Statistics, wins, losses and other nifty numbers are all great bellwether factors in judging whether or not a team is "good" in any sport. Numbers never lie, right?
So many industry professionals and arm-chair quarterbacks think it’s that simple, and for some, it has worked out really, really well. The Oakland Athletics are a prime example of that.
Those subjective statistics are all well and good, but what does it take to build a team that’s really, truly "good," and can stay that way for a series of years or, in many cases, decades? In that sense, how does that pertain to the 2012 Arizona State Sun Devils and the years beyond?
There is no concrete way to look at a piece of paper and declare that, four games into this season and four games into Todd Graham’s tenure at Arizona State, the Sun Devils are good. They’ve certainly looked dominant in their three victories and fought valiantly to come back in their lone loss. They’re 3-1. The Sun Devils rank 15th nationally in points per game and have averaged more than 187 yards per game on the ground.
On the other side of the ball, the Devils are giving up just 12.8 points per game. They’re more disciplined and play more within themselves, especially on defense. There’s a confidence there, distinctly among the younger players, that hasn’t existed in the fleeting seasons of Dennis Erickson’s time on the sidelines.
But does that all make Arizona State a good football team right now, on Sept. 26? The jury is still out. They haven’t played anybody quite yet of consequence, and they wont until Oct. 18. Certainly, the numbers speak of a good football team, and one that is ostensibly ahead of where we all thought they might be.
As we always say in my circles, though, building a good team isn’t just about being good in one season. If that was the case, Lisa Love should have given Erickson a lifetime contract and the keys to Old Main after the 2007 season. (Thankfully, she didn’t, and the keys to Old Main remain where they should be – at the bottom of of the fishtank at Frank Kush’s house or something). Around here, and especially since the Graham hire, the keen interest is in building a football program that is going to be "good" and, hopefully, "great" for years to come.
Just how close are they, really? You can’t necessarily give concrete answers to that question after just 240 minutes of football, but a nice foundation to find solutions has already been established.
There are many positives to take from the first four games of this season that are clear signs of progress, which include:
- The defensive line’s settlement – William Sutton, as we’ve said ad nauseum, has really become a force unto himself. He plays hard on every down, commands double teams and seems to have an unbridled amount of energy. His emergence has rubbed off on guys like Mike Pennel, Carl Bradford, Davon Coleman and the previously established star of the line, Junior Onyeali. Effort and motor rub off, and when you’ve got a player like Sutton leading that charge, the promise is evident.
- A glut of talent in the backfield – Not only is it a huge amount of raw skill, but the majority of it will be around for at least another year and a half. Cameron Marshall, one of the best backs this program has seen in a good while, will soon leave, but with junior Marion Grice hanging around and D.J. Foster banging around already as a freshman, there’s terrific upside for not only the rest of 2012 but to build on in 2013. Beyond the talent, Grice and Foster are both committed, hard workers that future commits can look to as leaders and examples in how to work at an FBS program.
- Cascading penalties being a thing of the past – This has been a nice side effect of the new regime, at least for now. That one-penalty showing against Illinois looks like it was an aberration from the norm, but there’s a tangible difference from the 7-8 penalties ASU takes per game this year than they would last year. In short, when the Sun Devils lost it in 2011, theylost itand penalties would come in bunches. Lest we forget the drives where guys would take multiple personal fouls within seconds. Arizona State still has work to do when it comes to easing up on the yellow hankies, but at least up to this point, they’re much more disciplined as a whole than they have been.
- The renewed energy around the program – Todd Graham certainly talked a good game when he came to Tempe – he "won the press conference" if you will – but that talk has truly led to a buy-in from players, coaches, staff members and fans that has been immediate and tangible. The guys WANT to play as a team this year rather than looking like 11 freelancers by the end of last season. These are people who want to win, and Gram and his staff have them wanting to do it in the right way.
That said, there’s still plenty that the program has to do to get over a hump and become "good" in the broader sense. All told, by the middle of October, the Sun Devils could be 5-1, but how much does that really matter in the specter of A) the rest of this season, and B) 2013 and beyond? The things Graham, his staff and his players need to address to get to that point include:
- Leadership in the passing game – Taylor Kelly (or Michael Eubank or Quarterback X) doesn’t necessarily need to be a gamebreaker like Sun Devil quarterbacks of the past have had to be. There’s plenty of talent to be had and lots of scoring punch to spread; if that weren’t the case, ASU wouldn’t be averaging more than 40 points per game. That said, championships aren’t won without some sort of passing threat (don’t tell that to Paul Johnson though or he’ll RIP YOUR FRACKING HEAD OFF). Now is the time for someone like Kevin Ozier, Kyle Middlebrooks or even Richard Smith to begin emerging as a playmaker. Jamal Miles and Rashad Ross are options for now, but once this season is over, they’re done here. Even if you have to build the passing game around Chris Coyle through the end of 2013, so be it. There has to be someone who leads the passing game.
- Consistency in the secondary -Now is the time for Osahan Irabor and Alden Darby to step forward and make an impact. Just like in the receiving corps, experienced guys like Deveron Carr and Keelan Johnson become ghosts at the end of this season. Carr and Johnson can really step forward and help this defense win now by playing well against the best of the best the Pac-12 have to offer, but if they can lead by example and let Irabor, Darby, Robert Nelson and others who are sticking around develop, it’ll be key. This is still the Pac-12. The ball is still flying everywhere. You don’t want to be beaten over the top.
- Learning how to wrap up on first contact – I’m going to continue to yell my lungs out until these guys stop treating the ball carrier like he just took a refreshing bath in a whirlpool full of Crisco.
- Just letting Chris Young do his thing – I honestly wish we had this kid for more than this year and next. He’s one special football player, and by the end of 2012, he could be a star. Imagine him anchoring a group of linebackers that includes him and a developing Steffon Martin on a regular basis.
This is not all encompassing, nor should it be. Injuries and other factors could redirect this team and this program in a heartbeat.
However, there’s encouragement to be had from the first four games of this season. It’s certainly more than we could have asked for in a month of football.