ASU football making progress in Arizona? Top Valley HS coaches weigh in

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D.J. Foster announces his commitment to ASU on Jan. 27, 2012 D.J. Foster announces his commitment to ASU on Jan. 27, 2012
ASU head coach Todd Graham ASU head coach Todd Graham

Put a fence around the state! Keep the kids home! #StayTrue2ASU!

When Todd Graham was introduced as Arizona State's head coach, it did not take long before he mentioned the importance of keeping Arizona's top high school talent in-state.

“We want the best and the brightest, and that starts right here in Arizona,” he said. “I want to get out and speak to the high school coaches.”

Graham wasn't just throwing out empty promises to appease his new community. He realized that he was now living in the middle of a growing football hotbed, one that, up to that point, had yet to be utilized by the Sun Devil program.

Over the past decade, the quality of Arizona's high school talent pool has increased dramatically. Unfortunately, over much of that span, ASU did not reap the benefits from their own backyard, as most of those top-tier players opted to leave the state for opportunities elsewhere.

However, the tide appears to be changing.

Since Graham's proclamation, the Sun Devils have landed several significant in-state recruits and been deep in the running for many more. The once ragged relationship between the university and high school coaches and programs around the Valley now seems to be blossoming. The idea of “staying home” is becoming a more attractive option for Arizona's elite prep players.

But just how much progress has been made? How solid are ASU's crucial relationships with the state's prep programs?

To get answers, I went straight to some of the very best sources: four head coaches from some of the elite programs in the state, schools that continually send players to NCAA football.

Steve Belles of Chandler Hamilton: A longtime head coach of many top Valley programs. During his eight years at Hamilton, he has won five state championships and appeared in seven consecutive title games.

Norris Vaughan of Phoenix Mountain Pointe: The 2013 Arizona Coach of the Year and 2013 Division I champion has led his teams to 18 state playoffs berths.

Jason Mohns of Scottsdale Saguaro: The third-year head coach led the Sabercats to the 2013 Division III state championship.

Richard Taylor of Peoria Centennial: Since 2006, Taylor has led Centennial to four state championship wins.

This group of head coaches represents some of the very best football minds in the state, and with their continual output of FBS-caliber players, some of the most important people for any college to win over.

Years of Neglect

One of the criticisms of Dennis Erickson, Graham's predecessor at ASU, and his tenure in Tempe was the Sun Devils' inability to prevent Arizona's top high school talent from leaving the state. While no school can ever keep every blue chip recruit in-state, there was a feeling that ASU's failures in this area were from something else: a lack of effort.

“I think that was the underlying feeling that they didn't get much attention from them,” Vaughan said of ASU's interest in Arizona's top players. “I don't think that's the case anymore. A lot of kids were leaving the state and going to other schools. I don't know if that's because of their lack of recruiting or what.”

Likewise, Belles also felt that ASU's previous regime lacked the relentlessness needed to consistently win in today's ultra-competitive recruiting landscape.

“I would say that they didn't track them hard enough,” Belles said. “If a kid said he was going somewhere else, they didn't stay on top of them. They just stopped recruiting instead of staying with them. I can remember them (the current staff) staying on Qualen Cunningham (currently at Texas A&M) until Signing Day because they tried to keep them in state. That's one thing where they do a really good job. They stay on top of them. I have no complaints about how they recruit the top talent in the state.”

Mohns, however, thinks that Erickson's inability to win games was a larger factor in ASU's in-state struggles.

“I don't think it was a matter of attention, I think it was a matter of winning consistently,” Mohns said. “I think that's what it really comes down to. When you talk about the blue chip recruits in Arizona that have the option to go play wherever they want, they're looking for programs with the fan support, the tradition, the history, and a winning program.”

“I thought it was good, and they always had a presence on our campus,” Taylor said of ASU's previous efforts. “I think that maybe the winning part wasn't there. Maybe there were people that were concerned about the discipline in the program. They were always there. They always came by every spring. I thought they did a good job of offering.”

Yet in the end, the results weren't there.

Disappointing finishes, lack of aggression, and a dash or two of bad luck held the Sun Devils back. Those ingredients, to varying degrees, came together to produce years of lagging and disappointing results.

Hello, Coach Graham

Right after Graham talked the talk, he and his staff began to walk the walk with in the state's high school football circles.

“I was impressed with Coach Graham immediately,” Taylor said. “The first time I heard him speak, I was impressed with his vision, character, discipline. He said a lot of the buzzwords that resonated with me. I think the same was true of other coaches around the Valley.”

“Coach Graham came in and was clear about what his vision was for the program,” Mohns said. “I think he has done the things he said he was going to do."

One of the defining characteristics of Erickson's Sun Devil program was a lack of discipline and accountability. Graham's work to immediately reverse those trends quickly turned heads.

“Coach Graham himself came over and met with me and the principal, just the three of us sat down and talked for a long time,” Vaughan said. “He's been very aggressive. I like the way they do it. They run a good clean program. They're disciplined. They work hard. To me, it's a class operation.”

“They are going to keep after a kid if they think he's a good fit and they are a person who will help the program,” said Belles. “Coach Graham goes after character kids.”

