Even As Era Ends, Texas Connection Remains Strong For Arizona State Players And Coaches

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Photo: Matt Kartozian/USA TODAY Sports

EL PASO, Texas- From as far west as Lubbock-Cooper to as far east as West Orange-Stark, the Arizona State football program has established firm roots in Texas. With 15 players on the current roster from the Lone Star State, the current Sun Devil coaches and players take pride in what Texas high school football has done for the program in Tempe.

“One of the reasons I’m so proud to grow up in this state is because I’m a coach’s kid,” Arizona State head coach Todd Graham said at a Tuesday press conference, “My biological dad was not a coach, he left my mom and she raised five kids by herself. My coaches were my dad and gave me the values of character, emphasized the academics, being smart, discipline and toughness. That’s how we operate in our program.”

Former West Orange-Stark and Arizona State defensive back J’Marcus Rhodes is third on the team with 68 tackles this season. (Courtesy of Arizona State Athletics)

“When you’re at Arizona State, you got to recruit California and Texas,” defensive coordinator Phil Bennett said, “Your base is Arizona but you got to go out a little bit. It’s an easy flight, about two hours from DFW. I’m also going to pay tribute to Texas high school football coaches, they’re the best of the best.”

Bennett also noted that two of his brothers were high school coaches.

As for the players, many of them have become key contributors for Arizona State football in 2017.

On defense, the top three leading tacklers linebacker Christian Sam (Allen), defensive back Chad Adams (Allen) and defensive back J’Marcus Rhodes (West Orange-Stark) all hail from Texas and Bennett, a Marshall, Texas native credits them and is also excited for the future Texans coming up in the program.

They’re so well versed in how to practice and how to do things and they play with great pride. You look at the kids that we have like Chad Adams (Allen). He had not been a starter and has just had a phenomenal year. If you’ve watched just this year, you also have guys (like) Eno Benjamin from Wylie who is going to be a difference maker.

Defensive coordinator Phil Bennett praised former Allen star Chad Adams for the year that he’s had as a senior defensive back. (Courtesy of Arizona State Athletics)

Many of those players do take pride in where they come from and also echo the sentiment of their defensive coordinator as to how playing in Texas has prepared them for the next level.

“Coming from a winning program like West Orange-Stark to junior college to here has really helped,” Rhodes said, “You go to one of those practices and it’s the same intensity and that will continue as long as Coach (Cornel) Thompson is there.”

Even for a player like former Aledo wide receiver Ryan Newsome, he credits the structure that helped make his transition into college football easier even if taking a slightly different path.

“It wasn’t a big jump because Aledo is just like a college program,” Newsome said, “The transition was smooth. I feel like I was well-prepared and the coaches were a big reason for that.”

As the Sun Devils prepare to take on NC State in the 86th Hyundai Sun Bowl on Friday afternoon, the players will have to deal with the end of an era. Head coach Todd Graham will be coaching his final game as will defensive coordinator Phil Bennett. Adams and Rhodes are seniors while Christian Sam is a redshirt junior and could potentially leave for the NFL.

Arizona State defensive coordinator Phil Bennett is a Marshall, Texas native. (Tony Venegas/TexasHSFootball)

Even with those departures, the future remains bright for the Texas connections to stay strong as new head coach Herm Edwards takes over the program.

“I think Arizona State has a lot to offer kids who want the opportunity,” Bennett said, “Not everybody wants to go to A&M and Texas and OU (Oklahoma). I’ve been in almost every league, literally, in my career and the Pac-12 is an excellent football league.”

As for Graham, he’s taken the week to look back at what he’s accomplished in the six seasons as the head coach at Arizona State. Amidst all the chaos, the native Texan will lean on what he learned growing up to win one final game in his home state.

“I’m a proud Texan and my wife is a sixth- generation Texan,” Graham said, “For us to come back here and for me to coach my last game as the head football coach of Arizona State in my home state is where I wanted to be. I’m very grateful to the Sun Bowl and for the opportunity to come compete here on Friday.”

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