Tim Nelson/SunDevilSource.com

Arizona State steadily increasing ratio of blue-chip recruits under Todd Graham

During Todd Graham's tenure, Arizona State has steadily increased the percentage of former blue-chip recruits on its roster which has set the stage for pivotal seasons for the program in 2017 and 2018.

When Arizona State announced its 2017 signing class on Wednesday, its shallowness contrast starkly against the rest of the country's power five schools. 

Of the 43 teams ranking ahead of the Sun Devils in the final Scout rankings, only Clemson and Stanford signed fewer prospects. Clemson, of course, won the 2016 national championship, and Stanford is academically unique and stable from a football standpoint, with a minimum of eight wins in each of the last eight seasons.

The Sun Devils signed just 18 prospects who count toward the network's rankings in 2017 -- Doug Subtyl is excluded because he counted toward 2016 -- which contributed to their second worst finish in the last 16 years in Scout.com's team rankings. 

On the surface, a class claiming just 18 signees and ranking 44th nationally is suggestive of a failure on the part of ASU's coaching staff, which has seen significant turnover in the past two seasons force Graham to hire eight new assistants since the end of the 2015 season.

However, the national ranking and overall size of the class doesn't fully contextualize how the Sun Devils performed. What ASU lacked in depth, it made up for in top-end talent, as its head coach Todd Graham signed seven four-star prospects, including a pair of four-star quarterbacks, Alabama transfer Blake Barnett and four-star local Basha (Chandler) prospect Ryan Kelley.

By signing seven four-star prospects, the Sun Devils finished with their fourth highest average star rating in the last 16 years, at 3.22, which ranked tied for 25th among all FBS programs.

The chasm between the Sun Devils' 44th place finish in Scout's team rankings and 25th overall finish in average star ranking allows for greater subjectivity of a class that is more difficult to judge. Even though ASU nabbed a significant number of blue-chip prospects (defined as four/five-star recruits), the Sun Devils still rounded out the class with three two-star signees, which hurt the team's national standing.

While the Sun Devils' overall finish technically marked the program's second worst national ranking in the Internet era, the percentage of blue-chip prospects ASU signed (38.9 percent) helped the program to its second best overall percentage of four/five-star prospects in the Internet era.

To put into perspective how successful ASU was during the 2017 recruiting cycle at attracting top talent, the incoming class alone possesses more four-star prospects than the Sun Devils had on their entire roster in each of Graham's first two seasons with the program.

If all seven blue-chip signees enroll at ASU, the Sun Devils stand to have 25 former four or five-star recruits on their roster in 2017, far and away the highest total in program history. 

Why exactly does the percentage of blue-chip recruits matter?

In the last 15 years, the rosters of the vast majority of national champions boasted more blue-chip prospects than non blue-chip recruits. The most successful teams in college football over the past few seasons, Alabama, Florida State, Clemson, Ohio State and a small group of others all have at least 50 percent of their rosters stacked with blue-chip prospects.

So while ASU won't come close to reaching the threshold of having blue-chip recruits comprise 50 percent of its roster, it has significantly improved the talent level of the roster since Graham's early years, when fewer than 10 percent of ASU's roster was composed of blue-chip prospects.

A surprise rise, followed by disappointment

ASU's ability to win 10 games in the 2013 and 2014 seasons largely hinged on the once-in-a-generation junior college haul Graham and his staff landed in the 2013 recruiting cycle.

In 2013, the Sun Devils swung for the fences in the junior college ranks, and hit home runs with three-star signees Jaelen Strong, Damarious Randall, Marcus Hardison, Antonio Longino, Nick Kelly and Demetrius Cherry, who all became multi-year starters at ASU.

The sudden impact of the Sun Devils' 2013 class and the rise of former three-star prospects like Taylor Kelly, Salamo Fiso, Carl Bradford and Will Sutton -- all recruits from Dennis Erickson's tenure -- allowed Graham to enjoy almost unparalleled success for an ASU coach over the first three years of his tenure.

ASU caught lightning in a bottle, as conference opponents had difficulty adjusting to Graham's exotic defensive scheme while offensive coordinator Mike Norvell engineered one of the top scoring offenses in the conference. 

However, the model ASU used to ascend to prominence would soon prove unsustainable, which triggered disappointment for the Sun Devils in 2015 and 2016.

In part due to the on-field success ASU experienced in 2013 and 2014 and in part due to the roots many of Graham's key staff members were laying down as recruiters, the Sun Devils' 2015 recruiting class marked the best in program history by just about every conceivable metric.

After back-to-back 10-win seasons, the Sun Devils posted the 17th ranked class in the country, signed nine four-star recruits, and assembled a class with an average star rating of 3.43 in a recruiting cycle Graham and his staff dominated.

The instant influx of talent provided by the 2015 recruiting class followed two of the most successful back-to-back seasons in program history, and ratcheted up expectations for a program that suffered through more than a decade of mediocrity in the Pac-10/12.

