Can NAU spoil Todd Graham’s coaching debut at ASU?

Arizona State has won its last eight football season openers, and 12 out of the last 13.  And for the last three years, there has been a different quarterback to start each new season.

So tonight’s meeting with Northern Arizona University fits the pattern.

However, it will be a sophomore signal-caller with almost no previous college game experience – trying to implement a new offensive system installed by a new head coach.

So does that open the door, even a little, for NAU to sneak through for an upset win?

The thought of something like that happening has to keep the new Sun Devil boss, Todd Graham, awake at night.  The first-year coach has made all the right moves since arriving from Pitt and has the fan base, which has lived through four campaigns without a winning record, believing things will change this year.

Even though the talent-rich Pac-12 school is expected to win its ninth straight against its smaller FCS opponent, Graham needs to do more than just get past the Jacks.  He needs to win decisively to convince the faithful that the program is strong enough to compete in the conference.

And NAU could give their in-state rivals a game this year.  The Jacks have experience returning in the offense and depth on the defensive side.  They finished just two spots out of the pre-season Top 25 poll.

Starting quarterback, Cary Grossart, got his first start in last year’s season opener, just as Taylor Kelly‘s ASU career will be christened tonight in Sun Devil Stadium.  But Grossart enjoyed a successful junior year, finishing with 16 touchdowns and a conference-best 156.0 passer rating, and will have that year of seasoning under his belt as he begins his senior campaign.

But it’s a local kid setting up in the backfield with Grossart that will be the difference-maker.

Zach Bauman, a junior from Hamilton High School in Chandler, just keeps getting better.  He set an NAU school record as a freshman when he rushed for 1,059 yards, and then last year led the conference by racking up 1,435 yards to earn him a spot on the All-Big Sky Team.

Bauman, who was not highly-recruited coming out of Hamilton despite leading the Huskies to two state titles, has publicly announced that his goal for this season is 2,000 yards – and has no doubt in his mind that it’s achievable.

And he’ll have a little more help with the load this year, since a senior transfer from UC-Berkeley has been added to the roster.  Covaughn DeBoskie-Johnson averaged 5.1 yards per rush last season.

On the other side of the ball, head coach Jerome Souers has shored up a defensive line that lost four starters to graduation by adding two mid-year transfers and another four junior college transfers.  The unit will be led by senior Jarret Bilbrey and junior Tim Wilkinson, who are returning with a ton of experience and some upperclassmen leadership.  Souers points out that the defense is now two deep at each position.

But the defense will have its work cut out for it against ASU because the Sun Devils will have Cameron Marshall back  – the senior running back who scored more touchdowns on the ground last season than seven Pac-12 teams did as a team.  His 18 rushing TDs tied a school record and bring his total in three seasons to 29, which puts him in fourth place in the school archives for career touchdowns.

And to make it a little more difficult, the Devils will have Deantre Lewis back on the field this season to complete a potent backfield.  Lewis rushed for nearly six yards a carry as a freshman, before being sidelined last season with an injury.  He needed just 13 yards to become a 1,000-yard rusher as a frosh.

Also returning to the fold this season is Brandon Magee on defense, following an Achilles injury suffered in the 2011 pre-season.  The redshirt senior linebacker, who had 48 solo tackles and 73 total as a junior, has been included on this year’s watchlist for the Butkus Award, given at season’s end to the nation’s top linebacker.

It will be interesting to see if D.J. Foster gets in the game tonight.  The four-star recruit from Saguaro High School in Scottsdale is considered a coup for Graham and the Sun Devil program as more emphasis is being put on in-state prospects.  The 6’0″, 185-pound running back ran up more than 3,000 rushing yards at Saguaro and was considered by most to be the best football player in the state as a senior.

If he does play tonight, he will join a short list of just four true freshmen who have started the first game of the season, going back to 1972 when the NCAA began allowing freshmen to compete.

Just one more reason to watch what could be a pretty good ball game between a couple of local teams.

(Photo: NAU Athletics)