If you ask casual Sun Devil fans about Arizona State's 2014 recruiting class, there's one player who sticks out above the rest: Manny Wilkins.
Unless you're wired into Sun Devil football 365 days a year (and many of our readers are), you probably don't know a whole lot about the next wave of players Todd Graham has enlisted to join the program. But that's about to change.
As many fans eagerly await the arrival of Wilkins, a highly touted quarterback prospect who could take the reins as soon as the 2015 season, a fellow Northern California recruit is already making a name for himself on campus.
D.J. Calhoun, a 4-star linebacker out of El Cerrito, Calif., graduated high school early to enroll at Arizona State and participate in spring practices. At 17 years old, Calhoun is the youngest player on the field this spring, but he's already entered the early depth chart as a backup at the Spur linebacker spot.
Less than five months ago, Calhoun was rounding out his senior season at El Cerrito High School. Nowadays, he's adjusting to the college game with an entirely new set of teammates. Though the transition has been difficult at times, Calhoun maintains he's enjoying the challenges.
"I love it. The team is great, the coach is great, you know you have to put in work every day," Calhoun said. "But I just love it, I love the intensity."
Even a year ago, Calhoun couldn't envision spending this spring in Tempe. A highly sought after high school prospect, Calhoun was more interested in attending USC or UCLA. However, when Arizona State defeated the Trojans and Lane Kiffin was fired, Calhoun decided to reconsider.
"I liked USC and everything, but with the coaching staff, I just couldn't handle it cause Kiffin got fired," Calhoun said.
Calhoun wasn't the only player at El Cerrito High undergoing a change of heart. Wide receiver Jalen Harvey was also a prized recruit, and after initially committing to play at California, the 4-star talent still wasn't sold on the Golden Bears' program. With both players quietly searching for a new collegiate destination, the Sun Devil coaching staff decided to make its pitch.
"I wanted to go to UCLA at first, but that didn't work out and Jalen wanted to leave Cal, so we both took official visits here (Arizona State) when they played Washington," Calhoun said.
And what a weekend that turned out to be. The Sun Devils trounced the Huskies, ranked 20th in the AP poll at the time, 53-24 and registered 7.0 sacks and 12.0 tackles for loss in an outstanding defensive showing. The coaching staff and the Sun Devil players made Calhoun and Harvey feel at home, and the pair decided that Arizona State was the place they wanted to continue their careers.
"We were with the coaches and the players, and the coaches were real, the players were real, and it was just fun and we decided together, when we got off that plane, we committed right away," Calhoun said.
Calhoun admitted it wasn't just the coaching staff and the players that pushed hard to secure his commitment, it was the effort put forth by fellow recruit Manny Wilkins. Wilkins worked fellow California recruit hard, and helped sell Calhoun on the idea that they could build their own legacy together in the desert.
"That's my guy. He was one of the main reasons Jalen (Harvey) and I committed here," Calhoun said of Wilkins. "He's going to be under (Taylor) Kelly's wings and then Manny's going to take over this program and I believe it."
As Harvey and Wilkins graduate with their high school classes, Calhoun is busy on the field with his college teammates. Todd Graham has raved about Calhoun's natural ability and his work in the weight room, and the early impressions have paid off in the form of a significant amount of repetitions during practice.
Calhoun isn't just an early enrollee learning the system on the sidelines, he's playing alongside juniors and seniors on the second team defense. With the added pressure of having to mix in with program veterans, Calhoun says he understands the expectations that come along with his position.
"You have to have tempo every play. 100 percent, no days off, everything," Calhoun said. "Now, with me, in high school you used to just want to cheat drills, not finish over the line, but in college, everybody just wants it and every day is like a game day."
Calhoun isn't the only newcomer to the linebacking corps this spring, as Graham hired former West Virginia assistant Keith Patterson to coach the unit. Patterson's energy is striking, and the enthusiasm he brings coupled with Calhoun's eagerness to learn has given the pair a nice rapport.
"It's good, I'm the pup of the group at 17, but he treats me with respect and I treat him with respect," Calhoun said of Patterson. "With him, I love it because every day is a new day and that doesn't mean you take days off, but when he's yelling at you, he's telling you that you have to be a man and you have to keep on giving 100 percent."
During the first three spring practices, Calhoun has aligned as the backup Spur linebacker behind Laiu Moeakiola. Right now, the Sun Devils have yet to determine if Spur will be Calhoun's final landing spot, especially because Arizona State recruited the position so well this year. By the fall, the freshman could find himself at Will, but either way, Graham maintains the coaching staff will let him settle in at one spot.
As Calhoun continues to progress, he could put himself in position to contend for playing time this fall. While Calhoun and the coaches believe Wilkins' day will come, it could be the linebacker who finds himself as the first poster child for the class of 2014.