Spring practices are complete, but the Arizona State Sun Devils (10-4, 8-1 Pac-12 in 2013) and Arizona Wildcats (8-5, 4-5) still have plenty of questions on both sides of the football heading into the 2014 season.
Here are three key questions for both teams that won’t be answered until the 2014 college football season kicks off in late August:
1. What will the defense look like?
In head coach Todd Graham’s first two seasons in Tempe, the Devils prided themselves on a defensive unit led by a pair of enforcers – defensive lineman Will Sutton, a two-time Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year, and two-time All-Pac-12 linebacker Carl Bradford. But both men, along with seven other defensive starters from last year’s team, have moved on.
Graham’s 2014 recruiting class includes several four-star defensive players. Will they, along with last season’s reserves and incoming junior college transfers, be enough to put ASU in position to earn its second-straight Pac-12 South championship?
2. Can ASU Foster a running game?
Despite missing last season’s final three games with a leg injury, running back Marion Grice was a machine, combining for 1,434 yards (996 rushing, 438 receiving) and 20 total touchdowns. In Grice’s absence, the speedy D. J. Foster did well in picking up the slack, earning 447 combined yards and five TDs.
Now a junior, Foster will likely be ASU’s No. 1 RB heading into the fall – and he appears to be ready for the job. ESPN Pac-12 Blog contributor Ted Miller noted that Foster has bulked up since the end of last season, and is just as quick. But can he handle the substantial workload that Grice shouldered in 2013?
3. Will Kelly continue to grow?
Entering his third and final season as ASU’s starting quarterback, Taylor Kelly has either brilliant or ineffective, with little middle ground. In ASU’s 10 wins in 2013, Kelly averaged 2.9 touchdowns (combined passing and rushing), 0.7 interceptions and a 152.2 quarterback rating; in its four losses, he averaged 2.0 TDs, 1.3 INTs and a 123.2 QB rating.
Kelly will likely have to be more consistent in his senior season in order for the Sun Devils to enjoy another 10-win season, especially with so many question marks on defense. Can he take that next step behind a deep and talented ASU offensive line?
1. Who’s the new QB-RB duo?
All-American RB Ka’Deem Carey (1,885 rushing yards and 20 total TDs in 2013) declared for the NFL Draft, and quarterback B.J. Denker (3,465 total yards and 29 TDs in 2013) graduated, leaving the Wildcats looking for replacements at both positions heading into Rich Rodriguez’s third season as head coach.
Denker was reliable for most of last season, but his production can be replaced and even improved upon this year. The most likely candidates to do so are redshirt senior Jesse Scroggins, a 2013 transfer from USC; redshirt sophomore Connor Brewer, a transfer from Texas; and redshirt freshman Anu Solomon, a four-star recruit in 2013.
Carey, however, is a once-in-a-generation kind of workhorse, and the Wildcats may take a by-committee approach in attempting to fill his shoes. The most likely replacements for Carey, according to Arizona Daily Star football writer Daniel Berk, are a combination of four-star true freshman Nick Wilson and three-star redshirt freshman Pierre Cormier.
2. Will the WRs be as good as advertised? The Wildcats look like they’ll enter the 2014 season with more depth at the wide receiver position than at any other – a 180-degree shift from last year.
Junior wideout Austin Hill, who had 1,364 receiving yards and 11 TDs for the Cats in 2012, tore an ACL last spring and missed the 2013 season. Now healthy, Hill will join Nate Phillips, who had an impressive freshman season, and a pair of transfers – DaVonte’ Neal from Notre Dame and Cayleb Jones from Texas – who are expected to make an immediate impact.
The Wildcats appear loaded at the receiver position, but will they perform up to expectations – and more importantly, will they have a quarterback who can get them the ball?
3. Will the D continue to improve? In its second year under defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel, UA’s defense made a significant leap forward. After allowing 35.3 points per game overall and 39.6 in Pac-12 play in 2012, those numbers improved to 24.2 and 30.0, respectively, last season.
The Wildcats are losing five of their 2013 defensive starters to graduation, including two defensive linemen and two linebackers. Will they be able to replace that production and continue to head in the right direction in Casteel’s third season – and specifically, will they be more competitive against ASU, which has scored 99 points against UA in their last two Territorial Cup matchups?