After Todd Graham landed one of the best recruiting classes in Arizona State history this February, expectations for the new Sun Devils are soaring. But this batch of newcomers isn't the first group to enter the program with a lot to live up to. In fact, these expectations are becoming the norm.
A season ago, Graham reeled in a number of highly touted recruits in his first full recruiting cycle, including Arizona native Chans Cox and junior college transfer Marcus Hardison.
Cox and Hardison were two of the Sun Devils' top recruits in the class of 2013, and the Sun Devil coaching staff really believed that this pair was set to make an impact almost immediately upon arriving on campus.
However, differing circumstances made for difficult transitions, and neither Cox nor Hardison was able to become a guiding presence for their fellow 2013 recruits. Cox suffered a season-ending injury, while Hardison struggled with the discipline and tempo that Graham requires of his players.
This spring, both are out to set the record straight. The coaching staff has praised each player for the commitment they made to their teammates during the offseason, and now, both Cox and Hardison find themselves working with the first-team defense during spring practice.
"It's a big deal, I'm stepping into a bigger role so I have to step up and work harder," Hardison said of working with the first string. "Everything comes down to the first role and the first team, so we have to do a little extra. It was a good feeling to be with the first team."
For Hardison, last season did afford him the opportunity to learn the Sun Devils' defensive scheme and techniques at practices, but for Cox, the true freshman had to watch from the sidelines with a sling on his arm. Still, Cox maintains that he learned a lot from his predicament, especially because the coaches made him an understudy to Carl Bradford at Devil backer.
"At the same position, at the Devil backer position, I was able to learn a lot just from watching practice," Cox said. "Being a redshirt, I was still able to learn everything."
For each player, the offseason break has been gnawing at them. While they are free to work out in the weight room, like most football players, they love the competition that practice provides. Hardison said the tempo will still take some getting used to, but he's confident that he'll be engaged throughout the spring.
"I'm just happy to be back. I feel like it's been a little while, but I'm ready to get back into the work ethic, trying to get myself better and get this thing rolling with the team," Hardison said.
A defensive end by trade, Hardison shifted all over the defensive line last fall as Graham tried to find a position that fit him in the Sun Devils' scheme. Late in the season, Hardison had settled in at defensive end, but not before practicing at nose guard and Tiger, interior line positions that Graham said made him tougher.
Last fall, Graham said that moving Hardison inside during the season was the best thing that could have happened to him. Now, Graham feels like Hardison understands his role and expectations better, and the first-team end is more prepared for his chance to make a difference this season.
"Now that I'm more comfortable in the system, I don't have to think about where I have to go, I can directly think about my steps, my hands, and all that," Hardison said. "Once I get that down, I can be more of a student of the game, really learn and all that type of stuff."
For Cox, this spring is all about honing the techniques that Hardison is describing. A linebacker and fullback prospect coming out of high school, Cox spurned a number of high-profile scholarship offers to stay home and play in Tempe. Though he doesn't have a natural spot on the Arizona State defense, the coaching staff is adjusting its defensive scheme to meet the needs of its personnel, which is something that excites Cox.
"We're switching a few things up on defense, we're going to be able to make big plays this year," Cox said. "They kind of transitioned it for us, me and Viliami Latu so we're really excited."
A redshirt freshman in the fall, the plan was for Cox to take what he learned from the sidelines and put that into action at practice this season. Instead, Devil backer extraordinaire Carl Bradford decided to turn pro, which sparked an immediate competition at his outside linebacker spot.
Cox is battling with another 2013 recruit, Viliami Latu, for the Devil backer spot, and Graham speaks well of both players. The young, but talented linebackers will receive a challenge from junior college transfer Darrius Caldwell, a 2014 junior college recruit, who could fill the position this fall. Still, Bradford's departure means that someone has to step in, and Cox said he's ready to answer the call.
"I just knew that I was going to have to step up," Cox said about his feelings when Bradford left. "It's still not my position, me and Ami Latu are going to battle back to be the best defensive linemen. Even he'll be able to take the defensive end spot so we're still working together to be the best at that position."
Cox takes the field this spring knowing that he has plenty of room left to grow, but Hardison is a different story. A senior this fall, the 2014 season will be Hardison's final chance to make an impact on professional scouts if he hopes to pursue his dream of playing at the next level. The defensive end has brought a no-excuses mentality to the program, and he knows it's now or never.
"After that Texas Tech game, I wrote down a list of the things I really need to work on," Hardison said. "I'm in the third floor everyday asking the coaches, ‘What can I improve on?' The weight room, I'm there 24/7 getting stronger, bigger and faster."
Hardison said his biggest struggles were not understanding where to line up or how to beat his man off the line of scrimmage, they came from a lack of physical development. One look at Hardison is all you need to understand how physically gifted he could be at the high school and junior college level, but that strength doesn't always translate to college.
The list Hardison created includes traditional football goals, but it focused primarily on what he could do to build his strength. An offseason of training with strength coach Shawn Griswold is paying off, and Hardison knows his work through the spring and summer will continue to pay off.
"The main one was the weight room. That was my biggest weakness, the weight room," Hardison said. "I jumped up a lot in the weight room, but now it's just trying to trust the techniques and the fundamentals."
Hardison has led by example, and despite being a younger player, so too has Chans Cox. Cox knows the expectations of the Sun Devil program better than most, after growing up in a Sun Devil household. Like a true Graham disciple, Cox has channeled Hardison's no-excuses attitude and wants to set the tone for the program with his leadership this spring.
"Being healthy this year, I was able to really stick out and be a leader," Cox said. "Last year, when I wasn't healthy, I didn't feel as confident but this year I feel a lot more confident."
Hardison and Cox endured challenging seasons last year, but both are ready to take the next step in their developments. Each player has stood out through their offseason training regimens, and with the chance to line up with the first team defense, that opportunity carries over to spring practices.
Hardison is running out of time and Cox is running out of patience, so each player knows their moment is here. Now, it's all about seizing the opportunity and rolling with it.
That's what I've been waiting for," Hardison said. "It's the moment and they're passing it to me, it's in my hands now."