Arizona State announced its 2014 signing class on Wednesday, and Sun Devil fans should be ecstatic.
When coaches start a new recruiting season, they look for two types of recruits: ones who are ready to fill a void now, and ones who can be developed to contribute down the road. Rarely will a class find impact players that qualify under both categories, but thanks to Todd Graham's persistence on the junior college recruiting trail, the Sun Devils have done just that.
Sure, the class lacks a 5-star, blue-chip recruit, but it's deep in talent at positions of need, and the Sun Devils landed at least two players at every position with a question heading into the 2014 season.
"Our big need was up front in the interior of the defensive line," Graham said at his press conference. "I want guys that can cover. We're a team that challenges people at the line of scrimmage and is a pressure-oriented defense."
The Sun Devils went hard after defensive line recruits, especially after Carl Bradford unexpectedly decided to declare for the NFL Draft, and Graham and his staff landed two junior college stars that should pay huge dividends immediately.
Dalvon Stuckey is a physical freak who chose the Sun Devils over Auburn and Alabama, among others. Stuckey is much bigger than Will Sutton, but his game is similar in that he relies heavily on his athleticism.
"We're excited about Mr. Stuckey and what he's going to be able to do, a guy that I think will be very impactful for our program, as well," Graham said.
Behind Stuckey, Arizona State grabbed Tashon Smallwood, a mirror image of Sutton who needs a year in the weight room, but with the addition of Stuckey, fits beautifully as the long-term solution at defensive tackle.
When it comes to replacing Bradford, Arizona State again went the junior college route, stealing Darrius Caldwell away from South Carolina late in the game. Caldwell looks like an NFL pass rusher. His massive frame has plenty of room to add muscle, of which he could use another 10-15 pounds, but his first-step explosiveness off the edge should allow him to play right away at the Devil linebacker position.
But Caldwell has an understudy, too, as local product Ismael Murphy-Richardson also joins the Sun Devils. Murphy-Richardson had offers from several national contenders, including Oklahoma, but chose to stay home. He's two years from contributing, though, because while he has a good frame for an edge rusher, he weighs just 210 pounds right now, according to Graham. Murphy-Richardson's development in the weight room will be one to watch for Sun Devil fans.
The Sun Devils also added depth behind Marcus Hardison at the defensive end position with the additions of Edmond Boateng, who is already on campus, and Renell Wren. Neither looks like a star in the making, but if either end up being Davon Coleman or Gannon Conway, that's a win.
At linebacker, the Sun Devils went with quality over quantity, but they landed one of the most anticipated recruits in D.J. Calhoun, another early enrollee who could play as a true freshman.
"This guy I'm really excited about," Graham said. "D.J. is a guy that possesses great blitz ability, very, very smart."
Graham raved about Calhoun's leadership, and that was a big emphasis in this class.
"One of the things is that we're just not looking at film and offering scholarships, we're looking for young men that are givers, that have great character," Graham said. "Obviously you know how disciplined our program is, and you have to have a tremendous passion for working, because we actually love to work."
Offensively, the Sun Devils signed two linemen who look like future starters in Quinn Bailey and Sam Jones. Jones will play guard, while Bailey will stay at tackle. Jones is the star of the two, but Bailey has a chance to be a solid contributor one day as well.
But don't forget, Christian Westerman, the former Auburn Tiger who transferred to Arizona State last year, is also eligible now, and the former 5-star prospect will step in and start immediately. Adding Westerman is as good as adding a top junior college offensive line recruit, if not better, because offensive line is usually the position that takes the longest to adjust to at new schools.
Playmakers were a position of need, and again, Arizona State found a few who can contribute right now while loading up on developmental prospects.
Eric Lauderdale is Jaelen Strong 2.0. The California junior college product has excellent speed and is the second most talented receiver on the team already. He's everything the Sun Devils hoped they could develop with Rick Smith and Cameron Smith, but bigger and more experienced, and on a team that is going to need to win a shootout or four next season, Lauderdale fills a big need.
"I think he will be a great tandem with Jaelen, and a guy that really has big play explosive capabilities," Graham said.
As for the future, Jalen Harvey has the makings of Jaelen Strong, a big, physical receiver who can win one-on-one matchups with anyone. He needs to work on his technique as a receiver, but his ability to block might get him on the field early.
