Attitude adjustment has Onyeali back on track

Attitude adjustment has Onyeali back on track

Published Aug. 23, 2012 3:42 p.m. ET

TEMPE, Ariz. -- Arizona State defensive end Junior Onyeali says it was a combination of issues that led to his unproductive 2011 season and pre-bowl suspension. It made for a tumultuous journey, but Onyeali believes he's better for it.

With the help of an attitude adjustment under new coach Todd Graham, Onyeali and the coaches believe he is poised to return to the level of play that made him the Pac-10's Defensive Freshman of the Year in 2010.

"I'm hoping it's better than two years ago," co-defensive coordinator Paul Randolph said Thursday. "I want the new and improved Junior."

The new and improved Onyeali has been a model of consistency, Randolph said. From his focus and desire to his performance on the field, all the pieces have come together. The road to this point was certainly a bumpy one.

Onyeali's "journey," as he calls it, began the second week of last season when he injured his left knee. The injury ultimately cost him four games, and Onyeali says he wasn't the same when he returned. He finished the season with 11 tackles (3 1/2 for loss) and one sack. That was after recording 18 tackles (11 1/2 for loss) and 6 1/2 sacks a year earlier.

"It was a lot of things -- a season not going the way I'd planned, me being injured," Onyeali said. "I was expecting big things."

Onyeali was also dealing with family issues, including the death of his grandfather, and ASU's season spiraled out of control over the last four games. Onyeali's frustrations came to a head when he and then-coach Dennis Erickson got into a heated exchange at a practice prior to the Las Vegas Bowl. Erickson suspended Onyeali for the game, which ASU lost to Boise State.

Looking back, Onyeali doesn't recall the particulars of the incident, though it involved Erickson's perception of Onyeali's preparation.  

"It was just me being prideful and not wanting to accept what he said," Onyeali said. "It just boiled over."

Onyeali has not spoken to Erickson since the incident but is not shy about showing his regret for what happened. Erickson was fired before the bowl game and left after coaching it.

"Like I always tell people, I feel heartbroken," Onyeali said. "He was a great coach to me, and he's always had my back -- always. That's why it hurts me to know that I went off on him like that and he had to suspend me."

When Graham arrived in December, he reviewed the circumstances of Onyeali's suspension and decided to uphold it indefinitely. The suspension cost Onyeali participation in spring camp as he carried out Graham's plan of improvement, which included academic progress and community service. Graham reinstated Onyeali in time for the start of fall camp on Aug. 3.

Though Onyeali wanted to be back on the field sooner, he understands Graham's decision and believes it was the best thing that could have happened to him. The new coaches weren't around Onyeali last season, but they have seen significant strides in him since they arrived.

"We talked about his issues, he talked to me openly about his issues," Randolph said. "His growth and his maturity over the past eight months have really made him a more poised person. He's able to handle a little disappointment or hard times, things like that. And I think it's made him a better football player because of that."

Getting his off-the-field issues straightened out and adjusting his attitude have helped Onyeali on the field as much as anything. Coaches have raved all fall about his work ethic and motivation.

"Junior is consistently working his tail off," Randolph said. "He's energy, he's passion and he's consistent with his work mindset and will to be great. To me, that's special."

If Onyeali is playing the best football of his life, as he and coaches say he is, the Sun Devils could have a force on the defensive line. Onyeali insists he has plenty of room to improve but acknowledges he is having the best camp of his ASU career and has never felt more focused.

The impact of Onyeali's journey doesn't stop with just him. Onyeali believes his experience has made the entire team better and created a more disciplined atmosphere in the program, something Graham has preached since he was hired.

"I believe what Coach Graham did was not only set an example for me but set an example for the whole team that that behavior is unacceptable," Onyeali said. "Because of that, I'm here, and as a team, we understand that's unacceptable."

Onyeali said camps in his previous seasons saw fights occur "all the time." He admits to being involved in a number of them. This year, though, Onyeali can't recall a single incident.

Randolph believes Onyeali's journey has given him a tool to be a leader in his final two seasons at ASU.

"Junior has an experience he can share," Randolph said. "As he grows and shares his experience with some of the younger players -- or older players -- I think they'll listen to him, because they know he's been down that road before.

"There's no question his experience is going to help us on the field in terms of his ability, but his experience with growth and maturity is going to help us far and beyond the football field."