Foundation can ensure continued success

There is no doubt that winning cures all and a 10-4 record last season benefited Arizona State in recruiting as well as presenting the program overall in an extremely positive light. Yet, head coach Todd Graham feels that team's culture change is just as much responsible for the program's resurgence and can compensate for perceived loss of talent, especially on defense, from the 2013 season.

"We laid a great foundation," Graham said in a media session Tuesday morning. "When we came here we were 90th something on defense, putting up some pretty good yards offensively but not our style in terms of physically running the football. At the end of two years in conference play we actually had the number one total defense and number one scoring offense. This is our third year and we should be better. This should be our best year on the football field.

"Obviously we want to get more physical when we are running the ball and with recruiting, and adding (transfer) Christian Westerman, we feel that we are going to be better up front. Offensively we will be better. Even though we lost Marion Grice and Chris Coyle, we laid a foundation that we play defense here and we score points because we play offense with a defensive mentality."

The dramatic change in team culture ever since Graham arrived in Tempe in December of 2011 has been well documented. While ASU's head coach knows that he has delivered on a lot of the commitments he stated when first hired, he knows that without a successful record his words and vision would ring hollow.

And this is exactly how Graham wants it to be.

"It doesn't matter what I say," Graham admitted, "If we don't win the conference championship, and that's what I want the fans to expect. That's what I love about this, the competition part of this. Yes, we graduated a lot of good players and every year we will have guys go to the (NFL) combine and be successful and what you find out is that we did a pretty good job coaching and developing our players.

"It doesn't matter what I say to you (the media). It matters what I say to the players. I'm giving them the state of the union. The expectation is that we are going to be better. Two years ago Will Sutton wasn't all-conference. Carl Bradford didn't even play. We are not closing the fort because players graduated. I'm not devaluing the guys that are no longer here, but it's time to put out that torch out and not focus on the negative."

Winning ten games and the Pac-12 South, was according to Graham "good, but not a great season." This is why the team's motto this year is "Unfinished Business" which is winning the Pac-12 championship.

"This program put up 62 points on USC," Graham said. "The win at UCLA was huge and I can remember sitting there with the fans and how exciting it was to clinch the Pac-12 South. But this isn't about talent. We changed who we are from the core and established core values for our program. That is why we will be successful.

"There is great power is what you believe right here (points to his heart). We laid a great foundation and we will win. We are hungry and determined to finish the business of winning the Pac-12 championship. I'm focused on the things I have to get better at, special teams being one of them but we can't lose focus on other areas."

The 2014 recruiting class which was ranked 17th nationally and 3rd in the Pac-12 bit=y is arguably the best group of newcomers the program has added in the Internet era. Graham said that as a head coach this is the best class he has signed in terms of indentifying the needs of the team and enhancing strengths such as speed and explosiveness.

"We are going to be more explosive offensively and we will be better defensively," Graham commented. "A lot of the guys coming in will be in our two-deep. Some of the best recruiting decisions we make are the ones we don't make. We could have gotten two, three guys but we could only sign 26. Last year's class was an improvement (over the 2012 class) but not the caliber of being a Pac-12 champion team. This last year (2014 class) I think we did that and we want to go higher than that obviously.

"We don't want to win the popularity vote and not win on the football field. It's getting the right guys in the right situation. Numbers dictate that too. What I learn is that you reap what you sow. It's not as difficult to flip something as it is to maintain something that is up here. The hard part starts now. Anything less than double digit wins…it doesn't matter what you say and that is a good thing. That is where I want to be."

After landing just three in-state players in a 2014 class that was the deepest ever in the state's history, Graham noted that this result wasn't acceptable.

"We have long range plans, and short range plans and it won't be a quick fix," Graham said of in-state recruiting. "So much of our business in recruiting is perception. There is a method behind everything I say. In this Valley, these coaches and these players know who we are. We have been concise. We had a great year in California, but we know we have to win the valley, the state.

"We have a great product to offer. We have a 2.84 team GPA. 57 of our 110 players are 3.0 or higher. You walk down the halls here and this is a place where champions reside. We are going to win because we are wining everyday with how we treat people. We are educating young people and building a winner. I know that it (in-state recruiting) will improve. Is it improving at the rate that we want? No it's not. When did I want to knock it out of the park with local recruiting? Last year. I'm not going to be satisfied until we get there. But on the same hand I'm looking for the best and the brightest and the best character that fits us and what our needs are."

