Column: Todd Graham, Arizona State have discipline and staying power

Arizona State Coach Todd Graham, left, talks to linebacker Antonio Longino during a game against Arizona on Nov. 28, 2014.

Arizona State Coach Todd Graham, left, talks to linebacker Antonio Longino during a game against Arizona on Nov. 28, 2014.

(Rick Scuteri / Associated Press)

The Times’ annual college football countdown continues its march toward No. 1 with our pick for No. 11.

Arizona State should release a recruiting poster of fourth-year Coach Todd Graham, dressed up like Uncle Sam, wagging his finger in America’s face: “Uncle Todd Wants You!”

Graham has brought military-type discipline to the program that used to lead the nation in reprimands.


Since 2012, the year Graham arrived in Tempe, the two least-penalized programs in college football have been Navy (25.2 yards per game) and Air Force (32.5).

Third is Arizona State at 32.85, just ahead of Army, at 32.94.

This is an about-face from several sloppy years under former coach Dennis Erickson. (Does the name Vontaze Burfict ring a penalty bell?)

Graham thinks mistake-free football leads to winning football, and he’s proved it with consecutive 10-win seasons.

Graham has already lasted longer with the Sun Devils than some people expected, having come to Arizona State after only one year at Pittsburgh.

Despite his reputation, he has now been on his job longer than 60 coaches at the Football Bowl Subdivision level.

“I’ve paid my house off and I’ve donated half a million dollars,” he said of his contributions and commitment to Arizona State. “I don’t know what else I can do.”

Graham may be the most underrated coach in the Pac-12 Conference. He is perpetuallyupbeat and forward-thinking. Breaking every poor-mouthing rule in the coaching handbook, he flaunts the virtues of his team. Every one of his teams is the best team he’s ever fielded.

“It’s the best football team that we’ve had since we’ve been at Arizona State,” Graham said again this summer. “This will be the fastest team we’ve had. This will be the strongest, most explosive team we’ve had, the smartest team we’ve had.”

Graham has reason to be pumped up for 2015. A win over Texas A&M in the Sept. 5 opener at Houston could launch something special.

The Sun Devils lose top receivers in Jaelen Strong and Cam Smith, plus quarterback Taylor Kelly, but they return eight starters on offense and nine on defense.

And don’t expect any drop off behind center. Mike Bercovici, a senior, started three games last season in place of Kelly, defeating USC and Stanford and passing for 488 yards in a loss to UCLA.

He finished the season having passed for 1,445 yards and 12 touchdowns.

Bercovici is the perfect man to lead Graham’s “best” team, a power arm who graduated last year and could have transferred with two years of remaining eligibility.

Instead, he waited patiently behind Kelly for his time to shine.

It was worth the wait. Bercovici, a Woodland Hills Taft High graduate threw the impossible Hail Mary pass that defeated USC at the Coliseum.

“If Mike Bercovici would have taken his toys and went somewhere else, he would have missed out on the great play in Arizona State history,” Graham said.

The Sun Devils should be fine at wide receiver too, with 1,000-yard rusher D.J. Foster moving into the slot this season. Also joining the roster is UCLA transfer Devin Lucien.

Graham plans to unleash a potential dual-threat star in sophomore Kalen Ballage, a running back who will also be used as a pass rusher on defense.

“We’re going to get our money’s worth out of him,” Graham promised. “He’s going to do a lot of things for us.”

Top 25 so far: 25. Michigan; 24. Nebraska; 23. Utah; 22. Missouri; 21. Arkansas; 20. Tennessee. 19. Boise State; 18. Oklahoma; 17. Notre Dame; 16. Wisconsin; 15. Georgia Tech; 14. UCLA; 13. Arizona; 12. Florida State.