Despite a strong finish to the 2012 season, retaining All-American defensive tackle Will Sutton and adding a lot of talent of the defensive side of the ball, the mood around the ASU program is somber today. Top in-state prospect Priest Willis chose UCLA in a press conference at Marcos de Niza High last night, which was not a surprise unless you stopped reading the Internet a few weeks ago.
Reaction to Willis' decision was nothing much out of the ordinary for the most part, outside of the bottom feeding response by Arizona Republic preps reporter Scott Bordow. Though he agreed via his twitter account with our comment that reaction would have been no different from other schools' fans had Willis picked ASU, Bordow still had to publish a column trashing Sun Devil fans and recruiting coverage in general.
A segment of the ASU fan base appears shell shocked by local recruiting at this point after another year in which the program has missed out on the vast majority of recruits it offered scholarships to. Some people obviously do not know how to focus their frustration, but somehow a few angry tweets does not seem to rise to such a level that it deserves such a rebuke from Bordow.
After Sutton decided to return, I commented that Todd Graham won the off-season in the community last year and was off to another good start this year. Since then, ASU has taken some hits, especially with in-state recruiting. At the moment it looks like ASU will sign one player from the collection of elite juniors that visited a year ago, merely weeks after Graham was hired and earlier than any previous staff had hosted such a collection of prospects.
With the Sun Devils about to host more than a dozen elite 2014 recruits this weekend, the excitement that existed last year for the event is not there with fans this time around. It is understandable to a degree, as it's hard to find one prospect in the group that has clearly stated he has the Sun Devils atop his list. That is not to say ASU will not land any of them but as of right now it appears the challenge will once again be significant, particularly with so many schools having some measure of success in the region. Even schools that took hits like Arkansas and Cal have reinvested of late under new coaching staffs.
The big question for me is what should ASU do next? For Graham and his staff, recruiting the state will continue and they will be aggressive about it. In that respect they did a good job in their first full year on the job. And they have to continue to do so in order to have a reasonable shot at eventually, over time, changing the landscape.
But you have to wonder how much time will it take with kids who were either infants or yet to be born when ASU last played in a Rose Bowl. The overall perception of the program in the state is still at a level that will not be enough to attract in-state talent and that can only be changed by wins and a greater fan turnout.
Each year there are seemingly fewer and fewer die-hard Sun Devil fans among the recruits, a stark contrast to what must be the case in other parts of the country. The names that long time fans throw out on the Internet are ones that most kids know little or care much about. People can blame the transient nature of the state, the local economy, the hot summers or whatever they want but the reason why kids are leaving the state is that they do not believe ASU to be an elite program or even one that can become an elite program.
Graham is convincing in his rhetoric that he believes it and will continue to sell it but he needs more proof of his vision's impending fruition to sell local recruits -- it is just the reality of the situation. 'Speaking Victory' or 'Left Lane, Hammer Down' are expressions that make me laugh. That is my nature but Graham is smart to employ them because the fans and program do need an attitude adjustment or at the very least something to believe in.
But the overriding message here is simply for fans to stop feeling sorry for themselves, accept the reality of the situation, and decide whether they are in it for the long haul or not. ASU will win a lot of games in 2013. The defense will be one of the best in the country and the offense will put up a lot of points. The Sun Devils will reap the benefits of national exposure with early games against Wisconsin and Notre Dame and those things can be parlayed into perceptional gains in the recruiting community.
It's possible that ASU may start slow in the win column against such a gauntlet, but perhaps not, and the second half of the schedule will be very favorable. Graham seems to have a grasp that while he needs to rebuild the program, he can not do it without winning games. It's an accurate perception and one that he approaches with a greater sense of urgency than recent predecessors. Graham will not sit back and wait for things to change. If he feels he need to do a better job recruiting California, he will address the situation. If he needs money to bring in or keep top assistants he will ask and campaign for it.
There are no guarantees but ASU fans need to get past the short-term in-state recruiting quagmire and focus on the upcoming season and quite frankly enjoy it. It's probably the best returning ASU team, at least on paper, this century. If fans want to see a change in recruiting outcomes in the future, focus on 2013 and the potential to stack successful seasons on top of one another. The rebuilding of the Sun Devil program will be televised, and while it might not substantially change the minds of those in the class of 2014, it very well may for future years.