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Ignore the stigma: JUCO players huge for ASU football

"Think about where Arizona State would be if they didn't have Strong, Grice, Chris Young, De'Marieya Nelson or Damarious Randall last year. Things don't look as good, do they?"

Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Spor

The process is almost taboo in college football; relying on JUCO recruits to contribute significantly.

There's a huge risk, sure, but the rewards can be plentiful. And they're easier to get. The star players, the four-star and five-star recruits with NFL talent, they are earmarked for Alabama or Ohio State or USC. Those are the players Arizona State couldn't get, didn't get, until Todd Graham arrived.

Junior college recruits have shined under Graham and his staff. Jaelen Strong is the best receiver in college football. Marion Grice was drafted. Nick Kelly is the starting center. Everything was great.

Until last week.

That's when news broke that Dalvon Stuckey, the recruit tabbed to replace Will Sutton on the defensive line, wouldn't enroll at Arizona State because he couldn't qualify academically. A week earlier, Darrius Caldwell suffered a similar fate. The two JUCO teammates at Pearl River Community College were supposed to be thunder and lightning for the Sun Devils this season. Instead, they'll never know what it's like to walk through the Tillman Tunnel.

Todd Graham isn't happy, how could he be? But he knew the risks, all coaches do.

"Obviously you're disappointed, but we knew there was a lot of risk there," Graham said at Pac-12 Media Day. "We've been two years and we haven't lost anybody. We had a couple of guys fall this year, but you can't be dependent upon that for the success of your program."

Still, the questions started popping up, especially from the fans. Why does Graham recruit so many transfer players? Why does Arizona State keep going after kids who couldn't get into a four-year school after high school? Why don't they recruit smart kids?

The comments and criticisms became ridiculous. It's true, Stuckey and Caldwell were being relied upon to fill two giant holes. It's also true that Graham and his staff knew there was a chance neither would qualify. But that's not reason to stop recruiting JUCO kids.

I spent five years covering one of the better junior college teams in the country, College of the Canyons, in Santa Clarita, California.  The team produced Division I stars and NFL players like the ocean produces waves. They were good kids, tough kids, quality football players, and yes, troubled kids as well.

Some struggled with school. Some had social problems, bad tempers. Some just came from broken families, rough neighborhoods, troubled pasts. But most of them deserved a chance, and 90 percent of the time, they panned out.

J.J. Arrington, Domata Peko, Jonathan Fanene, Isaac Sopoaga, Mychal Rivera and Jason Pierre-Paul are just a few of the players who came through Canyons while I covered the team and went on to play in the NFL. Only Arrington is out of the league, and Pierre-Paul is an All-Pro.

Plenty of good players lined up opposite of Canyons while I watched, including Super Bowl champion Bruce Irvin and, yes, Jaelen Strong. Which brings me to my point:

JUCO players aren't bad. In fact, if you play the recruiting game correctly, there's a huge advantage for a program like Arizona State to go after them.

There's always going to be players who flame out, and you've just got to accept that. Some programs can't accept that, and that's fine. It just leaves talent for the Sun Devils to pull from.

Think about where Arizona State would be if they didn't have Strong, Grice, Chris Young, De'Marieya Nelson or Damarious Randall last year. Things don't look as good, do they?

Sure, there were players like Mike Pennel, who flamed out, and Marcus Hardison, who struggled to get on the field, sprinkled throughout. But for the most part, Graham and the Sun Devils developed stars out of everyone else's scraps.

JUCO players have a stigma, and it's unfair. You don't always know the reason why a kid ends up at a junior college, but there's always hope, if you just give them a chance, and Graham understands that.

"We don't see a junior college player as a negative connotation at all," Graham said. "I like the junior college player taking the path least traveled. They're so grateful when they get there. When they come and look at how they live and the condo and apartments at our place are really, really nice. That is something we think is a plus for us. We'll always recruit junior college players."

And he should. Pierre-Paul is the perfect example.

Pierre-Paul arrived at College of the Canyons looking to get away. He grew up in Deerfield Beach, Florida and his Haitian parents couldn't provide him with a perfect life. Upon arrival at Canyons, he was set free. JPP recorded 14 sacks and threw opposing lineman around like rag dolls. The rest is history.

If Graham can land one Jaelen Strong, one Jason Pierre-Paul or one J.J. Arrington every three years, that's as good as landing one Marqise Lee, one Anthony Barr or one Bishop Sankey every five, isn't it?

There's always going to be flops, but that risk is present in high school, too. I could list dozens of players who looked like future stars at Canyons, but you've never heard of them. That's the risk with JUCO players, but it's a risk that a program like Arizona State has to take.

Graham can't flip a magical switch and become Alabama, Notre Dame, Florida or Oregon overnight. He's got to develop stars first, win football games second and then go after the five-star high school kids. That's the formula for success, and that's the only way to pull Arizona State out of the pack and make them stand out.

And that's why the JUCO players are so important. They have a chip on their shoulder. They want to win. They've never been given anything, so they appreciate everything. Graham gets that, he sees it in the eyes of the junior college players he targets, and he understands how to hook them.

"I just know that when I grew up I just wanted an opportunity," Graham said. "I can tell when I sit down and meet with young people that they see who we are and what we're about. I'm looking for guys who want to excel. We've got the best academic administrator in the country, Gene Boyd. Junior college player, junior college transfer.

"It's a stereotype against junior college players. I think it's wrong. I understand why people do what they do. But it's awful nice when you walk into a junior college and everybody around the country knows that we transition at a high level, and we give those kids an opportunity. It's really gratifying for me."

Losing Stuckey and Caldwell hurts. They're the exception, not the rule. Todd Graham understands the rule.