Believe it or not, it’s time again for college football in Arizona, and the 2015 season will be ceremoniously ushered in by the Arizona State Sun Devils after tomorrow’s final summer workout.
ASU’s annual ‘breaking of the rock’ will take place immediately after a morning workout session of lifting and conditioning, including a 225-pound bench press test and team run.
The event, which doesn’t really use a rock but rather a roughly 2 ft. x 2 ft. slab of concrete composite, is used to signal the official beginning of a new season. One of the players is selected to swing the sledge hammer and is expected to break it with one blow if he is to avoid being ribbed the rest of the season.
And then it’s a short break next week while the coaching staff heads to California for the annual Pac-12 Media Day – actually two days, next Thursday and Friday.
Players will be in shorts and helmets for the first practice on Aug. 5, with the veterans reporting for a 2 1/2 hour morning session and the newcomers reporting at 7 o’clock that evening.
Todd Graham, who is starting his fourth season as the Sun Devil head coach, and his staff will have four weeks to get their 2015 squad ready for what will be one of the biggest games of the season when they open against Texas A&M on the road. They’ll play the Aggies on a neutral site at NRG Stadium, home of the NFL Houston Texans, in a game that will set the stage for the rest of the way through a challenging schedule.
A win over the Aggies would not only let Graham know if his team, which will probably enter the season with a top-25 national ranking, is ready for the season, but would give the Devils a high-profile win in a non-conference game to build some early credibility in their quest for the Pac-12 South title that narrowly eluded them last year.
Graham has posted 10-win records the past two seasons, and did it last year with a defense that was young and trying to blend in nine newcomers after losing almost the entire defense to graduation. They over-achieved and enabled the team to finish 10-3 and cap the season off with a win over Duke in the Sun Bowl.
But this year, the tables are turned. The Devils will return almost their entire defense and are two-deep at just about every position on the field. Graham, who earned his stripes as a defensive coordinator, coaches an aggressive defense that has been among the top 15 teams in the country in sacks and tackles-for-loss each of his three years in Tempe. This D unit, which now has some game experience, should be one of the best yet.
And offensively, there shouldn’t be any fall-off from a 2014 team that averaged 37 points and 442 total yards per game – despite the fact that they lost their starting quarterback to graduation.
Mike Bercovici is expected to be under center when the season begins. The senior played in four games and started three of those last season when Taylor Kelly was out with injury and showed great promise for this year by beating two ranked teams and set a new school mark by becoming the first quarterback in program history to pass for over 400 yards in his first two career starts.
This season he should have plenty of protection as he works at picking apart opponents’ defenses, since Nick Kelly returns at center and Christian Westerman will be back at guard. Westerman, a local favorite from Hamilton High in Chandler, has become a YouTube star. The 6’4″, 300-pound freak of nature was video-taped bench pressing 315 pounds 20 consecutive times.
One of Bercovici’s primary targets will be D.J. Foster, a senior running back from Saguaro High School in Scottsdale, who is being converted to more of a receiver by lining him up in the slot. Foster rushed for 1,083 yards last season out of the backfield, and now Graham is turning him into a slot receiver to get him out into the open field where he can hopefully pick up even bigger chunks of real estate.
With Foster moving out of the backfield, the work load should shift to DeMario Richard. The sophomore played just a part-time role last year, but still collected 478 yards on 5.7 yards per carry and made a big splash in the Sun Bowl victory, scoring four touchdowns in that game.
Last year, the Devils returned a total of eight starters and won 10 games and a bowl. This year, they have 16 returning starters, most of those at the skill positions.
And a good shot at breaking through that 10-win ceiling.
(Photo: ASU Athletics)