feel are needed to be considered an “elite” running back. He’s only averaging 79 rushing yards per game and five yards per carry, he’s tied for the league lead in rushing touchdowns (12) despite having fewer carries than the three other backs with 12 touchdowns (Bishop Sankey, Tyler Gaffney, Byron Marshall).

With his scoring production, you’d think he’d be getting more Heisman hype. Or, really any Heisman hype for that matter. But hybrids are rarely recognized for the simple fact that they aren’t easily categorized. Oh well, says Grice.

“That’s fine,” Grice said. “It doesn’t frustrate me. I do things other running backs can’t do. That’s a positive. I might not touch the ball 40 or 50 times like some other guys. But I know if you give me the opportunity to make a play, I’m going to make it for you.”

The Sun Devils (5-2 overall, 3-1 Pac-12) head to Pullman, Wash., to face the Cougars (4-4, 2-3) tonight ranked No. 25 in the AP poll and likely on the BCS bubble. It’s the third time this season the Sun Devils have been ranked. And each time they entered the polls, they would exit a week later. That’s a trend Grice and Co. want to reverse tonight.

“We’re in the second part of the season and now it’s time to finish,” Grice said. “We had an opportunity to build on being a ranked team and we lost both of those games. We learned from those games and now we’re ready to finish the season strong.”

With five games remaining, more “wow” moments are expected.
Notre Dame kicks off the first of three games this year against the Pac-12 with Saturday’s showdown against No. 22 Arizona State in Arlington, Texas. What should you be looking for? Glad you asked. Notre Dame reporter Matt Fortuna and Pac-12 reporter Kevin Gemmell talk it over.

Matt Fortuna: Arizona State is a newcomer to the Pac-12 portion of Notre Dame's schedule this year, Kevin. The Sun Devils have looked great against USC, not so great against Stanford and, well, fortuitous in their win over Wisconsin. They put up 62 points last week against what was believed to be a good Trojans defense, getting Lane Kiffin fired in the process. So I guess we'll start there, given Notre Dame's defensive struggles so far this season: What makes Todd Graham's unit so explosive offensively, and what do the Irish need to really keep an eye on Saturday to keep the points down?

Kevin Gemmell: Tempo, tempo, tempo. Offensive coordinator Mike Norvell, who Graham trusts to run the show offensively, uses “tempo” as a verb, not an adjective. As in, he wants to tempo teams into submission.

[+] EnlargeD.J. Foster
AP Photo/Rick ScuteriNotre Dame will have to find a way to slow down D.J. Foster and the Arizona State offense.
They want to have as many possessions as possible. And they get that with a fast-paced attack that stretches and then compacts a defense. Quarterback Taylor Kelly is off to another outstanding start, and a huge reason for that is the addition of wide receiver Jaelen Strong, a junior college transfer who already has 31 catches for 433 yards. He gives Kelly that sideline threat the Sun Devils were lacking last season, and Kelly has been fantastic at spotting him on the outside shoulder and letting him make plays. Strong has been targeted 51 times, so it’s only a 60-percent completion rate when they look to him. But when he does catch it, it’s usually for a substantial gain; he averages 14 yards per reception.

They use running backs Marion Grice (12 touchdowns already!) and D.J. Foster in creative ways in the screen game and like to splt Foster out into the slot. Tight end Chris Coyle has also emerged as one of the top players at his position in the country.

How about the Irish? Things don’t seem to be going as swimmingly as they did last year. Only 25.4 points per game. ASU is going to blitz early and often. What does Notre Dame have to do to get its offense moving in the right direction?

Matt Fortuna: It will get overlooked because Notre Dame lost Saturday, but the Irish were finally able to establish a ground game, tallying 220 rushing yards against the Sooners. They had eclipsed the 100-yard rushing mark as a team just once before, in the opener against Temple. Junior George Atkinson III, who was the No. 1 back entering the season, finally played like it, lowering his shoulder and looking more like a downhill runner. He finished with a career-high 148 yards and a touchdown on 14 carries.

