Class is in session: Welcome to ASU coach Todd Graham's school of football

How has head coach Todd Graham molded the culture at ASU?

Welcome to Todd Graham's school of football at ASU.

Class is back in session.

Graham is entering his fourth season in Tempe, one in which he feels he finally has put his stamp on the program.

They limited penalties by promoting discipline. Their high-wire defensive scheme made their defense one of the best in the country in forcing turnovers. Most importantly, they won.

ASU has won 28 games in three seasons under Graham, including the school's first Pac-12 South title in 2013, which also earned him Pac-12 Coach of the Year honors. They're coming off back-to-back 10-win seasons, with some even going so far as to picking them to win the Pac-12 and earn a spot in the College Football Playoff.

So what is this program like?

Select media were invited to view the program from the inside out Friday.

The day began at 7 a.m. (though it may have started even earlier for others) for team meetings. 

It's early, but the energy and vibrance of the program is extremely present.

The first face to arrive is deputy head coach and offensive coordinator Mike Norvell. He, by all accounts on the practice field and in-game, is a humble and stern leader.

He's loud, but not cheery. Not off the field, however.

"Today's going to be my best day ever, Berkieeee!" he sings to starting quarterback Mike Bercovici.

Coach Norvell was just Mike. The day hadn't really begun yet.

The team meetings begin in the theater in front of the whole team, which piles in and fits into seemingly assigned positions. There's chatter and jokes exchanged. It's not all-business.

However, one thing stands out that is written on the whiteboard.

1-0.

Graham walks in and the chatter immediately stops. He has their attention.

His opening statement is simple: Elite, dominant, playmakers.

It echoes Graham's statements from when camp opened Wednesday.

"Elite, dominant, playmakers," Graham said. "Elite is how we think. Dominant is how we play our fundamentals. Playmaker is how we finish every play. We talk about not doing your best, but being elite. Our goal is obviously the Sun Devil way, 100 percent."

Impact

Graham's tone shifts from his usual harshness and criticism. He speaks about impact and perspective, including an anecdote that, to him, stands out above the rest.

He spoke of an ASU fan whose impact reached beyond the average fan. The fan, a Navy SEAL squad leader, speaks often of the team in conversations with Graham, he said, eagerly anticipating the season and the accomplishments that are to come.

"Tell those kids how proud I am of them," he told Graham.

Graham uses another anecdote from the day before involving senior wide receiver D.J. Foster and a Scottsdale Pop Warner football team. Graham told Foster, who played his high school football in Scottsdale, to pick a player to sign gloves for. Foster told Graham he chose the player who maintained eye contact with him during his entire speech.

Graham knows why. It's the same principle he holds at his own practices.

"Your eyes are the window to that heart," Graham tells his players. "That is how our mind is elite."

Elite is a key principle to Graham's program. It's one of his three principles, and something he hopes his players embody in all that they do.

"Elite is how we think," he said. "Elite is our attitude."

The hallmark of ASU's program in its first three Todd Graham seasons has been its emphasis on discipline. After ranking near the bottom of the NCAA among FBS teams in penalty yardage in each of the last few seasons under former coach Dennis Erickson, Graham has put the Sun Devils near the top.

Erickson's Sun Devils were defined by his easygoing attitude and talented, but troubled players like former linebacker Vontaze Burfict. Personal fouls were commonplace, as were mental errors.

Not with Graham. 

In the meeting, he holds his players to a higher standard. 

If anyone loses composure, Graham said, "You're going to see me."

Surely enough, Friday's practice featured a brief verbal altercation in between players. The players involved quickly saw Graham, as well as Norvell.

"You'll never be physical without being mentally tough," Graham said. "The key theme is discipline."

The reason for holding such a high standard for his players is clear.

"When everything is going good for you, it's easy to have good character," he said. "It's when things aren't going good that matters."

Graham has been critical of his players, which is something he admits openly. However, he said he feels it's done with good reason.

"If some short, fat, 50-year-old man can rattle your cage, you're not fit to play this game," he said.

The stern tone is not uncommon from Graham, but also not the full description of the head coach.

The Texas native is no stranger to jokes— riding in the back of a golf cart with shades down and legs kicked up on the way to practice or asking reporters what their plans are for Taco Tuesday.

He ends his speech as such.

"How do we have fun?" Graham asked his players. "Kicking people's a--!"

Heeding Expert Advice 

Next up is special teams, with new coordinator Shawn Slocum. 

The former Green Bay Packers special teams coordinator's tenure ended unceremoniously at his last stop. Many people couldn't shake the memory of a botched onside kick in last season's NFC Championship Game.

