There has been a lot of talk about coaching in the Bruinosphere (I’m officially making that a word) this season. Is Jim Mora a quality coach? Are the other Pac 12 coaches better? In last week’s poll, 2⁄3 of you said that Rich Rodriguez was NOT in fact a better coach than Mora, and frankly, I was a bit surprised at the approval rating. This week we take a look at Todd Graham and Co. of the ASU Sun Devils.
Todd Graham was hired back in 2011 and has enjoyed success at ASU. According to his bio:
With 34 wins in his first four seasons, Graham joined Frank Kush and Darryl Rogers as the only Sun Devil coaches to reach the 30-win mark within four seasons. Last season Graham, whose average of 8.5 wins per season are tops in program history, established a new precedent in becoming the only ASU football coach to have each of his first four teams earn bowl-eligible status. The 2014 squad became the first to post back-to-back 10-win seasons since 1973. Graham, who is 3-1 vs. Arizona, has already climbed to No. 2 among Sun Devil head coaches in Pac-12 road wins. His 10 victories trail only Bruce Snyder, who won 18 from 1992-2000.
Not too shabby. He has instilled creative schemes on defense (see my defensive preview and the "Devilback" position) and has also increased academic achievement in the classroom (please don’t think I’m comparing the academics at ASU with UCLA...we all know which school is harder to get into). Their Academic Progress Rate reached an all-time high under Graham, and he has also invested his own money in the program. Graham, along with others, donated $500,000 to the Sun Devil Athletics Momentum fundraising campaign. He has hit home runs in the past when it comes to hiring offensive coordinators, including Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn as his co-offensive coordinator at Tulsa, and SMU head coach Chad Morris who was hired as Malzahn’s replacement. And in his first four years at ASU, his offense was run by Mike Norvell, now the Memphis head coach. Chip Lindsey now wears the crown, and so far, ASU is off to the races when it comes to scoring offense. Graham was also the 2013 Pac 12 Coach of the Year when the Sun Devils were also the Pac 12 South Champions.
But when you dig deeper, you will find that Graham is no stranger to criticism. ASU laid five eggs last year, and wound up with a 6-7 season, even though some analysts picked ASU to be in the four team championship. Graham openly talked about competing for the championship at the 2015 Pac 12 media day, and was chastised by fans for talking big and delivering little. This year, ASU Athletic Director Ray Anderson actually talked to Graham about his approach, and asked him to to "talk less and deliver more". Last year, Anderson also approached Graham and told him to tone it down on the sidelines after Graham was seen yelling at his assistants and conversations about his demeanor ensued in the media (if only Chianti Dan cared that much). This year, after their win over NAU, Graham was criticized because ASU was actually down until the fourth quarter and then finally remembered that NAU is not a very good team and put up 24 points to win. On top of everything else, their defense is floundering.
Please, dear lord, please, Jim Mora, OUTCOACH THIS GUY.
We should see some smarter decisions and better rotations in our personnel. I will make the point this week that Todd Graham is not the better coach.
Newly hired offensive coordinator, Chip Lindsey, comes to ASU from Southern Mississippi, where he was the offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach. The Golden Eagles broke five major offensive single-season school records in 2015, including completions (312), passing yards (4,263), total offensive yards (6,758), touchdowns (67) and points (528), as they recorded nine wins, a Conference USA West Division title, and a berth in the Zaxby’s Heart of Dallas Bowl where they lost to Washington. Prior to joining Southern Miss in February 2014, Lindsey was an offensive analyst focused on the wide receivers and passing game for the 2013 national champion runner-up Auburn Tigers under head coach Malzahn (see the branches on the coaching tree?). We’re seeing the same sort of high scoring offense this year at ASU that Lindsey is famous for - lots of scoring and Air-Raid based. The run game is likely to include zone blocking schemes, but nothing revolutionary in terms of changing what ASU has done over the years, with inside zone still being the where the money is, but with outside zone being utilized more heavily than before.
Keith Patterson, formerly of West Virginia, was hired by ASU in 2014. The Sun Devils seem to be struggling this year on defense, but when you look at 2015 stats on paper, that’s kind of surprising. Last year, ASU posted 111 tackles for loss, with an average of 8.5 tackles for loss per game, which ranked them third nationally and first in the Pac 12. ASU averaged 3.54 sacks per game last season, a total that ranked first in the entire FBS. On the other side of the coin, they gave up an average 33.5 points per game. Todd Graham has been known for being a more defensive minded coach, and for the first time since he has been at ASU, he has handed most of the responsibility over to Patterson. You could say that in 2016, their defense has actually regressed. For instance, last year ASU held Paul Perkins to 63 yards on 18 carries (I’m using Perkins as an example to illustrate a point). But this year, they rank 122nd in total defense. That’s literally one of the worst defenses in the country. They allow an average of 504 yards per game, including just over 396 in the air. I had to look twice. I didn’t think a Pac 12 team could be that bad, but they are. So at this point, I can’t say that the ASU squad has benefitted at all from Patterson taking over most of the defensive responsibilities.
The bright spot on the Sun Devil squad is their kicking unit. Senior kicker Zane Gonzalez and senior punter Matt Haack are two of the most consistent players in the Pac 12, if not the entire country. Gonzalez, who began kicking off just a season ago, has booted the ball through the end zone 30 of 37 times and held opponents to less than 20 yards per return when he hasn't. Before Gonzalez started this year so strong, which included a 53-yard field goal against Northern Arizona, he had yet to convert on a kick from beyond 50 yards. Haack, who’s inconsistencies in the past have driven the ASU faithful crazy, has come out strong in 2016 as well. Through their first four games and 11 punts, opponents had returned just one punt for no yards, while seven punts have been downed inside the 20-yard line - forcing offenses to drive a full field to score. This is where we need to worry. Our return game seemed to get better last week, but I can’t say with confidence that we’ve turned a corner. With stats like these, we could end up with poor field position on every drive.
ASU has put Tim White on kick returns, who has nine touchdowns through 18 games in 2015 and 2016. Kalen Ballage has also been on kick return duties, averaging 24.7 yards per return, with 148 total yards on the season. White has returned punts for 119 yards in five games, while Ballage has only attempted one punt return for -6 yards this year. Their return game isn’t stellar, but it’s their kicking game that worries me. With a senior kicker and punter, and lackluster return numbers for the Bruins, I anticipate field position being an issue tomorrow unless something drastically changes (Randall Goforth???).
We’re still favored by ten. I will argue that on the whole, staff included, the Bruins are better. We should come out strong and beat the Devils.
On that note, for any of our readers in the path of Hurricane Matthew, we are with you and wish you well this weekend. Stay safe out there.