Graham touts depth, talent of recruiting class
TEMPE — It’s one of the most time-honored traditions in recruiting: the selection of a hat bearing the logo of the school where a football recruit is verbally committing to play.
Many schools have a tale of being spurned at the drop of a hat. Many also have their stories of landing a crown jewel for their program.
Arizona State’s most fond moment came at Saguaro High School in January of 2012. The hats on the table: ASU, California and Southern California.
With a smile, D.J. Foster grabbed the hat closest to him. The gold scripted “Sun Devils” glistened across the cap as it nestled onto his head. Coach Todd Graham, entering his second month on the job, had his first major recruit.
A local talent had stayed with his nearby program, and Graham’s version of the “Hometown Hero” was born.
Now six years later, Graham recalled that day with Foster, who is now a member of the New England Patriots.
“I was talking to D.J. Foster the other day, and I remember him coming here and D.J. trusting us. He had nothing to go on (when he committed),” Graham said.
The coach brought up Foster as he discussed the 2017 class, perhaps the greatest top-to-bottom crop of local recruits ASU has signed in the modern recruiting era, a time when prospects are scrutinized and ranked by scouting services.
The class features nine local commitments among a group of 21, including three of the top five prospects in the state, according to the two major recruiting sites, Rivals and Scout.
The nine commits from Arizona match the second-best total in program history since recruiting sites became commonplace, exceeded only by the 10 local recruits in the 2002 signing class. It also matches the most since 2009.
Looking for stars
Donnie Yantis’ job, in short: Find the next D.J. Foster.
That’s easier said than done.
Yantis, who is in his second year as assistant athletic director for recruiting at ASU, is a former Arizona high school and college coach. For years at Paradise Valley High School, he interacted with coaches from other states looking to pry away Arizona’s best talent. While starting an NAIA football program at Arizona Christian University, he looked to find hidden gems.
It was in 2012, when Yantis was still at Paradise Valley, that he had his first encounter with Graham.
“I was a high school coach when (Graham) first came here, and I know he made a huge emphasis and focus on coming and visiting all the coaches and high schools,” Yantis said. “That meant a lot when you have the local college power coming into your school and making it a priority.”
Graham was out to create a new culture. That started with relationships, and popping into schools that weren’t used to seeing Arizona State around campus. It took five years for him to truly reap the benefits.
“We built it. Building a reputation doesn’t take a month. It takes years,” Graham said. “We’ve built a reputation here and a culture in this program that I feel is very well-respected. That’s been years of work.”
The emphasis of ASU’s recruiting, Graham and Yantis said, is recruiting within the parameters of “a gas tank away.” This means Arizona, Southern California and Las Vegas will serve as the hub of every recruiting board.
It also means that those players are a higher priority when Graham and his staff are picking their recruiting battles. Graham is clear with prospective recruits: If all else is equal, he’s going with the local player.
“You’re going with your in-state guy,” Yantis said. “We’re going to take him as a scholarship guy, and he’s going to be the first man on the field if all else is equal. We’re vetting those guys to make sure we’re bringing the best and brightest to Arizona State.”
The Sun Devils did well within their tank range in 2017, despite landing just two recruits total from Southern California and Las Vegas. However, the value of local prospects provides promising possibilities for the future of the program.
Some, like consensus 4-star quarterback Ryan Kelley of Basha High School in Chandler, are long-term projects that the Sun Devils hope will carry the prestige of a player like Foster. Others, such as safety KJ Jarrell of Saguaro High in Scottsdale (3-star Rivals, 4-star Scout), should be plugged into the lineup from the moment they step on campus.
This class marked an incredible year for Arizona high school football, after which 38 players have signed letters of intent or verbally committed to FBS programs.
“I’ve only been here five years, and it’s steadily gotten better every single year,” Graham said. “I think the high school coaches do a tremendous job of coaching and preparing the players. It’s competitive. I mean a lot of schools come in here and recruit.”
The increased recruiting profile of the state means more talent is being produced, but also that other schools are more actively trying to poach talent. Once again, an elite out-of-state program nabbed the state’s top recruit.
