Sun Devils’ ‘overnight’ resurgence keyed by rare element: Patience

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Tashon Smallwood (90) and JoJo Wicker celebrate during ASU's win over Utah (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer) Tashon Smallwood (90) and JoJo Wicker celebrate during ASU's win over Utah (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

If it doesn’t fit within a 20-second soundbite or 140 characters, we don’t have time for it. Our default setting is “NOW”.

TL;DR: Patience isn’t a virtue these days, it’s a liability.

That is, until it’s a necessity.

* * * *

The last time Arizona State played USC, the programs were on vastly different trajectories. The Sun Devils were a surprising 4-0, and were aiming to cast aside the concerns brought to light by a disappointing 2015 season. USC was 1-3, and the seat of head coach Clay Helton was getting toasty.

But college football is a cruel mistress, and by the time the game ended, the Trojans were on a Rose Bowl run while ASU was embarking on a stretch that would see them lose 10 of their next 13 games.

The glow and goodwill from recent back-to-back 10-win seasons had faded. To the fans, the firing of head coach Todd Graham seemed a question of when and not if. Their patience was gone, and with No. 5 Washington coming to town, followed by battles with Utah and USC, so to was the collective hope.

Then something weird happened...weird even by Pac-12 standards. ASU beat the Huskies. They then went on the road and hammered the Utes.

Wait, what?!

“Sometimes our society is one that we want to come easy and sometimes they do,” Graham said. “But sometimes they don’t and when you get knocked on your can, sometimes you get back up.”

The prospects of this turnaround seemed totally improbable. The Sun Devil defense—a laughing stock for over two seasons—had became dominant. It was like a switch had simply been flipped, from bad to wow. How can a team that looked so bad for so long turn things around overnight?

They didn’t. This had been building for a while.

“We have just kept our head down, kept plugging, and getting better,” Graham said. “Whether it be coaches or players, we have a good football team and we are confident in that. There is such a fine line between winning and losing.”

The process of resurrecting Sun Devil football has taken hard work and plenty of time, more so than anyone inside or outside of the program would have liked. There have been setbacks and mistakes. Yet through it all, they've worked to steadily move forward, even if the standings did not reflect that.

“We’re evolving and we’re adapting,” Graham said. “How you do that is, you stay focused and you stay humble.”

Graham has been the one constant. He's been at the center while everything else around the program has often seemed chaotic. The embarrassing losses. A coaching carousel. Player buy in. Vocal fan unrest. His own mistakes.

It’s been a rough stretch, one many didn’t expect him to survive, but now, several different pieces have begun to come together. The machine is starting to hum.

"It's like a timing belt on an old car," Graham said after the Utah win. "We're just trying to get the timing belt to grab."

From the coaches to the players to the fans, patience has been the through line.

The Coaches

It started one afternoon in early December of 2015 as ASU was preparing for the Cactus Bowl.

Mike Norvell, ASU’s offensive coordinator since Graham arrived in 2012, was leaving to become the head coach at Memphis.

That exit began a run of assistant coaching turnover that plagued Graham and helped knock ASU off balance. Longtime assistants left for promotions. Replacements came and went after a year. In the less than two years since Norvell departed, just two of the nine assistants at the time remain, and one, Keith Patterson, was demoted. The Sun Devils are currently on their third offensive coordinator in the last three years.

Through it all, Graham tried to control what he could, to keep systems, schemes, and standards as consistent as possible.

“You know how I feel about change,” Graham said. “We don’t change anything. Everything is exactly the same. Our players deserve all the credit because they’re the ones with the investment. I do think that we haven’t compromised our values and have a culture, that is the reason why its producing discipline and why we’re getting better.”

But the simple fact is that each departure and new hire set the overall progress back a bit. There’s a natural acclimation period, for both coaches and players. While the overall scheme may be the same, how each coach teaches is different. He has to learn the strengths and personalities of his players.

These things take time, and they take the right people. During this stretch, ASU has had some hits, and they’ve had some misses. Given ASU’s recent improvements, it now appears that the time and right people lines are intersecting.

“One of the things is every person I hire I want to hire good men that believe in the teaching model,” said Graham. “That is first and foremost. That means you have to love your kids. You have to love this and have a passion for it. You have to be a guy that embraces our philosophy.”

Led by new offensive coordinator Billy Napier and defensive coordinator Phil Bennett, patience is being rewarded. After a rough start to the season, on-field improvements each week are clear. The new coaches are have acclimated to their new program and players, and are putting their players in positions to succeed.

"Both our coordinators have come in and adapted tremendously," Graham said. "Our players deserve the opportunity to do the things they were recruited to do."

Rob Likens has overseen a deep and dynamic group of wide receivers. Michael Slater has turned a disappointing defensive line into a nightmare for opponents in the trenches. Rob Sale has the offensive line improving. Bennett has taken an active role with the defensive backs, and turned them into a pleasant surprise. Using the players already here, they are now achieving better results.

“We can’t reinvent the kids we recruited to be here,” said Graham. “We have to adapt to it. Just like how we adapted this year to guys we have back there (in the secondary).”