Aside from not turning it over on their first two possessions and falling behind 14-0, it is very important for the Irish to continue to establish the ground threat early, as they often can become predictable in second- and third-and-long with a non-mobile quarterback under center in Tommy Rees, though Brian Kelly did insert Andrew Hendrix in for some zone-read, change-of-pace packages against the Sooners. Receivers must run better routes, too. TJ Jones and DaVaris Daniels have been big playmakers, but they both had route-running miscues Saturday that were costly. Kelly has said that ordinary things need to be done better. The Irish also regularly play three true freshmen wideouts (Corey Robinson, James Onwualu, Will Fuller).

I'm interested in ASU's defense, particularly Will Sutton. Before the season, everyone had pegged this as a matchup of the two best interior defensive linemen in the country, between Sutton and Notre Dame's Louis Nix. It's been hard to gauge Nix's performance so far, as the Irish have faced some mobile quarterbacks and quick-strike offenses that have utilized the short passing game early to essentially take the line out of the game. What challenges do Sutton and the rest of the Sun Devils' defense present?

Kevin Gemmell: They like to blitz a lot. Todd Graham fashions his defense as a “hybrid attacking defense,” meaning at times they’ll substitute speed for bulk to create pressure from anywhere on the field.

Sutton hadn’t made much of an impact the first few games for a couple of reasons: One, they were facing mostly run-based power teams like Wisconsin and Stanford; two, he’s been seeing a lot of double and triple teams. Makes sense. His first step is so quick that it precedes his reputation. But he finally broke out against the Trojans with two tackles for a loss and a sack. I think, as the season pushes on, we’re going to see more pressure from the front seven based on the teams they’ll face.

That said, you have to look out for safety Alden Darby, who is coming off a fantastic performance against the Trojans. He had two picks (one returned for a touchdown) and has 19 tackles on the year. Hybrid linebacker Carl Bradford is explosive and Chris Young has really emerged, leading the team with 29 tackles.

The front seven is a little undersized, but it’s quick and if your protections aren’t set, someone will get missed with as much as the Sun Devils like to blitz.

Now that the Sun Devils are back in the top 25, it’s a huge game for them to keep some of that momentum going on a national stage. The Pac-12 is already coming off of the nonconference season with a 29-4 record.

Notre Dame, however, seems to be scrambling to salvage its national reputation. And with three games against the Pac-12, which many believe is the deepest conference in college football, it seems the Irish could restore some of that lost credibility. How do you see them matching up with the now Lane-less Trojans or Stanford in the season finale?

Matt Fortuna: Based on everything we have seen from both Notre Dame and Stanford so far, that matchup might not be a very pretty one for the Irish. Fortunately for them, it is not until the regular-season finale, meaning they have plenty of time to fix their issues in the six games before then.

The bigger question pertains to what kind of team the Irish will be heading into that matchup in Palo Alto, a status that will largely be dictated by their performances in both the ASU and USC games. The Irish need to get it together, fast, and Rees has to avoid a repeat performance of this past Saturday (three first-half interceptions) and get the offense going again. In theory, that should be enough to beat a USC team that looks to be reeling after the firing of its coach, though that kind of midseason move can have different lingering effects, good or bad. It's not like the Trojans aren't talented, and it's not like they won't be up for another night game at Notre Dame Stadium.

Still, I say the Irish win that one, especially coming off a bye. And especially with the threat of falling under .500, as a loss to ASU would make them 3-3 on the season. Notre Dame might be the better team, but the Irish have shown me little over the last four weeks that suggests that they are capable of keeping up with the Sun Devils' offense.

So that's an early 1-2 prediction for Notre Dame against the Pac-12 this season. What say you, Kevin?

Kevin Gemmell: I’m an ASU lean right now simply because of how explosive that offense can be. And if the Sun Devils can fix a couple of assignment issues on defense, I think they have the firepower to be a top-20, maybe even top-15 team. But they have to show they can do it away from home. A neutral field setting provides a nice opportunity. It’s close enough for their fans to travel, but it’s not a true road game.

As of today, we’re in lock-step when it comes to the Stanford matchup. The Cardinal offense is looking better and better each week. I thought back in April that Tyler Gaffney was going to be a game-changer for Stanford, and so far he’s shown that he is. That season finale could also have huge BCS implications, and I don’t see the Cardinal tossing one away at home in a game that could potentially lock them into a fourth straight BCS game.

