After back-to-back sub .500 seasons, sixth-year Arizona State head coach Todd Graham knew he needed to implement sweeping changes to help the Sun Devils bounce back.
On the first day of spring practice, changes abounded for Graham and ASU, starting with the head coach's trip to and from the Sun Devils' practice field.
For the past five years, Graham has made the half-mile venture from the Carson Student-Athlete Center to the Kajikawa practice facility and then back in a golf cart, but at the start of his sixth spring with the program, Graham decided to hoof it, walking back and forth on Tuesday morning before and after the Sun Devils' first spring practice.
"Just trying to stay alive," Graham said when he was asked about the switch in his routine.
It's going to take more than just a brisk walk to and from the practice field on a daily basis to help Graham push past his peers in the Pac-12 footrace in 2017, but Graham's decision to forego a ride was far from the only change apparent at ASU on Tuesday.
When Graham walked through the practice field gates Tuesday morning, he was greeted by five new assistant coaches, including new offensive and defensive coordinators tasked with engineering turnarounds on their respective sides of the ball.
The most striking difference in ASU's first practice this spring was the presence of 39-year coaching veteran Phil Bennett, who assumes the role of defensive coordinator after linebackers coach Keith Patterson was demoted this offseason.
Though Patterson held a defensive coordinator title for the past two seasons, it was Graham who served as the architect of the program's defensive scheme and identity, all while maintaining the final say on personnel and play calls.
With the hire of Bennett, Graham's responsibilities have shifted as he plans to turn over the reins of his defense to Bennett, who was an early mentor to Graham when his coaching career began.
"In the spring I'm helping different areas," Graham said. "I will obviously oversee the whole thing but I'll be involved on both sides of the ball. I spent a lot of time today offensively, obviously execution and things like that, trying to get as much individualized coaching as we can. We have five coaches that are dedicated to defense so I'll spend a lot of time helping where I'm needed offensively and defensively, I'll always be involved there."
Graham has attempted to walk down this road before, but it hasn't exactly gone as planned. Though Patterson was hired by ASU as a defensive coordinator in 2014, Graham waited until the spring of 2016 to try to surrender control of ASU's defense to Patterson.
With then-offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey installing a new playbook and ASU entertaining its first quarterback competition since 2012, Graham felt the time was right for Patterson to assume more responsibility. However, by the time the season began, Graham was back in charge of the Sun Devils' defensive unit, and the result was disastrous.
For the second straight year, ASU finished with the worst pass defense in the country as the Sun Devils lost their final six regular season games. By the end of the year, Graham felt compelled to start from scratch, and hired Bennett to help ASU do so.
In order to lure Bennett to ASU, Graham struck a deal that he wouldn't interfere with the defensive coordinator's process, and on the first day of spring, that plan worked out.
"It's different, coach Graham is pretty much not really involved with any of it, he comes around and talks to us here and there, but he's not really how he used to be," junior defensive lineman Joseph Wicker said. "He's just giving it to coach Bennett and letting him run it. It's nothing really different, it's just different coaches."
Whether Graham is able to remain restrained throughout the spring and into the fall remains to be seen, but with Bennett in charge, ASU is changing its defensive terminology and making slight adjustments to its defensive scheme.
Aside from overseeing all of ASU's defense, Bennett is specifically responsible for working with the Sun Devils' defensive backs in practices.
ASU defensive backs coach T.J. Rushing is still the group's primary position coach, but senior Marcus Ball said Bennett will work with the safeties this spring, which he said will help the group master the new terminology it needs to incorporate.
"He's (Bennett) an amazing coach, he says it all the time, knowledge is power, knowledge is power, you know what I'm saying," Ball said. "He's one of those guys who's going to teach you hard, coach you real hard, give you constructive criticism and he expects you to capitalize after he gives you that criticism, after he educates you. He's a great educator and it's good to have our defensive coordinator back there coaching the safeties because he knows what he's doing with the whole defense, but he has a lot of knowledge."
Players at all three levels of ASU's defense spoke after practice Tuesday about the intensity and passion Bennett brings to coaching. Though he's working in position drills with defensive backs like Ball, veterans like Wicker and junior Christian Sam both felt Bennett was an exciting, enthusiastic coach to learn from on the first day of the spring.
"Coach Graham is the head coach so he has to kind of monitor everything, coach Bennett is with the defense so we can really feel how he wants things and his passion and what he's bringing to the table," Sam said.
