TEMPE, Ariz. — When Todd Graham took over the Arizona State football team in December, he immediately enacted a new standard of conduct. Some players struggled to adjust, even to the point a few left the program.
But for junior defensive lineman Davon Coleman, a brush with a premature end to his ASU career was just the wakeup call he needed.
“When I was just on the borderline of being kicked off the team for small stuff, not living up to the standards, that really just opened up my eyes,” Coleman said. “Even though I didn’t really feel like I did that much stuff wrong, I just wasn’t living up to the standard.”
Coleman has come a long way from being the guy Graham recently said had “probably been in my doghouse more than any other player,” retaking his starting spot on the defensive line and becoming perhaps ASU’s most versatile lineman.
“You want to do this job and you want to impact people’s lives,” Graham said. “He’s a guy that I can see how he’s transformed himself. I’m really proud of him.”
Coleman admits the discipline Graham and his staff demanded came as a shock to him and many other players, particularly because former coach Dennis Erickson ran a loose program that became known for its lack of discipline.
Coleman saidhe was not prepared for the adjustment, despite his understanding the program needed more structure.
“I didn’t transition well to the things I’m doing today,” Coleman said. “It took a while for me to grasp on to the things (Graham) preached on a daily basis.”
Added Graham: “It was a lot of little things. It was probably just learning a different way of doing things. The structure, discipline, and accountabilities were probably the hardest things.”
The struggle to meet expectations cost Coleman much of spring practice, undoing the momentum he had gained in the 2011 season. He had played in all 13 games, started three, and racked up 42 tackles and 2.5 sacks, positioning himself to start at defensive end in 2012.
“That was hard,” Coleman said. “That was like my first time being suspended from a team or anything. I didn’t respond well at first.”
When Coleman did return, the on-field adjustment proved just as difficult. He was not the only player straining to keep up in Graham’s fast-paced system, but his off-the-field issues compounded the struggle. Co-defensive coordinator Paul Randolph said Coleman was out of shape and “struggled immensely” adjusting to the speed of the new defense.
Randolph admitted there was some uncertainty about whether Coleman would ever see the field for ASU again. Coleman, though, never doubted he would back with the Sun Devils this season.
“I knew I would do whatever it took to be on this football team,” Coleman said. “I always knew I’d be back on the team and I’d do whatever it took to be back with my teammates again.”
Coleman buckled down over the summer, working overtime in the team’s strength and conditioning program and adjusting his mind-set to fit with the new culture.
“I think during the summer he shifted gears and he started growing into the player, into the person, into the Davon that’s going to be successful,” Randolph said. “Naturally, it’s showing up in everything he does. His grades are improved, his work ethic is improved, everything about him is getting better.
“It was just saying no to Davon and saying yes to the team, just understanding that ‘I am one eleventh of the defense.'”
Coleman came to fall camp look to earn a staring job at defensive end but ultimately lost out to Junior Onyeali. His place on the second-team was short-lived, though, as he worked his way into the starting lineup by ASU’s fourth game. He was playing defensive end and nose tackle while also seeing time on offense as a fullback, giving running backs a 282-pound body to run behind.
When star defensive tackle Will Sutton suffered a bone bruise against Oregon two weeks ago and Onyeali hurt his shoulder in the same game, Coleman suddenly became even more important. He was moving between the inside and outside, helping fill the void.
“He can start at any position, and he has during the last couple weeks,” Randolph said. “To me it just shows what type of talent he has, but also how smart he is.”
In last week’s loss to UCLA, Coleman started for Sutton and compiled five tackles and a sack. He could start at tackle again this week if Sutton is not ready to return. If Onyeali misses more time, Coleman might again play nearly every snap as he did against UCLA.
It means a great deal to Coleman that he’s earned coaches’ trust enough that they have relied on him to hold the line together, but he still thinks he can do more. In eight games, Coleman has tallied 29 tackles including 5.5 for loss and 2.5 sacks.
“I don’t ever think I’ve made it or anything,” Coleman said. “There’s always something to improve in football or in life. I’m nowhere near where I want to be.”
That might be, but considering how close Coleman came to getting kicked off the team, it’s remarkable how integral a part of ASU’s defense he has become.
“Davon declared ‘I’m going to be here, I’m going to be a part of it and I’m going to do whatever you ask me to do,’ ” Randolph said. “And he’s done every bit of it. I think he’s 100 percent bought in, and I think he believes in what we’re doing.”