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ASU Football: Graham praises special teams, preaches a 'single elimination build'

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The Arizona State Sun Devils are coming off a pivotal win against UCLA, one where special teams and sideline communication with the coaches was a huge part in the victory. Now, Graham talks about the need to win out.

Richard Mackson-USA TODAY Sports

Twenty practices.

That is all that remains of Arizona State's football season and that's the message head coach Todd Graham emphasized in Tuesday's practice.

"I talked to them about how ‘you control your fate,'" Graham said.  "I mean we had 21 practices. That's it. And now we have 20. And you better max out on every single one of them, every single day, every single meeting, every film study to get yourself prepared. Because we have a long way to go."

The Sun Devils took home a pivotal win (38-23) this Saturday against the No. 7 UCLA Bruins on the road after a blowout defeat (42-14) at home the week prior against the USC Trojans, a loss that disheartened fans and players alike.

But now the team is on a mission. Without Saturday's hard-fought victory, some parts that looked more like a rugby match than a football game, the Sun Devils would have had little to no hope in the Pac-12 South race. However with a big win against a top-ranked team, hope is higher than ever and with wins the next two weeks the team has a chance to climb back up into the rankings.

But it won't be easy.

"It's a single elimination build now," Graham said. "We've already had a hiccup. There can't be any more. You got to win every one of them."

Defense Wins Championships

The Sun Devils host Colorado at home on Saturday, a team that is 3-2 on the season and coming off a 41-24 loss against Oregon last week. Graham praised the Buffaloes' coach in practice Tuesday and said he cultivates real competitors in the game.

"I got a lot of respect for Colorado," Graham said.  "I got a lot of respect for coach [Mike] MacIntyre. He's one of the best football coaches I've been around and he does a tremendous job the way his kids play, the character that they show, and the toughness that they show. I mean they were right there with Oregon if not for the turnovers could've been ahead and possibly won the game."

Salamo Fiso and Jordan Simone are leading the country in solo tackles this season with 39 and 37 respectively and while those two are the anchors that keep this team solid defensively, Graham prides himself on team defense, a mentality his scheme is backed by.

"What our defense produces is TFLs and sacks and takeaways and interceptions and almost every year we're going to be up there in the top ten because of our system," Graham said. "But those solo tackles, I mean, Salamo is having the best year he's had and I think he's having an All Pac-12 level year even though we're only two games into conference play."

Graham also admitted that he wished he could've turned back the clock in an effort to prepare differently for USC. However, he too, learned from the things he didn't do and is now working with the defense to execute on third downs and conform to other systems.

"If I had to do it over again, I would've practiced some things differently," Graham said. "I went two weeks without practicing nickel defense, third down defense. (USC) was 8-of-9 and then they only converted one the second half and they were 9/15 [sic] total. We had some breakdowns in our coverage and didn't tackle as well. Some of those things I wish I would've worked on more."

Special Teams

One thing the team did work on more in last week's practice was special teams and it paid off in its matchup against UCLA. Graham credited special teams coach Shawn Slocum for its success in the victory.

"I tell you Coach (Slocum) really did a good job and the things that we've worked on really started to pay off," Graham said. "The guys on this team are playing as hard as any team I've ever had and especially on special teams and that's where the challenge is. You can't rest on special teams. We made 41 special teams plays. That's a lot. Take special teams out of the equation and it's a whole different game."

Punter Matt Haack led the special teams against UCLA who averaged 43 yards per punt with five punts downed inside the 20. Haack said he has been able to master his craft this year under Slocum, who spent ten years as a special teams coach for the Green Bay Packers.

"I mean his NFL experience is tremendous," Haack said. "He gets guys motivated to want to go down and play special teams, want to run down and make a play. He's worked with one of the best teams in the NFL. He challenges me a lot too. He'll get on me because he knows the potential I have and I can't thank him enough for everything he does for me. He's made a big difference and that's the biggest thing is the mindset out here: Play for the guy next to you. It's like a brotherhood."

Out of the Box

Offensive Coordinator Mike Norvell was calling plays down on the sidelines in Saturday's matchup, a change from his normal position up above in the box.

However this was a change that was welcomed by much of the offense, who felt his presence on the sidelines positively affected the energy of the offense.

"I definitely think our energy was up on offense a little bit," wide receiver D.J. Foster said. "I thought our communication was better player-to-coach with him down there. I don't know if he can see better from up in the box but I thought he was great down there and it was definitely a lot better having him down there and helped with communication."

While ASU put up 465 yards of total offense in its victory against UCLA, it's still remains to be seen if there's a direct correlation between the success in the offense and the coaches being on the sidelines. But it sure seemed to improve something in Bercovici's game against UCLA. While Graham will decide whether to keep the coaches on the sidelines, the players will continue to keep a level head as they hope to conjure up a winning streak and keep their playoff dreams alive.

"We've been up and down already so much this season we've learned a lot about our team," Foster said. "You just got to stay in the middle and not be too high or too low and come out here and bring it every day."

Notes:

  • Running back Nick Ralston was in a green, non-contact jersey.
  • Defensive back Armand Perry was out of his walking boot but still in green.
  • De'Chavon Hayes continued to practice with the defensive backs in practice.
  • Kalen Ballage got first team reps at running back.
  • Raymond Epps got first team reps at tight end with Tim White, Gary Chambers and Devin Lucien at wide receiver.
  • JoJo Wicker, Demetrius Cherry (nose), and Tashon Smallwood (tiger) were first team defensive line.
  • Graham officially announced tight end Grant Martinez had ankle surgery and will be out for the remainder of the season in his post game scrum.