Behind the scenes for a day with Sun Devil football

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I couldn’t help but think of the opening scene of Patton.

Thanks to an opportunity found nowhere else in the nation, select local media were invited to experience a day behind the scenes of Sun Devil football.

On this morning, we sat in the back of a room full of young men, who were sitting ready to strap on their gear and head out to battle. The Dutson Theater was buzzing with the chatter of a hundred or so Sun Devils, trying to shake off any lingering fatigue they felt at 7 a.m. on a Sunday morning.

All cell phones are off. All hats (including my own, by prompting of the staff) are removed. No earrings allowed.

Then, on cue, a stark hush fell over the room as their general entered.

His words would not be nearly as crass as those from the movie, but his delivery was no less heart-felt and intense. All the was missing was the American flag backdrop.

Todd Graham walked to the front of the room and began his pre-practice address.

He begins by stating that there will be no Sunday practices during the regular season. He knows the importance of a day of rest, and perhaps more importantly, to set aside the day for those of faith.

However, today was the exception, since they needed to register a fifth practice before they can begin two-a-day practices tomorrow.

Now, on to football talk.

First, some fundamentals. Through the first four days of practice, Graham and his staff think his players are playing a little too high, so he implores them to remember the importance of “tracking the hip”. Pad level is key.

He then stresses that the goal of this season is to be 1-0 every week. It’s a refrain that has become the rally cry for this team saddled with championship expectations. In talking to Graham and several of his players recently, the “1-0” message has become a song stuck on repeat. It would come across as rhetoric if not delivered with such sincerity by players and coaches alike.

To get there, however, Graham needs some things from his troops.

“I want more passion! I want more energy! I want more enthusiasm!” he says. He’s also not just talking about today’s practice.

“Win this meeting,” he says.

To Graham, everything is an opportunity to register a win. In his view, if you start with the smallest tasks behind the scenes and build upon them, you will reap the rewards later on under the spotlight.

He closes by reminding his players that “being a Sun Devil is something special.”

It’s then that the general meeting breaks. Most of the players stay in the theater, but reshuffle their seats as special teams coordinator Shawn Slocum begins his portion of the meeting by firing up a PowerPoint presentation.

The first slide gets the general point across.

“Speed. Physicality. Finish.”

They go over slides for the practice plan for the day and updated depth charts, before reviewing the Xs and Os of specific plays, including a new variation that will debut later on.

Slocum quizzes his players, at one point stumping the top three guys on his kickoff returner depth chart—De’Chavon Hayes, D.J. Foster, and Kalen Ballage. Finally, Demario Richard chimes in with the correct answer for what “true hang time” actually is (as I learned, it’s the time from the moment the kicker connects with the ball to the moment the returner turns upfield with the ball. The gist? Have quick feet and get upfield ASAP).

The morning meetings are best summarized by an answer senior safety Jordan Simone gives to one of Slocum’s questions.

“Preparation leads to success.”

Most of the rest of the players are dismissed to attend meetings with their individual position groups, although the safeties are called on to remain.

A few fellow media members and I eventually end up attending the wide receivers team meeting.

Wide receivers coach DelVaughn Alexander is running video review sessions with his players. They are looking at film from a recent practice, breaking down how to use leverage to create space, the best ways to use their hands to shed coverages, and why running a route like this won’t open up the passing window that’s needed.

Like the special teams session, Alexander intercuts the film of his players with NFL film. Why not learn from the best in the world?

He continually quizzes his players on the finer points, and wrong answers or prolonged silence earn some sharp words, the answer, and a loud “Write it down!”

One particular route on film leaves much to be desired.

“Just because you are running the the post don’t mean you know where the hell you are going!" says Alexander.

After some basic reminders about ball security, alignment, and attention to detail, it’s time to head on to the Verde Dickey Dome for practice.

For those who’ve never seen a Sun Devil practice operate under Graham’s watchful eye, it’s a model of efficiency. There are no wasted minutes over the 22 periods of the day, even in today’s elongated three-hour session.

From the special teams sessions, to positional drills, to stretching, everything is done with an increased tempo. Any walking on the field is met with a yell from a coach. Forget to come out onto the field when your unit is called, as one defensive lineman who had been running with the starters did?

“Put his ass on third string!”

Coachable mistakes? Fine. Not giving the proper mental or physical effort? Not on Graham’s watch.

One particular highlight of the day is the pass rushing drill. It’s the defensive line and Devilbackers in a one-on-one battle against the offensive linemen. The pads and helmet are popping, and on more than one occasion the hitting doesn’t end at the whistle.

Following a lengthy and  rigorous 11-on-11 session, Zane Gonzalez boots an extra point and the final whistle blows.

The team gathers at the center of the field, surrounded by signs illustrating their goals of winning the Rose Bowl and a national champion, as Graham addresses his players once again.

After several minutes, the team is dismissed. We grab a few players and coaches for interviews, as the rest board the team trams back to the locker room. Just after noon, it's time to head up to the fifth floor of the Carson Student Athletic Center for lunch.

Another day is in the books, and ASU is a better football team now than they were a few hours ago.

But there's not much time for rest. Another early morning of meetings, study, and practice awaits them tomorrow. And the day after that.

Football season is here.

Copyright 2015 3TV (KPHO Broadcasting Corporation). All rights reserved.

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