As Arizona State wrapped up its five-day retreat at Camp Tontozona in the mountains of northern Arizona on Sunday, second-year coach Todd Graham had enlarged photos of the Rose Bowl and national-championship trophies placed next to a team huddle after a scrimmage.
Yes, the expectations are just as high as the setting for the Sun Devils this season.
“We have simply one goal at our place, and that’s to be champions,” Graham said. “That’s what we’ve set out to do, and we don’t mind being held accountable to that. It’s not undue pressure. We want it; we like it.”
Last year, the Sun Devils were one of the surprises of the Pac-12 in Graham’s first season. With headliners such as quarterback Taylor Kelly and defensive tackle Will Sutton back, and 17 returning starters in all, Graham is embracing the lofty goals this year.
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“It’s the best football team that I’ve ever coached,” he said.
Many like them to capture the South Division crown in what figures to be a three-team race among USC, UCLA and Arizona State.
“We are leaps and bounds ahead of where we were last year,” senior tight end Chris Coyle said. “When Coach Graham says this is the best football team he’s coached, he’s not just talking about talent. We went to Camp (Tontozona) and really got to know each other. The team-bonding and team cohesion has been great. It’s one of the big reasons why we’re all excited.”
Kelly, in his first season as the starting quarterback, was a big reason the Sun Devils sneaked up on some Pac-12 teams last season. That, Coyle said, is a credit to Kelly’s speed.
In addition to setting a school record with a 67.1 completion percentage — while throwing for 3,030 yards and 29 touchdowns against nine interceptions — the 6-foot-2, 203-pound Kelly also ran for 516 yards as a sophomore in 2012.
“He doesn’t look that fast,” Coyle said, “but he’s an extremely good athlete. If he gets to the edge, no one can catch him.”
Developing depth at wide receiver and toughness on the offensive line have been two priorities for Arizona State, which allowed 38 sacks last season (tied with Washington for seventh in the Pac-12).
“We made it tough on him sometimes,” Coyle said of Kelly. “This year, we’re so much better. We’re making plays for him left and right.”
Arizona State was second in the Pac-12 with an average of 38.4 points per game, and they return running back Marion Grice (679 yards, 11 touchdowns, 6.6 yards per carry) and do-everything athlete D.J. Foster, who combined for 1,026 yards rushing and receiving, with six total touchdowns.
Coyle, as a tight end, led the Sun Devils with 57 catches and five TDs. The Sun Devils have brought in sophomore junior-college transfer Jaelen Strong, who will likely jump into the starting lineup at wideout.
Defensively, the 288-pound Sutton is clearly the anchor in the middle of the defensive line. He had 13 sacks and 23.5 tackles for loss to earn the Pac-12’s Pat Tillman Defensive Player of the Year award. For the Sun Devils, Sutton’s best move came after the season when the projected first-round NFL draft pick decided to come back to school for his senior season.
“In 27 years,” Graham said, “I’ve not coached a defensive player more passionate than he is about competing.”
Graham has preached team chemistry, and the Sun Devils have bought it.
“I feel like our relationships are stronger than we’ve ever had,” Sutton said at Pac-12 Media Day last month. “We believe in one another. … We feel like we have all the confidence in the world to accomplish our goal.”
With the big guy back on defense, the Sun Devils do indeed have reason for optimism.
Adam Jude: 206-464-2364 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter: @a_jude