For 19 Arizona State seniors, Saturday’s 89th installment of the Territorial Cup will mark the last time in their collegiate careers they will suit up and play under the lights at Sun Devil Stadium.
With only two games left in the regular season, Saturday’s home game will be the last chance for ASU’s seniors to run out of the Tillman Tunnel donning their newly revamped Adidas jerseys and play for the opportunity to stab ASU’s victory pitchfork into the ground one final time.
Last year, ASU senior quarterback Taylor Kelly broke down before Senior Day, unable to hide his emotions as tears streamed down his face after going up to hug strength and conditioning coach Shawn Griswold and ASU head coach Todd Graham on the field's south end zone.
“I can still remember Taylor Kelly's face when he came out of that tunnel last year for the last time,” Bercovici said. “It's something that you never see it looking forward, but now that it's finally here, it is pretty amazing.”
But for Bercovici and a select four other seniors – wide receiver Gary Chambers, offensive guard Vi Teofilo, nose tackle Mo Latu, and offensive lineman Devin Goodman – Saturday’s game against the Arizona Wildcats will mark more than the end of five ASU careers.
It will mark the last time players recruited by former ASU head coach Dennis Erickson will play in Tempe, Arizona. Next year onward, Graham will be playing solely with players he recruited and chose to be a part of the program.
“It's the last of the guys that were here when I got here, and really, really proud,” Graham said. “Those guys are every bit as much my guys as the guys I've recruited, I can tell you that, because I can remember sitting here and talking to them about what we were going to do and how we were going to change the culture and what kind of culture we were going to bring here. You look at those guys, they conformed and were transformed, and obviously that didn't happen overnight, but just really proud of them.”
But while this year the Sun Devils have gone through a disappointing 5-5, 3-4 season through 10 games, that group of five plus Foster, senior cornerback Lloyd Carrington, and senior offensive lineman William McGehee, can’t be forgotten as the key players who helped set the foundation for Graham’s first four years at ASU.
Foster, Carrington and McGehee were all part of Graham’s first recruiting class he signed in February 2013 after being hired in December 2012.
And with this year’s seniors acting as cornerstones in ASU’s offense and defense the last three years, the Sun Devils recorded back-to-back 10-win seasons in 2013 and 2014 for the first time since Frank Kush led the Sun Devils to four double-digit win seasons from 1970-1973.
Led by ASU offensive coordinator Mike Norvell since 2012, the Sun Devils finished No. 10 nationally in 2013 at 39.7 points per game and were ranked No. 16 nationally in scoring offense in 2014, averaging 36.9 points per game.
Since Graham and Norvell’s arrival to the desert, ASU has scored 50 or more points 13 times. Putting that in perspective, ASU only eclipsed 50 points 10 times total in the previous 10 years before the current coaching regime (2001-11).
On defense, Graham has transformed the Sun Devils as a team known for its pressure-inducing and turnover-heavy attributes on the field. This season, Graham has relied on a handful of his seniors, including Carrington, defensive lineman Demetrius Cherry, Devil backer Antonio Longino, cornerback Kweishi Brown, and safety Jordan Simone to all play leading roles.
In total, ASU will lose 10 offensive players and nine defensive players at the season’s end, 17 of whom are recruited scholarship players.
But for Bercovici, he clearly remembers the start of the Graham era in 2012 –especially the moment when Graham sat the team down and started throwing around the phrase “National Championship,” and players didn’t completely buy in until a solid year later. But when they did, he saw results.
“One of the things that sticks out in my mind is the first time Coach Graham came up and talked to us,” Bercovici said. “I was sitting back here somewhere, and just the type of energy that he brought was -- you could tell, and the funny thing about it is it hasn't changed in his fourth year here. He still has that type of -- that same tenacious attitude that he did the second he stepped foot in this team room.”
Bringing that energy to the football field, Graham has developed a culture at ASU known for its brotherhood, character and discipline.
In addition to Foster, Carrington and McGehee, Graham nabbed junior Spur Laiu Moeakiola, junior linebacker Salamo Fiso, junior offensive lineman Evan Goodman, junior linebacker Carlos Mendoza and junior offensive lineman Stephon McCray in his first ASU recruiting class in February 2012.
