Good isn't good enough for Todd Graham.
Following the second straight Arizona State spring practice, Graham said he wants to see his program take the next step, and going from 10 wins to an ultimate goal of 15 wins and a national championship is a lot tougher than what they've already accomplished and will require an even better approach to preparation.
"Today was the first day we practiced like last year," Graham said after Saturday's session. "It's just like I told them, everybody is excited about back to back 10 win seasons, I'm disappointed in 10 win seasons back to back because we underachieved, we should have reached a higher potential.
"That (practice is) good enough to win 10 games. To us that is a bad practice now. We're trying to move that standard up and part of it is them trying to understand that mentality about what they're doing. One of the most impressive things so far has been (senior quarterback Mike) Bercovici's leadership and how he's commanding the troops and what he's been doing is very, very impressive. Four practices into it, I think three of them for the most part no doubt in my mind we're a better football team than we were last year. We've still got a lot of work to be able to get to what our goals and aspirations are and that's to win them all."
A big part of the process of going from good to great, which is Graham's stated goal, is to have players with impeccable body language who handle adversity without any drop off in attitude or productivity. That's one of the ways Graham defines leadership, and there are more players coaching and pressing teammates for improvement than in the past.
"Last year I would tell you we had probably seven or eight guys guys I thought were really leaders, this year we're upwards in the 20s," Graham said. "We're challenging (them). We've got to get into the 30s and 40s. Every guy that takes the field in any capacity needs to be a guy bringing in at a national championship level every day on the field, off the field, in the classroom, in the community."
ASU returns as many as nine defensive starters but must fill the void left by the departure of field safety Damarious Randall, who led the Sun Devils last year with 106 tackles, 12 passes defended, nine pass break ups and three interceptions.
Randall's shoes won't be easy to fill as indicated by how he's rising up the NFL Draft boards in recent weeks, but leading candidate, sophomore James Johnson, has shown quite a bit of potential.
Johnson was pressed into action last year due to some injury issues at safety and had 25 tackles, including three for loss and one sack.
"I feel comfortable out there running with the ones but on the same hand I'm nowhere near accomplished as far as what I want to accomplish here. I'd be doing my team a disservice if I did anything other than come out here and work as hard as I can every day, day by day, to try to get better," Johnson said.
Through the first week of spring ball, Johnson's position coach said he's pleased with how his new starting field safety has looked.
"He's doing really good, getting better, running the show, very smart," ASU secondary coach Chris Ball said of Johnson. "He looks really good out there."
According to Johnson, this group is even tighter than last year's team and having so many returning starters has elevated the group's overall play.
"It's definitely a lot of cohesion within the group," Johnson said. "These are the guys we hang out with outside of football. These are the guys we eat with, hang out with on the weekend. That's real different, as far as this year we're a lot tighter. Coach Ball does a nice job of rallying us together so I think it's paid dividends on the field."
Ball, too, said he can tell a difference this spring from last year and is of the opinion it's going to help the defense in 2015.
"It's really nice having more experience," Ball said. "They are out there flying around, they know what to do, the players are running the practice which is what you always want. We're farther ahead than we were this time last year for sure."
Means on the rise
Fellow senior cornerback Solomon Means is drawing no such conclusions. In fact, Means has already pressed his way into first-team reps ahead of Brown at the field side cornerback position in the last two practices.
"I just want to do my 1/11, that's basically it, just do my best for the team," Means said. "It was mainly in the weight room where I had to put in the time. I gained 12 pounds, mainly just working out with my brothers to try to get as ready as I could be for spring ball and then do my best out here."
Means always embraced being physical at the line of scrimmage, but now he's able to do so more effectively
"Got stronger in the off-season, is doing everything right," Ball said. "He's been doing a great job."
"Nick has great hands," Graham said. "He's a big power, bruising back that can play fullback for us as well as be a short yardage, goal line, or be a beat 'em up power guy. Obviously a guy that takes care of the ball really well, a big physical guy. I see him being in the equation, which is exciting."
Graham said Ralston would be third-team linebacker but may be able to help ASU on offense this year and can be a special teams contributor.