TEMPE — As you watch Arizona State’s seniors walk the long walk on Saturday night, parents and family, arm-in-arm, take a peek at Todd Graham.
It will be a special moment for the Sun Devils’ second-year head coach.
“This is going to be my toughest Senior Day,” Graham said. “Because how far these guys have come. We’ve gone from a 2.23 team GPA to 2.8. That’s hard to do with 110 guys in a year and a half. It has not been easy. A lot of straining, a lot of training, some conflict along the way.”
Is Graham going to be teary-eyed at the memories he’s made or what he’s about to lose, though?
The Sun Devils are one of the most veteran programs in college football, with nearly half the starting roster comprised of seniors, including defensive linemen Will Sutton and Gannon Conway, linebacker Chris Young and defensive backs Alden Darby, Robert Nelson and Osahon Irabor. Linebacker Carl Bradford and defensive back Damarious Randall are redshirt juniors. Offensively, the Sun Devils start four offensive linemen in Year 4 or older, plus skill players Marion Grice (senior), Chris Coyle (redshirt senior) and Taylor Kelly (redshirt junior).
Want to know how tough it is to play a team that could almost coach itself at this point?
Just ask Jim Mora, whose UCLA Bruins lost 38-33 in a Pac-12 South-clinching win for the Sun Devils on Saturday, a game in which Arizona State sacked Brett Hundley nine times.
Against a defense heavy on seniors, the Bruins were manhandled.
“It was extremely tough,” Mora said. “We play three true freshmen, a sophomore and a junior (on the offensive line), and they are an outstanding front.”
The flip side, a roster short on experience and starting seniors, can be a misery.
See: Cal head coach Sonny Dykes, whose short-in-the-tooth Bears just suffered a 1-11 season.
“Any time you’ve had a chance to be on good football teams, that’s where it all starts, with a very strong senior class, good leadership,” said Dykes, a former UA offensive coordinator. “We just didn’t have that here. … It does show you how important experience and leadership is. It’s something you know as coaches but when you go through a season like this, it becomes even more important.”
The last thing a college football coach – guys who usually have their schedules down to a T – wants is to encounter the unknown.
That won’t a problem on Saturday for Rich Rodriguez, even if that, in turn, might be the problem itself.
Rodriguez knows exactly what his offense is going to get with the Sun Devils on Saturday.
“You prepare for their defense whether they’re seniors or young guys, but the thing you’ll see from a veteran team, they won’t make a lot of mistakes,” Rodriguez said. “They’ve been in the battles – there’s not a lot you can do that’s going to phase them.”
It’s not as if Graham knew exactly what he was getting when he took the Arizona State job after just one season at Pitt in 2011.
Most Pac-12 coaches agreed that they only took a cursory look at the players they would inherit when they took their jobs.
Rodriguez said he “looked at the roster a little bit” and discussed the players with former Wildcats coach Mike Stoops, whom he considers a friend.
Mora said he wasn’t very familiar with the roster when he accepted the Bruins’ gig, and that he didn’t exactly have a backlog of information on the players.
Graham had some clue what he was getting when he accepted the Arizona State job prior to last season, but not much.
“Will Sutton wasn’t even honorable mention all conference, Carl Bradford didn’t even start or play, Darby was a backup guy,” Graham said. “But I did know this – I knew there was talent here. I felt like what the program was wanting from the administration when I visited is what I could bring.
“Being at the right place at the right time is what happened to Coach Graham.”
Heading into 2012, Graham inherited a group with moderate talent — according to the Scout.com recruiting service rankings, the Sun Devils were packed with three-star recruits, with not even a four-star among the defense.
Vontaze Burfict was a five-star linebacker in 2009, one of the best prospects in the country, but he left after his junior year, leaving behind only a legacy lacking discipline.
That stuck with Arizona State, and its players, until Graham came along and molded the players into his liking.
“I know there are times when they’ve scratched their heads at what I’ve asked them to do,” Graham said.
“It’s been such a drastic change. I’m very grateful to them, they’ve bought in. They’ve worked harder than any group than any group I’ve ever had. And it’s challenging.
“It’s a special group.”