Column: Talent kept ASU from achieving 2015 aspirations but is steadily improving overall

Just three of Arizona State's 12 starting seniors in the 2015 season arrived at the school with a four or five-star designation out of high school, a reality that is difficult to overcome in the college football hierarchy.

Following Nick Saban’s first year as head coach at Alabama in 2007, the Crimson Tide had no player taken in the subsequent NFL Draft for the first time since 1970. 

Alabama went just 7-6 in that initial season under Saban (later vacating five wins due to sanctions for a textbook scandal) as the coach began rebuilding a program that had suffered through a decade of mediocrity under earlier coaches Mike DuBose, Dennis Franchione and Mike Shula. In the ensuing eight seasons, Saban has been the architect of one of the most impressive dynasties in college football history. Alabama has won four national championships in seven seasons, the last of which was achieved in Monday’s 45-40 win over Clemson in Glendale. 

Saban’s success on the field has followed his program’s unparalleled ability to get the nation’s best recruits to matriculate to Alabama in droves. 

From 2002-07, the Crimson Tide didn’t finish in the Top-15 of Scout’s team recruiting rankings even once. From 2008-15, Alabama finished no worse than seventh nationally in the same rankings, including Top-3 finishes on five occasions. Nobody else in the country has recruited as well as Saban and Alabama over that span. No other team has performed as well on the field. It’s clearly not a coincidence. 

Alabama didn’t set college records only though. The Crimson Tide became the first program in history to have two or more players taken in five consecutive NFL Drafts between 2010 and 2014. All told, in the seven drafts since Alabama came up empty in 2008, 48 members of the program have been selected, an astounding 17 of whom have been taken in the first round. 

All of these things are inextricably linked. Sustained success approaching anywhere near that of what Alabama has accomplished requires consistently elite recruiting and invariably will lead to many high level NFL prospects. Alabama is the best example of this but certainly not alone. One has to look only at the other participants in first two years of the College Football Playoff to see this clearly. 

The four 2014-2015 College Football Playoff Participants, Alabama, Florida State, Ohio State and Oregon, combined to have 12 of the first 53 players taken in the most recent NFL Draft, including the No. 1 (Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston) and No. 2 (Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota) picks overall. It should come as no surprise that from 2011-13, those same four programs were each in the Top-15 in Scout’s recruiting rankings, the three years in which their College Football Playoff teams were largely signed. Indeed, 10 of the 12 first or second round 2015 NFL Draftees from Alabama, Florida State, Ohio State and Oregon were four-star or better prospects, including five who were five-star recruits at one point. 

Searching through an assortment of first-round mock ups for the 2016 NFL Draft reveals that 2015-2016 Playoff finalists Alabama and Clemson are as prominently mentioned as any other programs nationally, with about a half dozen legitimate candidates. Clearly, success in recruiting directly correlates with success on the playing field at the college level, and inevitably leads to more NFL players originating from a program.

Compare the path which led this year’s final four teams to the College Football Playoff with that of Arizona State over the same period of time. In 2011 the Sun Devils finished No. 64 in Scout’s team recruiting rankings, the final year of the Dennis Erickson Era. In 2012, Todd Graham’s short-cycle class checked in at No. 43 nationally. There was continued improvement to 2013, when ASU ranked No. 30, and only in 2014 and 2015 did ASU crack the Top-20, finishing No. 17 in each year. It’s an impressive trend line to be sure. 

ASU didn’t have the veteran talent to fulfill Graham’s lofty expectations in 2015, and the result was a disappointing 6-7 finish.

In what’s proven to be a brutally difficult Pac-12 South in which no champion has emerged unscathed in league play since the expansion to 12 teams in 2011, and only one South team (ASU in 2013) has lost just one league game, ASU was simply out-gunned in the talent department. An examination of ASU’s roster reveals that even though more than half of the team’s starters were seniors in 2015, few have a good chance of getting drafted at all. None will be taken in the earliest rounds. Linebacker Antonio Longino, offensive linemen Christian Westerman, receiver/running back  D.J. Foster, cornerback Lloyd Carrington, wide receiver Devin Lucien, and perhaps several others have a chance to play at the next level, but all will face serious challenges to make it. 

Looking further, only three of ASU’s seniors were four star or better recruits by Scout, led by the five-star Westerman, and four-star Foster and Lucien. Interestingly, Westerman and Lucien each transferred to ASU from another program. Going down the rest of the list, from quarterback Mike Bercovici to safety Jordan Simone — both team captains — as well as three of ASU’s offensive linemen, two other starters in the secondary and a handful of others, you won’t see anyone rated higher than three starts. And, nobody was seriously underrated as a prospect, either. 

Graham uses no shortage of superlatives when talking about his teams, but he overachieved with his talent in 2013 and 2014, surprising doubters including those who cover the program closely. That reality, coupled with Graham’s preseason hyping of his 2015 squad as his best yet led to some false expectations. It’s reasonable to wonder how Graham’s feel for the season was so off and what that indicates more broadly, if anything. Certainly fans were very let down by how the season unfolded and will be more skeptical of his rhetoric moving forward. 