The first piece of game film he shows his new players is from that game. He points out that, despite the error, the team held the Seattle Seahawks within their own 20-yard-line on each return for the game. But nobody remembers that, of course.

As he begins to break down the specifics of their kickoff coverage, he stops. 

"Today is a game," he said. "Today is a gladiator battle."

As is the case with the rest of the program, fundamentals are key. But intensity is arguably more important.

He points out the depth chart for the day, but not without one critical point.

"If your name's not on there, do something to show it needs to be on there," he said.

Slocum hasn't been with the program long, but Graham is quick to point out that he may be the team's most critical offseason addition.

"Shawn has brought a phenomenal professionalism and it also activates the players (having him in the meetings)," Graham told reporters Friday. "He's been there for ten years and he's just a great teacher and a great coach. There's a lot of people that can coach and that can teach, but he and I have a 25-year relationship that we come from the same background and the same coaching philosophy.

"He's not just a special teams coach. He and (offensive line coach) Chris Thomsen have really served as my associates that I really work with that help develop me and help improve things that we're doing."

Welcome to the "No Fly Zone"

After special teams wrapped up it was time for the secondary meetings with co-defensive coordinator Chris Ball.

The defense, nicknamed the "No Fly Zone" during Graham's tenure, has become known as one of the most aggressive units in the country and forced 27 turnovers (14 interceptions, 13 fumbles).

The perfect counterbalance to the defense's hyper-aggressive attack? Discipline.

This is evident from the beginning of the meeting. No player sat down until instructed to by Ball. All eyes peered in his direction, absorbing every word. The second he brings up fourth down, all the hands in the room go up and form a fist.

"That's our down," he said. "That's a takeaway."

The stars of the meeting are the most evident because of their participation. Redshirt senior safety Jordan Simone, the team's defensive captain, peppers Ball with questions from the front of the classroom. 

Redshirt junior linebacker Laiu Moeakiola, who one could argue was the glue for ASU's defense in 2014, often follows with his own questions.

Graham's voice booms from the room next door as he coaches the linebackers. 

Posters and signage line the walls, including one marking some of the top safeties and secondary players in ASU history. Former Sun Devil Damarious Randall's name might be up there soon.

As the meeting wraps up, Simone yells, "Bird gang!" in the halls. It's practice time.

A new era

Friday is the first time that ASU has used full pads in fall camp. It's also the first time that the veterans and newcomers have practiced together.

The result is an instant impact. The second play from scrimmage in 11-on-11 play goes the distance, a Bercovici bullet to redshirt junior wide receiver Fred Gammage, who took the quick screen all the way for a touchdown.

The energy gradually fades as the practice continued on, causing Graham to even stop the practice at one point.

"I want your energy!" he shouts to his defense.

Bercovici chimes in with something to say after every snap. 

The first play after the stoppage? Redshirt freshman linebacker Ismael Murphy-Richardson burst through the gap for a sack.

The energy is rewarded, and has been throughout Graham's tenure. Simone, Moeakiola, redshirt senior cornerback Lloyd Carrington and redshirt sophomore safety James Johnson have work "PT42" jerseys at points this fall camp, meant to honor the players who embody Pat Tillman's spirit and the principles Graham has put forth in his time at ASU.

Friday's practice honored this summer's "Dirty Dozen," players who stood out during summer conditioning and workouts: Foster, Simone, redshirt junior tight end Kody Kohl, sophomore linebacker/running back Kalen Ballage, redshirt senior wide receiver Gary Chambers, redshirt senior center Nick Kelly, redshirt senior guard Christian Westerman, redshirt senior linebacker Antonio Longino, Moeakiola, sophomore linebacker Christian Sam, redshirt freshman defensive lineman Renell Wren and redshirt freshman lineman Quinn Bailey.

The numbers speak for themselves. This is a drastically different program than the one Graham walked into when he was hired in Dec. 2011.

"People say, 'Are you surprised?' and I'm usually not, but I have been with this job," Graham told reporters. "Our coaches have done a great job of getting the right guys and taking the guys here and transforming them. Now it's just so much easier because we're so much more advanced in the things that we're working."

It took a while once Dennis Erickson left, but the program is finally Graham's.

"When you first come to a program, you've got to really kind of put your (mark)," Graham told reporters. "There's a lot of issues. It doesn't make it right or wrong between my philosophy and somebody else's, but it's just different. That's usually why there's a change.

"You're doing a lot of minimum standard stuff for a year, for two years, and our guys the last three years have been unbelievable."


Reach the reporter at fardaya@asu.edu or follow @fardaya15 on Twitter.

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