Graham added that he believes that every year he can sign the best junior college wide receiver in the nation because of the program's assets. In general, Graham asserted that every year ASU can sign 4-6 of the best overall junior college players.

"I like those (junior college) guys, they are hungry," Graham explained. "Jaelen Strong – he is entitled to nothing. Those kids who take the path less traveled – I like those kids. But they have the same character values as the kids we recruit out of high school.

"Our strength is not getting the players here, but developing them and coaching them. We have had four freshmen All-Americans. When I say you have a chance to play as a freshman, you have a chance to play as a freshman. One of the most underestimated things in recruiting are your (current) players. They are your best recruiters. I tell our players ‘be honest with them' and also ‘if you don't think this guy fits here tell me.' The players appreciate that and take pride in that."

Graham's plethora of media appearances were well documented during his first few months on the job, and the Sun Devil head coach vowed to go back to that approach in the upcoming months.

"I'm going to go back out this spring and we want to hit every Rotary Club," Graham said. "We are developing a relationship with Little League football teams to bring those kids on campus. When you see those 6th and 7th graders hanging over the rail wanting to touch your hand, when those kids get into high school I do think we will reap the benefits of our work."

Speaking of recruiting, the school announced today the hiring of Patrick Suddes, former Director of Player Personnel at the University of Texas, to ASU's the Assistant Athletics Director for Recruiting. Suddes who worked under some of the best coaches in college football in Mack Brown and Nick Saban, will have a wide array of duties aside from recruiting according to Graham.

"He will be our Director of Personnel, not just new personnel," Graham explained. "Also existing personnel. He is the VP of personnel. How can we recruit for offensive line if we don't know exactly where we are at and exactly where we want to go? He will oversee all personnel and we want to create the model for what he does. Is he in charge of recruiting? Yes. But we are taking it to another level. He is going to create the model for Arizona State and make sure we have the best personnel not only players, but everyone that works for us.

"He has vast experience. He also worked with Nick at the Miami Dolphins and also at Alabama, as well as Texas. It was a battle to get him. We had to beat an SEC school to get him here which wasn't easy. Everything is based on relationships and relationships is recruiting. The key is to get the right player and develop them. So he will be involved with our strength staff, our training staff…Patrick is a big big hire and I can't emphasis that enough."

Graham took full responsibility for the special teams' performance, an area that was a clear Achilles heel for the Sun Devils in 2013. He admitted that he erred in not letting true freshman punter, Matt Haack, play through his mistakes instead of replacing him as a starter.

The hiring of Keith Patterson as Co-Defensive Coordinator will allow a strong defensive minded coach such as Graham to be less involved than he was the last couple of seasons on that side of the ball, as well as have Patterson assist in other areas.

"Keith is the best linebackers coach in the country," Graham remarked. "He will also coach kickoff coverage and be our cover teams coach. I will be very involved in that too and I wasn't as involved as I needed to be. It's nice when you have people that you know and Keith and I have had a relationship for a long long time. I'm excited about that."

When asked about players who didn't play all that much last year, and that he expected to make an impact this season Graham didn't hesitate to mention one name immediately: "Antonio Longino," Graham said of the junior college WILL linebacker. "Very excited. He's a guy that is going to step up in a big way. I think Marcus Hardison will have a breakout year. I think Damarious Randall is only scratching the surface.

"Another guy is Chans Cox. This guy is going to be a great player for us. He's not going to be a tight end. He's going to be a great defensive end/devil position for us. Is he Carl Bradford? No he's not. He's a different style and we will adapt to that style. He had some injuries, but he's 6-4 255 lbs. and can run. He's a 4.0 student and is off the charts in character. I'm excited about the Latu brothers.

"Mo Latu – if we can get him down to 335 lbs…he's at 385 lbs. and at early morning workouts has a smile on his face, feeling good. If he was at 335 lbs. he would be the best in the league. We have to get that done and it can be done.

"Stephon McCray on the offensive line is a tough dude. Evan Goodman is poised to have a breakout year. He is so physically talented and it's just been the process of learning the system. Nick Kelly…We are only scratching the surface on De'Marieya Nelson. He's already a good player but D.J. is going to do very well."

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