With nine new four-stars in the fold, the Sun Devils' 2015 roster possessed 21 former blue-chip recruits, meaning ostensibly a quarter of their roster was comprised of four-star or better prospects. That season, ASU combined a handful of important holdovers from early Graham classes, like four-star recruits D.J. Foster and current-senior Demario Richard, with transfers and former blue-chips like Christian Westerman and Devin Lucien, to form the richest class of talent in recent program history.

All of the talent was supposed to generate a perfect storm that would allow ASU's resurgence to continue, but the storm turned out to be a natural disaster.

Though ASU's 2015 recruiting class yielded an impressive return, the vast majority of players weren't immediately able to step in and contribute. Furthermore, in 2015, the Sun Devils strayed away from signing junior college talent, as the program landed just three JUCO prospects, only one of whom, Tim White, wound up sticking at ASU.

The combination of high-quality, but youthful talent mixed with the fact most of ASU's stunningly successful 2013 junior college class had exhausted its eligibility left the Sun Devils in a desperate search for valuable assets. As successful as the Sun Devils were recruiting JUCO prospects early in the Graham era, they were surprisingly inept when it came to recruiting defensive backs from the high school ranks. 

While ASU loaded up on the likes of Strong, Hardison and others, it severely misevaluated high school talent in the secondary. Without Randall left to cover up the deficiencies in the defensive backfield, the Sun Devils lacked any semblance of depth and finished dead last in the FBS in passing defense. In 2015, ASU lost fourth quarter leads against Utah, Oregon, Washington State, Cal and West Virginia. 

After a 6-7 finish in 2015, Norvell departed the program to become the head coach at Memphis, bringing with him a pair of ASU assistants, Chip Long and Chris Ball. These departures coupled with the loss of defensive line coach Jackie Shipp to Missouri at the end of the season halted ASU's momentum on the recruiting trail, and led the Sun Devils to sign another junior college-heavy class.

Unlike in 2013, however, the Sun Devils were unable to match their success recruiting junior college talent. Even though ASU finished with the top JUCO class nationally, the program didn't lure enough immediate impact players to offset the severe shortcomings in the secondary created by failed evaluations of high school prospects earlier in Graham's tenure.

As a result, the Sun Devils again posted the worst passing defense in the country, and with a young offensive line, a new starting quarterback and a rash of injuries that affected nearly every position group, ASU lost six straight games to end the season and finished 5-7. 

Even though the Sun Devils culminated the 2016 season in considerably worse fashion than they had two years earlier, Graham and his staff managed to put the pieces in place to build toward the future.

Following a 56-35 humbling at the hands of the Arizona Wildcats in November, the program still enjoyed a foundation of young talent poised to emerge in the coming seasons. In the 2014 and 2015 recruiting classes, ASU landed a combined 16 four-star recruits, and by the end of the 2016 season, the Sun Devils had 12 former blue-chip players from those classes poised to return in 2017. 

Heading into this season, the Sun Devils could have as many as 25 blue chip players on the roster: 12 veteran with more than a year of experience; four 2016 blue-chip signees including Freshman All-American N'Keal Harry; former blue-chip FBS transfer Ryan Newsome; 2016 signee Doug Subtyl; and seven new four-star recruits set to enroll. That would be at least three more in total than they've had at any other point during the Internet era.

Editor's Note: 2018 includes projected returning maximum eligibility blue-chip players. This projection and the projection of 2017 blue-chip players are subject to change. 

Building toward the future

After navigating the first three years of the Graham era without the requisite blue-chip talent to perennially compete in the Pac-12 South, the Sun Devils have steadily added to the program's overall depth.

When the Sun Devils won the Pac-12 South title in 2013, several unlikely factors contributed to the team's sudden rise.

Graham was able to incorporate offensive and defensive schemes that complimented the program's existing talent, capitalizing on the dual-threat nature of a quarterback like Kelly, the pass-rushing threat of a combination featuring Sutton and Bradford, and a defensive scheme loaded with impressive defensive backs like Osahon Irabor and Robert Nelson capable of handling challenging man-to-man conflict assignments. 

Additionally, the Sun Devils supplemented the existing talent on the roster with 10 junior college recruits in the 2012 and 2013 classes who became starters, seven of whom became multi-year starters. 

The Sun Devils' 10-win seasons in 2013 and 2014 also coincided with the Lane Kiffin-Steve Sarkisian era at USC, the conference's top historical juggernaut, which stepped down from its pedestal atop the conference under Kiffin and Sarkisian's leadership.

However, even as the Sun Devils ascended, their formula that aided the rise to the top of the Pac-12 South wasn't built to last. To compete with USC and UCLA on an annual basis, ASU needs to come as close as possible to matching its South Division counterparts during the talent acquisition process, which is why securing such highly-rated classes in 2014 and 2015 was imperative for the future of the program.

In many ways, following the 2014 season, the Sun Devils were destined to fail to live up to expectations. After securing the nation's 17th-rated recruiting class in back-to-back years, 2014 and 2015, the vast majority of ASU's blue-chip talent was still in the early stages of its development. Meanwhile, some of the hallmark junior college players of the Graham era departed for the NFL, leaving the program in an unlikely position to succeed.

