TEMPE, Ariz. — First it was a new attitude and atmosphere. Then came the bowl game victory and a berth in the conference title game. Now, it’s a recruiting class widely regarded as among Arizona State’s best — if not the best ever.
ASU coach Todd Graham keeps delivering on promises. And the 25 signees ASU added on Wednesday — with perhaps one more coming — make up ASU’s highest rated class in the era of recruiting rankings, represent the latest.
"A real important part of recruiting is that we make sure we’re getting the right fit," Graham said. "I’m glad that this is a highly-ranked class. I know that we got some great young men that fit what we’re doing. We’re excited about the future."
Certainly, the group is unproven. Some of the players signed simply won’t pan out. Others will exceed expectations. Some may not last more than a couple years in Tempe. But in recruiting, Wednesday marked a big victory for Graham and his staff.
The class, ranked No. 3 in the Pac-12 by Scout.com and No. 4 by Rivals.com, features seven players ranked as four-star prospects by Scout and 18 ranked with three stars. ASU expects to add another three-star prospect in receiver/running back Kalen Ballage, who postponed the signing of his National Letter of Intent until Thursday after weather closed his Falcon, Colo., high school on Wednesday.
Only so much stock can be put in such ratings, of course, but across the board evaluators raved about the strength of ASU’s class. The group, at present, features 15 defensive players and 10 offensive players. Many of those players turned down offers from schools like Oregon, USC, UCLA, Oklahoma, Florida and Stanford to play in Tempe.
The leaps and bounds by which ASU grew in recruiting the past two years are a testament to the ability of Graham and his staff to connect with young athletes and effectively pitch their vision.
"We’re not just looking at film and offering scholarships," Graham said. "We’re looking for young people that fit the Sun Devil way and how we go about doing things."
Multiple recruits praised the ASU staff’s relationship-building efforts after sending in their NLIs.
"Just talking to the coaches and building a relationship with them was huge," offensive lineman Quinn Bailey said. "That helped me decide to go there, pushed me in that direction."
Added linebacker Ismael Murphy-Richardson, from Goodyear: "Coach Graham is high on character, he’s high on making young men into grown men. I’m just trying to be part of the culture."
Murphy-Richardson also mentioned co-defensive coordinator Paul Randolph and tight ends coach/recruiting coordinator Chip Long. Bailey credited offensive line coach Chris Thomsen. Scottsdale Chaparral receiver signee Tyler Whiley raved about offensive coordinator Mike Norvell and receivers coach DelVaughn Alexander.
"I want to be part of something special," Whiley said. "We definitely have the potential to do that after the last two years."
The coaches, however, have not reeled in top talent on their pitch alone. They have in two seasons armed themselves with invaluable sales tools like bowl appearances, a Pac-12 Championship Game berth, All-Americans and All Pac-12 selections.
"Winning tradition is No. 1," Graham said. "People want to go to places that are winning, and being successful. And then I think how you go about winning is very vital.
"I don’t want to win at all costs; I want to win the right way."
That’s all before mentioning an aggressive, attacking defensive and explosive, high-scoring offense.
Success on the field has perhaps been ASU’s greatest recruiting tool. For that, Graham credits his players, whom he said were vital to informing recruits on visits what it’s like playing at ASU and within its systems on both sides of the ball.
ASU itself also provided the staff with key selling points. Between a contract extension for Graham, a promotion and raise for one of the nation’s most sought-after offensive coordinators and recently unveiled plans for a renovated Sun Devil Stadium, the university has displayed renewed dedication to success on the football field.
"The commitment our university is making to put this new stadium is big," Graham said. "It shows commitment to wanting to be a top five program in the country. That’s our goal."
Interestingly, Graham also credited ASU’s appearance on the first season of the Pac-12 Network show "The Drive" as a contributing factor in ASU’s recruiting efforts for the exposure it provided.
All that came together to help ASU land a group of players it believes will help it remain on its upward trajectory. It even had to turn away some players it would have loved to sign but couldn’t due to scholarship limits.
Prominent in the class is Manny Wilkins, the Sun Devils’ first quarterback signee under Graham. ASU secured Wilkins commitment early and reaped the rewards of Wilkins’ relentless efforts to convince others to follow him to Tempe. He’s believed to have played a key role in at least five other signees’ commitments.
"I was proud of how proud he was to be a Sun Devil," Graham said.
