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Sun Devils aiming to showcase improvement in opener vs. New Mexico State

TEMPE, Ariz. — Last season was a frustrating one for the Arizona State Sun Devils, and that’s putting it nicely.

After beginning the 2016 campaign with an encouraging 5-1 start, ASU fell completely flat. The Devils lost every single game down the stretch — including a completely uninspired effort against their rivals from Tucson in the finale — and finished with a mediocre 5-7 mark when the dust settled.

They’ve had to deal with the lingering disappointment from that performance for eight months now, but they finally get a chance to start putting the past behind them when they kick off the 2017 season on Thursday. A very beatable New Mexico State team is coming to town, and ASU is eager to turn the page.

“I feel better about everything about our football team,” head coach Todd Graham said on Monday. “I feel better about the coaching. I feel better about our preparation. I feel better about our fundamentals. I feel like we’re blocking and tackling better. And I just like what that produces.”

That’s a good vibe to have around the program in the days leading up to the opener, but the Sun Devils know they’ll have to do more than just talk a good game this year. Graham is stressing discipline, fundamentals and an internal focus — rather than getting too caught up in what the opposition might be doing — to his guys. And he’s reiterating the importance of taking care of the football on offense, while also finding ways to take it away on defense.

As it turns out, there are still some question marks on that defense. But ASU has some legitimate assets on offense, and many of them have the sort of experience that’s necessary to lead the way. Particularly in the backfield, where both Kalen Ballage and Demario Richard possess the ability to make big plays at any time. Now it’s just a matter of getting the absolute most out of both of them on a consistent basis.

“I’m excited about how those guys have worked,” Graham explained. “I think fundamentally, those two guys have improved as much as anybody in our program. And they’re pretty good players. So I like how our guys are working. I like how we’re coaching them too. We’re being the most demanding on the best players on the field.”

The Devils have many of their most winnable games coming up early in the season. And while that can be a good way for a team to build chemistry and momentum right out of the gate, they also want to avoid a repeat of 2016, when the wheels came right off.

So if they truly are better and plan on translating that improvement into wins, Thursday is the time to start. On the brink of a season that many feel could be Graham’s last as coach if things don’t turn around soon, ASU is well aware that powerhouses like Washington, USC and Stanford all litter the schedule in October. That means the best time to stack victories is now.

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