As for USC, well, who knows? Haven’t heard any USC players come out and condemn the firing of Lane Kiffin. Maybe this move reinvigorates them? The Trojans certainly have talent. But as of today (as always, I reserve the right to change my mind), I’d go with Notre Dame at home.

Pac-12 lunchtime links

September, 10, 2013
In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I've been turning over in my mind ever since.

"Whenever you feel like criticizing any one," he told me, "just remember that all the people in this world haven't had the advantages that you've had."

Q&A: Arizona State's D.J. Foster

August, 30, 2013
Arizona State has to wait an extra week before taking the field, and its players are itching to get out there and start proving that all of the preseason hype surrounding the team is justified. Running back D.J. Foster, who shares the backfield with running back Marion Grice, chatted with the Pac-12 blog about his hopes for 2013 and what it’s like being a tandem with Grice.

You had your first offseason in a college training program. What’s better about D.J. Foster heading into this year?

D.J. Foster: My body has matured a lot. I put on a lot of weight -- healthy weight -- that I needed to be a Division I running back. I’m in a lot better shape and I feel like a more durable back.

What do you still need to improve on before the first game?

DF: Body-wise, I can always improve everything. My quickness, my speed, my strength. That’s always an ongoing process. As a football player, my pass blocking. That’s another challenge I’m trying to step up this year and be more reliable this year and get better at that.

What’s the biggest thing you learned as a freshman that you can apply this season?

DF: It’s a long season. There are a lot of ups and downs. As a freshman, I’m not sure you really understand that. There are so many ups and downs in a 13- or 14-game season. You need to be mature and learn how to maintain your body.

Expectations are a lot higher for you guys this year. Do you feel like the team is prepared for the mental grind it’s going to face?

DF: I think we are. I think that the offseason training we put in, our mindset is good. We feel like we are the strongest team out there. We have put in the work. We know our potential and we know what we can accomplish. It’s all about keeping that mindset and keeping it throughout the whole year.

Is it tough not playing in Week 1?

DF: It is and it isn’t. It has its pros and cons. You get a little extra rest and watch the first games. But you’re eager and you have to time to wait. We’ve been practicing against ourselves and right now we’re pretty hungry to play another opponent.

You never want to look past your opponent (FCS Sacramento State), but at the same time, after that game you have four straight against Wisconsin, Stanford, USC and Notre Dame with no break in between. That might be the toughest four-game stretch in college football this year. Have you guys started thinking about that all, even a little bit?

[+] EnlargeD.J. Foster
Matt Kartozian/USA TODAY SportsArizona State running back D.J. Foster predicts the Sun Devils will be Rose Bowl champions.
DF: We think about it every day. We can’t look past Sac. State, but we know those first five games are going to be a grind. That’s what we’ve been working toward for Day 1. We’re putting in the extra work conditioning. We call it “echo” when we go into the next drill without taking a break. We’ve been preparing ourselves because we know it’s going to be a grind.

What’s the best part of being a tandem along with Marion Grice?

DF: It’s great. I love watching him run. We have two different styles and we really play off of each other. I know what kind of player he is and I’m working hard to reach my potential. I’m honored to be in the backfield with him and be called one of the best duos in the nation.

And yet running backs by nature want the ball. They want to be 25- or 30-carries a game guys. How do you suppress that urge to want the ball every down?

DF: It’s a team sport at the end of the day. The way our offense is, I’m blessed to be able to move around in the slot and get receiving yards as well. It’s a great offense to be a part of. As long as the ball is moving and we’re excelling, there are no problems with how many times I touch the ball.

Now that you and Taylor Kelly, and Chris Coyle and the offensive line have all had a year in this system under coach Mike Norvell, what can we expect from you guys in Year 2?

DF: Everything, but better. I see a lot more consistency and maturity. We made a lot of mistakes last year. One thing we’ve been preaching is turnovers. That’s something we have to eliminate if we want to go as far as we want to go. Less mistakes.

Finish this sentence for me: In 2013, Arizona State will be …

DF: In 2013, Arizona State will be Rose Bowl champions.
Who is this year’s Johnny Manziel in the Pac-12? In other words, which player could come out of nowhere and win the Heisman from the conference? Well, if we knew, he wouldn't be coming out of nowhere in the preseason, now, would he?

