ASU reaps major infusion from junior college

TEMPE, Ariz. – It wasn’t the isolation of Yuma or a hard-line coach that delivered Steffon Martin’s wake-up call at Arizona Western College. It was the thought that he had let down his biggest ally.

“My mom was so sad that I had to go to a juco,” Arizona State’s junior linebacker said. “She was worried I was going to become a waste of talent.”

Martin took the same path to a junior college that many talented athletes took before him.

“Every rule in the book that qualifies you to go to junior college, I checked it off,” he said. “Grades, discipline — I was definitely that guy.”

But by the time Sun Devils football coach Todd Graham walked in to recruit him, Martin was ready to be somebody else.

“He came in like an old war veteran talking discipline and integrity and character,” Martin said of Graham. “I’m listening to him and I’m thinking: ‘Yeah. I need discipline. Without discipline you can get loose.’ ”

So Rivals’ third-ranked junior college linebacker took a chance on Arizona State. In turn, the Sun Devils took a chance on him and a whopping eight other recruited junior college players this offseason.

“We took a lot of guys,” Graham admitted. “And I’m pretty thankful we have them.”

There have been players in ASU’s past who have made the juco jump, and made it successfully. Phillippi Sparks, Derrick Rodgers, Delvon Flowers and Ryan Torain come to mind. But it’s hard to remember a year in which ASU got more immediate bang for its junior college investment than it has enjoyed this season.

Linebacker Chris Young (Arizona Western) is tied for second on the team with 54 tackles, with a team-high 13.5 tackles for loss and two sacks. Martin has started six games, he had two tackles for loss against UCLA last week and he has been a significant contributor all season. Then there’s running back Marion Grice (Blinn College, Texas), who was SuperPrep’s top-ranked junior college running back. All he has done is score 12 touchdowns, which ranks third in the Pac-12 behind Oregon’s Kenjon Barner (15) and Arizona’s Ka’Deem Carey (13).

“I wasn’t expecting to be where I’m at right now,” said Grice, who has 305 rushing yards and 228 receiving yards. “Eventually, I was hoping to get to this point, but it happened so fast. I need to keep working and not just settle for this.”

When ASU went the juco route this offseason, the hope was to build precious depth, fill areas of need and pluck a couple impact players in an offseason where Graham and his new staff weren’t granted the requisite time on the recruiting trail. But the silent, accompanying prayer was to avoid any embarrassing missteps that sometimes come with junior college players. In 2002, juco transfer defensive tackle Danny Masaniai fired a gun into the air outside a Valley nightclub and was eventually removed from the team for violating team rules.

“In the end, you want to be able to sign 25 of the top high school prospects in the country, but the situation we were in was that we needed some immediate help,” recruiting coordinator Chip Long said. “So in the evaluation process of these junior college players, we absolutely took some extra steps. We were very tough on them in our questioning and in all of the vetting of their character, whether it was talking to high school and college coaches or looking at their grades or their history.”

Graham, Long and the other coaches were fully aware of the potential damage that problem players could create in the first year of a new coaching staff.

One player who hasn’t always met the standard, as Graham puts it, is defensive tackle Mike Pennel, who joined the team out of Scottsdale Community College. Graham hoped Pennel could help anchor the defensive line as a space-eater and run-stuffer, but Pennel was suspended for three weeks this season for a variety of vaguely named issues. He was just reinstated for the UCLA game because Graham said he is making progress.

“We want to recruit the guys that fit Arizona State from a standpoint of character first — and work ethic,” Graham said. “We got a lot of them right but you don’t always get all of them right.”

In addition to Grice, Martin, Young and Pennel, ASU also added tight end Darwin Rogers (Arizona Western), offensive lineman William McGehee (Navarro CC), defensive tackle Jake Sheffield (College of the Desert), cornerback Oliver Johnson (Pierce College) and wide receiver Alonzo Agwuenu (Mt. San Antonio College).

Placekicker Jon Mora is a walk-on from Pima Community College.

Long said he doesn’t expect the number of junior college players to be as high next season when the Sun Devils staff has had more time to scour the nation for prep talent. But he expects the program to add five or six each season as a valuable supplement to the program’s skill level.

“We feel we can get the top junior-college prospects in the country every year, but they have to be the top, top players,” Long said. “It’s a fine balance, but if you bring in the right guys, you can make it work. If you get the right guys they can infuse energy and talent into your program, which these guys have done for us.”

Follow Craig Morgan on Twitter