To continue our offseason evaluations, we're running through three pressing questions facing each Pac-12 team entering 2017. We'll continue with Arizona State.
1. How much better will the defense be after a historically bad season?
If one thing is for certain, it’s that Arizona State will improve defensively next season. That has nothing to do with the roster or the coaching staff, either. It’s because that in 2016, the Sun Devils fielded one of the worst defenses in the country. In other words, they can’t be worse.
ASU allowed 7.07 yards per play last season, which was the worst mark among Power 5 programs. In fact, in the last 10 years, there have been only four Power 5 teams to allow more yards per play. Those teams went a combined 5-43, which has a strange way of making ASU’s 5-7 record actually look pretty good.
There’s plenty of blame to go around, but Todd Graham, as the head coach with a defensive background, ultimately is responsible -- and he has said as much. What they did didn’t work, he recognized that and brought in Phil Bennett from Baylor to run the defense. Former coordinator Keith Patterson will stay on as the linebackers coach. Bennett’s value is in his experience -- he’s been coordinating college defenses since 1984 -- but Baylor wasn’t exactly a defensive juggernaut under his watch. Since 2011, when Bennett took over as Baylor’s defensive coordinator, the Bears have allowed 426.7 yards per game (No. 95 in the country), 5.52 yards per play (No. 56) and 30.14 points per game (No. 90).
2. What kind of an impact can QB Blake Barnett make?
When former Alabama quarterback Blake Barnett announced would transfer to Arizona State, it caught a lot of people off guard. Like most quarterbacks who are transferring, the expectation was that he left Alabama for the opportunity to play as soon as possible. However, the Sun Devils started sophomore Manny Wilkins in 10 games last season. Beyond Wilkins, the Sun Devils also played true freshman Dillon Sterling-Cole and redshirt freshman Brady White, both of whom were highly rated recruits. From the outside, it didn’t seem like an obvious fit.
That ASU even entertained the idea of bringing in a transfer quarterback indicates the coaching staff wasn’t sold on the players it already had and it felt Barnett was a potential upgrade. And for Barnett to be interested, it’s reasonable to assume he was given some sort of indication that he had a path to the starting job.
It will be interesting to see how it all plays out because Barnett won’t be eligible to play until a year from his transfer date (Sept. 28). That gives whoever begins the year as the starter a chance to latch on to the job. Let’s say, for example, Wilkins keeps the job, plays well to open the season and ASU gets off to an undefeated start. Unless it’s clear that Barnett is that much better -- which he very well might be -- it’s hard to see a change at that point. For Barnett to play early, it would seemingly require the starter and/or team to start poorly.
3. Is Todd Graham on the hot seat?
Any chatter about Graham being on the hot seat during the 2016 season was ridiculous. He built up enough goodwill in his first three seasons, during which ASU went 28-12, to buy himself some time. Yes, the two seasons since have been disappointments, but at Arizona State it’s not realistic to expect 10 wins every year, which is what Graham delivered in 2013 and 2014.
This year, however, his job security feels more like a fair topic. He doesn’t have to get back to the 10-win mark to guarantee he’ll still be around next year, but there do need to be obvious signs of improvement. If it’s more of the same or a step in the wrong direction, athletic director Ray Anderson will have a decision to make.