Perhaps it is better that the Pac-12’s elite players are coasting below Mr. Heisman's persnickety radar. After all, front-runner status hasn't been kind to the Pac-12 the past couple of years. Two seasons ago it was Andrew Luck -- a shoo-in from the day he announced his return to take home the Heisman. Last year, it was Matt Barkley who had the unpropitious front-runner title pegged on him.

Luck carried the title much longer in his final season. Barkley, however, quickly gave way to Geno Smith, who in turn gave way to Collin Klein, who in turn fell to Johnny Football.

[+] EnlargeMarion Grice
Cary Edmondson/USA TODAY SportsArizona State's Marion Grice averaged 6.6 yards per carry and had 11 touchdowns last season.
So how about the Pac-12?

Marcusy Football?

Marqy Football?

DATy Football?

Ka’Deemy Football?

Bretty Football?

Not exactly phonetically pleasing.

Within the Pac-12, there aren't many dark-horse candidates. There are some front-runners who immediately come to mind: Oregon’s Marcus Mariota and De’Anthony Thomas, USC’s Marqise Lee, Arizona’s Ka’Deem Carey and UCLA’s Brett Hundley. But none of them are considered national front-runners with Manziel (maybe?) back to defend his title, Braxton Miller coming off a perfect season, AJ McCarron and his ridiculous 30-3 touchdown-to-interception ratio last year and Teddy Bridgewater soaking up his share of hype.

You can make a case for all five in the preseason. Mariota and Thomas will be playing for a top-five team, which always helps garner the necessary attention from the national media, and they should continue to put up video game numbers. Hundley is one of the most exciting players in the league, and with a year of maturity, many are anxious to see just how far he can lead the Bruins. Lee was last year’s Biletnikoff winner and is arguably the top skill player in the country. Carey was last year’s national leader in rushing. Solid credentials for all.

But this is about the sleepers. The guys who are so under the radar they're practically stealth. So who are they?

You have to start with ASU’s Marion Grice, who is going to continue putting up fantastic dual-threat numbers as a runner and receiver. He’s packed on more weight and ASU offensive coordinator Mike Norvell said they've expanded the playbook now that he and quarterback Taylor Kelly are a year into the system. (Probably not a bad idea to keep an eye on Kelly, either).

Stanford’s Kevin Hogan could also be a sleeper. Like the Oregon duo, he’ll be on a high-profile team that is going to get plenty of national exposure with showdowns against Oregon, UCLA, USC and Notre Dame on the 2013 docket. He’s not as flashy as the other players and his numbers might not be as lofty, but he’s asked to do a lot more behind the scenes than a lot of other quarterbacks. That was Luck’s brilliance, as well as his Heisman curse.

The appearance of Manti Te’o in New York last year proved defensive players aren't immune to getting some attention in the spread era. So UCLA’s Anthony Barr and ASU’s Will Sutton certainly deserve to be in the conversation if we’re talking defensive players. Both should be atop the national defensive rankings in sacks and tackles for a loss. But both will have to play well enough to surpass the well-deserved hype of South Carolina's Jadeveon Clowney and overcome the public perception of the Pac-12 when it comes to defense. As I’ve written previously, the Heisman is all about subjectivity and perception. (Full disclosure, I have Clowney No. 1 on my preseason Heisman ballot).

Finally, a guy who I think is really a long shot -- but should be getting more love than he is -- is Oregon State running back Storm Woods. In the Beavers’ first six games against FBS opponents in 2013, they face only one defense that ranked in the top 20 last year in total rushing yards allowed (Utah), and only one other in the top 50 (San Diego State). The opportunity will be there early in the season for Woods to make a name for himself. He’s got four of five offensive linemen coming back (including an outstanding center), an offense that wants to be more balanced, and a quarterback-to-be-named who is a veteran and knows the offense. He’s also really, really good.

It’s probably best not to put all your hopes into one of these guys winning the Heisman. For now, it’s safer to track the conference front-runners. But don’t sleep on these guys, either.

The next Stormy Football is just waiting to breakout.
Todd Graham had a plan. He'd go to a coaching clinic, give his spiel and shake a few hands. Afterwards the recruiting would start. Afterwards he'd extend an invitation. Anyone who wants to go get a beer and talk football, follow me.

