A Conversation with Bo Graham

Senior D.J. Foster is transitioning to wide receiver full time in the spring but Arizona State running backs coach Bo Graham certainly has some impressive horses left in the stable at the position group moving forward. We spoke with him about that recently.

Chris Karpman: Assess for me real quick how happy you were with your group or how your group did last season?

Bo Graham: I thought we did pretty good, we produced from what we were asked to do, you know, catching the ball, running the ball, all those things I thought we did well. Our two freshmen (Demario Richard and Kalen Ballage) early in the year naturally made some mistakes. But they progressed and both of those guys got better, they were thrown a little in the fire but what they were able to accomplish, finishing at the bowl game both get MVP's, and experiencing the success that they experienced, that'll help us in the future. I think D.J. (Foster) did a great job for us, always has. We did a great job this year of taking care of the football, we only lost one fumble. Deantre (Lewis), started strong had some up and downs but I thought he had his best season coming back. Then Kyle (Middlebrooks) did some good things special teams wise and was always a heck of a worker in practice. You know all six of those guys travelled, all six of those guys started on special teams, multiple special teams, we were an unselfish group and helped the team in any way we could. I was pleased overall with how much we were able to do.

Karpman: In terms of where you want your position group to be, obviously you have the biggest expectations possible, you wanna be phenomenal but can you talk to me about the evolution of the development of your guys and your group as you saw them over a multi year period and how you feel about things moving forward?

Graham: We've evolved this position to where it's attractive to a lot of guys, when you sit down and look at the conference, you look at this year how much more other teams were doing similar to what we've been doing the past couple years. You see a lot of copy-catting going on, a lot of things we have starred in, so from a system standpoint this offense is very attractive that's why we've been able to attract these guys here and do what they're doing.

Moving forward, obviously everyone knows D.J's moving out (to receiver), but I think big picture you're trying to put your best 11 on the field, when you add a guy like Gump (De'Chavon Hayes). You put a spring football under Demario's and Kalen's belt, now you can go with several line ups, I mean the versatility is there.

From a coaching standpoint, it's going to be the most challenging here for me because I don't have as much experience in the room. My two freshmen are going to have to step up and be the leaders and Gump's a [junior college] guy, he's older, but he's going to be learning, he's going to be learning a lot. So I gotta get them ready, I think if these guys know what they're doing and have a great belief in what we're asking them to do, then we're gonna be highly successful because we're going to be dangerous. We're going to be a dangerous group. I'm happy with the way we've progressed, I love our offense, we don't limit ourselves, we run just about every run play in the book and we line up all over the field and get the ball to our guys a lot of different ways. It's exciting, it's awesome, I think other people recognize it.

Karpman: How hard is it, when you touched on about not having veteran players teach other guys as much in the context of how much you ask of your guys from a mental standpoint?

Graham: There's a lot to be said about players coaching players, and every time I'm out there coaching a guy that's repping, you know last year I had a Deantre or D.J. talking to a Demario or Kalen, coaching them up about the last play. You lose that, and it's on you a lot more, you've gotta do a lot more, I've gotta find out with the new guys, I hadn't had a lot of time with Demario and Kalen about how do you like to learn? Kalen is so much different then Demario, Gump is different then all three of them.

Karpman: Some guys if you talk to them thats a way (they learn), others it's if you have to show them or... Different learning styles.

Graham: Right, right, I think Gump is a guy that if he's sees it on film, he's a film guy, if he sees it on film. Then Kalen is a board guy, it all makes sense to him if it's written down and it can write it down on a paper. You know, they all learn different and you gotta cater to that. In this day and age if you can put it on an iPad or put it on a phone or voice over where it's just them and they can actually focus on that without other distractions, because there are a lot of distractions these days. They're all committed students of the game, they're all ears when it comes to football, it's just customizing the plan for each one of them. Demario, Kalen are a little further along, and Gump is starting on chapter one, we just gotta continue to bring them all along.

Karpman: You were very consistent early on that Demario is going to be the guy that surprises people, I know I thought he was underrated especially since he's basically a year young. Then he got a late start to camp because he had things to take care of, and then just kept exploding on to the scene, how exciting was that to see and what did you think about his freshman year?

Graham: I was really proud of Demario, he's a guy that's very competitive so he gets frustrated easily, but one thing about him, and I'll coach any guy that's like this, he never makes the same mistake twice. He learns from his mistakes and that's why once we got to that Washington week, you kind of saw him take over, because he stopped thinking and it became second nature to him, now he was able to be instinctive. When Demario gets one on one in a pass protecting or blocking, go to the Arizona game and watch him crack block the safety, he has a lot of things, you know. It's funny, I joke around with Del (wide receivers coach DelVaughn Alexander) because they spend half an hour over there every day blocking, and I just say, 'Hey Demario go block that guy' and he just naturally has a lot of things that you can't coach. You can't coach. So from a protection standpoint, if he knows who he's working to, good luck getting past him because the hardest thing having athletic guys like D.J., like Gump, like Deantre, initially they're good but after collision just getting their hips turned, being able to just keep providing body presence after contact. Demario doesn't move; is just a thump, you know once that happens it's done, he's not going to be moved backwards.

