From the moment of his introduction as head coach of the Arizona State Sun Devils, Todd Graham has preached a "high octane" approach. From game-planning to practice pace to the classroom and everything in between, "high octane" is set to define every aspect of Sun Devil football.
After five years of the Ambien-like Dennis Erickson regime, this has appeared to be a welcome change. Far more important than producing on-field results in Year One was the need for Graham to change the fundamentals and the foundation upon which the program is built. It's plain for anyone to see that no half-measures or gradual changes will bring about the kind of results the program and the fans demand.
The first three months of Graham's tenure have been filled with numerous examples of that mindset in action. Graham and his staff rallied hard to secure an impressive recruiting class. There has been nary a media or community opportunity that he hasn't taken a part of to spread his vision. The month of February, in particular, held several major initiatives to garner support for the program.
Finally, this past week Sun Devil Nation got a chance to see "high octane" on the football field as ASU opened their spring practice schedule. The difference from the past was startling. The Sun Devil practices showed an energy, speed and attitude unlike anything ever seen.
But it raises the question: Can the Sun Devils keep it up?
Newton's third law states that every action has an equal and opposite reaction. Nothing is without consequence. The only question is to what degree they will occur.
Thus far, the response from the players to the new reality of strict discipline and harder-than-ever workouts have been met with enthusiastic response. However, the novelty has yet to wear off. The "yes sirs" and the constant practice field sprints are still a refreshing change of pace.
But what about in November? What if the team's win-loss record falls below expectations early on? Will what was once the salvation become the source of the undoing?
The potential risks for the Sun Devils this year are both physical and mental.
If the early indications and verbal proclamations are any indication, these players are in for physical demands to an extent that they've never seen before. With each passing season in this system, it becomes less of a concern as the players become acclimated. However, this year, with these players, the risk of burning out the players as the season progresses is legitimate. Graham is not the type of coach who knows the meaning of "relent", and that carries with it a risk of physical attrition. Perhaps Graham will lessen the practice and workouts as the season continues, perhaps not.
Even if the legs remain strong, will the minds? The players know they are going to be pushed harder than ever and be held to a much higher standard than any player before them. After playing under Erickson, it may just be a matter of time before the stress of the "high octane" approach begin to manifest itself as cracks in the team's mentality.
In sports, a team's coaching cycle often rotates between a "player's coach" and a disciplinarian. It's only natural. A team gets too lax, so they bring in the hardass to get things in order. When his message wears off and the strain begins to show, the cycle repeats.
As mentioned earlier, it's not a matter of "if" but "when" the collateral damage of Graham's methods show this season. It's inevitable. It's also by design.
Graham is a highly intelligent coach who at every turn so far has shown that he "gets it", so don't think for one second that his methods are just for the obvious gains. They are also designed to unearth, expose and either reform or purge those who don't fit the new Sun Devil ideal. At various points this year, conflict will emerge between player and ideology.
The players are saying and doing all the right things now, but there are a few guys on this roster who quite simply are not good fits under Graham's watch. As the months pass, they will either be found out or leave on their own accord. It happens with any coaching change.
Ultimately, the physical and mental demands and the implications they cause may be slight and to the team's benefit. It also may be major and lead to additional drama. At this point, it is impossible to tell.
This is not to say that Graham will not prove to be exactly what the program hopes he is. So far, he's aced every test. He's restored faith and optimism into a situation that in the middle of December was beyond bleak. His vision for the program is arguably the ideal.
The road to that maroon-and-gold utopia is going to be one strewn with potholes, especially in this first year. While it figures to be a fun and exciting ride, be sure to buckle up.
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