Wilkins will have competition for the starting job senior Taylor Kelly will vacate after next season. ASU also signed Vista Murrieta (Calif.) quarterback Coltin Gerhart, the younger brother of former ASU offensive lineman Garth Gerhart and former Stanford running back Toby Gerhart.
"One of the toughest quarterbacks I’ve ever evaluated," Graham said. "He comes from a good family."
ASU also received a few Signing Day surprises. The nation’s No. 1 ranked junior college defensive tackle, Dalvon Stuckey, signed with ASU after a previous commitment to Auburn fell through.
"He is a guy in line with Will (Sutton) in the type of explosiveness we are looking for," Graham said. "Except you can see he’s 6-foot-3."
ASU also landed a teammate of Stuckey’s from Pearl River Community College in Poplarville, Miss., on Wednesday in Darrius Caldwell, who will likely compete with Murphy-Richardson and others to replace Carl Bradford at the "Devil" linebacker position.
Also committing and signing Wednesday was Grossmont College (El Cajon, Calif.) cornerback Kweishi Brown, who should help shore up ASU’s secondary, which lost three of four starters to graduation.
A number of other players should have the chance to contribute immediately, including running backs Demario Richard and DeChavon Hayes, defensive lineman Connor Humphreys and Tashon Smallwood and wide receiver Eric Lauderdale.
Let me be the first to welcome one of the most dynamic playmakers in the the country coming to Tempe!! @e_lauderdale#Boombaby
Lauderdale, a highly rated junior college prospect out of Saddleback College in Mission Viejo, Calif., provided an example Wednesday of the strides ASU has made in recruiting. Lauderdale committed to ASU last week, but Wednesday morning received a strong overture from Florida and nearly signed with the Gators. ASU was ultimately able to keep him in the fold.
As much as they appear a weakness next season, ASU’s personnel losses, particularly on defense, may have been a key benefit in recruiting. Coaches could point to vacant starting jobs as opportunities for prospects to play.
"We’ve got big shoes to fill," Graham said. "There’s a bunch of all-conference players we’ve got to replace."
ASU already has two signees on campus, one of them who may help fill a defensive hole immediately. El Cerrito (Calif.) linebacker D.J. Calhoun signed Wednesday after previously signing a non-binding financial aid agreement and beginning classes at ASU. He’s expected to compete for the will linebacker spot.
"I just want to play right away," Calhoun said Wednesday. "If I have to redshirt, I have to redshirt, but I’m just looking to come in and play right away."
New Mexico Military Institute defensive lineman Edmond Boateng is also in campus already, having signed in the early junior college signing period.
It will be clearer in a few years if Graham truly did deliver an elite signing class this year. For now, though, it’s obvious Graham has taken ASU into another tier of recruiting, one where highly touted prospects become Sun Devils instead of Trojans, Ducks, Bruins or whatever else.
"One of the things that’s kind of helped us is we’ve been successful and we’ve really worked really hard externally in showing people who we are and what we’re all about, and I think you’re seeing those dividends," Graham said. "You can tell that we’re competing with the people that we should be competing with for personnel."
Get a closer look at the 25 recruits to sign national letters of intent with Arizona State.
DB, FR, 5-10, 175
Allen, Texas/Allen HS
Physical defensive back from one of the nation’s elite high school football programs … helped guide Allen to back-to-back Texas 5A Division I state championships … rated by Scout.com as the No. 47 cornerback prospect in the nation.
OL, FR, 6-6, 302
Gilbert, Ariz./Higley HS
Earned First-Team Arizona All-State Division III honors by the Arizona Republic after his senior season … rated by Scout.com as the No. 81 offensive tackle prospect in the nation.
DL, RS-SO, 6-4.5, 270
Fairfax, Va./Wiregrass Ranch HS/New Mexico Military Institute
Midyear transfer already enrolled at ASU and will be with the team for spring drills … a four-star prospect according to ESPN … also rated by ESPN as the third-best junior college defensive end and the No. 25 overall junior college prospect in the nation.
DB, JR, 6-0, 198
San Diego, Calif./Valhalla HS/Grossmont College
All-American junior college transfer and one of the top junior college cornerbacks in the nation … comes to ASU with three years to play two starting in 2014 … a four-star prospect according to ESPN … also ranked by ESPN as the No. 24 overall junior college prospect and the third-best junior college cornerback recruit in the nation.
