TEMPE, Ariz. -- There's a difference between horrible and bad.
For example, Arizona State had a bad season last year. It started off great, climbed in the national rankings and looked like a certain Pac-12 South Division champion, but then it went rear end over tea kettle, losing five consecutive games to end the season, which provoked the firing of coach Dennis Erickson.
Sun Devils defensive end Junior Onyeali had a horrible season last year. The Pac-10 Defensive Freshman of the Year in 2010, he missed much of the 2011 season with a knee injury, didn't play well when he was healthy and then got suspended from the Las Vegas Bowl by Erickson, who already had been fired. When Todd Graham replaced Erickson, he reviewed Onyeali's case and put him on indefinite suspension. Onyeali had a lot to get straight, both on and off the field.
"He was the only guy when I came in here who didn't start over with a clean slate," Graham said. "There were some things that had happened that I was concerned about."
So Onyeali went from a player who looked like a budding star and a centerpiece of a nationally ranked team to a player in career limbo, one who wasn't playing well enough for an attitude problem to be overlooked.
One person who nods his head over such negative assessments is Onyeali, who felt overwhelmed with myriad frustrations last fall.
"It was the injury. I had lost my grandpa. It was a couple of things going on at the same time," he said. "I didn't handle it well at all. I started rebelling instead of being disciplined and focusing on what I needed to focus on."
He was given what Graham called "an extensive plan of improvement." He was forced to sit out spring practices while he focused on his school work and winning over his new coaches with his attitude. He produced a 3.0 GPA, spent time doing community service work and hit the weight room to get in shape -- he's now listed at 230, 14 pounds lighter than last year after moving from defensive end to "Devil-backer," a hybrid linebacker/defensive end position.
Said Graham, "I'm extremely proud of him .... He's busted his tail and done nothing but impress me since I've been here."
With all due respect, Onyeali disagrees with that assessment. He believes Graham's demands weren't difficult once he made his own changes, though his plan of improvement started inside.
"I wouldn't say it was hard at all," the 5-foot-11 true junior from Denver said. "I had to make a change in myself. When I did that, I truly found God and it made the whole process easier. I had no issues following the rules or doing what they asked me to do. It was very simple."
The question is whether Onyeali can rediscover and then eclipse his freshman form. He led the Sun Devils in tackles for a loss (11.5) and sacks (6.5), despite starting just five games. While he lacks height, Onyeali is powerful and quick. He seems like a perfect fit for the "Devil backer" spot in Graham's scheme. While he's competing with the promising Carl Bradford for the starting spot, Graham made clear that he expects both of them to be on the field in passing situations.
"Because I know in the Pac-12 you've got to find a way to impact the quarterback," Graham said.
While his horrible season was going on, Onyeali got a good view of what was making things so bad for the Sun Devils. Though injuries were a major issue, the Sun Devils still were too talented to finish 6-7. They lacked discipline and leadership, and when things went wrong the locker room fractured. It's not much of a stretch to say a figurative white flag was hoisted by some.
"Once we lost, we didn't have a good attitude about winning more games," Onyeali said. "Especially after the UCLA game [on Oct. 27]. It wasn't pretty after that."
The 2012 Sun Devils were picked fifth in the Pac-12's South Division. Unlike last year, this team is not burdened with high expectations. Just 10 starters are back, which is the fewest in the conference. Onyeali admitted he understands why many have such low expectations. But a guy who was laid so low a year ago isn't having a difficult time seeing things differently.
"In our heads, they are not seeing the vision we are," he said. "In our heads, we have a vision of winning. It's a vision of shocking the world."
There's a difference between expectations and reality after all.