Don Hansen

Five Steps to Rebuilding Sun Devil Football in 2017

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The past two seasons of Arizona State football have been truly disappointing to Sun Devil Nation. The program has now hit its low point in the Todd Graham era with an embarrassing 56-35 loss in the Territorial Cup. The Sun Devils were run over by the Arizona Wildcats who ran the ball down Arizona State’s throat for 511 yards in the game. With that performance, the four pillars of Sun Devil football, character, smart, discipline, and tough, have crumbled. Not only did the Sun Devils lose the Territorial Cup, the Sun Devils will not go to a bowl game this year. Eighty college football teams will go “bowling” this winter, and the Sun Devils are not part of them. The fan base is upset and humiliated, and Sun Devil fans are wondering if Todd Graham has a plan to turn the Sun Devils around for 2017 and beyond. Here is a possible five-step plan for how the Sun Devil football program, under Todd Graham, can get back on track for 2017 and beyond.

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Step 1:  Get the Program Healthy both Physically and Mentally

Injuries were an issue this entire season. The defense missed the consistency of linebacker Christian Sam throughout the entire season and the Sun Devils could never get going offensively playing three different starting quarterbacks. The entire team must get healthy and improve on its strength and quickness. More importantly, the players must heal emotionally after two years of disappointing results. The 2015 team had the preseason pressure of being mentioned as a possible conference champion and a playoff contender which sadly ended in a Cactus Bowl loss and a 6-7 season. With low expectations heading into the 2016 season, the Sun Devils finished with that mortifying Territorial Cup loss and a 5-7 season. Mentally, those two seasons have to be in the rear-view mirror, and the team must focus on 2017. Learn from the past, but don’t live in it. Players must recommit to the game they love and they need to have fun again while pursuing their goals together.

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Step 2:  Communicate and Interact with the Fan Base – All the Fans

A win isn’t always a win and a loss isn’t always a loss. Sun Devil Nation can accept a loss if the team leaves everything out on the field, but an absolute embarrassing Territorial Cup where the defense didn’t even try to play in the second half is absolutely unacceptable.

When Graham first arrived to Tempe, he was at dinners, alumni events, basketball games, etc. Often, Graham mentioned how many hands he shook while out introducing himself to Sun Devil Nation. He has to do that this off-season, and he has to eliminate using the clichés and coach-talk. Graham should eat some humble-pie and listen to the pains of alumni, fans, and former players. Sun Devil Nation wants to hear from Todd Graham directly, not through the media, that he accepts responsibility and he is making changes to get this back to a winning program that its supporters are proud of.TerritorialCup45UofA15

Step 3: A Head Coach is a CEO and not a Hands-On Functional Manager

One can never take the true coach out of a head coach, but a power five conference head coach must be more of a CEO and less of a hands-on, day-to-day, functional manager. There are so many aspects that go into running a successful college football program that a head coach cannot do it all himself. Graham needs to take a step back and run the football program like a corporation. Yes, “the buck stops with him”, but Graham has highly paid assistant coaches who can handle the game planning. Graham must show more trust in his assistants to lead their offensive and defensive units, and then use his personal coaching skills to provide helpful insights. When on offense, Graham can analyze the opposing defense and give Chip Lindsay some thoughts on how the opponent is attacking him. When on defense, Graham can help examine opponent’s offensive tendencies out of formations and make suggestions to Keith Patterson.

Graham seems to be coaching too much and his constant verbal lashings on the sideline may be falling on deaf ears. Athletic Director Ray Anderson started the 2016 season by discussion Graham’s sideline demeanor. As any parent, teach, or manager knows, constant yelling is not an effective form of communication. Graham should let his coaches do the hands on coaching of the units, and then when it is the correct time – pre-game, half-time, before a big offensive or defensive third down, then Graham can turn to the coaching motivation speech. This will also allow Graham more time to do Step 2, which is a key part of being a head coach, while also reviewing recruiting, school work, and weight room training.

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Step 4: Offensive Changes

While the 2016 offensive was lowest producing in the Graham era at 33.3 points per game, Chip Lindsey did a very good job considering the Sun Devils started three difference quarterbacks and ran through numerous offensive line combinations. There was little consistency from spring practice to pre-season to in-season repetitions. However, some philosophical change should be made.

First, use the running back more. Kalen Ballage and Demario Richard are both workhorse running backs, and they need the ball. They will wear down an opponents from seven as they are both hard to bring down. The run must be established as this will help with read-option quarterback runs, and it will help give N’Keal Harry some more space to work on the outside.

Second, start using the tight end position. The position has become non-existent in the offensive game plan other than a blocker since Chris Coyle left in 2013. Jay Jay Wilson is an amazing mismatch as his size and physical strength will punish a corner or safety covering him, and his speed and quickness will get him open against linebackers in tight spaces. Coyle was exceptional at the short to intermediate routes necessary to keep drives moving, and Wilson should be used more in this manner. More importantly, sustaining offensive drives keep the Sun Devil defense off the field.

Third, be honest about the quarterback competition between Manny Wilkins, Brady White, Bryce Perkins, and Dillon Sterling-Cole. There will be one winner and that winner should be announced at the end of spring ball so that the quarterback can lead in the off-season through informal workouts. Sure, there is a good chance that a quarterback might transfer, but that is the reality of today’s college football. The Sun Devils need a leader on offense after Taylor Kelly and Mike Bercovici, and it might not be the quarterback who chooses to date an Arizona Wildcat.

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Step 5: Defensive Changes

24.3, 26.6, 27.9, 33.5, 39.8

Those numbers are the Sun Devils opponent’s points per game since 2012. One doesn’t have to be our resident stats guru Gary Doran to determine that there is a very horrific, negative trend there.

There are two big fundamental issues with the current defense that are missing which are essential to the Graham system working. First, the defensive line itself, the four down linemen, must get to the quarterback by themselves without blitzes. Simply put, the four down linemen must win their battles on each and every down. In 2012, 38.5 sacks came from the three defensive lineman and the Devil-backer spot. In 2016, only 19 sacks came from those positions. Second, linebackers and the defensive secondary must stop trying to make social media highlight videos with big hits and instead focus on just wrapping up and bringing the offensive player down to the ground. Lately, it appears the defensive players just want to make the big hit and celebrate rather than the blue-collar wrap up tackle which leads to yards after contact and first downs for the opponents.

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While there are certainly many areas to improve throughout the program, these five areas are essential to repair the pain in the Sun Devil community and bring on-the-field success back to Sun Devil football. The talent is there and the pillars of the program can be rebuilt, but it has to a positive, team first environment where the players and coaches are all on the same page and moving forward. This off-season is the highest pressure that Todd Graham has faced. Arizona State Athletic Director Ray Anderson was not the one who hired Todd Graham, and Anderson has high expectations for his coaches. The stadium renovations are half-way complete and soon Sun Devil Stadium will be surrounded with the Coyotes hockey arena and the new Phoenix Rising soccer stadium. On-the-field success is necessary and these five steps are key parts to the rebuild.

About Don Hansen

Don Hansen

Don is a 2003 graduate of Arizona State University where he spent four years sitting in the front rows of many ASU athletic events leading the rowdy student section. Now, Don co-hosts the "ASU Devils Den" podcast covering every detail of ASU football. Don works and resides in Gilbert, Arizona with his beautiful Sun Devil wife and their two beautiful daughters!

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