By James Romo
The Todd Graham era at Arizona State, complete with a program-wide culture overhaul, finally begins tonight against in-state little brother NAU. After all of the handshakes, clichés, public relations, and promises to the fan base, we’ll get our first real look under the lights of Sun Devil Stadium at what we can expect from our newly remodeled Sun Devils this season.
The NAU Lumberjacks will make their way down the hill from Flagstaff with a ton of experience on both sides of the ball and a huge chip on their collective shoulders as heavy underdogs. Although they have not defeated ASU since 1938, they’ll definitely be looking to attack an untested Sun Devil squad attempting to execute new offensive and defensive schemes, breaking in a new starting quarterback, and with inexperience at multiple positions all over the field.
We can expect NAU to attempt to establish their ground game early with running back Zach Bauman, a Chandler Hamilton High School graduate, who is a candidate for the Walter Payton Award after rushing for 1,435 yards and 15 touchdowns last season. Balancing out the offense is senior quarterback Cary Grossart who passed for 2,745 yards and 16 touchdowns. Bauman and Grossart combined to take the Big Sky conference top rusher and top pass efficiency honors in 2011. A Lumberjack defensive line infused with some junior college transfer talent will look to bottle up ASU’s run game and force ASU to beat them with the pass.
With so many question marks across the board going into game one, ASU will look to lean heavily on a few key players to set the tone. Senior leader Brandon Magee will anchor a young linebacker core by calling out the pre-snap reads, blitzing heavily, and making sure his defense is stopping the NAU run game by staying disciplined and filling the gaps. Safeties Keelan Johnson and Alden Darby will make sure to keep a very athletic ASU secondary on the same page, after a series of blown coverages allowing for big plays in the second half of last season and in some of the fall scrimmages. In fact, look for the whole defensive back position group, who saw a lot of game action in 2011, to seek some serious redemption in 2012. On the offensive side of the ball, Cameron Marshall will be a workhorse in an attempt to alleviate a lot of pressure from the passing game and new QB Taylor Kelly. A dominant run game will prevent Kelly from having to win this game with his arm. The wild card player to watch tonight at Sun Devil Stadium is highly touted true freshman D.J. Foster in his ASU debut. He has lined up all over the placethroughout fall camp including slot receiver, tailback, and running back. Foster will create a matchup nightmare for opposing Defensive Coordinators. He has a skill set that includes running between the tackles, pass-catching ability, speed and elusiveness in the open field that is going to be exciting and fun to watch. Jamal Miles and Rashad Ross have proven to be electric on kickoff and punt returns, so also look for big plays from the return teams on Thursday night.
Fans can fully expect to see a very hard-fought and close first half as the Sun Devils work the kinks out in this initial game of the 2012 season. ASU will have to work through an adrenaline rush, some nerves, and early mental mistakes to find a rhythm and win as convincingly as expected. However, the August heat in Tempe, ASU’s depth at running back, their size and speed on both sides of the ball will prove to be too much for the Lumberjacks. One thing that won’t be in question tonight is the hard work, focus and discipline that have been displayed by the entire coaching staff and every Sun Devil player on the roster since the new football leadership took over eight months ago. The players, coaches and the athletic administration have proved that they are “all in.” Tonight at Sun Devil Stadium, it’s time to do our part by showing some support and making a commitment to this team and program. Are you “all in?” Prove it.
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