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What to watch for: Arizona State Sun Devils vs. Weber State Wildcats

They say there’s no such thing as an exhibition game in college football, but with no disrespect meant toward the Weber State Wildcats, Thursday’s season opener is as close as you can get to one for the Arizona State Sun Devils.

Year three of the Todd Graham era gets underway in Tempe with a visit from the Weber State Wildcats of the Big Sky Conference. Weber State is led by first-year head coach Jay Hill, who inherits a team that went 2-10 in 2013.

When asked what he wanted to see from his team Thursday night, Graham had a simple answer.

“To win,” he snapped. “I want us to win and play to the best of our ability.”

It’s the first time the two teams have met on the gridiron.

Here’s what to watch for Thursday night:

#19 Arizona State Sun Devils

POINTS – We’ll get our first look at ASU’s vaunted offense, which ranked 10th in the nation scoring 39.7 points per game in 2013.

Senior quarterback Taylor Kelly will start his third season opener for the Sun Devils and has big expectations piled on his shoulders in 2014. Several preseason publications listed Kelly as a darkhorse Heisman Trophy candidate.

The Sun Devils’ offense won’t be all Kelly, however. Junior receiver Jaelen Strong, who ranked fourth in the Pac-12 with 75 receptions last season, is back, as is junior do-everything tailback D.J. Foster. The Scottsdale Saguaro product tallied 1,170 all-purpose yards last season in a reduced role behind tailback Marion Grice. ASU fans got a glimpse of Foster as ASU’s feature back following Grice’s injury against UCLA. In the final three games of the campaign, Foster piled up 447 yards from scrimmage and five touchdowns.

And we’ll get to see a revamped ASU offensive line. All-Pac-12 Second Team selection Jamil Douglas shifts from left guard to left tackle, teaming with Auburn transfer left guard Christian Westerman. Nick Kelly takes over at center after the graduation of Kody Koebensky and the right side tandem of guard Vi Teofilo and tackle Tyler Sulka returns.

“I have the most confidence in that offensive line,” Graham said Monday. “The skill players are really good, so that line is going to determine how good we’re going to be and I think they’re going to be good — really good.”

WHO’s THAT GUY? – For all the certainty on offense, there’s an equal amount of uncertainy on defense for the Devils.

Nine starters are gone from last year’s division championship squad, including two-time Pat Tillman Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year Will Sutton.

Thursday, watch for two true freshmen — linebacker D.J. Calhoun and defensive lineman Tashon Smallwood — to assert themselves in their collegiate debuts.

In fact, ASU has only 11 seniors on its entire roster — the second-lowest total for any Division I school. Only Temple (8) has less.

Oh, and buy a program when you get to the game — there are 14 freshmen on ASU’s Weber State depth chart.

NOSE FOR THE BALL – Watch for Weber State turnovers. ASU has forced 63 in the last two seasons, which is the second-most in FBS behind only Houston. ASU also has forced at least one turnover in 29 straight games.

Weber State committed 29 last season, which tied for the most in the Big Sky.

NEW AND IMPROVED – Graham has spent a good portion of the preseason talking about the Sun Devils’ team speed and special teams getting better.

“I’m hoping I see it and I know I will, but I think we’re pretty fast. I think we’re explosive,” he said.

ASU’s special teams units were their Achilles’ heel in 2013. Graham addressed the season-long issue following a disappointing loss to Texas Tech in the Holiday Bowl.

“Obviously, the number one thing we’ve got to work on is special teams,” he said at the time. “That’ll be dealt with immediately and that will be something I’ll take personal interest in. It’s been something that’s killed our team. We’ve lost three ball games (because of special teams) this year and they were a major contributor today.”

How Graham dealt with it was by changing the look of his coaching staff. Last year’s special teams coordinator, Joe Lorig, is gone — he’s now the linebackers coach at Utah State. Taking his place are Keith Patterson, who is also the defensive coordinator, and Chip Long. Patterson will focus on defensive special teams, while Long will handle the offensive teams.

Weber State Wildcats

FEELS LIKE THE FIRST TIME – There’s a lot of “newness” on the Wildcats’ sideline as well. Head coach Jay Hill is making his college debut in that capacity after serving under the likes of Ron McBride, Urban Meyer and Kyle Whittingham for the past 13 seasons at Utah.

Quarterback Billy Green transferred to Weber State from BYU over the summer, and will take his first snaps as a starter Thursday night.

But change might be a good thing for the Wildcats. During their 2-10 season in 2013, they finished dead last in the Big Sky in scoring offense, scoring defense, total offense and total defense.

Quick facts

• Over the last decade, ASU is 8-0 against current members of the Big Sky Conference. The Sun Devils have outscored those opponents 376-79.

• Thursday will mark just the second time Weber State has faced a Pac-12 opponent. They lost in their season opener last year at Utah, 70-7.

• This is only the fourth time Weber State has faced a nationally-ranked opponent.

• The Wildcats are 3-50 all-time against FBS division foes. Their last win came against Nevada in 1993. They’ve lost 27 in a row to the “big boys.”

• Weber State has one player from the state of Arizona. Freshman offensive lineman Ismael Betancourt attended Buckeye Union High School.

• In case you’re wondering, the last time ASU scored 70 points in a game was in 1969 when they crushed Colorado State 79-7.

Bottom Line

ASU is vastly superior at pretty much every position on the field. Thursday will be a good opportunity for the starters to acclimate themselves to game speed. It will also be an opportunity for a lot of youngsters to experience college football for the first time.

But when the final gun sounds, this will be another in a long line of Sun Devil romps over an FCS opponent.