Tyler Whiley, another Arizona product, is also listed at receiver, but Graham left open the possibility of him playing defense as well. Graham compared Whiley favorably to D.J. Foster, in the mold of a local who could have left for a premier program but stayed home to help build a championship unit. The more players Graham recruits like this, the better the Sun Devils will be.
Depth at running back was a necessity, and again Graham dipped into the junior college ranks to find De'Chavon ‘Gump' Hayes. You might have guessed it, but his nickname comes from his love of running, just like Forrest Gump.
"When he called me today, I said, ‘run, Forrest, run,'" Graham said. "We're excited about Gump. That's why he's nicknamed that because he runs through the back of the end zone pretty quick."
Hayes should help spell D.J. Foster in the backfield, but that's not why Sun Devil fans should be excited. For the first time since Kyle Williams donned the Maroon and Gold, Arizona State finally has an electric kick and punt returner. Hayes has the speed and agility to be a game changer in the return game. Yes, you read that right Sun Devil fans. No more fair catches and 4-yard punt returns.
The Sun Devils are still waiting on one more recruit at the running back position, too. Kalen Ballage, a 4-star athlete out of Colorado, had his signing day postponed due to snow. He is a soft verbal to Arizona State, and based on the fact that the Sun Devils left a scholarship on the table, they clearly expect him to commit on Thursday.
Ballage is huge at 6-foot-2 and well over 200 pounds, runs the 40-yard dash in the low 4.4-second range and can bench 370 pounds already. He had good grades in high school and from all accounts is a good kid. Oh, and he's unstoppable on the football field. He's the thunder to D.J. Foster's lightning.
Of course, you can't talk about this class without mentioning the two quarterbacks. After the disappointment of losing Joshua Dobbs to Tennessee last year, Graham had to get at least one signal caller to develop. Instead, he got two.
Manny Wilkins might have already earned all four years of his scholarship. His relentless recruiting of players like Calhoun has made him a folk hero of sorts and he hasn't even taken a snap on the practice squad. While many questions remain about Wilkins, including the caliber of his high school opponents and his ability to transition from an incredibly simple high school offense to an incredibly complex college one, at least we know he's a leader and his heart is in Tempe.
Coltin Gerhart is the player that could really send this class over the top. Originally signed as a safety, Gerhart called Graham to let him know he wanted a shot to play quarterback in college. It's hard to question the kid. Both of his brothers had great college careers, with Toby nearly winning a Heisman Trophy at Stanford, and Garth anchoring a solid offensive line at Arizona State.
Gerhart is as smart as they get. His father has coached him for years, and is legendary in Southern California. He transferred to Vista Murrieta to prove he could play quarterback in a more complex system against top caliber opponents, and everything the tape shows suggests he can play quarterback in Tempe, too.
He's not the biggest quarterback ever, but neither is Taylor Kelly.
Graham also hauled in some unheralded recruits with good tape and knowledge of the game. Players recruited to contribute on special teams and be team leaders aren't always sexy on signing day, but players like Jamal Scott, Dasmon Tautalatasi and Brendan Landman are the ones who really show you what a coaching staff is made out of.
Graham, and his wife for that matter, love Scott, a big hitter from a non-traditional football school in Southern California.
"Not many people knew about him," Graham said. "My wife looks at all the film, and this is a guy she went like, wow, who's that guy?"
Tautalatasi went to De La Salle High School in Northern California. He's not a great athlete, but anyone who has been around De La Salle knows their players are sound football players, with great technique and a working knowledge of the little things that win football games.
Tautalatasi is the type of player who could end up being a special teams captain and a real coaches' favorite down the line.
This class is loaded with players that fill needs, something sorely missing in last year's class. When the Sun Devils needed a quarterback, they couldn't land one. When they needed offensive line depth, they couldn't get it. When they needed defensive linemen to develop, they got junior college players who weren't ready to play.
Still, that class was a good one, producing Jaelen Strong and Zane Gonzalez, as well as several promising players like Cameron Smith, Damarious Randall and Ellis Jefferson.
But this class should be better. It is better. It's a home run on a day Todd Graham had to clear the bases. It's not just talk anymore, this is the Sun Devil way, and this team is setup for the long run.