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ASU Football: Defense responds to Graham's challenges

On Tuesday, Todd Graham called out his defensive line after practice. On Thursday, his players responded.

Matt Kartozian-USA TODAY Sports

After each of Arizona State's practices, Todd Graham addresses his team in the middle of the field and offers his players a few words of advice and encouragement. On Tuesday, Graham was brief with the Sun Devils, and he let the media know that he was dissatisfied with his team's effort level.

Graham is a man of many words, and it's surprising to see him leave something unsaid. Still, all the Sun Devil coach needed to do on Tuesday was talk to the media, and he talked at length about his desire to see his players increase their intensity and competition.

On Thursday, it became clear that the Sun Devils have been reading their own press.

Arizona State responded to Graham's challenges with a tough, straining and physical practice that took the wind out of players in the desert heat. And after Thursday's practice, Graham greeted the media with a different tune.

The head coach was excited about the performance of his defensive line, an inexperienced group that has drawn Graham's criticism throughout the spring. The unit had its best day of the spring on Thursday and Graham couldn't help but wonder if it was due to the medicine he prescribed.

"One reason why you say whatever you think is because kids read it. You know what I'm saying?" Graham said. "The D-Line is a little po'd. They came out here today and responded and I like how they responded."

For the first time all spring, the defensive line earned the majority of individual victories against offensive linemen in the 'W' drill. The 'W' drill is a version of the famous Oklahoma drill and is easily the most heated drill the Sun Devils have performed this spring. After losing in practice after practice, the defensive line finally enjoyed a breakthrough.

"Marcus Hardison stepped up today, Jaxon (Hood) stepped up, (Demetrius) Cherry stepped up," Graham said. "You know what I told them. I said why do I have to make you mad for you to come out here and do that? Why can't you come out here everyday and do that, that's what a champion does."

Graham mentioned the majority of his defensive linemen in his recap of standout players from Thursday, but the Sun Devil he spoke most highly of was defensive tackle Mo Latu. Latu has struggled with weight issues throughout his career, but that hasn't slowed him down this spring.

The 6-foot-3 Arizona native is easily the heaviest player on the team, yet he has taken first-team reps at both the nose guard and the Tiger spots this spring and bounced from drill to drill today as the leader of the defensive line.

"He's got a great heart, and I'm really, really proud of the way he's working right now," Graham said of Latu.

Last season, Latu weighed upwards of 380 pounds, but he's dropped 15 pounds this offseason and the coaching staff is committed to helping him get to a comfortable playing weight. Graham mentioned 330 pounds as a target for Latu, but as he proved last season, he can still be effective in a limited number of snaps as he makes that transition.

"He (Latu) would be great against those power teams," Graham said. "He played outstanding against Stanford, they couldn't move him."

The coaching staff's greatest concern for Latu is to put him in a position where he can stunt and rush the passer. Right now, he can occupy two offensive linemen against the run, but Latu is a liability in pass rushing situations.

Graham also praised Latu for his buy-in to the program and the ideals of his team, and ultimately, that's the type of player that coaches want to see succeed. The challenges Graham issued on Tuesday weren't directed at Latu personally, but Latu took it upon himself to prove his head coach wrong about the competition the defensive line is bringing to practice.

It's not often the media sees Graham upset, but after Tuesday's comments and Thursday's response, it's not likely to be the last time either. With a young defense, the coaching staff has shown the players tough love this spring, and that may continue if the Sun Devils continue to bring passion to the field.

"I always just say whatever's on my mind," Graham said. "If you're honest about it every day, you're telling it like it is. I'm not going to sit up here and say when it's not, but we have pretty high standards."

Editor's Note: House of Sparky's Kerry Crowley will be appearing on Cronkite Sports Live which appears on the Cronkite Sports Youtube page at 2:15 p.m. tomorrow to provide an update on Arizona State's offensive line.