First there was their fall from grace over the season's final five games. The ouster of Dennis Erickson led to the chaos of the ensuing coaching search. Finally, a seemingly too-good-to-be-true head coach emerged out of nowhere to restore faith and optimism for a program in dire need of both.
This week, all of that is tossed out of the window as the focus returns to the football field.
On Tuesday, Todd Graham opened up his first spring football practice as ASU's head coach. Combined with the departure of over a dozen starters, new philosophies and all new schemes, the Sun Devils of 2012 offer up a great many questions that will need to be addressed during this season.
Spring practice will be the first chance to find some of those answers. Among the many unknowns facing Graham in his maiden season at the helm are these five questions.
Who Will Be The Quarterback?
One of the expected strengths of the 2012 team is now the most critical unanswered question.
When Brock Osweiler passed up his senior season to enter the NFL Draft, it meant that ASU would have their fifth different starting quarterback over the last five years.
His departure opened up a three-way battle between sophomores Mike Bercovici and Taylor Kelly and redshirt freshman Michael Eubank. Bercovici was Osweiler's backup last season, and both he and Kelly saw limited mop-up action in 2011, while Eubank redshirted and quarterbacked the scout team during practices.
The new offensive scheme from offensive coordinator Mike Norvell will do away with Noel Mazzone's pass-happy spread attack in favor of a run-heavy spread option, similar to what Cam Newton ran at Auburn. Norvell has stated that a "60-40" run-to-pass ratio will be the goal.
Each player offers a different skillset that has a chance to flourish in this new system.
Bercovici is the most polished passer of the group. Despite standing just 6'1", he has a good arm and can sling the ball around the field with accuracy. He fits the traditional dropback mold, with his mobility is average at best. Those skills translated very well into Mazzone's offense, but there are questions as to whether he is the best fit for the current scheme.
Kelly offers a dual-threat skill package. He has experience running a spread-option offense, which aligns itself well, and a decent, if unrefined, arm.
On the other end of the spectrum from Bercovici is Eubank. At 6'5" and 242 pounds, he is a physical specimen with tremendous athleticism much like Newton. A skilled runner, his passing skills need work, although he is blessed with a powerful arm. One often mentioned fact is that Eubank was heavily recruited by Graham and Norvell when they were both at Pittsburgh, presumably giving him a leg up in the battle.
However, each player will see even reps with the starters during the early spring until a pecking order is established.
All three candidates offer tantalizing skills and abilities, and Graham has stated repeatedly that the player who gives the team the best chance to win will play. It's easy to imagine that this competition could come down to the last week of fall camp before the opening game against NAU.
Who Will That Quarterback Throw To?
Ross finished the 2011 season strong, posting a 100-yard game against Cal and returning a kickoff for a score against Boise State. Blessed with elite speed, Ross has the tools to be the deep threat this offense requires and have a breakout season.
Ozier was a former walk-on whose hard work translated into greater playing time, and finally a scholarship from Graham this offseason. He has a good blend of size (6'0", 200 pounds), speed and hands, and saw first-team reps in Tuesday's opening practice.
Jamal Miles is the team's leading returning receiver with 60 receptions, but lacks the build of a true wide receiver. It will be interesting to see how the coaching staff incorporates his incredible speed and quickness, either at receiver, running back or in other creative ways.
Behind them are a group of players who will be battling to see time. Senior A.J. Pickens has great speed to offset his size (5'10", 168 pounds) and showed some flashes of potential on crossing routes a season ago. J.J. Holliday is an upperclassman who has terrific potential, but a broken collarbone derailed his 2011 season. Gary Chambers and Karl Holmes are younger players who are talented enough to make a strong push for time.
It will be a fierce battle for playing time this spring, as two members of the 2012 recruiting class enter the fray this summer. Juco transfer Alonzo Agwuenu should make an immediate impact, and Richard Smith from Long Beach Poly will make a run at playing time from the slot.
Who Will Play With Brandon Magee?
Like wide receiver, linebacker was ravaged by departures. The top four players from last season all left, and while ASU does get a huge boost with the return from injury by senior Brandon Magee, the rest of the position is an unknown.
The new defense requires that the linebackers are supremely athletic and versatile, able to cover a lot of ground on the field. Magee excels in both departments, while also serving as an outstanding leader for a group in major transition.
With juco transfers Steffon Martin and Chris Young coming this fall with each figuring to see significant time at linebacker, not to mention three talented high schoolers, the spring serves as an imperative opportunity for the current players to catch the coaching staff's eyes.
Carl Bradford is a big, athletic player (6'0" 240 pounds) who made the most of his limited time last season. He has a knack for making plays in the backfield, and with his size, he may play defensive end when the team lines up in a 4-3.
Juniors Brandon Johnson and Anthony Jones each saw minor time last year. Both are athletic and speedy linebackers who have sideline-to-sideline range. Redshirt freshman Israel Marshall may have the greatest athleticism of the group. All three players will need to shine during the spring to avoid being caught up in a numbers game come August.
Who Will Block?
Offensive line has been a major issue for ASU over the years, and with spring practice beginning, it remains a pressing question.
Three starters depart from last season's line, including decorated center Garth Gerhart.
The major returning players are tackles Evan Finkenberg and Brice Scwhab, the highly touted transfer whose lack of conditioning undid his 2011 season. Four-star tackle Evan Goodman will be coming this fall, so the pressure is on Finkenberg and Schwab to lock down their spots.
The rest of the line figures to be shuffled extensively during the spring, as the new staff looks for players to emerge and chemistry to develop. Andrew Sampson, Kody Koebensky and Jamil Douglas are familiar names battling for spots, while other guys like Devin Goodman (Evan's brother), Tyler Sulka and Kyle Johnson look to raise their profile.
The return of a run-heavy offense may help the line develop, as the unit won't be counted on to block for 500-plus pass attempts this season.
Can They Learn To Speak Victory?
Even more important than learning any new offensive set or complicated blitz package will be the player's adoption of the new culture being installed by Graham and his staff.
For years, the atmosphere surrounding the program was lackadaisical, tolerant of mistakes and accepting of underachievement.
No so anymore.
The ASU program now lives by a "high octane" mentality, with all actions geared toward "speaking victory". Whether it's the Rose Bowl logo posted at the practice field, the "yes sir, no sir" responses required by the players, or the demand that every step on the field is in a sprint, this is not the same Sun Devil team that we have seen over the last five seasons.
This new approach certainly brings about hope for a turnaround, but such a radical shift often brings along some growing pains. Such a rigid regime is not everyone's cup of tea, mind you. It also carries the risk of burning out players quickly.
Regardless of the risks, it's what needed to happen to this program.
The ASU program was in dire need of a radical renovation, and the first tangible signs of an offseason of promising off-field developments are occurring during spring practices. Graham is planinting these seeds now in the hopes that the sweat of hard work will allow them to blossom in the fall.
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