Sun Devils ready to tackle 'unfinished business' in 2014

BY foxsports • February 25, 2014

TEMPE, Ariz. -- When Todd Graham arrived at Arizona State, he implemented an "All In" mindset, emphasizing buy in and commitment to what he wanted to build.

After a successful first season, Graham transitioned the program to the "Any Challenge" mantra that carried the Sun Devils to 10 wins and a berth in the Pac-12 Championship Game.

Now, with the bar set higher than ever, Graham is preparing to lead ASU into his third season with a new approach, one rooted in last year's accomplishments and unmoved by significant roster turnover.

"Our motto this year is 'unfinished business,' " Graham said. "And that unfinished business is winning the Pac-12 Championship."

Whether Graham has the motto printed on pitchfork-emblazoned wristbands for players and coaches to wear remains to be seen, but that's the model Graham has put in place for next season with spring practice three weeks away.

Graham met with local beat reporters Tuesday to discuss spring personnel and lay out his vision for his third campaign in Tempe. He began by acknowledging what the Sun Devils have accomplished in his two seasons.

"Kind of where we're at is we've laid a great foundation," Graham said. "We've done some really, really quality things."

Soon, though, Graham spoke solely of next season. The volume of his voice rising at times, Graham made it clear his expectations are higher for the 2014 season, as is the standard by which he measures success.

"We don't win 11 games, it don't matter what I say," said Graham. "We don't win the conference championship, it don't matter what I say, and I'm proud. That's what I want the fans to expect, period. That's what I expect.

"The expectation is we are going to be better."

That might seem like standard offseason coach speak, but in the context of ASU's situation entering the 2014, those are bold declarations for Graham to make. When ASU opens spring practice, it will be without 13 starters, including nine on the defensive side.

Among that graduated group is Will Sutton, a two-time All-American and back-to-back Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year, and three other first team All-Pac-12 selections. Also gone is running back Marion Grice, arguably the crux of ASU's offense the past two seasons, and linebacker Carl Bradford, the team's leader in tackles for loss last season who left after his junior season to declare for the NFL Draft.

Graham admits ASU has plenty of work to do replacing that group. But he's unwilling to accept that it means the Sun Devils will take a step back.

"Yeah, we graduated some great players," Graham said. "We're not closing up fort because people graduate."

Graham pointed to Stanford, as he has many times before, as an example. After star quarterback Andrew Luck graduated two years ago, the program barely flinched, winning back-to-back Pac-12 titles the next two years -- two more than Luck won while quarterbacking the Cardinal.

Much of Graham's confidence in ASU's ability to sustain itself as a contender for the Pac-12 title comes from his belief in his coaching staff and its ability to produce improved players every year.

"We've done a pretty good job developing our players," Graham said. "Ya'll remember two years ago? Will Sutton wasn't all-conference. Carl Bradford didn't even play."

Graham believes his staff is even better entering spring practice after the addition of West Virginia defensive coordinator and former Graham assistant Keith Patterson, who will coach linebackers and defensive special teams.

Year three, Graham says, should be ASU's best on the field despite personnel losses and changes. The theory is that with players having seen the results of the past two seasons, there will be less questioning of why things are done a certain way and more unwavering belief they will work.

"There's not so much selling the program," Graham said. "You're going to deal with less coaching the minimum standard and more reaching for the higher standard."

Graham has never been afraid to set the bar high. Before his first season, he defiantly dismissed the notion of low expectation, calling them a "cop out" and insisting ASU could win right away.

It's no surprise, then, that Graham expects more of the same, no matter what outsiders might predict.

Step one is already out of the way, with what Graham called the best recruiting class he's ever signed in the fold. Step two begins in three weeks.

"This spring is going to be very, very important for us," he  said. "Championships are won in January, February and March."

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