College Football

ASU's Graham in win-or-else mode

(Photo by Leon Bennett/Getty Images)

(TSX / STATS) -- Arizona State coach Todd Graham hears the win-or-else cries from fans and, to another extent, from his own administration.

When athletic director Ray Anderson was asked about Graham's fate if the sixth-year coach delivered another five- or six-win season, Anderson answered, "I don't think it's any revelation to anyone that if that happens -- and unequivocally I don't think it will, I think we're going to win -- but if that happens then we'll make the prudent business decision, whatever that might be."

Translation: Graham is on the hot season. His teams won only 11 games (6-7 in 2015 and 5-7 last year) the past two seasons after winning 10 games in each of the 2013 and 2014 seasons.

ASU has the skill position players on offense to make the Sun Devils fun to watch at the very least, provided the offensive line makes a marked improvement in its pass protection and ability to clear running space for running backs (only 3.3 yards per carry last season). Only two starters return to a line that allowed 41 sacks last season. ASU has allowed 38 sacks or more in each of the last five seasons under Graham.

Incumbent quarterback Manny Wilkins has held off Alabama transfer Blake Barnett in the competition through most of fall camp. Wilkins is athletic while Barnett has a stronger arm. The most productive running backs return, including Kalen Ballage and Demario Richard. Sophomore receiver N'Keal Harry can emerge as one of the best at his position in the Pac-12.

ASU had the worst pass defense in the nation last season, allowing 357.4 yards per game and 33 touchdowns.

The Sun Devils recruited defensive backs heavily -- signing eight -- and landed a great one in safety Alex Perry from Las Vegas Bishop Gorman High School. Perry is the younger brother of Armand Perry, who would have been a redshirt junior cornerback and leader of the Sun Devil defense if he hadn't retired from football in May due to injuries.

New defensive coordinator Phil Bennett has 37 years of coaching experience, including the last six at Baylor. The biggest key for him is improving a pass defense that yielded 13.84 yards per catch last season.

ASU's top two tacklers -- linebackers D.J. Calhoun and safety/spur linebacker Marcus Ball -- return. Defensive linemen JoJo Wicker and Tashon Smallwood are reliable veterans, especially against the against the run.

The Sun Devils play Pac-12 heavyweights USC, Colorado, Oregon and Washington at home. If they get through the non-conference slate -- New Mexico State and San Diego State at home; Texas Tech on the road -- without a loss, it will bode well for Graham's future.

MOST IMPORTANT PLAYER: LB D.J. Calhoun -- ASU's defense has not the same since coach Todd Graham's first couple of seasons with the Sun Devils in 2011 and 2012. The Sun Devils need someone to be the catalyst to solidify an always-aggressive defense that ranked second-to-last in the nation last season (allowing 520.5 yards a game). Calhoun started every game in 2016 and was ASU's tackle leader with 77. He is a pass-rushing threat who has 26 career tackles for loss, including 13 sacks.

BREAKOUT STAR: WR John Humphrey -- The speedy Oklahoma transfer (4.3 seconds in the 40) is accustomed to big-time football being with the Sooner program after a stellar high school career in Texas. He was one of the stars of the spring, catching three touchdown passes in the spring game, including two for more than 35 yards. Humphrey is eager to show what he can do in his third year of college without playing a snap yet in a live game (redshirting at Oklahoma in 2015 and sitting out last year per NCAA transfer rules).

NEWCOMER TO WATCH: CB Alex Perry -- He's a heralded recruit from powerhouse Las Vegas Bishop Gorman High School who should see immediate playing time for ASU's woeful secondary, especially with the transfer of Kareem Orr to Tennessee-Chattanooga. Perry was part of a Bishop Gorman program that ranked No. 1 nationally in 2016 by USA Today. "He's a guy that does nothing but win championships," ASU coach Todd Graham said.

Updated August 18, 2017

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