ASU football's biggest successes of 2014

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Arizona State's 2014 regular season is over, and not in the fashion that they had hoped. Friday's 42-35 loss to Arizona cost ASU the Territorial Cup and the Pac-12 South title.

However, it does show how far the Sun Devil program has progressed since Todd Graham took over as head coach in 2012 that a 9-3 record and the No. 17 spot in the AP Top 25 is now considered a disappointment.

As ASU awaits word on where they will play their bowl game, we're going to take a look at the successes, failures, and questions raised from the Sun Devils' regular season.

First up, what went right for ASU in 2014.

The Force is Strong

Jaelen Strong’s first season in Tempe was thoroughly impressive. He caught 75 passes for 1,122 yards with five touchdowns, and often flashed brilliance.

That was merely prelude to to this season. 

The redshirt junior elevated his game to new heights in 2014, despite often shaky quarterback play. So far, he’s hauled in 75 passes for 1,062 yards and 10 touchdowns, but it’s the manner in which he’s amassed those numbers that has stood out. 

Strong has been outright dominant for most of the year, jumping over and running past defenders while coming up with clutch catch after clutch catch. Defenses know that he is the clear No. 1 option for the Sun Devils, yet Strong has been able to excel. 

Whether it’s been the #JaelMary catch to beat USC, jaw-dropping one-handed grabs against Notre Dame and Arizona, or a leaping reception to move the chains, Strong has solidified his place as one of the best, if not the best, wide receivers in ASU history and a sure-fire high-round NFL pick.

The Kids Are Alright

When team needs and talented recruiting classes converge, the product is often a pressure—if not an outright urgency—to get those players and others lacking in experience into the lineup as soon as possible. ASU found themselves in that situation this year, especially with a defense that needed to replace nine starters from 2013.

As expected, there were initial struggles as the newcomers learned on the job. But as the season progressed, several young Sun Devils not only earned more playing time, they became indispensable components.

Offensively, true freshman running back Demario Richard helped reinvigorate the ASU ground game after midseason struggles. The 17-year-old from Palmdale, Calif. brought a power element to the backfield, and his production (571 yards from scrimmage, four touchdowns) often proved to be a catalyst for the Sun Devils. His success allowed junior D.J. Foster to be moved around in the offense to take advantage of his versatility, and Foster responded with 1,002 yards rushing, 646 receiving and 12 total touchdowns.

On defense, many true freshmen made their mark. 

Linebacker D.J. Calhoun opened the year as the starter at WILL, and later saw action at SPUR. Altogether, he made six starts, making 35 tackles (seven for loss) and two sacks. Christian Sam also saw significant action at SPUR and tallied 16 tackles. Tackle Tashon Smallwood started seven times, and earned more reps as the season progressed. Cornerbacks Armand Perry (34 tackles, 2.5 sacks, one interception) and Chad Adams became valuable pieces of the secondary. 

Beyond the freshmen, ASU was bolstered by players who made the most of their first chances at meaningful reps and established themselves as contributors now and in the future.

Sophomore Ami Latu had bounced around a few positions before finding a home on the defensive line. He has started the last four games in place of Jaxon Hood, and has five tackles for loss and one memorable 51-yard fumble return. Junior Kweishi Brown had a breakout game against Stanford and earned himself eight starts opposite Lloyd Carrington. At wide receiver, sophomores Cameron Smith and Fred Gammage and redshirt freshman Ellis Jefferson each flashed their playmaking potential.

Up and down the depth chart, this year has proved that ASU’s success in recruiting and player development is paying off.

The D is Ahead of Schedule

That youth movement was part of the larger story on defense, in what turned out to be a tale of two seasons for the Sun Devils.

Through the season’s first three games, the ASU defense put on a rather uninspiring, if somewhat expected, performance. With the difficult task of replacing nine new starters, no one expected the Sun Devils to replicate the Will Sutton-and-Carl-Bradford led success in recent years. They didn’t, as the sacks and turnovers that had become commonplace dried up.

Then came UCLA.

