REBUILDING: IT'S A DREADED WORD IN COLLEGE ATHLETICS. Players know their time in a major program is short and valuable, and they don't want to wait to win. At Arizona State new coach Todd Graham shares that mind-set.
"People believe it takes two to three years to compete," Graham says, "but we're ready right now. We've got to hit the fast-forward button and develop quickly, but this team has the potential."
The former Pittsburgh coach replaces Dennis Erickson, a two-time national champion at Miami who took home a share of the Pac-10 title in 2007 before four seasons of six wins or fewer cost him his job.
Erickson's pass-heavy offense, led by quarterback Brock Osweiler (now with the Denver Broncos), ranked 10th in the nation last year, but Graham is switching gears. Rather than name Osweiler's replacement right away, the coach has instead implemented a run-first, no-huddle attack that will lean heavily on Cameron Marshall, whose 18 rushing touchdowns tied for the Pac-12 lead last season. Marshall is joined in the backfield by Deantre Lewis, whose breakaway speed will complement Marshall's strong legs as the focus of ASU's new fast-paced offense.
Graham is also shifting the defense, which ranked sixth in the conference in points allowed last year, by changing from a 4--3 to a 3--4 scheme. The Sun Devils will miss middle linebacker Vontaze Burfict, now with the Cincinnati Bengals, but teammates are excited to have linebacker and team leader Brandon Magee back after he ruptured his Achilles in a scrimmage last summer. He rejoins an experienced front alongside hybrid end/linebacker Carl Bradford and tackles Will Sutton and Corey Adams, all of whom are capable of disrupting quarterbacks.
ASU started strong in 2011, beating its first three Pac-12 opponents—USC, Oregon State and Utah—by a combined 57 points. But a five-loss free fall, which included forfeiting the Territorial Cup to in-state rival Arizona, let the players know how important it is to finish strong as well. Graham is confident his team will do that.
"Our program is going to be about winning titles," Graham says. "Anything less isn't acceptable. We haven't done anything to brag about yet, but we're about to win a whole lot of close football games."
COACH Todd Graham (1st year)