Darrius Caldwell, LB, JR, 6-6, 235, Atlanta, Ga./Mays HS/Pearl River CC
Physically gifted defender with the ability to play defensive end or linebacker … rated by ESPN as the fourth-best junior college defensive end in the country and the No. 40 overall junior college recruit in the nation … originally signed with Illinois out of Atlanta (Ga.) Mays High School,
LB, FR, 6-0.5, 213
El Cerrito, Calif./El Cerrito HS
Enrolled at ASU in January and will be with the team for spring drills … the top high school defensive player in ASU’s 2014 class … unanimously regarded as a four-star prospect … participated in the 2014 U.S. Army All-American Game and was chosen to be a team captain for the West … ranked by Scout.com as the No. 145 overall prospect in the country and the No. 13 outside linebacker recruit in the nation.
QB, FR, 6-0, 216,
Murrieta, Calif./Vista Murrieta HS
True dual-threat quarterback with equal effectiveness throwing and running the ball … a top baseball prospect as well and is expected to play baseball at ASU … rated by Scout.com as the No. 43 quarterback prospect in the nation … his older brother, Garth, started 35 career games on the offensive line for the Sun Devils from 2008-11 and earned Second-Team All-Pac-12 honors as a senior … his other brother, Toby, starred at running back for Stanford and was the runner-up for the 2009 Heisman Trophy … … nearly amassed 4,500 passing yards and 3,500 rushing yards over three years as a varsity performer.
WR, FR, 6-2, 185
El Cerrito, Calif./El Cerrito HS
Rated by 24-7 Sports, ESPN and Rivals.com as a four-star prospect … regarded by 24-7 Sports as the No. 147 overall recruit in the nation, the No. 22 wide receiver in the country and the No. 15 overall prospect in the state of California.
DeâChavon "Gump" Hayes
RB, JR, 5-11, 192
Richmond, Va./Varina HS/Lackawanna College
Speedy junior college transfer with the skill set to help the Sun Devils in multiple ways … figures to be a dynamic threat as a rusher, receiver and on special teams … rated by Rivals.com as the second-best junior college running back prospect in the nation and the countryâs No. 61 overall junior college recruit … rushed for 837 yards in seven games with seven touchdowns in 2013.
DL, FR, 6-4, 275
Portland, Ore./Central Catholic HS
One of the premier defensive linemen on the west coast … selected as a Second-Team All-America pick by USA Today after his senior season … participated in the 2014 U.S. Army All-American Bowl … guided Central Catholic to an undefeated 14-0 season in 2013 and the Oregon Class 6A state championship … listed by Rivals.com as the No. 108 overall prospect in the nation and the eighth-best strong side defensive end recruit in the country.
OL, FR, 6-5, 285
Highlands Ranch, Colo./Thunderridge HS
One of the top overall prospects in the state of Colorado … regarded by ESPN as a four-star prospect and the No. 23 offensive tackle recruit in the country.
TE, FR, 6-5, 242
Danville, Calif./Monte Vista HS
Tall athlete with experience at multiple positions … earned All-West Region honors by PrepStar after his senior season … rated by Scout.com as the No. 71 tight end prospect in the nation.
WR, JR, 6-2, 195
Fayetteville, Ga./Fayette County HS/Saddleback College
One of the top overall junior college prospects in the country … looks to follow Jaelen Strong as an instant impact junior college transfer at wide receiver for the Sun Devils … unanimously rated a four-star prospect by all major recruit evaluation services … ranked by Rivals.com as the third-best junior college wide receiver in the nation and the No. 18 overall junior college prospect … one of only four junior college wide receivers in the nation for the 2014 class ranked with a four-star rating or higher by Scout.com … totaled 114 receptions for 1,616 yards and 16 touchdowns during his two seasons at Saddleback College.
LB, FR, 6-4, 215
Goodyear, Ariz./Desert Edge HS
Starred at wide receiver and linebacker, and expects to play linebacker at ASU … also a standout basketball player … listed by Rivals.com as the No. 21 linebacker recruit in the country.
DB, FR, 5-11.5, 183
Las Vegas, Nev./Bishop Gorman HS
Earned All-West Region honors by PrepStar after his senior season … regarded by Scout.com as the No. 91 cornerback prospect in the nation.