In arguably the most embarrassing performance of the Todd Graham era, the defense was shredded for big play after big play while failing to generate any pressure. Newcomers and veterans alike failed to produce, and the defense—and team at large—were a crossroad.

It was then that the staff made a change, moving towards a bulkier 4-3 base set. Antonio Longino took over at WILL, while Demetrius Cherry, Mo Latu, and Ami Latu began seeing more reps along the line. 

Existing starters also began playing better. After registering one sack over the first four games, senior defensive end Marcus Hardison would post nine over the next seven. Linebackers Salamo Fiso and Laiu Moeakiola became disruptive playmakers. Cornerbacks Kweishi Brown and Lloyd Carrington became a formidable tandem, and safeties Damarious Randall and Jordan Simone became a brick wall on the back end (191 total tackles, 156 solo).

Since averaging 1.8 sacks and 6.8 tackles for loss over the first four games, the Sun Devils then posted an average of four sacks and 8.8 tackles for loss the rest of the season. Most importantly, that pressure translated into more turnovers. The Sun Devils forced just six turnovers over the first five games, but then generated 16 over the next seven. While the ASU offense battled prolonged stretches of ineffectiveness, it was the team’s defense that helped save the season.

Simply put, this was a new Sun Devil defense. While it was far from a new Steel Curtain—as bad stretches against Oregon State, Notre Dame, and Arizona painfully proved—it was a remarkable turnaround led in large part by players returning in 2015.

The Next Generation

A winning program is built on successes on the recruiting trail, and 2014 has brought in a steady stream of coveted prospects.

The Sun Devils' 2014 class was ranked No. 17 by Scout.com, their highest ranked since internet rankings began in 2000. It included seven four-star prospects among the 26 total players, and none were lower than a three-star rating. 

ASU's 2015 class is also shaping up to be another great haul. 

It's led by Brady White, one of the highest ranked quarterbacks in the entire nation. He's one of four four-stars the program has lined up among their 16 current commits. The Sun Devils are also in good shape with several other top uncommitted players, including five-star prospects Christian Kirk and Osa Masina, along with four-stars Trent Irwin (White's high school teammate), Porter Gustin, Paul Lucas among many others. To help the cause, ASU hosted several of these top players for an official visit during the weekend of the victory over Notre Dame.

As the Sun Devils piled up wins this year, they helped improve their odds at landing the players to get them the victories for years to come.

Give it the Boot

ASU’s special teams had some troublesome areas in 2014. The return games were mediocre, the coverage units were poor (88th against punt returns and 104th against kickoffs), and the protections allowed five total blocked kicks.

However, once the ball reached kicker Zane Gonzalez or punter Matt Haack, good things typically happened.

Gonzalez followed up his stellar freshman year with a another solid campaign. He did have some bad misses (30-yarder against Oregon State, 45-yarder against Arizona), but on the year he showed an accurate (19 for 24, 79.2 percent) and strong (long of 49, 5 for 8 from 40-49 yards) leg. Just a sophomore, ASU will have two more years to feel confident in their kicker.

In 2013, ASU was among the worst punting teams in college football. No, not just the FBS, but in all divisions of the game. The coaching staff tried several different options, including Haack, but the results were all terrible.

Not so this year. Haack has become one of the Pac-12’s top punters, showing off a powerful left leg.

Over his 52 kicks, Haack blasted 14 kicks over 50 yards, while pinning 17 inside the opponent’s 20-yard line. Three times he launched kicks that forced returners to retreat, resulting in muffs or fumbles. From liability to weapon, Haack’s improvement was one of ASU’s most encouraging storylines.

The Home Field Advantage

Far too many times in recent years, Sun Devils Stadium was marked with large pockets of empty seats for big games, and those that were filled were often apathetic.

That was then, this is now. For ASU's opponents, a trip to Tempe is met with "Abandon All Hope Ye Who Enter Here".

Led by a resurgence of the student section, ASU has a legitimate home field advantage. The Sun Devils were 5-1 at home this season, improving to 12-1 in true home games over the last two seasons (16-3 since Graham took over in 2012).

Click here to see how Notre Dame learned this lesson first hand.