BY: ED COLE
GLENDALE, Ariz. – Despite all the coaches who departed the Arizona State football program for positions elsewhere, the team landed 18 new student-athletes that head coach Todd Graham feels will help the program bounce back from a very disappointing 6-7 season.
“You know, I’m just being honest, it doesn’t help you to lose coaches, even though it’s a positive, guy getting a head coaching job, guys getting coordinator jobs,” Graham said. “So that’s great, you want that for your coaches. But it doesn’t help, especially the timing of it and you can’t do much about the timing of it.”
“But, you know, with that, I think it speaks volumes about where our program it is, the respect our program has and being able to hang on to these guys,” Graham said. “I think we could have easily had a top-15 class if you don’t have that, but that’s just part of it.”
“I think it’s a great testimony of our players, the stability, and the foundation that we’ve laid here. Because it was a challenge,” Graham said.
Graham’s been all over the country, and in and out of countless homes visiting with potential recruits and their families. As he said, it was a challenge, and a very long stretch of travel and work, but it’s paid off with the high level of talent the Sun Devils have secured for next season and hopefully beyond.
Of the 18 student-athletes Arizona State signed, 10 of them are freshmen, one is a sophomore, and seven of them are juniors. What’s helped with this very difficult recruiting process is the fact that eight of the student-athletes are early enrollees.
“If you’re going to have turnover, that’s probably a pretty good plan, which I didn’t plan that, but I act like I did,” Graham said. “We put it together early and we would have liked to have added some guys and we were battling, we were in quite a few battles around and, but, that didn’t help any. But I think it also speaks volumes of the character of the young men we are recruiting and how they feel about ASU, none of them, they told us the whole time they never wavered so that was a big positive for us is keeping that class together.”
Graham has always been big on recruiting locally and getting the best talent in the JUCO circuit, and he landed some of the best athletes the country has to offer.
Let’s start locally: Arizona State got commitments from Chandler wide receiver N’Keal Harry, who was the No. 1 prospect in the state of Arizona, and the No. 1 wide receiving prospect in the United States. The Sun Devils also got a commitment from Harry’s teammate with the Wolves, defensive back Chase Lucas, who was the No. 4 prospect in Arizona by ESPN. To close it out from an Arizona point of view, Arizona State got a commitment from Centennial guard Marshal Nathe. Nathe just came off a Division I State Championship win with the Coyotes, and was regarded as the No. 1 guard prospect in the state by Scout.
Graham talked about Harry, Lucas and Nathe, and how excited he is to have all three young men on his roster for 2016.
Graham on Harry: “I can’t tell you how excited I am about this young man (Harry), I can’t tell you how much I’ve worried about this young man, over the time. I mean, this guy is special,” Graham said. “To be able to sign the number one player in the state and the number one wide receiver in the country is pretty special.”
“6-4, 200 pounds, got size, speed, explosive, physicality, a guy that can, we think, be very impactful, get on the field pretty quick and just, I love his spirit,” Graham said.
Graham on Lucas: “Chase (Lucas) is a guy that — I love his spirit, they call him the CEO of the New Devils Order, and I love his spirit and enthusiasm and a guy that loves his community,” Graham said. “I think that says a lot about guys that could go anywhere that choose to say here. That’s something they will reap the benefits of.”
Graham on Nathe: “Marshal (Nathe) is a guy that took him every bit of three seconds when we offered him a scholarship to accept, I like that,” Graham said. “I like guys that want to be a part of what we’re doing here and a guy that came in mid-semester. He’s already here working out and great family, parents, both fire fighters, and just tremendous young man, and one of the things I like about him is you look down there and you see what his team did. This guy came from a team that won a state championship, and he’s used to winning state championships, and a guy that embodies all of the things that we are about and brings great size and a guy that will develop quickly for us.”
The eight-member junior college signing class Arizona State has coming in is rated as the No. 1 JUCO class in the country. Six of the JUCO prospects – center A.J. McCollum, punter Michael Sleep-Dalton, defensive end Dougladson Subtyl, cornerback Maurice Chandler, cornerback J’Marcus Rhodes, defensive end Christian Hill – were ranked within the nation’s top three players at their respective positions.