RB, FR, 5-10, 203
Palmdale, Calif./Palmdale HS
Gives ASU an excellent blend of strength, toughness and quickness … has a strong lower body and great burst … has excellent hands out of the backfield … a four-star recruit according to ESPN and Scout.com … played in the 2014 Semper Fidelis All-American Bowl in Carson, Calif. … listed by Scout.com as the No. 28 running back recruit in the nation.
LB, FR, 6-1, 220
Allen, Texas/Allen HS
Defensive leader for one of the nation’s elite high school football programs … helped guide Allen to back-to-back Texas 5A Division I state championships … named Defensive MVP of the 2013 state championship game after tallying 5.5 tackles, a sack and a forced fumble … rated the No. 27 linebacker recruit in the nation by Rivals.com.
DB, FR, 5-9, 180
Philadelphia, Pa./Imhotep Charter High School
Comes to ASU from the same high school that produced All-Pac-12 wide receiver Jaelen Strong … listed by Rivals.com as the No. 49 defensive back recruit in the country.
LB, FR, 6-2, 208
Anaheim, Calif./Magnolia HS
Played safety in high school but will begin his ASU career at linebacker … has the frame to add size … rated by Scout.com as the No. 32 safety prospect in the nation.
DL, FR, 6-1, 292
Fresno, Calif./Central HS
A superb pass rusher with tremendous size … registered 40 sacks over his junior and senior seasons … brings the physical skill set necessary to contribute at a high level to ASUâs attacking defensive scheme … rated by PrepStar as the No. 252 overall recruit in America … a four-star recruit according to Scout and ESPN … rated by Scout.com as the No. 20 defensive tackle prospect in the nation.
DL, JR, 6-3, 308
Defuniak Springs, Fla./Walton HS/Pearl River CC
The top junior college defensive tackle prospect in the nation according to Rivals.com … … brings incredible size and strength to ASU … a four-star prospect according to ESPN and Rivals.com … also rated by ESPN as the second-best junior college defensive tackle prospect and the eighth-best overall junior college recruit in the country … regarded as the No. 12 overall junior college prospect in the nation according to Rivals.com.
DB, FR, 6-1, 189
Concord, Calif./De La Salle HS
Helped guide De La Salle to a combined 29-1 record over his junior and senior seasons … earned All-West Region honors by PrepStar after his senior season … rated by Scout.com as the No. 31 safety prospect in the nation … also ranked by Scout.com as the No. 88 overall prospect in the west region and the fourth-best safety recruit in the region.
WR, FR, 6-0, 193
Scottsdale, Ariz./Chaparral HS
Unanimously regarded as a four-star prospect … standout two-way player in high school that exceled equally at wide receiver and defensive back … played in the 2014 Semper Fidelis All-American Bowl in Carson, Calif. … rated by PrepStar as the No. 78 overall prospect in America … evaluated by ESPN as a cornerback and tabbed nationally as the No. 11 prospect at the position … listed by Rivals.com as the No. 18 athlete recruit in the country … rated by Scout.com as the No. 21 wide receiver prospect in the nation.
QB, FR, 6-2, 181
Novato, Calif./San Marin HS
The most highly-rated quarterback to sign with ASU since 2005 … played in the 2014 Semper Fidelis All-American Bowl in Carson, Calif. … competed in the illustrious Elite-11 quarterback camp in 2013 … was named the Nike Football Training Camps Top Underclassman and a member of the Oakland All-Nike Camp Team in the summer prior to his junior year … labeled a four-star prospect by Scout, ESPN and 24-7 Sports … rated the ninth-best dual threat quarterback in the nation by 24-7 Sports … listed by ESPN as the No. 13 dual-threat quarterback recruit in the country … rated by Scout.com as the No. 14 quarterback prospect in the nation … threw for 2,195 yards with 21 touchdowns and rushed 155 times for 811 yards with 15 scores … passed for 2,335 yards with 19 touchdowns and rushed 152 times for 567 yards with seven scores as a junior in 2012.
DL, FR, 6-4.5, 255
St. Louis, Mo./Lutheran HS
Earned First-Team All-State honors as a senior … played multiple defensive line positions in high school … rated by Scout.com as a four-star prospect and the No. 36 defensive end recruit in the nation … regarded by Scout.com as the top defensive lineman in the state of Missouri and the stateâs sixth-best overall recruit.