More than anything though, (Todd) Graham's culture has been established, and he has a lot of veteran leaders and high-character quotient kids on the roster. – Chris Karpman

Editor's note: This is the 18th in a series previewing each opponent BYU, Utah and Utah State will face this season.


The matchup

Arizona State at Utah, Oct. 17

Time, TV TBA

Rice-Eccles Stadium, Salt Lake City


If Utah wants to compete for its first-ever Pac-12 South championship this season, it won't come easy.

As the preseason favorite to lock up the division title, Arizona State has its eyes on big things this fall. The Sun Devils return preseason All-Conference receiver D.J. Foster and have an experienced defensive backfield to complement their loaded front seven.

ASU is coming off of a 10-win "rebuilding year," and 16 starters return to bolster both sides of the ball. Coach Todd Graham has accumulated a 28-12 record in his four seasons in Tempe, and that success should continue this fall.

The Deseret News caught up with Chris Karpman, who covers Arizona State football for SunDevilSource.com, to evaluate the quarterback situation and discuss what the Sun Devils' expectations are for this season.

DN: Is winning the Pac-12 South for the second time in three seasons a realistic expectation?

CK: Arizona State coach Todd Graham said this is the best team he's had in Tempe, so the answer would have to be yes. He's set the bar extremely high, going as far as to say that anything short of a Pac-12 title will be a disappointment, and even that he was "miserable" with last year's 10-win season. But even putting aside Graham's tendency for hyperbole, there's no reason to think ASU won't be at least strongly in contention.

It looks no less capable on the offensive side of the ball, has a lot of starters back on defense and should be better on special teams, which was a glaring weakness last season that Graham addressed with the hire of former Green Bay Packers special teams coordinator Shawn Slocum. More than anything though, Graham's culture has been established, and he has a lot of veteran leaders and high-character quotient kids on the roster.

DN: What should we expect from new quarterback Mike Bercovici? Is he capable of filling the void left by Taylor Kelly?

CK: Bercovici is certainly capable of being an even better quarterback than Kelly and should be expected to be no less productive overall. He's had a very good start to preseason camp, is an elite-level competitor and intangibles player, and also has very good tools. This includes a very quick release that gets the ball out on time, a good arm that allows for accurate big play shots down the field, and an ability to manage the game. If there is a question mark with Bercovici, it's whether or not he'll have a tendency to be a bit too much of a gunslinger and be turnover prone or not.

DN: Who are the players to watch on offense?

CK: Senior D.J. Foster is shifting to wide receiver full time after playing primarily in the backfield a season ago, but it won't be a difficult transition. He's the only FBS player in the country with more than 2,000 yards rushing and 1,500 yards receiving. Sophomore running back Demario Richard is a 5-foot-10, 220-pound bowling ball who got a lot of game reps last season and is poised to be among the better players at the position in the Pac-12. Classmate Kalen Ballage is 6-foot-2 and 225 pounds and one of the most improved players on the team, a 10.7 100-meter runner who was a four-star recruit out of high school.

Senior UCLA post-graduate transfer Devin Lucien was a sometimes-starter for the Bruins but will likely jump into the first-team at wide receiver for ASU. He's a vertical playmaker. Junior De'Chavon Hayes will play the role Foster manned early in Graham's tenure as a slot receiver-slash-running-back that ASU likes to target. Up front, the Sun Devils have three all-league candidates on the interior of their line. Senior center Nick Kelly and guards Christian Westerman and Vi Teofilo are all likely to end up somewhere on the Pac-12 all-conference list, with first-team being a possibility for each.

DN: Who are the players to watch on defense and special teams?

CK: ASU returns its three starting linebackers from last season. Senior Antonio Longino is an NFL prospect at the WILL position and a very physical player who appears poised for a great season. Junior spur — a hybrid linebacker-safety role — Laiu Moeakiola may be the most versatile defensive player on the roster and someone who brings on-field integrity to the lineup. Junior Salamo Fiso is a very good weapon in the box against pro-style teams in particular in the SAM position. In the secondary, ASU returns three starters led by senior cornerback Lloyd Carrington and senior boundary safety Jordan Simone, both all-league candidates. Senior Kweishi Brown had an adjustment year out of junior college ball last year as a starter but looks much better in camp this year.

Up front, ASU has good depth and some quality options but no real stars. Sophomore three-technique defensive tackle Tashon Smallwood is a solid player who could emerge as a very good one and senior Demetrius Cherry can play end or tackle effectively. True freshman Joseph Wicker may end up starting as a defensive end. In time, he should be a star. On special teams, junior punter Matt Haack looks much improved and junior kicker Zane Gonzalez is very reliable. In the return game, ASU is trying to settle on its first-team players, but on kickoffs Ballage has a lot of potential.

DN: What major question marks does the team need to solve in fall camp?

CK: The big challenge in the secondary will be replacing Damarious Randall, who played field safety and went on to be a first-round pick of the Green Bay Packers in the 2015 NFL draft. Right now sophomores Armand Perry and James Johnson are battling for that job. ASU is such a blitz-heavy defense that it often puts the field safety in man coverage situations and expects a lot from the player. ASU's not going to be as good here and could be more susceptible to giving up big shots down the field when it blitzes and doesn't impact the quarterback. This is especially true because the Sun Devils probably won't be able to get great pressure just rushing four linemen.

On offense, will the wide receivers and tight ends enable Bercovici and offensive coordinator Mike Norvell to make full use of the playbook? Also, will ASU be able to physically manhandle teams with the aid of its tight ends and extra blockers, especially in short yardage and goal line situations? The Sun Devils have been porous on kickoff coverage and ineffective on punt return and kickoff return and need to remedy those things to be a league champion.

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