What Coaches Want

Graham and his staff were now in place. They also were facing an uphill battle in reversing the program's lackluster local reputation.

How do they repair the relationships with local coaches? How can they become a valued resource, and destination, for the high school football community? What's the first step? 

It all starts with a hello and a handshake.

“I think you have to develop a relationship with the high school coaches and get to know them so you can find out who the players are,” Vaughan said. “You don't want them working against you. I think they do that. Then you have to get out and see the kids and keep up with who the prospects are. Everybody that we have that is a Division I-quality athlete, ASU has recruited. All of them.”

“You make high school coaches feel welcome,” said Taylor. “You make high school coaches feel important. I think when you take the time to call, or write, or text and say that we have these three players I think are D-I, they take that time to evaluate. It's not always yes, but at least they take the time.”

Taylor has also appreciated the staff's small touches in furthering the relationship.

“They always come by and are personally there,” he said. “They send notes saying things like ‘Good luck this Friday night' or ‘Good luck in the state championship'. They make you feel like there is a more personal touch.”

Graham's coaching staff is at working the front lines of these efforts, shaking hands, talking shop, and fostering relationships.

“For me, I spent a lot of time with Coach (Mike) Norvell and was really impressed with him being a young coach, but also a sharp coach,” said Mohns. “I've really been impressed with him and his ability to build relationships. He's a really good, genuine guy. I know that the players that have been recruited by him have really liked him.”

“I really like the fact that I feel welcome and that I can pick up the phone and call Coach (Chris) Thomsen and ask ‘How are you running that play?'” said Taylor. “Coach Graham's staff is very available and willing to help.”

ASU has also not only opened the door of the program to coaches around the state, they've taken it off the hinges.

“Their doors are always open. They don't say you have to set up a time (in order to visit),” Belles said. “If you just came by, they'd talk football. Norvell has been awesome with me, as an offensive guy. Graham's door is always open. Their open door policy is very attractive to a lot of high school coaches. There are a lot of things you can get from ASU in terms of what they do.”

That welcoming atmosphere is something that wasn't always there under Erickson.

“It didn't feel that way,” Belles said of an open invitation from the prior staff. “They (ASU's current staff) are inviting you over. That's the biggest difference with Erickson, you weren't invited over. They are inviting you out to practices, ‘We want to talk football'. They are encouraging you to do it, where a lot of schools aren't. I got to give props for that. If you stop in, you can talk football as long as they're in.”

“If I want to go over there and talk to them, which I've done, about their offense, defense, Coach Graham makes his staff available,” said Vaughan. “I don't know that that was the case before.”

But a college coach or even a university can only do so much. Mohns thinks that the support of the community plays a major role.

“I don't know that it comes down so much to what the coaches are doing. I think it comes down more to the support of the town and the community of getting behind the program and showing these kids that it means something to the community to be a Sun Devil,” said Mohns. “When you talk about showing up to spring games and selling out home games, that's what kids want to see. ASU is on the upswing when it comes to that.”

Due Diligence

“When I first came here in 1986, there was like 12 D-I signees,” said Taylor. “Now, with the increase in population and a lot better coaches, there are far more D-I players.”

As the state has grown, so has its profile as a producer of elite high school talent. That means that as more talent is being developed on high school fields around the state, there is more work to be done by ASU's recruiting staff.

It appears they have been up to the challenge.

“Coach Graham and his staff have stepped it up several notches,” Vaughan said of ASU's attention on local players. “They make a big effort to make contact with the high school coaches and make themselves available to us. They are really pushing in-state kids. I think that they make a big effort to keep the kids here.”

“I think the staff has made a great effort to be out front and at the forefront to get in early with offers on some of the top players,” Mohns said. “They have some really good coaches, great guys, and great recruiters who have done a great job building those relationships.”

The Sun Devils aren't just working to foster relationships with the powers like Hamilton and Saguaro, but with schools in every corner of Arizona.

“It's not just the elite high schools, it's all the high schools,” Taylor said. “If they have a player, and he's a Division I kid, they are going to be all over them. Their door is always open to those smaller schools that don't have Division I kids. They aren't just catering to the bigger programs. They are open to everybody, which I think is pretty cool.”

“I think do a great job of recruiting, not just at the top programs,” Belles said. “The best kids in the state, they go after them, no question.”

“ASU now has a real presence all over the Valley and all over the state,” added Taylor. “They are here, trying to identify the best players, and trying to get them.”

Finding ways to communicate with and, more importantly, relate to high school kids is a challenge for any program, especially given the ever-evolving tactics of recruiting. With schools around the nation fighting for a player's attention, very little is off limits these days, but it seems that ASU is doing things the right way.

“I don't know if anything is outside the box anymore,” Vaughan said. “Texting and Twitter has become a huge means to communicate with kids. I notice a big difference. All the coaches now can contact a kid and say ‘Hey, we're going to offer you.' Sometimes they contact them and they don't even tell us. But ASU, they will contact me and let us know they are going to talk to our kids, and we appreciate that. I think that's the way to do it.”

