"I'm not entirely enthused." - my comment about Todd Graham's hire, December 14, 2011
Todd Graham was hired on December 14th, 2011 after a 17-day search. It was a tortuously long vacancy for ASU fans, culminating in a near-hire of SMU coach June Jones before a booster revolt that almost certainly cost Lisa Love her job.
Graham was not Arizona State's first choice. There was Kevin Sumlin, Larry Fedora, the aforementioned Jones, and several other potential candidates for the position.
The backlash to the hiring of Graham was overwhelming. Pittsburgh fans were shocked by the way their former coach left the program, and the national media was very hard on Graham for his text message farewell to Panthers players.
Things changed quickly, of course. Todd Graham began campaigning for the hearts and minds of Sun Devil Nation as soon as he got off the plane in Phoenix, making countless appearances at events, engagements and rallies. By April, fans of ASU were slowly accepting Graham as the future of Arizona State football.
It doesn't hurt that he helped bring back Camp Tontozona, has spurred a passionate competition to wear a Pat Tillman jersey in practice and has advocated for tradition, discipline and responsibility at every opportunity. While the national media continued to consider it a bad hire during the summer, the locals could see positive changes taking shape.
Heartbroken Pitt fans told ASU supporters that Graham would come into the fold, promise the moon, and then shirk his responsibilities when things got tough. To be fair to Graham, that hasn't happened.
So, what actually has happened?
The Sun Devils, on the back of a weak schedule, got off to an impressive 5-1 start. ASU was one yard away from a 6-0 record, losing a tough game in Columbia to Mizzou. While Graham's liberal use of timeouts and offensive coordinator Mike Norvell's occasionally unusual playcalling was cause for consternation, the results on the field spoke for themselves. ASU fans were very pleased with a 3-0 start in conference play, even if it came against Utah, California and Colorado.
The past three weeks have been a different story. Three opponents who are now ranked in the top 18 of the BCS on the schedule, and three losses for the Sun Devils.
Losing is never desirable, but it can be accepted in certain situations. Oregon is clearly far more talented than ASU. The Sun Devils gave UCLA everything they wanted, and the Bruins barely escaped Tempe with a last-second victory. Oregon State is having a charmed season.
Judging the last two games in particular, it comes down to preparation, decision-making and depth. Lets talk about Graham's accountability on each of these topics.
Preparation: Graham holds the lion's share of the blame for his team's lack of preparation as of late. Against OSU, Graham acknowledged that all of his special teams units performed poorly. His secondary had two significant blown coverages. His two best offensive weapons, D.J. Foster and Marion Grice, were underutilized in the offensive scheme, combining for 17 touches over four quarters. In the end, this all falls on Graham.
In the ninth game of the season, all three units must have their identities and schemes firmly in place. To be underprepared is unacceptable. This hasn't always been the case over the course of the season, and the uptick in competition as of late is partially responsible for his team's mortality. However, we're at a crossroads in the inaugural campaign of the Todd Graham era. Can this team play disciplined football and stick to their assignments? If not, Graham has not delivered on his promise. Grade: C+
Decision-making: Taylor Kelly's misfire at the end of the first half against UCLA was a huge momentum shift. In his own endzone, Kelly was asked to throw the ball instead of a safer handoff, which led to an interception and a touchdown. There are people who will rightly point out that Kelly made a very poor decision, but who is to blame for putting him into that situation? The coaching staff.
The dual quarterback scheme continues to be a poor decision by the staff. When Michael Eubank enters the game, the offense tends to be stymied. Some fans would blame Eubank's insertion into the game late against Missouri as the reason for the offense sputtering. To be clear, we're not blaming Eubank - we're simply pointing out that when an offense is operating smoothly, you don't need to change the signal caller. Keep it simple.
It hasn't all been bad for Graham and his staff, however. They made a wise choice by selecting Taylor Kelly as the quarterback of the Sun Devils, and they smartly identified Chris Coyle, D.J. Foster and Marion Grice as essential cogs in an offense that lacks wide receiver star power.
The offense occasionally gets overly cute schematically, and the offensive line has become porous against good foes. The Sun Devils may blitz too often, leaving their questionable secondary unprotected. What worked in the first half of the season has been dissected and neutralized, and Graham's biggest job is to adjust accordingly. To his credit, he is trying new things, but to limited success against quality teams. USC will be a measuring stick for his elasticity as a game manager and decision-maker. Grade: B-
Depth: This is one aspect that Graham does not have a lot of control over in his first season as ASU head coach. By moving talented running back Deantre Lewis to defense, he acknowledged the lack of talent on the roster as it is currently constituted. There are no quick fixes, just essential recruiting steps need to be taken this fall and spring to ensure that this problem does not persist into next season. Grade: Incomplete
Midterm grade: We must continue to be realistic about the 2012 Arizona State Sun Devils, a team with glaring issues and seeming potential. Graham did a good job of rallying the fanbase and creating a positive environment around his team, but a lot of that momentum has been lost with memories of 2011's collapse still fresh in the minds of alums and diehards.
Things are not dire in the desert, but the high tide of 5-1 has revealed a craggy bottom of 5-4 that requires ingenuity, commitment and perseverance to overcome. The tale of the 2012 Sun Devils and the final grade of Todd Graham's first season is a story yet to be written, and the next chapter begins Saturday afternoon in the Coliseum. Grade: B-