There’s no greater sign of quality coaching than seeing a team improve week-after-week on the field. Arizona State has that now.

Keeping it is the next challenge.

“If we just put our heads together and really adapt to our players and stay true to what we should do, then eventually we will keep getting better,” said Graham. “Moving forward is the key. The key is continuity and keep those things in place, especially when it comes to teaching.”

The Players

“I’ve never been in here before,” he said as he walked into the room.

He’d just finished playing the best game of his collegiate career. But a few minutes after leaving the field, he was faced with a new challenge.

Jay Jay Wilson was soon seated behind a table and in front of reporters and answering questions in the post-game press conference. On-field success brings with it some obligations.

Wilson, perhaps more than any other player, has embodied the importance that patience has played in ASU’s resurgence.

A junior, Wilson came to ASU as a talented and touted 4-star prospect. He quietly flashed his vast potential at times, and began the year as the team’s starting tight end. However, he struggled mightily, and when Devilback Koron Crump was lost for the year due to injury, the coaches asked if he could switch to defense to help out.

"Talk about a guy that's unselfish,” Graham said of Wilson. “I went and talked to him and said 'We need you to do this, long term for our defense. We need you to do this.'”

Wilson agreed. He began learning the position, but it took some time. After Crump’s replacement, A.J. Latu, was injured late in the win over Washington, Wilson made the start against Utah. He excelled. He made four tackles, made plays as a pass rusher, and sealed the win with a pick six.

"It speaks volumes about the character of our guys that you have guys that are willing to do maybe what's not best for them, but what's best for the team,” Graham said.

As he sat at that table facing the media, Wilson reflected on the parallels that his story has with that of his teammates.

"I feel like my experience on the team is like the experience of the whole team," Wilson said. "We've been up and down. We've shown flashes, but now I feel we've found our identity. Today, I found my identity on defense."

All over the field, players whose careers have taken a variety of routes are improving and finding their own identities within the Sun Devils’ structure.

Oft-criticized safety Chad Adams is having the best season of his career. After brief playing time as a true freshman last year, Kyle Williams has become an integral offensive weapon. Linebacker Christian Sam has come back from a season-ending injury to become an all-conference caliber force.

"It's a young team, and we grow every day,” said running back Demario Richard.

Even during the darkest times, the players could see a light at the end of the tunnel. Hard work, practice, and patience. Patience, practice, and hard work. The results have started to come.

“We know if we just keep plugging, keep plugging, keep plugging, something is going to break,” said Sam. “The dam is broke. Now we just got to reset the standard.”

"When teams start to have success, the biggest enemy is complacency," quarterback Manny Wilkins said. "As long as we continue to play like underdogs, as long as we continue to play like people don't show us respect, that's the biggest part. It's not being complacent."

The Fans

I’ve been covering ASU football for seven seasons now, and over the last two years, there’s been something of a game day tradition. A guessing game, if you will.

How long after an opponent’s big play will it take for the first #FireGraham tweet to come my way?

More often than not, they came early and they came often.

The man hailed as a savior after 28 wins over his first three seasons in Tempe now had plenty of fans ready to help him pack his bags.

“They have every right. This is their team,” said Graham of ASU fans. “I tell our players right before they take the field to give them (the fans) what they want. As a matter of fact, if you hear me in the locker room, I’ll say ‘Hey, who do you play for?’ and it’s who I coach for. Those people in the stands, that’s who pays my salary. So, I don’t blame them one bit”

Even as the 3-10 stretch carried on and the fan outrage became more vitriolic, he understood it was all part of the job.

“Nobody was more disappointed and frustrated than I was,” Graham said. “I think that I wasn’t doing a very good job. So, you’re going to get criticism when that happens.”

In fact, there was a side of him who liked the passion.

“I’m thankful they have high expectations and that’s something I’ve wanted ever since I’ve been here,” said Graham. “I wouldn’t want to be anywhere that is happy with mediocrity.”

But it obviously wasn’t sustainable. Something had to change, and had to do so soon.

“I don’t expect anybody to be happy or support mediocrity, and I take responsibility,” Graham said. “At the same hand, I have confidence and belief in what I am doing. I know we’re doing things the right way.”

The last two wins are beginning to prove him right. That little tweet game? Welp, it's pretty much been gone the last two week. That fan outrage and anger has been replaced with, dare we say, hope and optimism.

For now, anyway.

"It is just a fun deal to be associated with, especially when you have been through the muck," said Graham.

Now the trick is not to keep it up, but to build upon it. 

"I think we have gotten better every week, every day, every rep as a football team, and we have to continue to do that," Graham said. "Anything we have done to this point is not good enough to get to where we want to be.”

A corner has been turned, and ASU is now back to a familiar spot: They're facing USC with a load of momentum on their side. 

Last year, they had a chance and fell on their face. This year, they are healthy, inspired, and confident. They have the 21st-ranked Trojans coming into their house. The Sun Devils program has worked hard, and they've been patient. Their chance to show they're back to being legitimate Pac-12 South contenders is here. No more waiting.

Now is the time.

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