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Ten questions as ASU begins its 2017 college football season

Arizona State head coach Todd Graham speaks at the Pac-12 NCAA college football media day, Thursday, July 27, 2017, in the Hollywood section of Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

TEMPE, Ariz. — Arizona State kicks off the 2017 college football season Thursday against New Mexico State at Sun Devil Stadium. Here is our annual list of 10 questions as the Sun Devils begin their sixth season under coach Todd Graham.

10. What does Graham’s future hold?

Coming off 6-7 and 5-7 seasons, it’s hard to imagine vice president for university athletics Ray Anderson having much more patience with Graham’s efforts to resuscitate his program. At the State of Sun Devil Athletics luncheon earlier this month, university president Michael Crow didn’t mince words.

“Losing records in any sport are unacceptable and losing records over more than one year in any sport are unacceptable,” he said. “Coach Graham completely understands that his very successful start at ASU has got to be realized again.”

Nobody knows for certain how many wins would save Graham’s job, or if it is even on the line with four years left on his deal. Anderson was asked what would happen if Graham delivered another five- or six-win season.

“I don’t think it’s any revelation to anyone that if that happens, and unequivocally I don’t think it will, I think we’re going to win — but if that happens then we’ll make the prudent business decision, whatever that might be,” he said.

9. What can we expect from receiver N’Keal Harry in year two?

Much is expected of Harry after a Freshman All-American season in which he caught 58 passes for 659 yards and five touchdowns and displayed the kind of abilities that translate to Sunday football. The strength of ASU’s offense is still running backs Kalen Ballage and Demario Richard, but Harry may be the Sun Devils’ most elite offensive weapon.

Harry hasn’t been doing interviews this fall, suggesting he hasn’t met all the standards set forth by the coaching staff. ASU, however, still expects great things from him, and with a deeper cast of receivers around him to relieve some attention, he’ll have the opportunity for a breakout season.

Harry’s wide catch radius, his ability to shield players with his big body, and his deceptive speed make him one of the conference’s top receivers.

8. How will the offense be different under coordinator Billy Napier?

If you look into Napier’s past, it’s easy to envision the tight ends becoming more involved and the Sun Devils going to more 12-personnel groupings because it is so difficult to pre-snap read the grouping, but Graham insists his basic offensive principles will remain.

“We have a defined philosophy,” he said. “We are going to be an 11-personnel team. We’re going to be a run, play-action pass team. If you’ll go back every year I’ve been a head football coach, we’ve been a spread, no-huddle team, all the way back to 2006.”

There is also the reality that running backs and receivers are the strength of this team. Napier will likely add a few wrinkles, and his players say he has simplified the offense and verbiage so it is easier to grasp, but this will still be a Todd Graham offense.

7. How will the defense be different under coordinator Phil Bennett?

Bennett offered one of an increasing body of gold-standard quotes when asked if his defense would be as aggressive with blitzes as Graham’s teams have been in the past.

“When you blitz, somebody’s band is going to play,” Bennett said. “You want to make damn sure it’s yours.”

That was Bennett’s way of saying he’d be more selective with his blitzing. Bennett knows he has a young and inexperienced secondary that he can’t leave exposed too often. He plans to give his corners more help in coverage and he won’t blitz as much. At the same time, he needs his line to get to the quarterback so that his secondary doesn’t get exposed by having to cover for too long.

“I think what we’re doing is conducive to what we’re good at,” Bennett said. “I just think some of the things that we have come up with, what I have done in the past, are conducive to limiting explosion plays [like] giving some corners some relief where you’re not always locked man-to-man… I think we can correct a lot of things.”

6. Does QB Manny Wilkins have another level?

Wilkins gained invaluable experience in his first season as the starter last season. That should hone his decision-making and confidence. He is effective running the ball, but he won’t do that as much because he knows he has to stay healthy and stay on the field; not take the big hits that left him banged up for most of last season.

Wilkins is a natural leader and that is evident in his impact on his teammates. That and his length of service in the program have helped him earn and hold onto the starter’s role. What remains to be seen is whether Wilkins can take advantage of an improved receiving corps that includes deep threat John Humphrey and playmaker Ryan Newsome. Wilkins did not have a great season throwing the ball. He completed 197 of his 311 passes for 2,329 yards and 12 TDs with nine interceptions. The Sun Devils will need more production from the passing game.

5. What is a realistic win total?

This may depend on whether ASU can win its three non-conference games — not a given since San Diego State has a terrific defense and the Texas Tech game is on the road where the Devils have not fared well in non-conference action under Graham. The Pac-12 opener against Oregon is a winnable game, raising the possibility ASU could start 4-0 before a brutal run in the Pac-12 begins against Stanford, Washington, Utah, USC and Colorado.

The final three games at UCLA, at Oregon State and home vs. Arizona are all winnable. If the Devils can surprise a conference power at home they could rise as high as eight wins, but six or seven feels like a more realistic total.

4. Can Kalen Ballage and Demario Richard co-exist, and where does Eno Benjamin fit?

Richard told ArizonaSports.com that his discontent last season had nothing to do with all the publicity Ballage was getting off that eight-TD game against Tech. It was a product of frustration after he suffered a core injury in the summer that limited him all year.

Even so, Napier will need to find enough touches for both players in an offense that has more weapons at wide receiver, and also freshman running back Eno Benjamin, who is too talented to stand on the sidelines.

Ballage wasn’t giving away state secrets, but he said he loves the role he’ll have in Napier’s offense, which will likely take advantage of his ability in space. Richard is more of a power runner, but both players are also valuable in the receiving game, giving ASU, in theory, a lot of weapons. Are there enough balls?

3. Are the Sun Devils really better at receiver?

They appear to be. Aside from the expected progression in Harry’s game, Jalen Harvey brings a physical presence, Ryan Newsome and Humphrey bring big-play ability and speed, and Kyle Williams and Frank Darby also figure into the mix.

That said, there are a lot of unknowns. This group still needs to prove it on the field.

2. Will the offensive line be stable enough to showcase the team’s offensive talent?

In Graham’s first season in Tempe, the Sun Devils averaged 205.31 rushing yards per game, the program’s best mark since 1996. Last year, they averaged just 131.5, which ranked 10th in the Pac-12 and 112th in the country.

With Ballage and a healthy Richard, that should go up if Graham stays committed to the run, but that number and Wilkin’s protection will depend on offensive line coach Rob Sale’s combination of sophomore left tackle Cohl Cabral, junior left guard Sam Jones, senior center A.J. McCollum, sophomore right guard Steven Miller and junior right tackle Quinn Bailey.

Cabral is making his first career start at the line’s most important position, Miller is making just his third career start and Bailey has the most starts at 12. This unit is inexperienced so there could be growing pains.

1. Is there any hope for the secondary?

Bennett and defensive backs coach T.J Rushing have spent a long offseason coaching up their new troops and implementing changes that will help shelter them, but there is no hiding the fact that the nation’s worst passing defense is green — even more so after losing two key players unexpectedly when safety Armand Perry retired for health reasons and cornerback Kareem Orr transferred to Tennessee-Chattanooga.

Joey Bryant, Dasmond Tautalatasi, Kobe Williams, Chad Adams and Chase Lucas are some of the names to watch. In a conference that features quarterbacks Sam Darnold, Jake Browning and Josh Rosen, they are bound to take some lumps on the learning curve.

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