Senior Day takes on new perspective at ASU

TEMPE, Ariz. — When Arizona State’s seniors walk through Tillman Tunnel before kickoff one last time Saturday, they’ll do so with all the typical emotions that come with senior day — sadness, pride, and perhaps some disbelief.

But the group will also take the field for their final game at Sun Devil Stadium with a new-found meaning to what being a Sun Devil is all about.

First-year coach Todd Graham got his first senior class in Tempe to buy in quickly, and through points of emphasis unfamiliar to them redefined what it means to represent Arizona State on the football field.

“He changed it 100 percent,” senior linebacker and captain Brandon Magee said. “He gets people ready for college and life after college, even if you don’t make it to the NFL — for just life, business, everything. He teaches you how to be successful.”

Graham admits he was concerned at first whether the seniors, who had spent their entire time in Tempe under Dennis Erickson, would buy in quickly. He wanted to radically change the culture at ASU, and he knew the challenges that can come with a monumental shift.

It took changes in attitude, discipline, demeanor and habit.

“One of the things we’ve worked really hard on is to teach them what it is to be a Sun Devil, what they’re a part of,” Graham said. “We’re trying to work guys extremely hard because they ultimately want to win and be successful with their careers and in college. I think we’ve done that, and I think it comes back to the core values that we base everything on, and that’s character, respect, honesty, discipline, and trust.”

“It was such a drastic change on a lot of the little things we were asking them to do. We asked them to do it, and they did it. Guys like Cameron Marshall, Brandon Magee and Andrew Sampson were incredible. I was very concerned because it could have not been as positive of a deal.”

The seniors could have just as easily taken the selfish route, playing for themselves and focusing on their own post-college aspirations. But that would not have helped them achieve what they wanted more than anything after three or four frustrating seasons.

“I felt in my last year I needed to buy in and I had to get the guys around me to buy in,” senior safety and captain Keelan Johnson said. “I felt if we had any chance of being a successful team, I knew it was going to take a lot of the seniors to do it.”

Added Marshall, also a captain: “I think we were ready for anything that was going to help us win, so that was buying in for us. Us being selfish doesn’t help anybody. It doesn’t help the team obviously, and in the long run it doesn’t help us. If I came out here and was selfish every day that wouldn’t help the team at all, and in turn wouldn’t help me because I want to win. That wouldn’t help me win.

“Buying in gave us the best opportunity to win, so I did it now and obviously I’d do it again.”

Marshall, perhaps more than anyone else, has had reason to be frustrated. He was supposed to be ASU’s featured running back as he pursued multiple school records. Instead, he’s been used in a lesser capacity, with running backs D.J. Foster and Marion Grice getting more significant action.

Marshall still leads the team in rushing with 428 yards, but with just six touchdowns will likely fall short of the all-time rushing touchdowns record at ASU. Still, Marshall refused to let that color his emotions.

“The thing I respect so much about him is that it’s never been about that (records or playing time),” Graham said. “He wants the ball, he’s very competitive, but the guy will block his tail off. He’s a consummate team player, and he exemplifies what being a Sun Devil is all about.”

That unselfishness has been just one of the characteristics Graham has demanded of his players. He has tirelessly emphasized respect, accountability, perseverance and effort. And even amid a four-game losing streak, Graham said it’s all still there.

Also still present has been ASU’s impressive change of course in regard to penalties. After ranking dead last nationally for yards penalized per game (79.77), the Sun Devils currently rank fifth with 31.3 yards per game.

“I think some of these lessons coach Graham is teaching us are going to be great life lessons,” Marshall said. “It will go past football and help us to be a better man, a better father, a better son, a better brother, all that kind of stuff in the real world.”

Of course, that’s not to say winning on the field has lessened in importance. ASU got off to a surprising 5-1 start but finds itself at .500 heading into Saturday’s game with Washington State after a four-game losing streak.

Graham and players insist there is still plenty to play for.

“We want (the seniors) to finish up only one way, and that’s with a win,” Graham said. “So we’ve got to get bowl eligible and we’ve got to get a win for these seniors.”

As nice as a win would be for the seniors in their final home game, it’s probably more important for the future of the program to earn a bowl bid. It would provide an extra 15 practices to develop younger players for next season.

The Cougars (2-8, 0-7) bring a potent passing attack — coach Mike Leach’s so-called “Air Raid” offense — to Tempe but are still looking for their first conference win. And with a controversy now boiling around allegations of abuse by former receiver Marquess Wilson, Leach and company also have an investigation to worry about.

Washington State probably gives ASU its best shot at its much-needed sixth win, as they finish the season on the road against rival Arizona. But win or lose Saturday, much of the focus will be on ASU’s seniors who will walk off the field knowing they will leave behind a lasting impact for how they embraced the change.

“I feel like we came in here and changed the whole mind-set of this program,” Johnson said. “It’s going to be an exciting program to watch down the road.”