Of the team’s improvement, from 6-7 to 8-5, from undisciplined to poised, Graham said: “We’ve got quality young men who were hungry for discipline, hungry for the standards, hungry to win.”
The on-field transformation was remarkable, but the recent arrests of two Sun Devils’ players — one part-time starter, one since-dismissed walk-on — suggest there’s still work to be done.
Walk-on safety Andres Garcia was dismissed from the team this week after his arrest on domestic violence and sexual assault charges. The athletic department’s swift action to remove him from the program sends a clear message that such crimes are taken very seriously by the university, and that violence against women will not be tolerated.
Senior defensive end Junior Onyeali was also arrested this week for the much less severe “misdemeanor criminal damage.” Charges have not been filed, but the Tempe police and the school are still reviewing the situation. Onyeali reportedly smashed his girlfriend’s car windshield with a 2-by-4 following a fight in May and was only booked this week because he “could not be found” at the time of the incident.
Police said Onyeali has paid for the damages, but the incident is troubling because it still falls into the category of domestic violence, and because it is not the first time Onyeali’s emotions have landed the player in hot water.
In 2011, he was suspended from the Las Vegas Bowl after an ugly public argument with former ASU head coach Dennis Erickson. When Graham succeeded Erickson, he suspended Onyeali “indefinitely,” lifting the suspension at the start of the 2012 football season. The player appeared in every game for the Sun Devils last season, logging six sacks, eight tackles-for-loss, and a fumble recovery return for a touchdown.
When Graham announced Onyeali’s 2012 suspension for “not meeting the high standards of the Sun Devil football program,” the SB Nation Arizona blog praised the decision:
Arizona State University football program’s new head coach Todd Graham has a lot of work to do changing the culture of the team and reversing the perceived lack of discipline that was the hallmark of the Dennis Erickson regime. Graham sent a powerful and visible message to the fans and team when he suspended one of the Sun Devil’s top players, Junior Onyeali.
The player was reinstated after following a “plan of improvement,” but whatever that was, it doesn’t seem to have worked. If a verbal altercation with former coach doesn’t meet the standards of the program, throwing a two-by-four at his girlfriend’s car certainly shouldn’t either. It doesn’t matter what the couple was arguing about prior to the smashed windshield; Onyeali’s response was unacceptable.
Onyeali could be the only ASU player with a hot temper, and his reaction shouldn’t be considered indicative of a larger issue on the team, but the way Graham handles this incident will set another example for the rest of his players. Graham made a big impact on the team’s on-field discipline in just one season, but handcuffs are worse than penalty flags.
If a player loses his cool off the field to the extent that he’s arrested, he becomes a liability, and he can’t be trusted to remain poised when tempers flare during games. Reinforcing that, by enforcing the team’s “high standards,” helps young athletes develop as football players and as upstanding citizens, so it’s crucial that Graham — and all coaches, for that matter — stress the importance of responsible (and legal) behavior on and off the field, especially when it comes to domestic matters.