Todd Graham is ready to turn the page on a 2015 season that by all accounts was a major disappointment.
After averaging 9.3 wins per season in his first three years at Arizona State, the Sun Devils turned in a surprising 6-7 record last year in what was forecast to be perhaps his best team in Tempe.
"Somebody asked me the other day, were you surprised? Yes," Graham said. "I didn't expect to lose that many close games. I've gone and evaluated those things."
Once signing day is over, February is a month for fully examining the previous season, according to Graham. That analysis has now been completed. March is about what he calls the design phase, building the best plan for the year to follow.
In 2016, there's more to do in that regard than in recent years, perhaps more than at any point since the first year of Graham's tenure. He's been forced to replace five assistant coaches -- more than half his staff -- including his offensive coordinator, and he has a quarterback competition on his hands, the first at the school since 2012.
But ask Graham if this season is a more daunting challenge than the year in which he arrived, for example, and the answer is a resounding no. He doesn't think it's even close.
"The one thing we've done is we've not cut corners, we've not compromised, we've built a strong foundation," Graham said in a meeting with reporters at ASU Wednesday. "Our players know the expectations, they know the values, they know what we're about. I think that gives you a chance to sustain success. There's nothing guaranteed and that's what you find out. It's a very fragile deal.
"I feel good about where we're at. Obviously I've got a bad taste in my mouth (from last season). We're ready to go to work and get better. But I like the synergy of this team, I believe in our team. I do think every single position that we've had the opportunity to improve, I think we've improved it, there's a lot of thought gone into each one. The key is getting the right people and that's what we've got to do this spring, make sure we come out of spring knowing exactly who we are, get all the people, the staff, players in the right spots, everybody has their role defined, and then get better every day."
The following is what Graham had to say about a wide variety of subjects as the Sun Devils get ready for their first spring practice, March. 14.
Reflecting on last season's disappointment and incorporating that into a plan of action moving forward:
"The No. 1 thing is we've (now) tried to move on from that. I know you guys like to talk about that, but it's simple as this. Last year we were third -- I gave them today the goals of our program, here is our focus and emphasis -- in the country in turnover ratio coming into last year. It's why we'd won the way we'd won. We went from that to second to last in the league. Obviously, taking care of the football. We got turnovers, we didn't get them as highly as we had but we got turnovers. I thought our pace, our tempo was almost turtle pace, (however) we were fifth in the country in running the most plays. 84 plays per game."
"If you look at last season, there were elevated numbers of plays on defense, elevated numbers of giving up big plays, obviously there's some things with personnel, the things that happen every year with injuries and things like that. But we have to really look at those things when making adjustments and maybe we didn't make the right adjustments from year three to year four and that caused what happened, so let's make sure we make the right adjustments to what we're doing. Also, celebrating the things we believed in that got us to be pretty darn competitive."
"The difference between winning and losing in this league is so small. If you take out and look at the Oregon game or the Cal game or the West Virginia game, it's like, wow. It's so small, one play....You have to understand it's about doing the little things right and if you do the little things right, you win the close games."
"Our focus going into the spring is knowing who we are, what our identity is. Getting guys in the right spot, getting the right guys on the field. In the secondary and on the offensive line, we've got a lot of players to replace. Obviously I think we've done a really good job recruiting in those areas too, so I'm excited about the competition that's going to happen there."
On the internal and external expectations for the program and importance of close games in a team's success:
"I wasn't saying anything different (ahead of the 2015 season). The expectations were different because of the success we'd had and the people that we had coming back. If you win those five games you win 11 games. My deal with that is, our program is going to be able to win championships. How we define that, you go in our meeting room and it's written on the back wall, it's not talking about winning a game, it's talking about every day, everything we do. We've been to the (Pac-12) championship, we've been there and in 2013 we were close. If I wouldn't have had that goal, we wouldn't have gotten to where we've gotten. That's the expectation of our program, it's to win, it's to win every day, it's about winning championships. It's not going to change. But yeah, there was a lot of media type due to where we were picked."
"As far as what we've set, from the time we walked in the door here, we said our goal is about winning championships. The expectations externally change because of where you're ranked and all those things, the success that we'd had. I don't apologize for that, I want to get back to that."
On the coaching turnover in his program:
"Is change a good thing? No. I don't like change. I'd like everything to stay the same."
"Everybody that left our program, I can tell you there's really a pretty good job they did. They were all elevated in some form or fashion."
