In a lengthy conversation with reporters in his third floor Carson Center office Tuesday, Arizona State coach Todd Graham passionately articulated his opinion that his team won't have a drop off in 2014 despite losing nine defensive starters.
"This hasn't been about talent," Graham said during the informal 85 minute meeting. "We've got talent. We've changed who we are from the core. We've established core values in our program and that's why we will be successful moving forward.
"Two years ago, Will Sutton wasn't all-conference, Carl Bradford didn't even play. We aren't closing up fort because people graduate."
Graham's belief is that in winning 18 games during his first two seasons in Tempe, including a Pac-12 South title and 10-4 finish in 2013, a cultural foundation has been established upon which stable and prolonged success can be erected. Players who initially had to be cajoled and convinced to buy in to the vision now have seen it realized. What was once thought to be unrealistic expectations with work ethic and commitment are now seen as the accepted norm.
"That's why year three and will four will be better because you're not so much selling the program as it is," Graham said. "You're going to deal with less of coaching the minimum standard and more of reaching for the higher standard. I just think we'll be more disciplined. I think we'll have less critical errors. It's the same reason why Stanford, after [Andrew] Luck is gone, improves. It's the program. It's why you can't sacrifice the program for nobody."
At the same time, Graham knows that personnel losses will present a lot of challenges and he's in a hurry to look under the hood of his program this spring. He's fiery by nature, but especially prone to excitement when talking about tinkering with new and other inexperienced personnel pieces in an effort to extract the most horsepower out of his new vehicle.
"Our leadership is going to be better," Graham said. "I like young and I like hungry. That's what we are and that's what we are going to be on defense. We have youth on both sides of the football, but I've got all the confidence in the world.
"This spring is going to be very, very important for us. Between now and when we report for the summer program is the most important time for the guys that are here and guys that are not here for development. Championships are won in January, February and March."
Returning players expected to take big steps on defense this year, according to Graham, include Antonio Longino at WILL, Marcus Hardison on the defensive line, and even returning starter Damarious Randall at field safety, a player who is "only scratching the surface."
The ASU coach also spoke highly of defensive end/Devil backer Chans Cox and brothers Alani Latu, a versatile linebacker, and Viliami Latu, a Devil backer, and cornerback Rashad Wadood. Safeties Marcus Ball and James Johnson redshirted and are strong leadership candidates who could emerge in a big way.
Graham said he wants and expects fan expectations to remain high, and that anything less than a Pac-12 Championship in 2014 will still fall short of his goals and not be deemed a great season.
"Our motto this year is unfinished business," he said. "That unfinished business is winning the Pac-12 Championship. The only word you see here on the wall, you see the past right? That's all over the place. The one thing that's in the present is speaking victory."