Perhaps Graham wanted to believe that the experience and intangibles of his team were so great in the wake of back-to-back 10-win seasons that it led to an inaccurate perspective. Or, maybe his passion and determination overrode the reality of his personnel. It must be some combination thereof one would think, because Graham’s already demonstrated he’s capable of being very successful at this level, as he was the Pac-12 Coach of the Year in 2013. 

So, the Sun Devils will lose 12 or more starters projecting into the 2016 season, including no fewer than seven on offense and three members of a much-maligned secondary. But is that a bad thing? True, ASU will be a lot less experienced in the year ahead, that much is sure. But what did ASU get from all of that experience in a season that saw it lose five games in which it held fourth quarter leads? 

Conventional wisdom is that learning how to win is an important part of a program's ascent to the next plateau. But even after ASU’s great 2013 and 2014 seasons, and even though it featured a veteran squad with more than half of its starters being seniors, it lost seven games, as many as the two previous seasons combined. All of that time spent developing the habits and culture and technique and character that are supposed to translate to winning the close, hard fought games did not yield the desired results. That has to be a tough reality for players who so completely bought in and fully invested themselves, as well as for a coaching staff that lauded them publicly for doing so.

From Foster to Bercovici and Simone and others, what was articulated by many of those seniors in the days and weeks leading up to the conclusion of their college careers is that they had no regrets; that peace of mind is easier when a person's best effort is provided.  But the character quotient and discipline of ASU’s team was never in doubt. It’s a program that is graduating more players and has more scholar ballers than ever before. Penalties are more rare than any other Pac-12 program in recent years. Practice ethic is clearly as good as it’s been in years. 

The reality is ASU just wasn't that talented a team, and had glaring flaws in some key areas, most notably depth in its secondary. Who was the Will Sutton, or Carl Bradford, or Damarious Randall, or Jaelen Strong, or Marcus Hardison of this team — all players who were taken in the first few rounds of the NFL Draft out of Tempe in recent years? How many truly great college teams have no seniors who project to be high NFL Draft picks? It's almost unheard of. 

A look at ASU’s NFL Draft returns in the last quarter century makes clear that following ASU’s best teams, it invariably had its best results. 

In each of the 1987 and 1988 drafts, the Sun Devils had seven players selected, including first-rounders Randall McDaniel and Aaron Cox in 1988, and Eric Allen and Shawn Patterson, also in 1988. This of course followed ASU’s lone Rose Bowl victory, which took place in 1987. Following ASU’s only undefeated regular season of the Pac-10/12 era in 1996, the program tied a record with eight players taken in the 1997 NFL Draft, led by second-round picks Jake Plummer and Juan Roque. 

ASU hasn’t done nearly as well in the last 15 years of the NFL Draft and won’t again this year, a reflection of it’s mediocre 2015 season. That’s the bad news for the program. The good news is those No. 17 national rankings in each of the 2014 and 2015 classes, and how Graham was able to do very well with lesser talent in his first three seasons in Tempe. 

The year ahead figures to be another transitional season. The Sun Devils will not only be breaking in a new young quarterback, they’ll do so with four new offensive line starters, two new skill position starters on offense and a new offensive coordinator, Chip Lindsey. They’ll be replacing Longino, the Pac-12 leader in tackles for loss and sacks, as well as defensive tackle Demetrius Cherry and three members of the starting secondary. 

At the same time, they’re going to be getting more talented at almost every one of those positions. They’ll be more athletic in the secondary, deeper and more talented in the front seven, have bigger and longer offensive linemen while also getting more athletic. They also have multiple four-star quarterbacks to choose from, a deep and talented backfield and a few of the most athletic receivers they’ve had in the Graham era, all at their disposal. 

ASU signed a record seven four-star recruits in the 2014 class and then one-upped itself with eight such prospects in the 2015 class. The Sun Devils already have six four-star recruits in the 2016 class including three junior college prospects expected to make an immediate impact. It’s looking like it could be a Top-25 recruiting class for the third time in a row, something ASU’s never done before since services such as Scout started. 

It also won’t be a senior-laden group as it was this season, with perhaps seven or eight senior starters. So while 2016 looks like a transitional season, it’s one which will see the Sun Devils a more talented team building for what could potentially be a breakout season in 2017, when their stadium project is complete. 

Graham and his staff have done a good job getting coaching salaries up at the school and getting their facilities upgraded. Those are two of the most predictive things for the any program’s success over the long haul. Their recruiting has improved, now within a few weeks of wrapping up their third straight really impressive class. With the commitments of local four-stars Chase Lucas and N'Keal Harry from Chandler and potential pledge of fellow local four-star Byron Murphy out of Saguaro next week, they’ve even started to make a real dent in the Arizona landscape. That hasn’t been done by any ASU staff since the state began getting heavily recruited by major national programs more than a decade ago. They’ll need to leverage all of this into an even better showing in talent-rich California in years to come, but the overall trend line of the program is still ticking upward even after a disappointing setback in 2015. 


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