After practice, Graham used the labels "high motor" and "high energy" to describe Bennett as if he was talking about the qualities he looks for in a pass rusher, and said he's excited for ASU's defensive players to begin personifying their new coordinator on the field.
Graham and Ball both said this spring is about finding an identity ASU feels confident in, because the sooner the Sun Devils establish their identity on the defensive side of the ball, the faster the unit will be able to compete at a higher level.
"First and foremost, it's establish our identity," Ball said. "That's the thing that we have to do in the spring is establish our identity. Coming in, you have pretty much all new coaches. It's not a secret. The major thing we have to do right now is come together as a brotherhood and establish our identity."
Assembling the puzzle
With change comes experimentation, and while many of ASU's coaches were getting acclimated to a new environment, many of its players were learning different positions.
Ball and Wicker were among the veterans who worked at multiple positions Tuesday, as Graham and Bennett are determined to ascertain which combinations of players gives the Sun Devils the opportunity to be most effective.
Though he's listed at 263 pounds, Wicker said he's slightly north of 270 pounds now and wants to have the ability to play both end and 3-technique this fall.
Wicker started at end last season for the Sun Devils, but following the graduation of Viliami Latu, Wicker could be an asset to ASU in a nickel defense as a defensive tackle.
"I'm playing both, the end and the 3-technique," Wicker said. "That's what our defense is, you just slide and play like that."
Tuesday marked Wicker's first opportunity to work with new defensive line coach Michael Slater in a practice setting, as Slater becomes ASU's third different defensive line coach in three seasons.
Slater was enthusiastic and direct with his coaching points Tuesday, and Wicker said Slater was more in the mold of Jackie Shipp, ASU's defensive line coach in 2015, compared to Joe Seumalo, who coached the unit last season.
"It's cool, to me, it's kind of another coach (Jackie) Shipp, he's (Slater) kind of similar, you hear him, he's kind of loud," Wicker said of Slater.
Like Wicker, Ball played two positions at Tuesday's practice, flipping back and forth between Spur and Down safety, the new name for the position that used to be called Bandit safety prior to Bennett's arrival.
Ball said the responsibilities of the Spur position are different than what they were last year, but that he's comfortable playing at any position the coaching staff wants to look at him in because he's moved around frequently during his career.
"I'm one of those guys, my whole career has been diverse situations," Ball said. "I'm working at whatever coach wants me to work at. I got good looks at Spur, I got good looks at Bandit, we call it the Down safety in our scheme now. I got good looks at both areas and I'm just one of those guys that's going to do whatever the coach tells me and asks me to do."
With ASU short on depth in the secondary, Graham said the Sun Devils are experimenting with looking at Darby as a nickel defender and are considering using Smith at the back end of the defense as a safety.
"We're taking a look at (Frank) Darby at our nickel position, Jeremy Smith at safety, he's another guy that we're taking a look at and we'll make quick decisions with those guys and see where they're at, we're just taking a look at those guys," Graham said.
Last fall, the Sun Devils looked at Kyle Williams, another member of ASU's 2016 signing class, at safety before Williams returned to wide receiver, which is the position he prefers.
After the first day of ASU's spring practice slate concluded, Graham said he was pleased with the synergy of the new coaches on staff and the way the Sun Devils' players responded.
Graham said he's now hired every coach and recruited every player in ASU's program, and that he's excited to work with a more veteran group of players in what's shaping up to be a pivotal season in his tenure.
"Obviously it's not like I'm surprised about anything because I think one of the most important things I do is select players and I think what I've seen today out there is I like the players we've selected," Graham said. "I think we do have speed and explosiveness and I like when you look around out there and everybody is a year older and a lot of people have a lot of experience. A lot more of a veteran team than we've been in the past."
News and notes
- After practice, Graham said junior safety Armand Perry had surgery and would miss the entire spring. Perry battled a turf toe injury for much of the 2016 season.
- Graham said sophomore quarterback Brady White will be out for spring after having surgery following a foot injury he suffered against UCLA in October.
- Sophomore Jalen Bates will be limited this spring after having surgery following an injury suffered in pregame warmups against Washington in November.
- Freshman running back Eno Benjamin will be held out of contact drills this spring after suffering an injury in the U.S. Army All-American Bowl in early January.
- Graham said sophomore offensive lineman Zach Robertson was held out of practice Tuesday for disciplinary reasons.