"That's when you'd find out who is passionate," said Graham, now in his second season as ASU's head coach. "If you want to have a beer, I'll have a beer with you. But be ready to talk some football. The guys that came out afterwards and wanted to learn and wanted to talk, those are the guys I that I knew had a passion for this game. Those are the guys I kept my eyes on."

And it's pretty clear that Graham has an eye for coaching talent. In just his eighth year as a head coach, he's given rise to an impressive coaching tree that includes several of college football's most well-known coaches and coordinators.

For example:

  • Gus Malzahn: The head coach at Auburn (formerly the head coach at Arkansas State) won a national championship with the Tigers as their offensive coordinator. Before that, he was Graham's coordinator at Tulsa.
  • Chad Morris: The offensive coordinator at Clemson had zero college experience before Graham hired him.
  • Bill Blankenship: The head coach at Tulsa had zero college experience when Graham hired him at Tulsa to be a receivers coach.
  • Keith Patterson: West Virginia's defensive coordinator was a graduate assistant for one year but worked with Graham at Allen High School in Texas before Graham brought him to Tulsa.
  • David Beaty: Texas A&M's receivers coach had zero college experience when Graham hired him at Rice.
  • Major Applewhite: The Texas co-offensive coordinator had one season as a quarterbacks coach at Syracuse when Graham hired him at Rice.
[+] EnlargeTodd Graham
Mark J. Rebilas/USA TODAY SportsTodd Graham has unearthed several successful assistants who had little to no prior college experience.
There's a trend here. And it should be obvious.

"Teachers," Graham said. "All of them are outstanding teachers who just needed the opportunity. Chad turned me down three times because he didn't think he could do it. Now he's the highest paid offensive coordinator in the country after four years. I got hammered in the media when I hired Chad Morris. They said 'How can you hire someone without any college experience.' Same with Bill. Same with David at Rice."

And Graham already has his eye on the next up-and-comer. It's his current offensive coordinator, Mike Norvell, who reportedly passed on the same job at Auburn to stay with Graham. It's not every day a guy turns down a coordinator gig in the SEC. Norvell has his reasons.

"He's someone you want to believe in," Norvell said of working for Graham. "He's been a great mentor and someone I've learned a ton from. When you look at his coaching tree, the guys he's helped in such a short amount of time is really impressive."

Graham said Norvell might be the brightest of the bunch, and it's going to be a struggle to keep him around.

That's the fun thing about coaching trees. You could actually trace Graham's origins to the coach of ASU's biggest rival -- Arizona's Rich Rodriguez. It was RichRod who gave Graham his first Division I college coaching job at West Virginia. Other trees have multiple branches. Stanford's David Shaw comes from the Jim Harbaugh coaching tree -- but his roots are inspired by Bill Walsh, Jon Gruden and Bill Callahan. Sonny Dykes comes from the Mike Leach coaching tree. Others have bounced around and taken bits and pieces from various coaches.

But one thing they all have in common is that someone gave them their first opportunity. And so far Graham has been pretty good at spotting guys ready for their opportunity.

"I've been fortunate to identify some great teachers," he said. "I get credit when things go well and I take heat when things go wrong. But the most important thing is those nine guys I hire. I spend more time with those nine guys. I want the best pay and the best contracts for them. We want to be conference champions and Rose Bowl champions and national champions. To do that, we have to keep a staff together and that's a challenge."

In his first year at ASU, the fruits of his teachings were obvious. The Sun Devils went 8-5 and many have them as the favorites to win the Pac-12 South this season. One particular point of pride for Graham was ASU's reduction in penalties. They went from being one of the most penalized teams in the country to the least penalized team in the league.

"People think it's because I'm a hardcore disciplinarian," Graham said. "It's because we are teachers. We taught them the rules."

It is obviously a transition to go from being a high school coach to a college coach. The schemes are more complex. There are different social issues with the players -- many of whom are away from home for the first time. But if you can teach, Graham will give you a look.

"We're adaptive," he said. "When you coach in high school you have to learn how to teach fundamentals and develop fundamentals. But you have to be adaptive to the skills and talents of the players that you have year in and year out. That's what's served me and those guys well."



Saturday, 11/22