National Signing Day is about building the future, but for Todd Graham, many of his goals focused on addressing the present. At Wednesday's Signing Day press conference, the Sun Devil football coach was candid about players that he recruited to make a difference right away.
The Sun Devils signed 23 players to National Letters of Intent (NLIs) on Wednesday and added two additional early-enrollees for the class of 2014, and Graham believes the Sun Devils need many of the recruits to earn playing time this fall.
Arizona State loses its top two defensive players in Will Sutton and Carl Bradford and nine starters on defense as a whole, and Graham reflected on the importance of recruiting players who had college-ready skill sets. The Sun Devils don't return a single starter from the 2013 defensive line and Graham said all the spots will be up for grabs.
"I think the guys that ‑‑ the physicality, the mental maturity, the guys we've got coming in, they're going to be able to contribute and be able to play," Graham said.
To replace Sutton, the Sun Devils locked up a verbal commitment from 4-star defensive tackle Tashon Smallwood. Smallwood hails from Fresno, Calif. and had offers from a long list of schools including Alabama, but Graham believes Smallwood wanted to follow in the footsteps of the Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year.
"Again, he's a young man that really wanted to be a part of what we're doing," Graham said. "And I think the prowess of our defense and what we've been able to do having the back‑to‑back Defensive Player of the Year playing defensive tackle for us helped us land Tashon Smallwood, so he's a guy that's going to be very disruptive and do great things for us."
If Smallwood takes a year or two to develop, the Sun Devils have a strong plan in the interim. Arizona State received a few Signing Day surprises including a letter of intent from junior college defensive tackle Dalvon Stuckey. Stuckey visited Arizona State this past weekend and is considered the 12th best junior college recruit for the class of 2014 by Rivals.
Stuckey has the body of a Division I football player, and was committed to both Miami and Auburn at different times during his recruiting process. Now that the roller coaster ride is over, Graham believes it's time for Stuckey to step in and make plays immediately.
"I think he is a guy in line with Will (Sutton) in the type of explosiveness that we're looking for, except you can see up there he's 6-foot-3, so we're excited about Mr. Stuckey and what he's going to be able to do," Graham said.
Graham was pleased to develop short-term and long-term plans for replacing Sutton, and the Sun Devils were able to formulate a similar plan to make up for the loss of Carl Bradford.
Arizona State was forced to scramble when Bradford announced his decision to turn pro in mid-January, but the Sun Devils signed two players with the potential of fitting in at Bradford's vacated Devilbacker spot.
"Obviously with Carl going to the draft, that was a big need for us, and we signed two young men that are explosive pass rushers," Graham said.
On Wednesday morning, one of the first NLIs faxed in belonged to Goodyear, Ariz. native Ismael Murphy-Richardson. Richardson stands 6-foot-5 and had the athleticism to play a bit of wide receiver in high school, but the Sun Devils are hoping to add to his frame so he can develop into a rush end/linebacker hybrid.
Murphy-Richardson was swayed to Arizona State by the chance to see the field early on in his career and by the opportunity to do so in front of his family and friends.
"One of the things that he was excited about that we've had an opportunity, when you talk about developing players, we talk about the success of our junior college players, but we also talk about the success of our freshmen," Graham said. "We've had four freshmen All‑Americans. That was something Ismael was excited about."
Murphy-Richardson will likely take a year to mature physically to the point where he can play the Devilbacker position on an every-down basis, but Graham was convinced that the local recruit's work ethic make him a force to be reckoned with.
The Sun Devils have struggled to keep the top talent in the state of Arizona at home, so signing Murphy-Richardson and keeping him away from other prestigious programs was an exciting prospect for Graham.
"I'm really proud. Ismael had a lot of big‑time offers," Graham said. "You see the guys down there at the bottom, I think probably Oklahoma was our biggest competition there, and the team over in California (USC) there."
Like Smallwood, the Sun Devils don't have to rush Murphy-Richardson into the lineup right away. That's because Arizona State not only received a NLI from Stuckey, but one from his Pearl River Community College teammate Darrius Caldwell, too.
Caldwell was committed to South Carolina for a decent portion of the recruiting process and many experts believed he would end up signing with the Gamecocks. However, after a visit to Arizona State with Stuckey over the weekend, Caldwell had a change of heart and signed with the Sun Devils.
"This guy is a big‑time pass rusher, a guy that can really impact the quarterback," Graham said. "He's one of the top rated JC players in the nation, as well."
Though Stuckey's 4-star ranking trumps Caldwell's 3-star ranking, the Sun Devils are equally anxious to get the pair on campus so they can begin to fortify the defensive line this fall. With the additions of Murphy-Richardson and Caldwell, Arizona State now has options at a position that looked bleak less than a month ago.
"Obviously you guys know I didn't anticipate Carl going, and he did, so that was an area of big need for us, so we're excited about those two young men (Caldwell, Murphy-Richardson) and what they're going to do rushing the passer here," Graham said.
It will be nearly impossible to match the productivity and leadership that Sutton and Bradford brought to the Sun Devils during Graham's first two seasons, but on National Signing Day, Arizona State began to take the necessary steps to recover, reload, and refocus on the task at hand.