Graham faces challenges to re-earn Sun Devil Nation’s trust

Mar 3, 2016, 7:00 AM | Updated: 4:01 pm
Arizona State head coach Todd Graham watches from the sideline during the first half of an NCAA col...
Arizona State head coach Todd Graham watches from the sideline during the first half of an NCAA college football game against Washington State, Saturday, Nov. 7, 2015, in Pullman, Wash. (AP Photo/Young Kwak)
(AP Photo/Young Kwak)

TEMPE, Ariz. — Todd Graham won’t admit it, but he is facing his biggest challenge since his first season as Arizona State’s football coach in 2012.

The Sun Devils are coming off a 6-7 season (Graham’s worst in Tempe), they lost six assistant coaches, they’ll have a new quarterback, a revamped offensive line, a revamped secondary and for the first time since Graham’s arrival, there are questions about the direction of the program.

“I feel good about where we’re at as far as the foundation that we have laid,” Graham said as he finished a forkful of pasta at his annual spring luncheon with select media members on Wednesday at the Carson Student-Athlete Center. “You get knocked down, you get back up. I’m ready to get back up and get to playing some games.”

The biggest concern for ASU will be identifying a starting quarterback from among redshirt sophomore Manny Wilkins and sophomores Brady White and Bryce Perkins, but Graham noted that he’s been in this situation before at ASU and it worked out well.

When he arrived, Brock Osweiler had just departed a year early for the NFL and the Sun Devils had an open competition between three unproven underclassmen: Taylor Kelly, Michael Eubank and Mike Bercovici.

“It’s a process that we’ll go through that is very similar,” Graham said. “We’ve got to find the guy that separates himself; that elevates everybody else on that field.”

Graham is also facing the losses of starting offensive linemen Christian Westerman, Nick Kelly, Vi Teofilo, William McGehee, top cornerback Lloyd Carrington and safety Jordan Simone, the leader of the secondary.

Compounding those losses were the defections of six assistants, who left largely for better opportunities. Former offensive coordinator Mike Norvell was named the head coach at Memphis. He took ASU tight ends coach Chip Long with him to become his offensive coordinator, and he took co-defensive coordinator and safeties coach Chris Ball to become his defensive coordinator and call plays, something he didn’t do in Tempe. Those were arguably ASU’s top three recruiters.

Kodi Burns, the running backs coach Graham hired in January, left to become the co-offensive coordinator and receivers coach at Auburn, where he is expected to more than double his salary. Recruiting coordinator Patrick Suddes left for a similar position and a salary increase at Auburn, and defensive line coach Jackie Shipp took the same job and a pay raise at Missouri.

In their place are offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey — who coached in the team’s bowl game — defensive line coach Joe Seumalo, wide receivers coach Jay Norvell, defensive backs coach T.J. Rushing and running backs coach John Simon (ASU has not replaced Suddes).

“When I first came here I had a certain amount of funds and resources and things that were here,” Graham said, holding his hand two feet above the ground.

“Now my resources are here,” he said, raising his hand another two feet. “I’m hiring these guys with different resources … I think we have an opportunity to really get better.”

Perhaps Graham’s greatest challenge will be selling Sun Devil Nation again on the potential of this program. Graham soured many fans last season when he refused to shy away from preseason National Championship talk from national media, then staggered to his worst season as ASU’s coach.

Don’t expect Graham to change, however. That is who he is and that is the type of marketing this program needs as it renovates Sun Devil Stadium and seeks to capture a notoriously fickle market.

“From the time we walked in the door, from the first meeting at which some people snickered, we (said) our program is going to be about winning championships,” Graham said. “Why would it be about anything else?

“We weren’t saying anything different (last season). The expectations externally changed because of where you’re ranked and the success we’d had, but I don’t apologize for that. I want to get back to that.”

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