There were quite a few needs Graham and his staff had to address moving toward this upcoming season. The team lost four of its starting five offensive linemen, so Graham was in need of players that could play multiple positions across the front, be it center, or guard or tackle, and he feels he got that in Nathe, McCollum, Cohl Cabral and Tyson Rising.
The Sun Devils only have three quarterbacks on scholarship for 2016 – Bryce Perkins, Brady White and Manny Wilkins. Graham wanted someone else to come in and compete for that coveted starting position, and he feels he found the one in Dillon Sterling-Cole, from Westfield High School in Houston, Texas.
Graham studied Sterling-Cole thoroughly, and he was enamored with what he brought to the table, and he can’t wait to see him battle it out with Perkins, White and Wilkins starting with spring ball.
“When we went and sat down and evaluated quarterbacks, this guy (Sterling-Cole) was my number one pick and that’s all over the country,” Graham said. “This was the guy that I thought would possess the skills that we were looking for. What I like as well is this guy can really throw the football, but he can also really extend plays with his legs. So he’s a guy that we’re looking forward to seeing him jump in here and get in this competition.”
At the running back position, Graham was in search of someone quick, and someone who could break ankles and break tackles, and he found that someone in Tre Turner from Holy Cross High School in New Orleans, La. Turner will also play baseball for the Sun Devils.
Arizona State got a solid tight end commitment in Jared Bubak, who’s from Lincoln Christian High School in Lincoln, Neb. Graham loves Bubak’s “character, discipline, physicality, toughness,” and that he’s “smart.” Graham likes his size (6-4, 230) and he believes Bubak will be someone who will be a major piece in the Sun Devil offense for years to come.
Speed is the name of the game when it comes to Arizona State’s wide receivers, and they’ll have that and more with Harry, Jeremy Smith and Kyle Williams. Graham believes each one of these young men will destroy defenses with their blazing speed.
Defensively, Arizona State was in desperate need of secondary help. They struggled mightily last season in trying to stop opposing quarterbacks and their targets. But, even more important than that, the defense was in dire straits when it came to getting to, and bringing down, quarterbacks.
Both of those areas were given attention to, and players were signed who can hopefully sure up those gaping holes.
“We needed to recruit and bring on some experience there, and, man, I think we really did some great things there defensively when you look at what (defensive coordinator coach) (Keith) Patterson and his group were able to put together in the back end as well as guys that can impact the quarterback,” Graham said.
Besides Lucas, Hill, Subtyl, Rhodes and Chandler, Arizona State signed defensive back Robbie Robinson out of DeMatha High School.
“Defensive backwise, one of the things in particular, when we are recruiting we are looking for the best and the brightest with the best character that best fit us, guys with character and discipline and guys that are tough,” Graham said. “Obviously we want them to have great explosive power and speed.”
Last, but certainly not least, the Sun Devils got an Aussie punter in Sleep-Dalton, who Graham lovingly refers to as “Sleepy.”
Sleep-Dalton surely doesn’t kick like he’s asleep. He’s a rugby-style kicker who can use either foot to kick with, and he was rated as the No. 1 JUCO punter in the nation.
Graham is looking to team Sleep-Dalton up with Matt Haack and hopefully pin opposing teams deep with each and every kick.
“(A) guy (Sleep-Dalton) that has saved money from Australia and saved money to be able to come to the states and go to school and have a chance to earn a scholarship to punt and has a great story,” Graham said. “A tremendous athlete. So we’re looking forward to some things we can do with Sleepy.”
Of course, Graham would’ve loved to have landed each and every player they scouted out, but, in this day and age of kids flipping schools like they do on and around National Signing Day, it’s impossible to do so.
With that being said, Graham is extremely happy with the haul he’s gotten this week, but he and his staff aren’t done. This recruiting thing is a 24/7, 365-day-a-year job. There’s always talent out there to be had, and the Sun Devils will continually run after it.
“We’re never finished,” Graham said. “Last year we added a couple of guys that were fairly impactful late. You know, like I say, we are looking for the best and the brightest with the best character that fit our program and we feel good about this group here and we feel like we met our needs today so we’ll see what happens moving forward.”