In the moments leading up to kickoff on Thursday night, Arizona State head coach Todd Graham will remain focused on harnessing his emotions.
Thursday is the last time Graham will see senior defensive tackle Tramel Topps give a heartfelt sermon to the Sun Devils prior to kickoff. It will mark the last time Graham watches senior Spur linebacker Laiu Moeakiola, a player Graham believes will become a coach one day, play inside Sun Devil Stadium. And Thursday will mark the last time Graham watches the 2016 senior class take the field in front of its home fans.
Now in his fifth season as head coach, Graham recruited every current Sun Devil player to ASU. Few, though, hold a higher place in Graham’s mind than Moeakiola, who Graham compared to former quarterback Taylor Kelly at his Monday press conference.
“He’s a defensive Taylor Kelly,” Graham said. “That’s how I’d describe Laiu (Moeakiola). There’s not many more I’ve coached I have respect for as far as what kind of person they are than Taylor and Laiu.”
In total, 18 Sun Devils will run through Tillman Tunnel for the final time against No. 16 Utah, and just like Graham, the group that has been here from the beginning hopes to improve its overall record to 26-7 during their careers at ASU.
While some seniors like left tackle Evan Goodman and tight end Kody Kohl have become prominent Sun Devils because of their presence as multi-year starters, Graham said he’ll hold all the seniors in high regard.
On Monday, Graham mentioned how Topps — who earned a scholarship this year after walking-on his first two years in the program after transferring from Arizona Western Community College -- never quit after the Sun Devils’ head coach told him his realistic expectations when he arrived on campus.
“I can’t tell you how many times I told him, ‘It’s not happening, it’s not going to happen, it’s not going to happen, but he didn’t care what I said,” Graham said. “He didn’t care what my evaluation was, he was going to do it. And so many people let somebody else put parameters on their dreams.”
Graham said he won’t process the impact this year’s seniors had until after the season, but said he’s grateful for what they have done for the overall standard of ASU’s program for the future going forward.
Evaluating ASU's training regimen
On Monday, Graham said ASU entered the season ranking among the country’s best teams in terms of consistent starts, or in other words, among the teams least affected by injuries.
However, a widespread injury bug has depleted the Sun Devils’ depth across a variety of position groups this season.
On the heels of a bye week in which ASU did not practice in pads because of the physical toll this season has taken, Graham said ASU will evaluate various options of training and body conservation for its players after this season.
When asked about potentially incorporating yoga or pilates into ASU’s routine -- two options that promote muscular strength and endurance — Graham pointed to the possibility of either overtraining or not emphasizing flexibility enough as reasons that may have contributed to the Sun Devils’ injury issues.
“We do a lot of stuff, and coming into this season we were fourth in the country in consistent starts, in other words, fewest injuries,” Graham said. “Overtraining, not enough flexibility stuff, not enough warmup. Obviously, there’s challenges we have from getting over there (Kajikawa practice fields) in a limited amount of time and stuff like that. So, we’ll evaluate all of that and look at it.”
In recent weeks, ASU’s main focus has centered around getting all of its players back to 100 percent. As Graham reflected on how the Sun Devils’ roster has been decimated by injuries, he mentioned that some could have been avoided but many were a result of the physical nature of the sport.
“I look at some of the injuries that have happened and some of them can be avoided, but most of them were just injuries that happened,” Graham said. “I really felt our guys were in great condition coming in, but we’ll look at that too. Sometimes you can overtrain, you know? So we’ll look at all those factors, but right now we’re just trying to do everything around the clock to get them healthy, and then you also have to practice. We’ve got more than half of them back practicing, so that’s a positive.”
Missing players such as senior linebacker Salamo Fiso, junior linebacker Christian Sam and sophomore defensive backs Armand Perry and Kareem Orr severely limits the Sun Devils’ overall capabilities, and last Saturday, all four of those players were sidelined with injuries at the same time.
In a year in which injuries, especially to high-profile players, have dominated storylines, Graham has realized the importance of thoroughly evaluating the team’s training regimen to determine the best possible practices for preparing ASU’s players.
“It’s just been a lot of injuries that is just not normal, not a normal thing that’s happened, so we will spend a lot of time in the offseason researching that and trying to figure that out and I think there will probably be some things we focus on, but, two, some of that’s just part of the game,” Graham said.