In 2015, an effective and engaging social media presence is vital for the success of any program. It provides not only a means of instantaneous communication with a prospect, but also a way to market the school, the team, and campus life.

“ASU is very active on social media, not only communicating with players, but also promoting their program,” Mohns said. “You want to be front and center on a daily basis so kids are always thinking about ASU. They have done a good job doing that.”

“They are tweeting away and on Instagram,” Belles said. “They do a good job of staying up on that. It's weird, you can't do certain things, but you can talk to a kid tweeting it out. There are so many darn rules by the NCAA, I'm not sure what college coaches can do or can't do. They will get a hold of a kid any way they can within the rules.

“They are always on top of it.”

The Allure of the “Hometown Hero”

On Jan. 27, 2012, Graham's new regime scored their first major victory when Saguaro's 4-star running back D.J. Foster announced his commitment to ASU.

Foster was the state's highest-profile recruit that year, and his choice to stay home served as much-needed validation of Graham's overhaul of the Sun Devil program. It also provided ASU with a potential “hometown hero” who could serve as an example of the great things that could happen if local players stayed in state.

Three seasons later, Foster has fulfilled that destiny, becoming a legitimate star in the Pac-12. Since his commitment, other highly-coveted in-state talents have followed him to ASU, such as Jaxon Hood, Chans Cox, Tyler Whiley, and Bryce Perkins.

Are these coaches, the leaders of some of the most important and talented prep rosters in the entire western United States, sensing a greater appeal of ASU towards their players?

Absolutely. The fact is that ASU is a legitimate contender for the Pac-12 on a yearly basis now,” said Mohns, who was Foster's offensive coordinator during his senior season. “That's the thing that will keep the top-end recruits home. ASU being a program that people in the Valley are excited about, it's been that way for the last couple of years. I definitely think players are a lot more open to playing for ASU.”

“I think it's more attractive,” Belles said. “The more you win, the more kids want to stay in state. That's a fact. I love kids staying home. If you ask (current ASU offensive lineman and former Auburn transfer) Christian Westerman if he had to do it all over again, I don't think he would have left for the SEC. He would have just come here in the first place.”

It's no surprise that winning makes a major impact. Graham's Sun Devils have won 28 games over his first three years, and with both of Arizona's FBS programs having won a Pac-12 South division title in recent years, the proverbial fence is slowly being built around the state.

“I think there is a greater appeal to stay with ASU and even UofA,” Vaughan said. “Both teams are up and coming, and both coaching staffs are doing a good job. I think ASU is viewed now as one of the top-tier programs in the conference and on a national level. They're a lot more attractive now, no question. If you're winning, it makes a big difference.”

“I think that's why you are seeing an uptick with the Graham era because they are winning,” Mohns said. “Players want to be a part of a winning program and compete for championships. I think that's the biggest difference in how they've been able to have a stronger hold on Arizona kids.”

Even with the big wins in recruiting over recent years, ASU still has lost out on several elite recruits, most recently with Saguaro's Christian Kirk this past February. However, even in defeat, the Sun Devils are now most often serious contenders down in those battles. Just being among the finalists with the blue chippers is a sign of progress from where things stood just a few years ago.

“In the last 10 years, we've averaged about three D-I players per year, said Taylor. “Maybe 10 years ago, there weren't a lot of guys saying ASU was on their radar. Within the last four years, when I ask them what they're thinking, ASU is always in there.”

With ASU's relentless drive, a steady stream of D.J. Foster-type players could become the new norm.

Looking Ahead

In talking to these head coaches, it's abundantly clear that they have become fans of what ASU is doing within the state. The Sun Devil program has been able to shake the lethargy of the past and reinvigorate a sense of excitement around town. More importantly, they are working hard to ensure that the crucial relationships with local high schools remain strong.

“They do everything they can within the rules of what the NCAA lets you do,” said Belles. “They are personable. I don't know if they can do any more, to be honest. The time they give us is outstanding.”

Taylor appreciates the extra-mile efforts that the Sun Devil staff puts in, and he feels those will continue to strengthen the bond between hometown university and hometown high schools.

“I also like the fact that Coach Graham has clinics in the state,” Taylor said. “I like the fact that he's a cheerleader for football in our state. Those are things I hope he keeps fostering. I like the fact that we can be proud of ASU academically, on the field, and character-wise. There were times when that wasn't the case.”

When asked what more he'd like to see from ASU, Mohns said he'd just like to see a continuation of what's already in progress.

“The longer that that are here, the longer that they have success, the more they come into our doors, the tighter those relationships get," said Mohns. "It's just a matter of continuing to foster those relationships that they have built.” 

Over the last three-and-a-half years, ASU has made tremendous strides in becoming a destination for top Arizona high school players. There remains a significant amount to work to be done, but the Sun Devils are clearly on the right path.

Perhaps the biggest validation of ASU's efforts comes from Vaughan.

“All I know is that if I had a son, I'd be happy if he went to play at ASU for Coach Graham, because I think they care about the kids, and I like the way they do stuff there. We're a big advocate of ASU and their staff. They're the kind of people that I'd want my son playing for.”