When Arizona State coach Todd Graham arrived on the job in Tempe five years ago, he knocked on an important door that had been locked airtight for several years and cobwebbed over.
D.J. Foster cracked it open just enough for Graham to put his foot in the resulting gap to initiate a conversation that ultimately led to a commitment. In and of itself, Foster didn't change the dynamic of in-state recruiting at ASU, but it was a seminal moment to be sure.
In the final two recruiting cycles of Graham's predecessor Dennis Erickson, the Sun Devils failed to sign a single four-star prospect in Arizona. All told, they signed just five local prep prospects between the 2010 and 2011 classes, none widely coveted. The modest success Erickson achieved earlier in his tenure had been long replaced by skepticism that precluded the Sun Devils from entrance through the threshold that held all of the state's top talent.
But Foster, the West's No. 2 running back and No. 104 overall prospect in the 2012 class, trusted Graham and signed with the Sun Devils after an illustrious record-setting career at local powerhouse Scottsdale Saguaro. In doing so, he turned away from a Cal staff -- among many others -- that prioritized him enough to include an in-home visit from ostensibly the entire Golden Bears' offensive staff.
So it was understandable on Wednesday at the outset of Graham's comments on his 2017 signing class that unveiled nine local prep recruits including several of the state's top prospects, Graham referenced Foster.
“I think that day one, I talked to D.J. Foster and I remember coming here and D.J. trusting us because he had nothing to go on," Graham said. "And we’ve built it, I think it’s something that people, building a reputation doesn’t take a month, it takes years. We’ve built a reputation here and a culture in this program and I think it’s very well respected and that’s our emphasis.”
For the first time in at least a decade the Sun Devils have signed three of the state's top five prospects: Saguaro safety K.J. Jarrell; Chandler Basha quarterback Ryan Kelley; and Gilbert Highland rush end Tyler Johnson. Those they ultimately failed to land either of the state's top two prospects, Phoenix North Canyon offensive lineman Austin Jackson and Phoenix Mountain Pointe's Isaiah Pola-Mao, the Sun Devils were Top-3 finalists for both, and may have very well been the runners up in each case to the school they'll attend together, USC.
A door that was once shut airtight for the Sun Devils has now seemingly been flattened, but not without a heavy multi-year effort to knock it down. ASU didn't have much success in its immediate classes after Foster signed in 2013, but by 2015 they'd started landed a few local key lineman and Chandler High quarterback Bryce Perkins. That led to fellow Chandler high profile players Chase Lucas and N'Keal Harry in the 2016 class, the latter of whom because a freshman All-American wide receiver for ASU last season.
Now, things feel a lot different in the state than even a couple years ago. Foster deserves a lot of credit as well as those who followed him, but in 2017 Graham said the program's new recruiting Most Valuable Player is first-year Assistant Athletic Director for Recruiting Donnie Yantis, an Arizona native who was the head coach at Paradise Valley High, and later, NAIA Arizona Christian University.
Yantis has significant local course knowledge in the Valley and deep relationships that contributed to what the Sun Devils were able to accomplish in the class. The nine total instate players they signed falls just one shy of their record haul in 2002, but that class consisted of 30 players whereas this one is just 19 deep. As a percentage of their overall class, the Sun Devils have seen nothing like this.
"Donnie has just been absolutely phenomenal," Graham said. "We couldn't have hired a better person and he's just getting started. Recruiting is about diligence. It's about passion, it's about being diligent. It's not about having some great salesman, because you reap what you sow. You're not hiding from how you do things. Donnie has been tremendous. I couldn't say enough about him.
"Because of how much change there is in college football, I am the lead recruiter. For me to do that, Donnie has been unbelievable in helping me be diligent in doing that. Every day he is wearing me out. He's been the MVP of this deal as far as I'm concerned."
Given ASU's signifiant coaching turnover of four assistants since the season end, the role Yantis played was even more significant. That's further magnified considering the Sun Devils didn't sign a single high school recruit from California, an occurrence so rare that it may be unprecedented.
"That's the way it fell," Graham said of the lack of players from California. "I think a lot of that is, we signed nine guys in Arizona. So it's just the way it fell. My deal is, we're getting the guys that best fit what we're about. Gas take a way is the most critical area for us, it's our recruiting base. If you look at that gas tank away, we did pretty good. It's not that we weren't competing. And some of it had to do with positions (of need).
"It's not because we didn't have guys recruiting there. We had six or seven guys recruiting [California] and nine guys recruiting Arizona because it's our base. If you asked me this, if I could sign nine in Arizona every year...Arizona is more important than anywhere else."
Long-term, the Sun Devils are going to have to do better in California, and Graham has to know that at some level. He's talked about the importance of the state's rich talent and proximity to Arizona. But an ever-improving base of high-profile recruits in Arizona could lessen the burden ASU has historically faced in recruiting California, at least to some degree, and given Graham's roots in Texas.
“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 Donnie had tremendous impact as well as (recruiting staffer) Conrad Hamilton and the guys that have been here.
“I’ve only been here five years and it’s steadily gotten better every year. I think the high school coaches do a tremendous job coaching and preparing the players and it’s competitive. There’s a lot of people that come in here and recruit. But on the same hand, I think it’s a different day and time for Arizona State. If you look at the commitment our program has made to the things that are happening with our facilities and you look at that success, when you can offer them everything that everybody outside of here can, it’s a pretty obvious deal to stay here.”
The 2018 class isn't as deep locally, so ASU will have to branch out and be more successful nearby. Recruiting is a year-round endeavor, so they won't have a lot of time to bask in the afterglow of their accomplishments. But at least now that they've been back in the room, they should have an easier opportunity to hang out for awhile.