Todd Graham is ready to start the 2014 football season.
Fresh from a vacation in Hawaii following National Signing Day, the ASU head coach seemed rejuvenated in a state of the program meeting with beat reporters Tuesday.
As spring practices commence March 18, Graham wanted to deliver a message to fans on what they should look for in 2014.
“I want the fans to know we’ve laid a great foundation,” Graham said. “The expectation (is), we’re going to be better.”
Graham’s first season in 2012 was all about selling his expectations to players, fans and recruits. The 2013 campaign focused on substantializing his culture. With this year’s recruiting class being the first that he believed was “championship caliber,” Graham wants to take his third season to the next level.
The team’s motto this year is “Unfinished Business,” which appropriately describes ASU’s mission to return to the Pac-12 Championship Game. The Sun Devils finished 10-4 (8-1 Pac-12) last season but lost to Stanford in the conference title game hosted in Tempe.
“Anything less than double-digit wins is not going to (fly),” Graham said. “This should be our best year on the football field.”
Graham hardly seemed worried about the fact the team lost nine defensive starters. He knows losing players to graduation every year is part of coaching college football, but teams get better by developing their younger players. Graham pointed out Stanford still improved despite losing quarterback Andrew Luck after the 2011 season.
“Two years ago, Will Sutton wasn’t all-conference,” Graham said. “Carl Bradford didn’t even play. We’re not closing up fort because people graduate.”
Instead of worrying about filling the voids on defense, Graham said the key to success this season is maintaining relationships with the players and the coaching staff. He was pleased with hiring new co-defensive coordinator Keith Patterson, who Graham has had a long friendship with dating back to when they were college roommates at East Central University. Graham said players still stop by his office every day.
That’s what Graham is focusing on at the moment, and ASU recently made a big hire to reinforce it.
Graham announced during the meeting that the team hired Patrick Suddes as vice president of player personnel. Suddes previously served as the director of player personnel at Texas under legendary coach Mack Brown. He also worked under Nick Saban at Alabama and with the Miami Dolphins.
Graham said the team had to battle several schools — including a couple from the SEC — to get Suddes on board.
“Patrick is a big, big hire,” Graham said. “We did that search like we were looking for an offensive coordinator. We’re just as excited about that position. He’s in charge of personnel development, recruiting, everything about our program internally and externally. He will be very involved in evaluation and those type of things.”
Graham is excited about a number of returning players already showing promise toward the future and expects redshirt junior linebacker Antonio Longino and senior defensive lineman Marcus Hardison to have breakout years. Graham also said the developments of redshirt junior Christian Westerman, redshirt sophomore Evan Goodman, junior Nick Kelly and redshirt sophomore Stephon McCray should bolster the offensive line. The team is also stacked at linebacker with redshirt sophomore Laiu Moeakiola, sophomore Chans Cox, sophomore Alani Latu and sophomore Viliami Latu expected to have bigger roles.
“Our leadership is going to be better,” Graham said. “I like young, and I like hungry. That’s what we are. That’s what we’re going to be on defense.”
The next step for Graham is to get everyone back on the field with spring camp starting in three weeks. Graham knows this is a critical time for a program with nothing but championships in its sights.
“Between now and when we report for summer program is the most important time for guys that are here and guys that are not here, developing and having them ready,” Graham said. “Championships are won in January and February and March.”
– Graham said he didn’t believe having a coordinator specifically for special teams worked well for his program. He expects the new system of having assistants from both sides of the ball managing their respective end of special teams should improve that area.
– Graham said Patterson will call plays on defense, but Graham assured he would still have hands-on control.
– Graham said redshirt freshman safety Marcus Ball (clavicle) will still be limited throughout spring practice.
– Graham said the only thing he would redo from last season was not letting freshman punter Matt Haack start the entire season.
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