Prior to the 2015 season, Graham was outspoken about his belief that he had assembled the best version of the Sun Devils to date. However, ASU's roster wasn't as structurally sound as it appeared, and it certainly wasn't as talented as its peers in the Pac-12. Furthermore, ASU endured a changing of the guard at quarterback, as Kelly, a three-year starter, gave way to Mike Bercovici.

Graham touted the program's veteran leadership, led by the trio of Bercovici, Foster and safety Jordan Simone, but by the end of the year, the team learned leadership wasn't nearly enough. Even though ASU set an Internet era program-record with 21 former blue chip recruits on the roster in 2015, eight more than the 13 blue-chippers on the 2014 roster, only three of the 21 players were returning starters.

The very fact ASU had 21 former blue-chip players on the roster in 2015, though, showed the program was building toward talent stability. If ASU could help its highest-touted prospects develop in 2015 and 2016, while steadily adding to the overall depth with more blue-chip prospects in its next two recruiting classes, the stage would theoretically be set for a return to prominence in 2017.

Though ASU only added five blue-chip prospects in its 2016 signing class, including Subtyl, the Sun Devils were able to overcome more coaching turnover this offseason by adding seven four-star recruits in 2017. 

Furthermore, ASU still has the possibility of adding to its blue-chip ratio with the addition of post-grad transfers or FBS transfers who will become eligible in 2018. 

Still, the main difference between the number of blue-chip prospects the Sun Devils had on the team's roster in 2015 compared to its current roster entering the spring of 2017 is the number of players with starting experience. In 2015, ASU had just three returning starters who were four-star prospects. In 2017, ASU will have nine blue-chippers with starting experience, as well as four former blue-chip quarterbacks battling for the starting job.

Additionally, after finishing with the 2014 and 2015 recruiting cycles with the top-rated classes in program history, ASU enters 2017 with several key three-star recruits returning as upperclassmen with starting experience. Veterans like junior linebacker Christian Sam, junior cornerback Kareem Orr and junior safety Armand Perry are all back, while on offense, the Sun Devils return junior wide receiver Jalen Harvey, senior running back Kalen Ballage, and junior offensive linemen Sam Jones and Quinn Bailey, all three-star recruits from the program's 2014 signing class.

More importantly, in 2018, the Sun Devils stand to lose just four blue-chip prospects from their roster, as Richard, defensive lineman Tashon Smallwood, linebacker D.J. Calhoun, and junior college transfer, safety J'Marcus Rhodes, are the only four players whose eligibility will be exhausted after this season. Of course, much will change between January of 2017 and August of 2018. One or two of ASU's blue-chip quarterbacks may elect to transfer, others could follow in the footsteps of four-star running back Jason Lewis and pursue an opportunity elsewhere, or a former blue-chipper could depart for the NFL Draft, but right now, ASU isn't slated to lose much.

Entering spring practices in 2017, the Sun Devils will have more blue-chip prospects at their disposal than ever before in the Pac-12, and the groundwork has been laid for the program to continue trending in that direction. If the Sun Devils are slated to lose just four blue-chip players after the season, a successful 2018 recruiting class flush with top-end talent will allow the program to build on the foundation the 2014 and 2015 recruiting classes helped set.

Though ASU will once again need to bounce back with a sub .500 season by shoring up the nation's worst pass defense and determining which quarterback is best suited to lead the team's offense, the Sun Devils have prioritized adding blue-chip talent at those units to better position the program for the future.

Unlike in 2015, when the Sun Devils were essentially locked in to start Bercovici, a former three-star recruit, the Sun Devils will have four four-star prospects as well as local three-star Bryce Perkins battling for the starting quarterback job. In the secondary, ASU returns three starters, Perry, Orr and senior Marcus Ball, a former three-star prospect, but signed three four-star defensive backs in 2017.

In fall camp, four-star signees Evan FieldsK.J. Jarrell and Alex Perry will all battle for playing time, while 2016 four-star signee Chase Lucas will also factor into the competition in the defensive backfield after redshirting in his first season with the program.  

While some of ASU's blue-chip talent remains young and may not be able to factor in right away, even the nation's elite programs have four and five-star talent who take time to adjust to the demands of playing at the Power 5 level before they're able to contribute. 

The point is, by adding more high-level talent to the program in the last four recruiting cycles, ASU has positioned itself for a much more successful future than it did in the early years of Graham's tenure. With 25 blue-chip prospects in the program, the Sun Devils have four times as many former four-star prospects eligible to contribute than they did in Graham's first two seasons. 

Though ASU will undoubtedly suffer some form of attrition, the Sun Devils already can already project having 21 blue-chip prospects on the roster in 2018, 15 in 2019, and eight in 2020, which still outpaces the six Graham had in 2012 and 2013. 

Whether Graham and his staff can turn the prospects into playmakers remains to be seen, but the steady uptick in blue-chip signees has allowed ASU to work toward closing the vast talent gap that existed between the Sun Devils and the nation's elite programs when Graham first arrived.


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