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October 1, 2013

Insider's Q&A: Arizona State

Notre Dame faces another explosive offense with another mobile quarterback this weekend. Irish Illustrated caught up with Chris Karpman from ASUSunDevils.com for insight into Arizona State.

Irish Illustrated: After 17 games over the last couple seasons, are you getting a sense for what Todd Graham is about as a head coach?

Chris Karpman: I think it starts with the good job they do with game prep. They have a clear idea of how they want to attack the opposing team and they're very disciplined in doing that. Arizona State went from the most penalized team in college football under Dennis Erikson to one of the five fewest penalized teams in one season. Graham is extremely anal about discipline and penalties and he talks to the team about it all the time. They drill ball security, no fumbles. Arizona State has just one fumble this year and it came on a special teams snap. They don't put the ball on the ground. They don't talk trash either. You'll see very little extra curricular stuff this weekend.

In terms of how Arizona State likes to play the game, they're very attack minded. Defensively, they bring about as much pressure as you can (led the nation in TFL's last year and were second in sacks). They'll bring five guys regularly and sometimes six. Offensively, this is a Gus Malzahn type spread. They throw the ball a lot, use the tight ends, use the backs. Their tight end Chris Coyle set the single-season school record for receptions at the position last year. Running back Marion Grice has been a touchdown machine (12 touchdowns in four games). Last year he led the Pac-12 in terms of no one having more touchdowns per touch.

In terms of what they like to do schematically on offense, it's a lot of the same plays from different formations. They'll try to trip you up with motion, formations, that kind of thing. It's a more potent attack than it was last year. They have a JUCO receiver named Jaelen Strong who's helped that with back-to-back-to-back 100-yard games.

II: At the beginning of the season Taylor Kelly looked like the best quarterback Notre Dame would face this year. How has he progressed after finishing in the Top 10 for passer efficiency last season?

CK: He's a little bit better, but it's not a dramatic difference. Last season was his first year as a starter in a new scheme and now there's better fluency, better understanding of how opponents can attack and do things that would fluster him in the past. His Achilles heel has been putting the ball in jeopardy when there's pressure. If you looked at Arizona State's five losses last year, Kelly threw an interception in every one and that accounted for all nine of his picks. When he didn't throw an interception, Arizona State went 8-0. What you'll see in Kelly is a very, very accurate quarterback. This scheme doesn't require the quarterback to put the ball in jeopardy much.

In terms of mobility, Kelly is a sneaky good athlete. He had a 40-yard run against USC and a 29-yard run. If the ends crash down on the zone read schemes, he can exploit that. What he can also do is really stress a defense by passing out of that formation. It almost turns the zone read play into a triple option pass play. You'll see linebackers and safeties bite hard on the play fake and the slot receivers slip open over the middle. I don't think Kelly is a pro prospect guy, he doesn't have a great arm and he's just a decent athlete. But he is one of those guys who's a really good college quarterback.

II: Talk more about Grice at running back and D.J. Foster in the slot. That's a guy a lot of Notre Dame fans remember from recruiting. The Irish inside linebackers have been targeted this year with the pass and those guys have 22 catches each.

CK: With Grice he's lined up in the backfield as a traditional running back and they like to get the ball to him on the edge. They'll run power and run inside zone. He's very elusive, makes guys miss in space. He's got a really weird knack for getting into the end zone, taking runs that look like they're not going anywhere and twisting his way forward. They'll throw the ball a lot of him on wheel routes, try to exploit the seams. He catches the ball extremely well and is versatile.

With Foster, he's put on some weight and just has a knack for getting leverage on you to the outside. He's elusive too, maybe not as much as Grice. Where he's probably better is getting up to full speed quickly. It looks like it takes maybe two or three steps before Foster is full speed. They'll play him more at slot receiver than running back, but he'll come through the backfield too on jet sweeps and motions.

II: Defensively, is there an identity to this team yet? They shut out Sacramento State to start the year, but have allowed an average of 37.7 points and 240 yards rushing per game since.

CK: This is the only team in the country that returned two guys with more than 10 sacks and at least 20 tackles for loss last year. Will Sutton is the guy everybody knows at three technique. Arizona State runs a one-gap philosophy, so it's not read and react, it's go make a play. He's been getting doubled a lot, especially in passing downs. Teams will run away from him. Teams will chop at him. He's gained some weight to be better against the run, which might have taken away just a little of his explosive ability.

Carl Bradford is the other guy to watch and he's more of a speed/edge rusher from a hybrid position. Arizona State bases its defense out of the 3-3-5 and they'll move Bradford around, sometimes he'll put his hand down. He's one of the strongest guys on the team and really does a lot in the blitz-heavy defense. Teams have really max-protected a lot against Arizona State.

One change from last year's defense was at linebacker where they took Chris Young and moved him from the spur position, which is another blitzing heavy spot and sort of a safety/linebacker role, and shifted him inside because he's a better tackler and they needed to get better against the run. That's moved Anthony Jones into the spur position and that spot isn't getting to the quarterback as much now.

In the secondary it's a boundary/field scheme. Cornerback Osahon Irabor has the most starts of any Pac-12 player. Arizona State does blitz the boundary corner a lot and they'll also leave the cornerbacks in man-to-man coverage. If teams can identify that, they'll have one-on-one matchups. One thing this year is they'll sometimes show their blitzes a little too early and teams have been able to counterattack that. They've played some good offensive fronts this year in Wisconsin and Stanford, so the tackles for loss haven't been there as much as in the past.

II: Do you see this as a big game for Arizona State? They have a realistic chance to win the Pac-12 South and this weekend doesn't impact that at all.

CK: It's definitely a big game. Graham said on Monday that the goal is to win the conference championship, so maybe it's not as big as USC, UCLA or Arizona. This game probably goes into the next tier. But it's important from a recruiting standpoint because it's a high visibility game. Graham is from the Dallas area and he's a Cowboys fan.

They want this game because it's a big stage against a big opponent with a lot of eyes on the game. That elevates you as a program, probably more after the USC game and Lane Kiffin getting fired. Graham is really big on the media covering the program as much as possible, so this sort of puts everything in a positive light.

Graham has the team break huddles on "national champions" and when they won eight games last year he came out and said it wasn't a good season. He's said this is the most talented team he's ever coached and he expects championships. Arizona State feels going into this game that they'll be competitive and can win the game or should win the game.

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