In this case, USC secured the No. 1 and No. 2 prospects in the state, according to Rivals and Scout, nabbing 5-star offensive lineman Austin Jackson and 4-star safety Isaiah Pola-Mao.
“That’s a luxury we would like to have, to be able to win and dominate most of those battles,” Graham said. “We didn’t get them all here. We’d have liked that to be 12, 13, you know what I’m saying?
“This is Arizona State University. That’s something that I think is big. If you can put that many guys together, that really helps tremendously.”
Seeing top players choose to go elsewhere is nothing new for ASU. Agua Fria’s Everson Griffen, then a consensus 5-star, chose to attend USC and has since gone on to the NFL. Others, such as Saguaro wide receiver Christian Kirk (5-star Rivals, 4-star Scout), seemed close to staying home before ultimately going else. Christian Westerman, a 5-star guard out of Hamilton High School in Chandler, even left to go to Auburn before transferring home to ASU and finishing his career in Tempe.
Part of finishing first in recruiting, particularly with local players, is starting first.
During his tenure at ASU, Graham has landed the player regarded as the best in the state by either Rivals or Scout just once. Rivals had sophomore wide receiver N’Keal Harry as the state’s top prospect in 2015.
Harry, who came out of local powerhouse Chandler High School, remembered the school who was in on him first. The Sun Devils would be his first official Division I scholarship offer while Harry was still at Tempe’s Marcos de Niza High School. That stuck with him.
“(ASU) wanted me when I was a raw talent,” Harry said. “I didn’t have much skill on the field. They were just telling me that if I had come to ASU, they would just give me a chance.
“It’s really big. That just shows that they were the first team to really notice you and to take a chance on you. They were the first team to recognize me, to take a chance and offer me. Having that loyalty was really big for me.”
ASU also was the first to offer his teammate, 2014 quarterback Bryce Perkins. Perkins was considered the third-best prospect in the state according to Rivals and seventh-best according to Scout. Perkins chose ASU over offers from schools such as Northwestern.
“I got offered at an ASU 7-on-7 camp,” Perkins said about ASU’s former offensive coordinator. “(Mike) Norvell came over to me. I hadn’t even played a varsity game yet, and I didn’t know how the recruiting process and how the offers work. My brother went through it, so I kind of went through it with him to see it firsthand. It was surreal.”
Harry chose ASU despite intense courtship from out-of-state schools such as Texas A&M and Washington. The appeal of family was too much.
“It was really just the top players leaving the state and going a bunch of different places, usually Texas A&M,” Harry said. “I was looking into it and was wondering why, but I had to realize that for myself, I’m not in the same situation as them. My grandmother’s here, she brought me here, so I had to repay her in some way. Having her be able to come to the games is the best thing that’s ever happened to me.”
Although Harry’s commitment to ASU revealed a renewed dedication to local recruiting, it also was a matter of circumstance. For Harry, staying home allowed him to be close to his grandmother.
For others such as Perkins, choosing to stay home involved family legacy. Bryce’s father, Bruce, is a former ASU running back. His brother, Paul, wasn’t recruited heavily to ASU and wound up leading the Pac-12 in rushing yards at UCLA.
“Growing up, I’ve been going to ASU games my whole life,” Perkins said. “My dad went here. When they offered me, I was like wow, am I going to keep the tradition alive? That was one of the biggest moments of my life and the whole recruiting process.”
The recruitment by Graham was vigorous, they each said, but transparent. Graham outlined what each would have to do to see the field. He also played pitchman, with Foster front and center in how he approaches local recruits.
“(Foster) is what ASU is built on,” Perkins said. “He was the original Hometown Hero.”
Added Harry: “The ASU game (for my visit) was the first college game I’ve ever attended, so seeing the success he had really made me think that I could follow in their footsteps and be the guy that does everything here that he did.”
Yantis hopes that Harry, Perkins or any of the other local recruits on the roster becomes the next Foster. If he finds him, then there’s a building block for success on the field.
“Can we sign nine again next year?” Yantis said. “I think we can be close to it. If we do that over a three- to four-year period and you see your roster being 30, 40 percent Arizonans, that’s when you start really being a national power.”