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UCLA-Arizona State Preview: The Sun Devils' Nomadic Coach and Special Teams Unit

The Bruins will host the Hot-Coed Party School Arizona State Sun Devils on Saturday afternoon at the Rose Bowl, and will have to square off against the coach who can't stay still, Todd Graham, who is surely on the short-list at Heritage Hall given ASU's success this year and the coach's well-known reputation to always be ready to leave for a bigger program. With the Bruins getting ready to take on the Sun Devils, with the Pac-12 South title hanging in the balance, we preview Arizona State, beginning with a look at their head coach and their special teams unit.

How soon do you think before we'll see this man rolling out of Tempe for Austin or Southern Cal?  5 minutes?
How soon do you think before we'll see this man rolling out of Tempe for Austin or Southern Cal? 5 minutes?
Jared Wickerham

Just like last week's head coach (Washington's Steve Sarkisian), this might be the last time we see Todd Graham as the coach of our weekend opponent. Now, Graham hasn't been in Tempe too long, and yes, he did sign a contract extension, but since when has that stopped Graham's roaming eyes from taking him to new digs? Graham is in his eighth season as a college head coach, and in that short span, he's coached four different programs, beginning with a one year stint at Rice in 2006, before abandoning them for Tulsa just days after signing a contract extension at Rice. After four successful seasons at Tulsa, Graham up and left for Pittsburgh in 2011, but just like Rice, he bailed on the Panthers after just one season, going behind his school's back to pick up the job at Arizona State. So, yeah Sun Devil fans, don't think that big contract extension he signed means jack-squat. With a number of marquee jobs already available (Southern Cal) or likely to be available (Texas, Florida, Nebraska), the odds of Graham being in Tempe next season is pretty slim, given his wandering eyes. The speculation and rumor mill is already connecting him to the job in Austin, given his Texas connections and roots, so the nomad may be on to his next destination in a few months.

And while Graham's lack-of-commitment is reminiscent of a philandering husband, it's hard to deny that he has gotten results, owning a career record of 65-36 entering this weekend's contest. Except for his 5-7 season in Tulsa in 2009 (which was bracketed by a 11-3 year in 2008 and a 10-3 year in 2010), he's never had a losing season, and he's quickly turned the Sun Devils into a contender in the Pac-12 South after years of last-season swoons and ineptitude under Dennis Erickson. The question then becomes, if Graham manages to beat the Bruins in the Rose Bowl and clinch the Pac-12 South, will he stick around to coach the Sun Devils in the conference title game and/or their bowl game, or will he already be on his way to Austin to don burnt orange? Or worse, will he jump within conference to Southern Cal and make Arizona State fans extra miserable?

Turning to the Sun Devils' special teams' unit, the men from Tempe have an entirely new special teams unit, with the lone exception of returning junior punter/kicker Alex Garoutte. Garoutte, who handled only kick-off duties in 2012 (90 kicks, 61.2 yards per kick, 35 touchbacks) is still putting up pretty good kick-off numbers in 2013 (79 kicks, 63.1 yards per kick, 35 touchbacks), but has now had to take over punting duties since the two presumptive heirs to graduating punter Josh Hubner (52 punts, 47.1 yards per punt, 7 touchbacks, 20 inside the 20, long of 73 yards in 2012), Matt Haack (10 punts, 38.3 yards per punt, long of 52 yards) and Dominick Vizzare (6 punts, 39.2 yards per punt, long of 45 yards) have struggled when given the opportunity to replace the departed Hubner. To no surprise, Garoutte, who uses a rugby style punt, hasn't done much better (22 punts, 38.6 yards per punt, long of 55 yards). We hate to say it, but Rick's mantra about punting and field position may be the difference in Saturday's game, where both teams have high-powered offenses. So chalk the punting game up as an advantage to UCLA, with Sean Covington (42 punts, 41.4 yards per punt, long of 67, 2 touchbacks, 13 inside the 20) doing a respectable job replacing the booming leg of Jeff Locke (77 punts, 43.3 yards per punt, long of 64 yards, 7 touchbacks, 34 inside the 20 in 2012). On the other side of the kicking game, true freshman kicker Zane Gonzalez (18-21 FGs, long of 41 yards) has taken over FG duties from last year's kicker-by-committee of Jon Mora (9-12 FGs, long of 39 yards) and Garoutte (6-11, long of 43 yards). Despite being a freshman, Gonzalez has shored up the Sun Devils' FG game and given them a higher level of consistency than UCLA's sophomore kicker Ka'imi Fairbairn (12-16 FGs, long of 47 yards).

The return game is in the same unenviable position as the kicking game, with the Sun Devils trying to replace graduated RB Jamal Miles, who handled both punt return (26 returns, 8.8 yards per return, long of 37 yards) and half of the kick return (16 returns, 21.8 yards per return, long of 41 yards) duties in 2012. The only Sun Devil to return a kick or punt for a TD, Rashad Ross (15 kick returns, 25.6 yards per return, 1 TD, long of 100 yards) is now plying his trade with the Tennessee Titans. Replacing Miles for punt return duty is senior defensive back Robert Nelson (25 punt returns, 7.1 yards per return, long of 18 yards) who has yet to show any of the same flash as his former teammate. Likewise, senior RB Marion Grice now finds himself in Miles' and Ross' KR role (17 kick returns, 23.9 yards per return, long of 44 yards) but has not done anything of any note in the return game. So, chalk the return game up as a net win for the Bruins, especially given how well this unit has done in kick and punt coverage so far.

The Bruins are just two wins away from clinching the Pac-12 South for the third year in a row, but they'll need to get through Todd Graham, who's shown some coaching chops (at least before he rides off to the sunset to Austin). It's win or go home for Jim Mora and our Bruins this Saturday at the Rose Bowl.