After finishing with a sub. 500 record for the second straight season, Arizona State head coach Todd Graham outlined a clear initiative for the Sun Devils' 2017 recruiting class: Become more explosive.
Graham believed the Sun Devils needed to add more dynamic athletes, particularly in the secondary, and of the 19 players ASU signed, only three play in the trenches.
"This is a class that is mostly about explosiveness and speed and skill," Graham said at his National Signing Day press conference. "We felt good about our depth. We signed two interior defensive linemen and one interior offensive line. So this class our main focus was on dynamic playmakers. Pass rushers on defense, obviously defensive backs was the No. 1 priority in our entire class."
The Sun Devils' ability to add explosiveness to this year's signing class began in the state of Arizona, as ASU tied a program record by signing nine in-state high school players. The last time ASU signed nine local prospects was in 2003, but that year, the Sun Devils signed a class of 30 recruits.
“We have to get the best and the brightest and the best character who fit Arizona right here in this Valley and in this state," Graham said. "This has been a breakthrough year for us for that. We’ll take nine of them every year. I think that that’s been years of work and I do think (Assistant athletic director for recruiting) Donnie (Yantis) had tremendous impact as well as (senior defensive analyst) Conrad Hamilton and the guys that have been here.”
While ASU wound up signing a local product at most of the team's position groups, the Sun Devils took a more national focus in the defensive backfield, where four of the team's five signees came from out of the state.
After finishing last in the country in pass defense in each of the last two seasons, Graham felt it was imperative to add high-profile defensive backs with the potential of contributing immediately, and Graham and secondary T.J. Rushing spent much of the recruiting cycle scouring the country for potential immediate impact talents.
Though ASU swung and missed on a number of high-priority recruiting targets, three of the five secondary prospects ASU did sign boast four-star rankings.
Graham opened his Wednesday press conference highlighting the talent ASU acquired in the defensive backfield, leading with four-star safety Evan Fields out of Oklahoma, who Graham called the "headliner" of the Sun Devils' 2017 class.
An Oklahoma City, Oklahoma native out of Midwest City High, Fields' high school coach was a teammate of Graham's and ASU linebackers coach Keith Patterson in college.
“Extremely explosive player, very intelligent, great size, great brain, great range," Patterson said of Fields.
Fields projects as a Bandit/Spur prospect, and so does local four-star product K.J. Jarrell, one of three Saguaro (Scottsdale) players who signed with the program Wednesday.
"K.J. is a guy that we project at one of our three safety positions and a guy that I think has great versatility, a guy that can cover," Graham said. "He's got great speed, he's got great physicality and great size as well. He won four state championships in a row I believe."
Outside of Jarrell and Fields, the Sun Devils landed three-star Bandit safety prospect and mid-year enrollee Ty Thomas, as well as a pair of cornerbacks, two-star Texas native Langston Frederick and four-star Bishop Gorman (Nevada) prospect Alex Perry, the younger brother of ASU safety Armand Perry and the highest-rated defensive back in the Sun Devils' signing class.
Aside from needing to add to the team's depth chart in the secondary, Graham said the Sun Devils prioritized the recruitment of edge rushers. On Wednesday, ASU announced the signings of three Devil backer prospects including a four-star junior college prospect, Doug Subtyl, four-star Highland (Gilbert) product Tyler Johnson and three-star Saguaro prospect Kyle Soelle.
With eight of the program's 19 signees coming at three position groups --cornerback/field safety, Bandit/Spur and Devil backer-- Graham emphasized the importance of remaining selective within other units.
Because the program signed two Division I transfers last offseason, Ryan Newsome from Texas and John Humphrey, Jr. from Oklahoma, ASU only had 23 slots to fill in its 2017 class. Still, the Sun Devils signed just 19 players, and announced only 18, as linebacker Loren Mondy's signing wasn't publicized Wednesday due to a procedural issue.
"On offense we only signed seven players because two guys who are really part of this class are Ryan Newsome and John Humphrey," Graham said. "They are two dynamic receivers who had to sit out this past year."
