7:04 a.m.: Todd Graham enters the Carson Center’s third floor Dutson Theater which serves as the team meeting room as well as the venue in which ASU holds athletics press conferences. Every member of the football program is in attendance, as well as every assistant coach and the entire strength staff, a complete team that fills more than three-quarters of the seats in the room. This isn't atypical. ASU players are not only awake but prepared for their first football meeting of the day at 7 a.m. every day they practice, all season. The only thing atypical about this morning is that in the very back sit eight or so media members, including myself, who have been invited to observe this day’s pre-practice meetings.
Everyone is immediately silent and sitting up straight in their chairs, with pads and pens ready to take notes. They’ve been waiting in their seats beginning promptly at 7:00, as they do every morning the Sun Devils have a scheduled practice. Graham often talks for as short as five minutes and has occasionally talked for more than a half hour. It all depends on what he believes the team needs on a particular day, and what is on his mind as well as the program’s agenda.
Elite. Dominant. Playmakers. That’s the theme not only of this day but of the entire camp for ASU according to Graham. He’s written it on the white board at the front of the room.
“'Elite' is how we think,” Graham says, making clear his belief that being a team is about personal sacrifice of oneself. “Our eyes should be burning out of our head ready to serve our teammates.”
Graham relays to the silent group a relationship he’s carried on, mostly via text, with a Navy Seal squad leader who is currently overseas. “Tell the boys how proud we are of them,” Graham says the Seal tells him to share with the team.
The Seal, according to Graham, relays how he’s older now and has a harder time doing things from a physical or mental standpoint than earlier in his career and that sometimes led to an imperfect attitude. But then he was in the gym one morning and saw a fellow Seal who had his legs blown off in combat and was nevertheless in a good mood with a gracious spirit and it reminded him that his issues were trivial in comparison and yet that man appeared to have a great frame of mind and it changed his own disposition. There’s no physical toughness without mental toughness,” Graham says.
“'Dominant' [means] do your job better than anyone in the country,” Graham says. It also means do it without any penalties or any trash talking, or as Graham calls it, “spewing filth.”
“We don’t get 15 yard penalties,” Graham says, making clear that any cursing or personal fouls will lead to an unpleasant visit with him. “It’s easy to have good character when things are going well. Your real character is how you handle it when things are hard."
Graham, who speaks evenly through the meeting and appears calm and on the surface but simmering with energy underneath, makes clear that coaches are going to stress players to galvanize them and create poise under fire. “If a fat 50 year old rattles your cage, you aren’t ready,” he says.
'Playmakers' isn’t just about catching a long touchdown or making a big sack. It’s about having presence of mind at all times on the field and doing the little things Graham says. He references a sack strip that JoJo Wicker had in practice the previous day, and Jalen Harvey’s presence of mind to chase the play down from behind and get the ball back.
7:16 a.m.: Graham ends the meeting but all players who participate on special teams remain the room. Others break out to their individual position rooms. Reporters stay and observe the special teams meeting.
First-year special teams coach Shawn Slocum has a cache of slides in a power point presentation that covers in extremely detail every detail of each special teams discipline and blends in images of his Green Bay Packers teams — where Slocum was Special Teams Coordinator though last season — to provide visual clarity to what he’s looking for in every respect.
Prior to Slocum's hiring ASU spent this short pre-practice meeting going over all special teams disciplines but Slocum felt it was too much for players to absorb so he’s tended to limit the meetings to one or two of the disciplines in any given day. Today he’s very focused on kickoff coverage and opens with the statement that this will be “the first play of ever game, I guarantee you,” and that it’s an opportunity “to established who we are.”
Slocum wants to make sure players understand that they are to practice this discipline at full speed. Practice speed is to be full speed/game speed to replicate the real environment.
“The closer you get (to contact), the faster you run,” Slocum says. He also talks about “predictable spacing” between players on the coverage unit and the difference between punt coverage (in which spacing is contested) and kickoff coverage in which it is uncontested.
Slocum articulates the phases of kickoff coverage with precision. They are as follows: 1. Stance. 2. Start. 3. Velocity. 4. Landmark 5. Tackle. He wants perfection in each phase and a replicated process that never deviates. It starts with how players are aligned in the huddle in the same location every time, corresponding with their number/lane.
Players are to take a 2-point stance on the 30 yard line and as soon as the kicker crosses their vision, begin sprinting (there are some additional strategic things we won’t get into in order to protect ASU’s strategy) with a goal of having the kickoff be at least four seconds of hangtime and every player on the coverage unit being inside the 30-yard line when the ball is fielded.
Slocum wants the opponent to start every time inside the 20 yard line when the ball isn’t a touchback, and said his team accomplished this in the playoff game against Seattle in January of this year.
A special emphasis is made on landmark identification for every player on the unit, with the frontside No. 4 and No. 5 players having the toughest jobs because of a lack of markings on the field between the hash mark and the numbers to rely on. This is where is the greatest opportunity for players to be out of their lane and great attention to detail has to be present here according to Slocum.
