Following the final workout of the summer last week, Arizona State guard Sam Jones swung a sledge hammer and crushed a rock in front of his teammates.

It's an annual tradition at ASU, putting an end to what the Sun Devils hope is the first step toward a great season.

"We did it every day of the summer," Jones, who is from ThunderRidge High School, said to his teammates. "You can look at everybody's eyes and know you put 100 percent in the bank every single day. Check the box, baby. Summer's behind us."

This month, BuffZone.com is previewing each of Colorado's opponents, with this installment focusing on the Sun Devils, who host the Buffaloes on Nov. 4 and hope that a strong summer produces better results than last year.

ASU (5-7, 2-7 Pac-12 in 2016), which posted back-to-back 10-win seasons in 2013 and 2014, slipped to fifth place in the Pac-12 South last year and missed out on a bowl game for the first time since 2009.

Jones and his teammates might need a bounce-back season if head coach Todd Graham is to return in 2018. After a strong start to his ASU tenure (28-12 through the first three years), Graham's had back-to-back losing seasons.

To get back on the winning track, the Sun Devils need to settle on a quarterback and fix a defense that was dismal in 2016.

At quarterback, the Sun Devils return starter Manny Wilkins, who certainly had his moments last season. He's got the ability to make plays as a passer and as a runner.


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ASU also has Blake Barnett, a transfer who opened last season as the starter at Alabama before being benched and electing to leave the team.

Graham said this week that Wilkins will open preseason camp — which begins Tuesday — as the starter, but that there is "big-time competition" for the job.

Whoever starts at quarterback will have running backs Demario Richard and Kalen Ballage and receiver N'Keal Harry to work with, and that could make the Sun Devils competitive on offense.

Former Baylor defensive coordinator Phil Bennett was hired in the offseason to fix the defense, which allowed 39.8 points per game a year ago and eight times gave up 40 points or more.

Bennett has been a coordinator now at nine Power 5 conference schools and was the head coach at SMU from 2002-07.

"Todd has confidence in me," Bennett told AZCentral.com in April. "I've done it. I don't think there's many people out there, if anybody, that's called more defenses than I have. I'm not saying I know it all because every day you learn. But he has confidence in what I can bring."

While the Sun Devils need significantly better play on defense, they do feature some of the best players in the conference.

Koron Crump (nine sacks) is one of the top pass rushers in the Pac-12. He and defensive end JoJo Wicker were second-team all-conference selections a year ago. Inside linebacker D.J. Calhoun is also one of the best in the Pac-12.

The schedule isn't easy, but after a strong offseason, Jones and the Sun Devils are eager to make up for a disappointing 2016.

CU opponent preview: Arizona State Sun Devils

Date with CU: Nov. 4 at Sun Devil Stadium in Tempe, Ariz., time TBA

Head coach: Todd Graham, 6th season (39-26; 88-55 career)

Series: ASU leads 7-1

Sun Devils in 2016: 5-7, 2-7 in Pac-12

Returning starters: 14 — 7 on offense, 7 on defense

Offensive players to watch: RB Kalen Ballage, Sr. (126 att., 536 yards, 14 TD; 44 catches, 469 yards, 1 TD); QB Blake Barnett, So. (11-for-19, 219 yards, 2 TD, 0 INT last year at Alabama); WR N'Keal Harry, So. (58 catches, 659 yards, 5 TD); WR Jalen Harvey, Jr. (21 att., 330 yards); LG Sam Jones, Jr. (started seven games last year); RB Demario Richard, Sr. (155 att., 593 yards, 3 TD; 17 catches, 136 yards); QB Manny Wilkins, Jr. (197-of-311, 2,329 yards, 12 TD, 9 INT; rushing: 128 att., 246 yards, 5 TD)

Defensive players to watch: SS Marcus Ball, Sr. (64 tackles, 1 INT); LB D.J. Calhoun, Sr. (77 tackles, 11.5 TFL, 4.5 sacks); OLB Koron Crump, Sr. (37 tackles, 10.5 TFL, 9 sacks, 1 INT, 3 fumble recoveries); CB Kareem Orr, Jr. (53 tackles, 5 PBU); FS Armand Perry, Jr. (59 tackles, 3 TFL); DT Tashon Smallwood, Sr. (28 tackles, 9 TFL, 2.5 sacks); DE JoJo Wicker, Jr. (39 tackles, 11 TFL, 2.5 sacks).

Notable: ASU started 4-0 last year, and then beat UCLA to move to 5-1 before a six-game losing streak to close the season. .. CU finally got its first win ever against the Sun Devils last year, 40-16, in Boulder. ... The Buffs are 0-4 all-time in Tempe, with all four losses by 19 points or more. ... ASU's defense registered just 28 sacks last year, by far the lowest total in Graham's five seasons. The Sun Devils have had 39 or more sacks in every other year with Graham. ... Ballage scored eight touchdowns in a 68-55 win against Texas Tech in Week 2, but had just six touchdowns the rest of the season. ... ASU allowed 357.4 passing yards per game last year - the highest total in the country, and 82 more yards per game than any other team in the conference. ... The Sun Devils moved into a brand new 118,669-square foot football facility earlier this week.

Contact staff writer Brian Howell at howellb@prairiemountainmedia.com or twitter.com/BrianHowell33.