Graham specifically coached Carrington during their time together at Pittsburgh in 2011 and convinced Carrington to transfer to the desert in 2012. After redshirting for the 2012 season, Carrington played in all the games in 2013 and has been ASU’s starting boundary cornerback since 2014.
“It’s a bittersweet feeling, but I’m excited for the future that’s coming ahead,” Carrington said. “But the main thing really is just understanding what I take away from being here with the program and that’s learning just the fundamentals of just being a man. Being a man of great character and integrity and a worker and coming out and learning how to fight through adversity no matter what the situation is.
“Just being here the past four years I’ve been here, I can say I truly bleed maroon and gold and it’s been a great ride.”
For those players who have been at ASU for five-straight years like Chambers, Saturday’s game will be the fifth time they’ve seen Senior Day unfold, only this time they’ll finally get to be part of it.
“It’s hard to believe,” Chambers said. “I was just actually looking at pictures of last year’s seniors you know taking all the pictures with their families and their jersey framed and everything and it’s crazy to think that’s going to be me this weekend, but it’s been a good ride.”
Chambers expects his whole family, including his parents and sister and uncle, to come out from California to watch him be honored on Saturday and said, “they’re the ones who I want to be around when I get to go through it all.”
Reminiscing about all the games he’s played in since he first joined ASU as a young 18-year-old, Chambers said he’s had so many favorite memories wearing an ASU uniform that there’s too many to count, but for his teammate Vi Teofilo, the answer is easy.
“Definitely the ‘Jael Mary last year,’” Teofilo said. “I mean that was a tough game. Man, I mean everything that could have gone wrong, went wrong. At the end of the game, we came out on top, and I think it symbolizes this program and what this program’s about. We’re all about winning, but we want to win the right way and that’s what we did. We just grinded it out and just kept grinding.”
Teofilo, who has started a team-high 41 consecutive games going into Saturday, will add another start and looks to add another win to his Sun Devil career in front of his three brothers in attendance – his self-proclaimed most important people in his life.
“One of my brothers never gets to be at the games and he’s taking time out of his day to come watch my final home game,” Teofilo said. “And then my two oldest brothers, they’ve raised me basically. I came out here and they kind of disciplined me the right way, moved me the right way to where I’m at right now.
Teofilo, part of Erickson’s last five recruits on ASU’s roster, is also part of the four senior offensive lineman – including Christian Westerman, Nick Kelly and McGehee – who will all be honored on Senior Day.
With ASU offensive line coach Chris Thomsen in his third season at ASU, he’s watched each of those seniors go through their Sun Devil careers – making Saturday an especially emotional day.
“Obviously we’ve got a lot more football left so you can’t get too caught up in the moment with that kind of stuff, but somewhere in their program I’ll pause and those guys have meant so much to our program,” Thomsen said. “The effort that they’ve given, the character that they’ve displayed. Honestly it’s emotional to be honest with you.”
Like Westerman and Kelly, who both transferred to ASU in 2013, Graham and his staff have recruited many junior college transfers – 10 of the 19 seniors to be exact – to the program over Graham’s four-year tenure.
Included in that mix is Longino, who last week– seemingly in anticipation for Saturday’s Senior Day – had tears in his eyes as he was given the honor of planting the pitchfork into the ground after ASU’s 27-17 win against Washington.
Longino – a player who Graham thought wouldn’t play against UW due to injury – tearfully thanked his teammates as he stabbed the pitchfork into the ground as he appeared to feel a wave of nostalgia rush over him as he reflected on his last three years in an ASU jersey.
“Just the way he (Longino) inspired his teammates and the way he played and, I mean, I was inspired,” Graham said in his UW post-game press conference. “Usually I'm doing my job but I was sitting there at halftime and I even pointed him out and I said ‘man, it means something to him.’”
And while Longino might have gotten emotional probably one week too soon, for him and the other 18 seniors on ASU’s roster, Saturday will be their chance to reminisce with their families and be honored in front of the thousands in attendance at Sun Devil Stadium.
“Every year it's special, but this is one… it's been a long time since that I've had a group that I feel as close to as this one,” Graham said. “It's a special group, so big, big day for us for Senior Day.