With Newsome and Humphrey now eligible to play for the Sun Devils, ASU added just one wide receiver during the 2017 recruiting cycle, 6-foot-7 Mountain View (Mesa) product Curtis Hodges.
“Down on the goal line, he (Hodges) can put his body on people, his catch radius is going to be amazing," new wide receivers coach Rob Likens said. "If we can teach him how to position his body properly on defensive backs, the quarterback can put it anywhere in his area.”
Graham said if Fields was the headliner of the class on the defensive side of the ball, then four-star running back and mid-year enrollee Eno Benjamin earned that distinction for ASU's offense.
The No. 10 rated running back nationally and the highest-rated back to ever sign with the Sun Devils under Graham, Benjamin is one of five recruits ASU signed from the state of Texas, which represents an Internet era record.
Benjamin and fellow Texas native, three-star running back Trelon Smith, made up the Sun Devils' running back class.
“He’s (Smith) great with the ball in his hands and if needed, he’s ready to come in right now in play," running backs coach John Simon said of Smith. "He loves football, he loves to train, loves every part of the game, loves the weight room, he’s a film junkie and those are the kind of guys you want.”
At the tight end position, the Sun Devils lost the longstanding commitment of three-star Saguaro prospect Jared Poplawski who flipped and signed with Colorado on Wednesday, but ASU rebounded by adding two-star tight end Mark Walton, who didn't officially receive a scholarship offer from the Sun Devils until Monday.
“You try to project to see where he’s (Walton) going to be at from that standpoint because a lot of his offensive snaps are from a split standpoint," new offensive line coach Josh Henson said. "We felt really comfortable with that, overall the guy is a diamond in the rough that just kind of slipped through the cracks. When we turned the film on, this guy had a lot of talent and a lot of ability.”
Of the five remaining players ASU signed, two complete what Graham considers the deepest quarterback class signed under his watch and three play at interior line positions.
Four-star Palomar college transfer and former Alabama quarterback Blake Barnett paired with local four-star Basha (Chandler) quarterback Ryan Kelley to make up the Sun Devils' quarterback class, while three-star offensive lineman Corey Stephens, three-star defensive lineman D.J. Davidson and two-star defensive tackle Shannon Forman were the only three prospects ASU signed to play on the interior of the line of scrimmage.
After back-to-back losing seasons and another offseason marked by significant coaching turnover, the Sun Devils finished National Signing Day with the 44th overall ranking in the Scout team recruiting rankings. The mark is the lowest of the Graham era at ASU, as the Sun Devils finished 43rd in 2012, his first season fielding a class, before compiling top-30 classes in each of the last four seasons.
However, part of the reason the Sun Devils finished lower than they have previously under Graham is because the class lacked depth in numbers. A better overall indicator of ASU's recruiting class is the average star ranking of the Sun Devils' signees, which is 3.22. That mark bested Graham's 2016 class which finished with an overall star ranking of 3.06, and represented the fourth best average star rating ASU has achieved in the last 15 years.
Graham said ASU would have liked to have signed a few additional players, including an offensive tackle prospect, but said the Sun Devils weren't willing to sign a prospect they didn't feel strongly about.
"We would have loved to have signed a tackle, but we wanted the right tackle," Graham said. "We didn't want to reach down. We had too many other needs. Interior defensive tackle we felt like we needed to add one or two there. We signed two defensive tackles, one of them is a guy who can move over and play guard on offense."
While the Sun Devils were still in the running for a pair of offensive tackle prospects, five-star North Canyon (Phoenix) product Austin Jackson and four-star junior college transfer George Moore, entering the days leading up to National Signing Day, ASU's failure to land both players does not mean the Sun Devils will halt their pursuit of talent at the tackle position.
After filling 19 scholarship slots up on Wednesday, the Sun Devils still have a handful of rides to work with, and Graham said much like the team has in years past under his watch, ASU will continue to recruit after Signing Day.
"We're not done yet, either," Graham said. "We signed Tim White in April one year. We're still looking. Recruiting never stops."