ASU’s juco recruits not just about ‘quick fix’

TEMPE, Ariz. — Get past the fact that Arizona State’s 2013 signing class, which was announced Wednesday, does not include top quarterback prospect Joshua Dobbs and you’ll notice an interesting trend: Of the 27 players the Sun Devils added, 10 are junior college transfers.

That’s enough to tie with Hawaii, Louisiana Tech and Idaho for the third-most junior college signees in Division I behind only Kansas (16) and Fresno State (12). ASU coach Todd Graham admitted Wednesday the number is unusually high but insisted it is by design.

“We think that’s a formula that can be successful for us,” Graham said. “There’s not any quick-fix mentality there.”

Graham said he believes ASU will continue to average about six juco players per recruiting class, but with 16 players graduating on defense alone after next season, there was a need to bring in extra talent that will be ready for the field sooner.

Additionally, for various reasons, only nine scholarship players from the 2011 recruiting class — Dennis Erickson’s last — remain with ASU. Adding juco players now essentially plugs the holes left by those players for the next two seasons.

But as Graham said, this was not just about plugging holes. Four of the 10 players, in fact, have three years of eligibility to use at ASU: offensive lineman Nick Kelly, linebacker Antonio Longino, defensive back Solomon Means and wide receiver Jaelen Strong. This was just as much about adding talent.

“I think we can sign the best junior college players in the country,” Graham said. “And why not (do it)? I think the best junior colleges in the country are in California and Arizona.”

Seven of the 10 juco players ASU signed are ranked by Scout.com as three-star prospects. Of the schools signing 10 or more jucos, ASU ranked highest (No. 31) in Scout’s team rankings by a good margin. And a number of the prospects ASU landed were highly sought-after.

Defensive lineman Marcus Hardison, for example, passed on offers from Auburn, Florida State, Kansas State, Oklahoma and many others. Longino had offers from Arkansas, Kansas State, Texas A&M and others. Receiver Joseph Morris had a reported offer from LSU, and defensive back Damarious Randall had offers from TCU, Nebraska and Oklahoma.

Certainly, attention from top-tier programs does not equate to success, as juco players are often hit or miss at transitioning to the college level. But Graham believes he and his staff have the right plan to have more hits than misses.

“I would just point to this year and the success we had being able to bring those guys and immediately be able to transition them,” Graham said. “I don’t think every staff can do that.”

ASU did get significant contributions in 2012 from junior college players recruited last year, including running back Marion Grice and linebackers Chris Young and Steffon Martin. But ASU also had a major miss with defensive lineman Mike Pennell, who was twice suspended for team rules violations and is currently trying to work his way back from an indefinite leave and into coaches’ good graces.

That group is a near-perfect illustration of the risk and reward involved with juco recruiting. There can be a huge payoff, like with Grice, or a huge headache, like with Pennell. But Graham believes strongly in his system of discipline and doesn’t plan to slow down his junior college recruiting much.

“I’m looking for young men that fit our program, have a burning desire to succeed and embrace what we’re all about,” Graham said. “This place is unique. We’re different in how we go about doing things.”

The big juco payoff for ASU next season could be at wide receiver, a position of desperate need. Expectations are high for Morris and Strong, who chose ASU over reported offers from Arizona, Illinois, Miami, Nebraska, Oregon State, South Carolina and others. As long as Strong sorts out some academic concerns, he might well be ASU’s top receiver next season.

Randall could prove a major asset as well with safety Keelan Johnson having graduated. Randall is a good fit for ASU’s aggressive defense, having collected nine interceptions last season, and should also give the Sun Devils a potentially dangerous kick-return option.

Of course, this time last year, many wondered if Grice would even see the field much behind Cameron Marshall and D.J. Foster. The same observers felt Pennell would be a boon to the defensive line. That’s the thing with junior college recruiting: It’s a gamble.

But it’s a gamble ASU is willing to take every year.

“Every year I want to go sign Jaelen Strong,” Graham said. “Every year I want to sign Marcus Hardison. Every year I’ll sign those guys.”