"One of the things that happened here in the course of four years, we made the offensive coordinator job here a heck of a lot more attractive than it was. So as I started that process, it was to get better. I was able to hire my first (Chip Lindsey) and second (Jay Norvell) choice for offensive coordinator on the same staff."
"The group of guys that we have right now, I feel great about. We have had an opportunity through some change. I'm proud that I havecoaches who work for me who get head coaching jobs. And I'll be real honest with you, I helped [Mike Norvell] (get the Memphis job)."
"We I first came here I had a certain amount of funds and resources and things that there [at a certain level]. Now our funds and resources are [at a higher level]. So I hired these guys with these resources, and these guys with higher resources."
"I think we have an opportunity to really get better. One of the things I like, I said this today at our staff meeting, 'I feel like everybody around this table, their position has elevated, or they're in a new position, which creates energy. We've had the best tour of duty. I love our players, I love their attitude."
On yielding all defensive play calling and signaling duties to defensive coordinator Keith Patterson in order to focus on other in-game aspects:
"We were kind of in a transition last year where coach (Patterson) called a lot of the defenses last year, I was still involved with audibling on the field. I'm not going to do that this year. He's going to be the communicator on the field instead of me. Am I going to be involved? I'm going to be involved in everything we do."
"I was a signaler and the only reason I was doing it is because I'd done it for three years. But he called them on every third down. When we plan on doing that, Keith's not out there and I'm not out there going, 'uhh, let's do this.' We've gone through a plan and what we do and how we go about doing it. But he's going to be the communicator, however he wants to do it. His role is elevating as well and his role was elevated last year as well."
"Me signaling for defense is not a problem for defense, it's a problem for me being able to help with coach Lindsey and the other things that I need to be doing. I've only done that four years and last year we tried to transition away from it, but this year we're doing it."
On the defensive problems from last season and his overall approach and philosophy:
"Yes, we did [blitz too much] last year. But I'll tell you this, we didn't any more than we did the year before. It's about it working and not working is what it's about. At the end of the day do you think we'd be sitting here with the wins we have and the things we've done if we'd come in here and run 4-3 Cover 4? No way. But we just have to eliminate the big plays...If one little piece moves out, you've got to make adjustments. And maybe I did a poor job of that. We've assessed that. I would tell you honestly that's something we've looked at and we addressed. We've got to figure out where is that meter? I do like that we've led the country for four years in sacking the quarterback. I like that we've been a Top-10 team in takeaways. I like that we've scored more (on defense) than anybody in the country. When we go back and evaluate that, most of those come on plays where we were actually pressuring. But did we pressure too much, I mean, golly, yeah. When it doesn't work, it looks really bad. But some of the games we gave up, we weren't (pressuring). Some of them we were Cover 4 and they raise up and throw over us."
"We have not been able to get pressure with four guys with consistency since I've been here. The only year we did that a little bit was 2013 with Will and Carl a little bit. But I do think we have done a good job of recruiting and developing and we're getting to a point where we need to do that....we probably would have rushed five more than we did instead of six."
"We're going to be an attacking football team and we've got to be smart about that. We are trying to minimize our risk. We didn't accomplish that last year. We accomplished that in the years before that. But I'll tell you if you go back in look at those years, we gave up some big plays. There's a give and take there on that deal....there were some things that happens with injuries and things like that, that I personally didn't make the modifications that I needed to make to bring the meter back to where it needed to be. We're going to attack on offense, attack on defense."
On the transition to Chip Lindsey as offensive coordinator and ASU's overall philosophy:
"What we do here and what coach Lindsey is going to do is going to have his own signature on it, but we have the parameters behind it. No. 1 on that list is we are going to be physical. And that has to do with running the football. The reason why is we want to have 85-90 snaps on offense and we want to play sub-70 snaps, 67 snaps on defense. That's always been a winning formula for us. That doesn't mean that sometimes we don't slow down. You're going to do what it takes to win first. But our whole deal with tempo speaks to physicality. What do we need to get better here? We need to become more physical running the football. We actually ran the ball better last year than we've run it in all four years we've been here. We've just got to be committed to it and that's just the things we'll work on to get better at."
