Originally posted on Fox Sports Arizona  |  Last updated 9/11/12
TEMPE, Ariz. -- Todd Graham has preached discipline since the first day on the job as Arizona State's head football coach. The constant harping has already had an impact. In the first two games of Graham's tenure, ASU has demonstrated a 180-degree change from the undisciplined teams that had become the norm during the past few seasons. "From practice to the pregame walk with the suits on, it's all different," junior safety Alden Darby said. "Just walking inside (the athletics building), the feeling I get personally it's just a different feeling." Through two games, both wins, ASU has been penalized just five times and ranks seventh in the nation for fewest penalty yards, averaging just 17.5 per game. Through two games a year ago, the Sun Devils had committed 16 penalties and averaged 75 penalty yards per game. They finished the season ranked dead last in the FBS with 79.77 penalty yards per game. None of the five penalties has been called on the defense, and Graham said only two of the five were committed by the first-team offense. One of those -- a five-yard delay of game penalty last week against Illinois -- came when Graham let the play clock expire to give his punter more room. Those five yards were the only penalty yards against ASU in last week's game. "Our goal was zero penalties, and the only person who got a penalty was me," Graham admitted. ASU had not had a penalty yardage total that low in a game since Nov. 11, 2006 -- four games before Dennis Erickson took over as head coach. Erickson's coaching style called for a loose, aggressive mentality on defense, which helped give ASU an intimidation factor. As much as that was an advantage at times, it had the opposite effect more frequently. In five seasons under Erickson, ASU never ranked better than 76th nationally in penalty yards per game, it ranked in the bottom 10 three times, and it finished last twice. While there were other issues to overcome, there is no doubt in players' minds that penalties cost them some key games in recent seasons. It's impossible for some veterans to resist thinking about what might have been, particularly last season. "That question has most definitely come up," senior cornerback Deveron Carr said. "A couple guys were like 'Man, if this was last year's team and we had Graham and had as much discipline, we would have won it all.' I think we would have won it a long time ago." Whether that means a Pac-12 Championship, a Rose Bowl or more, its clear Graham's new philosophy has opened players' eyes to the possibilities that can develop when talent is paired with discipline. The transition and buy-in to Graham's no-nonsense approach, however, was not instantaneous. Soon after arriving, Graham implemented a handful of rules, including a ban on headphones, earrings and hats in the athletics building. "When he came in here and started implementing his plan, everybody was like 'What the heck?'" Darby said. "Now that we're winning, it's making us see that he knows what he's talking about." Added Carr: "Some people might say it took awhile, and some people might say it was quick. For me and for guys with such a short period of time left, I feel like it was quick. We had to buy in. The faster we bought in as a whole team, the better off we would be." A look at Graham's track record suggests his emphasis on disciplined football works. In his six years as a Division I head coach, his teams have averaged 44.31 penalty yards per game. That translates to an average annual ranking of 32nd in the nation. Three of those teams ranked in the top 25 nationally, and only one ranked outside the top 40. It didn't take long for Graham to prove that his tought talk was more than just talk. He upheld junior defensive lineman Junior Onyeali's suspension, which came before ASU's last game under Erickson, until the beginning of fall practice. Then before the team's season opener, Graham suspended four players, including No. 1 receiver Jamal Miles, for not meeting team standards. "We used to have fights in camp all the time," Onyeali said before the season started. "This year we haven't event had one. We know that's unacceptable." But Graham insists he is not just a disciplinarian. He's also a teacher. Graham has had Pac-12 officials come to practices and meetings to teach players how games are officiated and what they look for on certain penalty calls. "I bring a crew in and they talk to them about 'What is the seven-man crew looking at?'" Graham said. "We bring them in and go into our meetings and actually educate our players. Just saying you don't want any penalties and doing it is completely different." Graham tells his players to say nothing to officials during games beyond "Yes, sir." He tells them to hand the ball not to the referee but to the umpire so it gets spotted faster -- better to facilitate the fast pace of play he wants. And he tells them to ignore opponents' remarks, which Graham said his players have done ... except on two occasions against Northern Arizona. "In our past we did do a lot of stuff talking," Carr said. "Now it's kind of just like a little celebration then let's get off the field." Darby said the lack of penalties on defense has become a point of pride, a statistic the players crave as much as interceptions or sacks. As difficult as it might have first seemed, they're enjoying Graham's discipline and character mandate. While the early returns are impressive, there's one more test left: Adversity. How will the discipline hold up when the Sun Devils when they're facing tenser moments than they experienced in routs of NAU and Illinois, or in more hostile environments? Saturday's contest with Missouri should offer an answer. "You can't get rattled when you face adversity," Graham said. "I'm kind of waiting for us to face some, see what's going to happen. If we go to Missouri and we don't face adversity, I will be shocked." Carr thinks he already knows how they'll respond. "I feel like (our discipline) will stand up because the way coach Graham has taught us and the level of discipline is to be tough," Carr said. "So when we do face adversity we have to come together as a whole, lock arms and play."
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