Open field tackling on kickoff coverage is something Slocum wants players to aggressively attack while at the same time doing so in a very functional way. He describes the cage tackle and leverage based shoulder tackle as well as the ankle wrap and roll tackle, all of which are acceptable on kickoff coverage.
“Go ahead and take your shot,” Slocum says, though he's more professionally conversational than impassioned through the meeting. “Have some emotion (running) down the field. This is fun.”
The special teams meeting moves on to punt cover, in which Slocum has an extended dialogue about a identifying and handling an opponent that creeps a seventh man into the box before the snap, which is something they’ll work on later in the session.
7:36 a.m.: After exactly 20 minutes, the special teams meeting ends. Slocum has touched on only a fraction of the slides he has in his presentation. Many he's passed over so as to not mentally tax the players in the room. The amount of information can be overwhelming, but he’s done a good job of narrowing the scope of focus so that what the team works on that day shouldn’t provide a mental challenge. The assumption is, every day of camp is like this. Instal and learn a little more.
7:37 a.m.: A short 30 second walk later I’m in the offensive meeting room, which doubles as the quarterbacks meeting room and recruiting War Room for ASU. We join the meeting already in progress because quarterbacks were not in the special teams meeting. They’ve already been working on ASU offensive installation for 20 minutes.
A standing Mike Norvell speaks in his typical rapid fire delivery to the four quarterbacks in the room seated at the end of a big conference table, senior Mike Bercovici, redshirt freshman Manny Wilkins and true freshmen Bryce Perkins and Brady White. There’s a determined pace about everything Norvell does. He’s in a hurry, always trying to maximize the day. He’s not going to slow things down for the two true freshmen in the room.
A lot of the concepts installed today are so-called packaged plays. Norvell doesn’t refer to them this way, but these are run pass triple option concepts. Much of the focus is on identifying the defensive player ASU refers to as the “adjustor,” which is the player who ostensibly determines what the right decision is by the ASU quarterback.
If ASU’s quarterback does his job properly, the “adjustor” can’t win, even if he handles his assignment properly. By design, there’s always going to be a proper decision by the quarterback that should result in a positive play if others also do their jobs properly. Sometimes this will be clear-cut and other times it will be more difficult to determine, but there’s always a right decision, or one that is most right.
The work here is determining who the adjustor — usually the playside defensive end or linebacker — is and what the quarterback has to know within each concept related to how the adjustor reacts. You can be sure all of ASU's quarterbacks, including the freshmen, can also identify the MIKE linebacker most of the time if not on every clip shown in the session.
The theme of practice on this day — every day of camp there’s something ASU is focused on working on — is third downs. A lot of the talk is about what types of concepts are good for third down and why.
Norvell likes to pepper his players with questions throughout the meeting. Bercovici, who only responds to Norvell with “yes, sir” unless he has a question, understandably gets much tougher questions lobbed his way than others in the room. He’s dramatically more advanced than the others in the room, and asks questions that on a couple of occasions results in Norvell thinking about the game in a very evolved way. You can tell Bercovici is challenging an advanced theory. Norvell always has the right response, and though these two aren’t yet equals, but they can have a conversation on a higher plane than the others.
Wilkins gets asked tougher questions than White or Wilkins, and does reasonably well, though at one point he makes a mistake he shouldn’t and has to do push ups in the middle of the room. The most impressive part of the meeting, aside from Bercovici’s apparently fluency of the scheme, is how well Perkins does for being new to the room. Though Norvell’s questions to he and White are more rudimentary, Perkins passes the tests with flying colors and doesn’t appear behind White in terms of overall digestion of what’s being installed. It’s clear that Perkins has spent quite a bit of time learning the game prior to arriving at ASU, and also has a good mind for the classroom work. A lot of freshmen quarterbacks would be lost.
The quarterbacks are all taking notes, Bercovici less than the others because he’s sat through these same installs numerous times. He’s taking some time reinforcing what Norvell is saying to the players in short, abbreviated comments in a low tone while Norvell continues on. When players have a question, they raise their hands, the one that isn’t at the same time taking notes.
Given that the theme is third downs — which means blitzing — there’s a lot of discussion about hot routes and identifying when and how quarterbacks should know they have to get the ball out hot, and when receivers should know they’re hot.
There’s also talk about option routes based on how defenses react, and then they get into snag concepts, which are three routes intersecting on one side of the field.
Norvell finishes the meeting by saying one thing he doesn’t tolerate is a quarterback taking a negative play (sack) on sprint outs or naked boots because the opportunity to throw the ball away will always be there. He lets the quarterbacks know he’s going to get upset if they take a sack on these plays. Later in practice, White does just this and feels the wrath from Norvell.
8:21 a.m.: The horn sounds announcing meetings are over and players are to get to the trams that take players from the Carson Center across Rural Road to the Dickey Dome for practice.
8:22 a.m.: “Let’s have our best day,” Norvell says. “Set the tempo today.”