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Todd Graham takes feisty approach after Arizona State's 2015 struggles

Chip Lindsey, right, joined Todd Graham's staff at Arizona State as the offensive coordinator. Mark J. Rebilas/USA TODAY Sports

TEMPE, Ariz. -- Todd Graham has no regrets. No, that's not completely true. Just like Sinatra, he has a few. The Arizona State head coach, whose news conferences are typically more filibuster than Q&A, admits that he should have blitzed less last year. Sure, his team led the Pac-12 with 46 sacks, but it also gave up more big plays than any other Power 5 team.

But if you think he wishes he didn't spend as much of the 2015 preseason selling his team as a national title contender only to lead it to a 6-7 finish after losing a shootout bowl game to West Virginia, you'd be wrong.

"Why would it be about anything else? I wouldn't say anything different," Graham said. "The expectations were different because of the success we had and the people we had coming back. ... I don't apologize for that."

The overriding theme this spring in the Pac-12 South Division, where the Sun Devils reside, is change after disappointment. The only South team that could claim a successful 2015 season is Utah, and even the Utes joined the massive assistant coach shuffle that hit the conference this offseason. Although only USC changed head coaches, every Pac-12 team made at least one staff change. Arizona State has five new assistant coaches.

"They ask me, 'Is change a good thing?'" Graham said. "No, I don't like change."

But in the same breath, Graham will tell you how he advocated for offensive coordinator Mike Norvell to get the head-coaching job at Memphis. He then pointed out to reporters that they never noticed Norvell hadn't coached quarterbacks before being given the opportunity by Graham, a relevant issue because the Sun Devils will be holding a "wide-open" quarterback competition this spring between sophomore Manny Wilkins and redshirt freshmen Bryce Perkins and Brady White, with touted incoming freshman Dillon Sterling-Cole potentially joining the fray in fall camp.

As for new offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey, "He's done nothing his entire life other than coach quarterbacks," Graham said.

Before last year's pratfall, Graham, the 2013 Pac-12 Coach of the Year, led the Sun Devils to consecutive 10-win seasons for the first time in 39 years. But Arizona State's 4-5 mark in Pac-12 play was his first losing conference record. While beating hated rival Arizona to become bowl-eligible salved a few wounds, it's notable that the Sun Devils' highest preseason ranking since 2008 ended up much like that disappointing season did.

"Mediocrity is not going to be popular," Graham said.

The program, often called a sleeping giant, seemingly took another nap in 2015, something its fan base has seen before, just when things had appeared to be awakening. Graham's team heads into spring with questions not only at quarterback but also on the offensive line and in the secondary. It won't be ranked in the preseason, and few will project it as a leading contender in the South race.

Graham admits he retains a bad taste in his mouth from last season, ruing an inability to win close games -- see four defeats by less than a touchdown -- and he's not terribly subtle about his being motivated by doubters.

"These coaches will tell you I'm pretty pissed off to get back out there and get this thing back to where it should be," he said.

Graham points to a renovation of Sun Devil Stadium and improved recruiting as counters to those wondering whether 2015 was an anomaly or a new, negative trend. He's not interested in embracing the idea of rebuilding.

"We surely aren't starting over," he said. "We have a foundation laid."

As for what he will focus on when spring practices begin on March 14, Graham begins with turnovers. The Sun Devils were sixth in the conference in turnover margin in 2015 after ranking first and second in 2013 and 2014, respectively. They created 60 turnovers in those two seasons but forced just 21 last season, which ranked eighth in the conference.

Next comes limiting big plays on defense. The Sun Devils surrendered 88 plays of 20 or more yards in 2015, which ranked 127th in the nation. Their 30 plays of 40-plus yards ranked 128th, or last in all of FBS. Notably, Graham said he will yield more play-calling duties on defense to coordinator Keith Patterson.

On offense, Graham hired Lindsey because they run the same system. Graham wants his up-tempo offense to play faster but with a renewed physicality while limiting negative plays. The Sun Devils gave up 7.23 tackles for a loss last season, which ranked ninth in the Pac-12.

In terms of the big picture with the program, well, there seems to be a big picture, which is notable for a coach who not too long ago was often mocked for jumping from job to job.

Of course, if Arizona State surges next fall while Texas and embattled coach Charlie Strong struggle, Graham's name almost certainly will be included on lists of potential candidates to take over the Longhorns. Graham is a Texas native who even took a moment during his news conference to say that, while he liked the Arizona Cardinals, the Dallas Cowboys were still his favorite NFL team.

Still, Graham is at his most unequivocal when he talks about his belief in Arizona State.

He said, "This is an unprecedented time in this school's history. I tell people that that deal out there is my life's work. That's how much it means to me."