Bryce Perkins
ASU peels back curtain for behind-the-scenes look at football program
Bryce Perkins

ASU peels back curtain for behind-the-scenes look at football program

Published Aug. 20, 2015 4:36 p.m. ET

TEMPE, Ariz. -- The players are in their seats at 7 a.m., light chatter filling the theater inside Arizona State's Carson Student-Athlete Center. Sun Devils coach Todd Graham walks through a side door, down a ramp to the front of the room, coffee cup in hand.

The players all straighten as calls of "Eyes up" ring out.

Graham points to a white board, outlining themes for the day's practice: elite, dominant, playmakers. He tells the story of a Navy Seal who praised the team for its community work, then talks about an interaction senior D.J. Foster had with a peewee football team the day before.

Foster had given a pair of signed gloves to a kid in the front whose eyes never left his as he spoke, a gesture that hit home with his coach.


"Eyes are the window to the heart," Graham told the players. "That is how our mind is elite."

Graham promised a large dose of discipline when he was hired at Arizona State, a welcome change for a program that had lacked structure.

In a rare behind-the-scenes glimpse to the locked-down world of college football, Graham and his coaches revealed what has made his method so successful during four years in the desert.

"You'll never be physical without being mentally tough," Graham said. "The key theme is discipline."

It's hit on throughout the day.

Associate head coach Shawn Slocum revs up the players during the special teams meeting by shouting about rattlesnakes and sports cars as an image of a redlining odometer shines on the screen behind him.

Hired to shore up Arizona State's special teams after eight seasons with the Green Bay Packers, Slocum races through a series of slides and video clips -- of the Packers and ASU practice -- and singles out junior college transfer Tim White's effort the previous day as a way to motivate players.

"We're taking off the pajamas today," Slocum said about the first practice in pads. "This is the real deal."

Across the hall in the quarterbacks room, offensive coordinator Mike Norvell, using a video screen and a dry erase board, runs through a series of plays and the various options off each.

Norvell uses terms like sprite, skippy, pepper, cardinal, longhorn -- a foreign language to laymen, native tongue for the players in the room.

Starter Mike Bercovici, Manny Wilkins, Bryce Perkins and Brady White lock eyes on their coach or the screen, instinctively saying "Sir" or "Yes Sir" each time Norvell makes a point.

Norvell often talks in questions: "Would it be wrong if I ..." to see if they understand a formation or an option, or "Excuse me?" if someone gets something wrong or isn't assertive enough.

Norvell chastises White, a true freshman, for not speaking up when answering a question. Wilkins drops for 15 push-ups after a wrong answer.

"That would be a good thing to write down," Norvell said after hitting a key point. "See the guy (Bercovici) who's been here for five years? He still writes stuff down."

The meeting ends promptly at 8:21 to an air horn in the hallway, leaving the players 10 minutes to take trams to the Verde Dickey Dome, Arizona State's indoor practice facility.

Blaring music and the sounds of shouting coaches echo off the practice bubble's inflated white walls during warm-ups. Numerous clocks count down the practice periods, a monotone voice announcing the next session over a loudspeaker.

Coaches repeatedly scream Tempo! Pace! and Hurry up! during 11-on-11 drills, hoping to ingrain Arizona State's go-all-the-time pace into the new players.

Whoops ring out after a shoulder-pad-cracking hit during run drills. Massive linemen meet helmets with thunderous thuds during pass rush/pass block drills. Balls zip to receivers streaking across the field during 7-on-7 drills.

Graham oversees it all, stopping by to shout encouragement or chastisement before moving on.

Norvell uses his question method after Bercovici makes a good decision during 7-on-7 drills.

"What did you see?" Norvell asks. "That's right! That's how you do it!"

Shortly after, he's in the face of Devin Lucien after the senior receiver shoved a teammate for a big hit that knocked his helmet off.

"You don't do that!" Norvell screams.

Practice ends with a full-team huddle at midfield, where Graham offers equal parts praise and admonition for mistakes. Black jerseys are handed out to the 12 players who worked the hardest in the weight room during the offseason.

Graham meets with the media and hits many of the same talking points he drives home to his team: physical, explosive, enthusiastic, discipline.

The players head back to the Carson center for lunch, eating at tables broken down by position. Cellphones are prohibited to promote bonding and after lunch -- the main course was sausage and pepper sandwiches -- they head out on their separate ways.

The next day, they'll be back in their seats at 7 a.m., ready for the next day's challenges in preparation for the Sept. 5 opener against Texas A&M.

The theme for the day will, undoubtedly, be discipline. 


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