Through the ASU football team’s seven-game winning streak, coach Todd Graham said he’s been trying to accomplish his four-year plan of building a winning program in his first two years.
It’s finally paying off.
Graham was named the Pac-12 Coach of the Year, the conference announced Monday.
In Graham’s second campaign, he led the No. 11 Sun Devils to a 10-2 (8-1 Pac-12) record en route to ASU’s first Pac-12 South title with a chance to win the Pac-12 Championship and a berth to the Rose Bowl on Saturday. ASU is 18-7 under Graham and has won its last eight road games. As beating rival UA is a major goal for the Sun Devils every season, Graham is also 2-0 in the Territorial Cup.
Although it was Graham’s second coach of the year honor (his other recognition was at Rice in Conference USA) he looked focused during his weekly press conference Monday. Graham refused to take all credit for his award.
“I’m extremely honored to receive that, but that is a deal that is very reflective to our staff,” he said. “That’s a coaching staff recognition. I’m very proud of our guys.”
Graham said the first thing he did after being notified was to congratulate offensive coordinator Mike Norvell, who is a finalist for the Frank Broyles Award for the most outstanding assistant head coach in the nation. Graham also thanked head coach of sports performance Shawn Griswold for the team’s conditioning and went on to say it was a win for the coaching staff.
“That’s the best group I could ever ask for,” he said.
ASU’s success under Graham was a dramatic turnaround for both the school and the head coach following the end of the 2011 season. Amid criticism for his abrupt decision to leave Pittsburgh to take the ASU coaching job, Graham said he felt blessed to inherit a talented team. The Sun Devils went 6-7 the season before he arrived.
“Two years ago, I was the luckiest guy in the country to get an opportunity to come here and coach these players,” Graham said. “I knew this was a great place that had tremendous potential.”
Redshirt senior defensive tackle Will Sutton retained his Pac-12 Pat Tillman Defensive Player of the Year honor.
Sutton, who contemplated forgoing his senior season to pursue a career in the NFL Draft before announcing his return in the offseason, recorded 42 tackles (10.5 for loss), three sacks and a fumble recovery. He also had an interception on Nov. 9 at Utah that sealed the Sun Devils’ 20-19 win over the Utes.
“We’re very thrilled to keep the Pat Tillman Defensive Player of the Year right here at Arizona State,” Graham said. “That’s one of our main goals every year. That bears the name of a great Sun Devil, and we want that to be a trophy won by one of our players each year. To do that, you know our emphasis on defense, and the foundation of our program is that mentality.”
The Pac-12’s decision took Sutton by surprise.
“Coach Graham called me last night, and I thought I was in trouble,” Sutton said. “I was like, ‘Oh dang. Should I answer or not?’ When he told me, I sounded like a kid on Christmas. My voice was high-pitched. I didn’t think I would get Defensive Player of the Year again, because my numbers were down.”
The honors didn’t stop there.
Sutton was also added onto the All-Pac-12 First Team for the second year in the row. Joining Sutton on the first team were senior safety Alden Darby, redshirt senior defensive back Robert Nelson, Jr., senior tight end Chris Coyle, senior offensive lineman Evan Finkenberg and freshman kicker Zane Gonzalez.
Redshirt junior quarterback Taylor Kelly, senior running back Marion Grice, redshirt sophomore wide receiver Jaelen Strong, redshirt junior offensive lineman Jamil Douglas, redshirt junior linebacker Carl Bradford, senior linebacker Chris Young and redshirt senior defensive back Osahon Irabor represented the Sun Devils on the second team.
“(Young) is probably one of the most underrated players in the Pac-12,” Sutton said. “If you really watch film on (Young), you’ll see he’s a real talented linebacker.”
On the Pac-12 Honorable Mention list, redshirt senior defensive end Davon Coleman, redshirt senior defensive end Gannon Conway, sophomore running back D.J. Foster and redshirt junior tight end De’Marieya Nelson rounded up the Sun Devils’ season honors.
Outside of the yearly awards, Gonzalez and redshirt junior safety Damarious Randall were also named as Pac-12 Players of the Week. Gonzalez hit three field goals and seven extra-points in the Sun Devils’ 58-21 win over UA last Saturday. Randall recorded 12 tackles and a critical pick-six against the Wildcats.
Thirteen ASU players placed on All-Pac-12 teams, the most out of any other school in the conference. The clear theme for ASU, however, is that the players aren’t playing for themselves.
The only that matters for the Sun Devils is winning championships.
“This season is a great season,” Sutton said. “We wish we didn’t have these two losses. You come walking around this building, and one of our goals is (winning) a national championship. Getting those two losses, that kind of took away that goal but we’re on pace on our other two goals. We’re playing in the Pac-12 Championship Game, and if we come out against Stanford and really play our game and come out victorious, that’s a checkmark done and we’re going to the Rose Bowl.”
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