On the quarterback position and trying to find the right player to lead the team moving forward:
"The number one thing coming into the spring, going into the fall is having a quarterback that elevates everyone else on the field and selecting and finding who that is. I think we've got some really quality young men and we're excited about that opportunity. I wanted to get somebody who could develop those guys and do a great job with them and also was familiar with what we do and how we do it. Keith and Chip and I are not sitting around talking philosophy. I believe in what we're doing. I'm not a guy who hires an offensive coordinator and says, 'here, run whatever you want to run.' We have a belief, and he comes from the same origins of what I believe in."
"It's a process that we'll go through that is very simple. We've got to find the guy that separates himself, that elevates everybody else on that field. In 2012, remember we came out of spring ball, I met with Taylor Kelly and told him, 'you're the third team quarterback.' He said, 'coach, I appreciate that but I will be your quarterback.' I thought, 'that guy is kind of cocky, jeesh.' But as we assessed and evaluated that, we started going, 'wow, man, he's the third team guy, he's always out there with the second and third and he's always scoring on the third team defense.'"
"I think that we have a quarterback competition this spring. So I thought, 'man it would be nice to have a guy who can really develop quarterbacks. I think we hired one of the best I've been around (Lindsey) as far as just that aspect. A guy who has done nothing his entire life except develop quarterbacks."
On some of the things that Graham views as most predictive of success and need to be continuously stressed to his team:
"The No. 1 thing on our deal is owning the football. That's getting takeaways and taking care of the football. And then second thing is negative plays, third thing is explosive plays. Really that's 1A, 1A, 1A. What I mean by explosive plays, we want more explosive plays on offense, our red zone scoring offense. We ran the ball well but we need to run the ball...We'd probably like to run the ball more in the red zone, and run it more efficiently."
"If it's Dec. 4, if I could just have one thing, I want to lead the league in turnover ratio. That is coaching. That is emphasis. You get what you emphasize. Sometimes, man, you can get distracted."
On recruiting and his desire to increase ASU's presence in Southern California and Hawaii:
"My focus in recruiting is here (in Arizona) and Southern California. That is our base recruiting area. So I have a guy leave and I say okay, how can I make it better from a personnel standpoint, and I think we did. Hiring Joe Seumalo is going to help us in the Inland Empire. He's been recruiting there for 15 years and in the (Hawaiian) Islands, where we haven't had any success...I was able to do that because I have an attractive position to offer."
"We will hire somebody (to replace Patrick Suddes) who knows how we do things and our philosophy and the key is how they work with the coaches. Basically what that person does is they organize. Still (recruiting) is all about one thing and that's building a relationship with the position coach, the area coach, the coordinator and then the head coach."
"There's short term planning in recruiting, so we have short term weekly goals, monthly, goals. Then we have term goals, which are semester goals. Then we have long-term goals. One of the long term goals is we want kids to grow up in the Valley and we want them to be Sun Devils."
"Then I'm going, wow, because obviously I've got a lot of respect for a lot of years for Jay Norvell, a guy that has coached in Super Bowls and national championship games, Jerry Rice, Tim Brown, Marvin (Harrison). You think that helps in recruiting? We just used that to try to get better."
On Special Teams in 2015:
"I think Shawn (Slocum) did a really good job on special teams. I think our return game really improved. I think the organization of it, the emphasis of it, how important our players think it is. For whatever reason, we didn't have the consistency we need to have. Zane (Gonzales) is a great field goal kicker but we've got to be more consistent there. I think we're working hard there but we've got great belief in him. I think (punter) Matt (Haack) improved, Shawn did a great job with him improving him. He's got a big leg. Then we've done some things, we've made some commitments. I don't think many people have committed more scholarships than what we commit. I can tell you one guy that deserves a lot of hype and attention is (longsnapper Mitchell) Framboni. He is a phenomenal deep snapper and phenomenal coverage guy."
On the Sun Devil Stadium reinvention project and related facilities building:
"I'll tell you this, I am fully -- these coaches know it, I think the people here know it -- committed to what we're doing. I'm really proud. You look at where we're at, we had a .500 here, a 6-7, one season. Look at what's going on out there, look at what's happening. This is an unprecedented time in our school's history and in your lifetime as a coach, I built a stadium at Tulsa, I guess, we built a football facility at Tulsa, we re-did the deal at Tulsa, but this is a deal in your career, I told people out there, that [ASU facilities project] is my life's work. That's how much it means to me and how fortunate I feel. Who has sat in my chair that has had that happen, and had this opportunity. And it's not easy. We play in a tough league and have a tough schedule and all that."