One athletic department official wondered when the last time an eight-win team suffered such ignominy. Graham wondered how guys such as linebacker Brandon Magee, running back Cameron Marshall, safety Keelan Johnson and punter Josh Hubner could have been overlooked.
“I thought all of those guys had a good chance,” he said. “Josh is the best punter I’ve ever coached in my career.”
The NFL Draft is an inexact science where mistakes are often made, both in the players who are drafted and, less frequently, in the ones who are not. Time and opportunity may allow the aforementioned players to prove their doubters wrong, but one thing should be clear beyond a shadow of a doubt: Graham and his staff did a whale of a job last season.
Let’s review the obstacles they faced when they arrived on the heels of Dennis Erickson’s firing.
•A skeptical public and media that doubted every buzz word coming from Graham’s lips after he bailed on Pittsburgh after 11 months.
•The loss of a starting quarterback, four key offensive linemen, three key receivers, an entire starting linebacking corps and both starting safeties to graduation or the NFL.
•Four straight seasons without a winning record, seven straight seasons without a bowl victory and a fan culture sprinkled with equal parts ridicule and apathy.
In the face of all that, and without any obvious NFL Draft talent on the roster aside from underclassman Will Sutton, Graham came within a last-second field goal in a loss to UCLA of leading ASU to the Pac-12 South title. Oh, and the Sun Devils played that game without Sutton, who we are certain would have flipped that result with his disruptive presence along the defensive line.
So how did Graham react when presented with this overwhelming evidence?
“In my opinion, we should have won three more games,” he said. “We made too many mistakes against UCLA and Oregon State, and that Missouri game at the beginning of the year, we were just too young and green in what we were doing. We let that one get away.”
“I really appreciate the kind of comments people were making in this community and from some of the national voices about the job we did,” Graham said. “And I do think we will look back at that team as the one that laid the foundation for bigger things in this program.
“But to be honest with you, last season was the easy part. Going from eight wins to winning the Pac-12, that’s the hard part, and that’s how we’ll be judged.”
It won’t be easy given that ASU’s first six games feature the Big Ten champ (Wisconsin), the Pac-12 champ (Stanford) and a team that played for the BCS national championship last season (Notre Dame).
“Nobody can accuse us of ducking anyone, but with that schedule comes great opportunity,” Graham said. “The 2013 team could really elevate this program on a national scale.”
It could also elevate the program in a market where the Suns are bottom feeders, the Cardinals are bottom feeders, the Coyotes missed the playoffs and the Diamondbacks are fine only so long as they stop playing after seven innings.
In the Valley’s entire sports lore, our collective MLB, NBA, NFL, NHL and major college teams have amassed exactly one title.
“I think you have a town that is really hungry for a champion. “That gives us a unique opportunity with our fan base,” Graham said. “We have to win those marquee games for any of that to matter, but all you can ask is for an opportunity.”