Karpman: Right and if you don't wrap him (as a runner) you're...

Graham: Yeah, if you don't get a good clean move and he's athletic enough, he understands. He's very coachable, and if something works for him he's gonna use it. He's all around, the most talented guy that I've been around. Now is D.J. better at running certain routes, yeah, but all around being able to run routes, being able to pass protect, being able to run them over...

Karpman: At his age?

Graham: Yeah, especially 17 years old and not fumble once, besides a power read mesh at New Mexico, it was just a bad reaction, it had nothing to do with him carrying the ball, but never was the ball ever even in jeopardy. He's such a strong kid, that his ball security skills are ridiculous, he's just naturally strong. I was really really proud of him, I knew he had the potential but it was just learning it and at first he hit that wall and he'd get frustrated. In camp he was seing red, and there were days that I'd thought we had lost him. But he hung in there and I think those older guys kept encouraging him and kept him learning. That's one thing those older guys did do, is they were unselfish, then Demario and the young guys took over but in the end, the group always worked well together. With everyone playing on special teams and everybody, just an extremely unselfish group. So I'm excited about him, Kalen, Kalen's a guy that isn't as far along, isn't as polished.

Karpman: I thought his bowl practices and the bowl game were a big step for him it seemed like.

Graham: Yes, when you're dealing with young raw guys the bowl practices, the spring that's what they didn't get. What do you get? Three, two and a half weeks of live practice, maybe what, we played so early this year it was like two weeks of practice and then we were game prep. So being able to get them out here and just teach the fundamentals, he's just got to polish up somethings. But if guys like Demario just don't show up, he'd see more every now and then, we'll get him there though. He's so explosive, he's such a natural athlete that in the pass just give him the ball and he'll go score. In High School he wasn't put a lot in those situations...

Karpman: Demario is such a natural it seems and while Kalen is a great athlete, maybe not quite as natural a back. He seems to want to spill the ball a bit much or maybe his flexibility and core strength aren't what they will be, but that maybe just goes to show what he's capable of given that he's already productive without even fully developing those things. Is that a fair way of putting it?

Graham: I think you're right on. I think a lot of that has to do with physically. I know he looks really strong but there are some deficiencies: core strength, getting in there squatting and cleaning, Demario is well ahead of him in those regards. And he does have some bad habits but nothing he does you can't coach. He's a big guy, he's going to take some shots. Demario is so quick that even at the point of collision he's not getting hit hard. Kalen has a lot of work to do catching the ball and some thing but it's just harder because he's tall and so long. But when he breaks, he's really fast for his size. You're talking a guy who ran a 10.5 in high school in the 100.

We are able to watch them running now and him and Gump, it's impressive. Those guys can roll. He needs all he can get of spring football and every day in the weight room. But Demario and Kalen get a long and yet are very competitive with one another. So at first Demario was doing it and then Kalen was coming on. Now Kalen is hungry. Having both those guys side by side, I love it. I think Kalen is hungry and not that Demario is not. He's never going to be satisfied. I just like the mentality of our group. Gump is competitive and special athletically too. Gump is a lot like D.J., so now you move D.J. out, you've got Gump in that slot role, you can move guys around and have all this versatility. And Gump surprised me in bowl practices because even though he is smaller he has some pop and can run inside the box. Usually the fast guys don't collision a lot but he's from up in the Northeast and he's tough and he'll collision you. He's tough. He doesn't get his hips turned as much as some of the other guys. He's about 185, trying to get to 190, looks great, I think that year was really big for him. D.J. moving out, him moving in, a year of development, it was great for him and us, and he can do it all. He might be pretty special.

T Karpman: To get all your best athletes on the field it just kind of makes sense to make D.J. a receiver and for him it shows more diversity in his game projecting beyond college

Graham: You and I talked about this a lot last year, with all the talent I have in my room is how you get the ball to everyone. We play two positions (at the running back group) but if you move D.J. out and take a receiver spot, now you have three spots. A lot of people ask me about D.J., I think it's great for him and our team because he's mastered the backfield. If I don't use him in the backfield in five months I can put him there and know he's going to be great. What he's not as proficient at is the wide receiver spot and now he's going to be and that helps him to the next level and helps our football team next year. He can always move back but being there will help him polish his game

Karpman: What were the conversations like leading up to his decision to come back to school another year?

Graham: D.J. is a different type of guy. He loves this place and the program and being here locally. It means a lot to him. He's got relationships on our team a lot stronger than normal. He has had a lot of respect for the older guys. We didn't talk about it until he season is over and didn't want to talk about it until then and after a few days after the season ended, he talked to him family and then came in and talked to us, I think his his draft grade and what was said encouraged him to come back and I think running out of that tunnel really means something to D.J., a lot more with his ties locally than some of the other guys. His dad coming to practice every day, the relationships in the community. We have a real good relationship and he came in here and vented and I said write it down, the pros and cons, talk with your family and it's all up to you. When you're living with Mike Bercovici, Jordan Simone and Ellis Jefferson, we had three pretty recruiters working him every day. I call him the best recruit we got in this class and I think he knows it can be a very special year and he didn't want to give that up.


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