There’s little doubt sports fans enjoy when their favorite team can legitimately talk about the idea of winning a championship.
After all, that is the main goal, and to be able to throw those words around generally means you are closer than most to achieving it.
However, the lack of championship talk surrounding the Arizona State football team heading into 2016 is a change that, quite frankly, probably sits well with most.
Silence, after all, is golden.
Last year, the Sun Devils were one of the talks of college football, a team many projected to not only compete for the Pac-12 South crown, but the Pac-12 entirely and maybe even sneak into the College Football Playoff.
A Week 1 loss to Texas A&M dampened spirits, and then a three-game losing streak from mid-October to early November sealed the team’s fate. The Devils did knock off rival Arizona to reclaim the Territorial Cup, but lost their final two games (at Cal and vs. West Virginia) to finish the season 6-7.
It was the first losing campaign in Todd Graham’s ASU tenure, and one that may have reset expectations in Tempe. No more is the conversation about a team that should compete for a championship; instead, it’s about trying to get back to the winning ways of the previous three seasons.
Graham, though, does not see a big deal about whether the title talk is there or not.
“I didn’t make anything of it,” he said of the change in tone during Pac-12 Media Days Friday. “From the time you walked in the door, if you walk down the hallway, our goals are written on the wall.
“Number one, we want to produce men of character that know how to live a championship life, and I think it’s something that I’m proud of the progress we’ve made there. Number two, want to graduate 100 percent of our players. I think we’ve made progress there, the four best years academically. And then obviously we want to be Pac-12 champions, and then it says Rose Bowl champions, and then it says national champions.”
Graham added that the goal of winning a championship should always be there, noting that some lessons were learned last year but there is something to be said for having heightened expectations in the first place. Besides, given some of their close losses last season, it’s not like the Devils were that far off from having a good year.
“We worry about the things we can control, and our motto is rise up,” the coach said. “We get knocked on our can, you rise up and go at it.”
An exceptionally positive person by nature, Graham said he’s not going to change his personality, and if that means expressing confidence in his team then so be it. And he’s not wrong in that his team was a few close games away from having a completely different season.
While only three of their seven losses came by one touchdown or less, they were never really outclassed by any of their opponents. Little things in each game, be it a costly turnover, a missed tackle or even a questionable penalty burned them too often, and he believes much of what ailed the program last season has been corrected.
“I don’t make anything of it,” he said. “I think that pretty much how the pick is going to go is kind of how last year finished. You know, I don’t worry too much about where they pick us. It’s more important where we finish.”
While a lot of things will factor into where ASU finishes, the most glaring question facing them is what will happen at quarterback. Last year’s starter, Mike Bercovici, graduated, and vying to take his place is a group of talented prospects who, while highly rated, have yet to throw a pass at the NCAA level.
“We’re excited,” Graham said of the group. “I’ll tell you, it reminds me, obviously, of our first year, where at this time my first year, if I would have told you who I thought the quarterback was, I would have told you I thought it was going to be Mike Bercovici, and it wound up being Taylor Kelly.
“So we have three guys that are coming back from the spring that have had great springs and developed as well as Dillon Sterling-Cole that’s coming in. So we’ve got four guys that we’re extremely excited about. We recruited all of them. All of them can extend plays and are athletic and are more of the mold of being able to extend plays like Taylor was, so we’re excited about that attribute.”
Graham pointed out how the returning players (Wilkins, White, Perkins) had the benefit of learning from Bercovici last season, which should help whoever wins the job this season. He added that the offensive line, which is replacing four new starters, may be a question mark, but that there is not much worry about who will take over at QB.
“I really like the talent we have at quarterback,” he noted. “So the key for us is getting back to play Sun Devil football and not turning the football over and minimizing the negative plays.
“So I’ve got a lot of confidence. I’m looking forward to it, and being real honest with you that our players know coming out of spring exactly — they’re there every day, so they kind of know how the battle is kind of playing out. But we’ve got a lot left in that evaluation, and I’m looking forward to fall camp getting started and getting after it, seeing where they’re at.
The leader in the clubhouse would seem to be redshirt sophomore Manny Wilkins, but Brady White, Bryce Perkins and Dillon Sterling-Cole could all find their way onto the field. Graham has yet to name a starter — and probably won’t until just before the Week 1 opener against Northern Arizona — but in the meantime said there are not really any plans to change the playbook to accommodate the youth at the position.
“I mean, we have — Chip (Lindsey) — I’ve been just so excited about where we’re going there, and we’ve got a lot of work to do, obviously,” he said, citing his new offensive coordinator. “We’ve never gone to battle together and all that, but each quarterback’s plan will be different, and so we’re very specific what we do with each one of them.
“But all of our quarterbacks are really bright. Dillon coming in knows the least about our system, so we obviously will keep things with his reps very, very simple as he moves along. But we’ve got four bright guys, and so, you know, that’s something that we haven’t — we don’t scale it back for — I think the things that we’ll scale back on is making sure we’re not putting too much pressure on our offensive line.”
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