TEMPE, Ariz. — If first impressions are the most important ones, Arizona State’s season opener Thursday is much more significant than the matchup with FCS opponent Northern Arizona would suggest.
Unsurprisingly, ASU players and coaches have said all the right things about not overlooking NAU. But Thursday’s game is more than anything about setting a tone, on multiple fronts, for a new era of football in Tempe.
“I just want to win,” first-year coach Todd Graham said of his debut. “Everybody always tells me how it is around here; we’re going to change that.”
Graham, in truth, has already made his first impression after taking over for Dennis Erickson in December, and it has been a strong one. A wave of criticism followed Graham to Tempe when he left Pittsburgh after less than 12 months to take the ASU job. He worked quickly to overcome it, though, and appears to have won over a skeptical fan base.
First, Graham assembled a staff of respected assistants that includes a former Division I head coach and accomplished recruiter (Larry Porter, running backs), a receivers coach coming off back-to-back Rose Bowls (DelVaughn Alexander, formerly of Wisconsin), and longtime right-hand man Mike Norvell, now the second-youngest assistant in the Pac-12.
Next, Graham landed one of Arizona’s prized recruits in local running back D.J. Foster, who also had offers from USC and Cal and is expected to start. Further, Graham’s staff recruited the Valley aggressively, establishing quick ties to the area’s strongest programs.
Perhaps most importantly, Graham connected with the ASU community in a way neither of the team’s past two coaches did. He reached out to former players to get involved, even adding former standout receiver Rudy Burgess to his staff. He led a push to return to Camp Tontozona, the program’s fabled mountain training ground, and committed to it for his tenure. Graham has also made himself noticeably visible among fans and boosters.
It all built to Graham’s bold media day statement that 2012 was most certainly not a rebuilding year as the new staff implements its way of doing things.
“I think that that’s a complete cop-out,” Graham said. “It’s just not in my mindset to approach things that way. I just believe you can get what you expect. Is it going to be easy? No. Are we going to face a lot of adversity? Yes. Can we win a championship this first year? Yes, we can. That’s what our mission is going to be.
“I didn’t take this job thinking you couldn’t win in the first year.”
The start of Graham’s first season offers the opportunity for another kind of first impression. Fans and opponents will see just how prepared Graham’s team is, even if how much it can accomplish this season may not become clear for another few weeks. At minimum, Graham looks to become the fifth of ASU’s last seven coaches to win his debut.
Starting quarterback Taylor Kelly, meanwhile, will try to become the fifth quarterback in as many seasons to lead ASU to a season-opening victory. None of the previous four victories came against an FBS opponent, but in three of them, the quarterback threw for at least 300 yards.
Albeit against a lesser opponent, Thursday’s game offers Kelly the chance to inspire confidence in a still-skeptical fan base that he can be its quarterback and not just a stopgap measure until redshirt freshman Michael Eubank — who will get roughly a third of the snaps anyway — is ready.
“I’m nervous and excited,” Kelly said. “I can’t wait to get out there Thursday. I just need to come out with a great focus and good tempo, have good leadership and stay calm.”
Said offensive coordinator Mike Norvell: “He just needs to play his game and just let the game come to him. He doesn’t need to go out there and try to make every single play by himself. He’s got to just let the game come to him and do the things that got him to this point.”
The game might not be a referendum on ASU’s two-quarterback system, but it will offer a first look at Graham’s “High Octane” offense that helped Tulsa lead the nation in total offense in 2007 and 2008.
“We want to start fast,” Norvell said. “We want to get off to a great start and we want to be a team that starts the season game-ready. I don’t want to go out there and see sloppy play, turnovers and penalties. That would be disappointing to me.”
While relentless offense is Graham’s calling card, he and co-defensive coordinator Paul Randolph expect just as much impact out of the defense.
“We want guys moving around being fast, being explosive and being playmakers,” Randolph said.
More importantly, Graham wants to see a disciplined defense. That would certainly be a change from the penalty-prone defenses of Erickson’s tenure, which Graham believes relied more on athleticism than discipline and scheme.
Whatever first impression Graham, his offense, the defense and Kelly make as they begin writing a new chapter of ASU football, it could be quickly forgotten. Though first impressions are said to be lasting, such is not always the case in college football, especially when tougher times lie ahead (think Illinois, Missouri, Oregon and USC).
“What matters is that you get better every day and that you win,” Graham said. “I want these guys to represent our fans the way they deserve to be represented, and I think these guys can do that.”