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Juco route leads to success for Arizona State, Utah

Recruiting junior college talent can be a constant gamble of possibly adding a fully developed body, ready to provide immediate help and cover any depth concerns, and the possibility of missing entirely on getting the recruit admitted academically or getting a prospect with a limited window of opportunity who still isn't ready to contribute.

But one game this weekend -- when Utah travels to Arizona State -- will provide a perfect look at what successful junior college recruiting can do to the fortunes of a program.

Close to 20 players on each of the Arizona State and Utah rosters have junior college experience, and several of those will have a big say in Saturday’s final score.

Offensively, Arizona State is led by Jaelen Strong -- 52 receptions for 744 yards and seven touchdowns -- while defensively, Damarious Randall leads the team with 66 tackles. Utah's biggest threats are tailback Devontae Booker -- team highs in yards and touchdowns -- and special-teams return maven Kaelin Clay -- four return touchdowns this year. All four were junior college prospects.

In fact, the stat sheet is likely to be filled by juco prospects on both sides.

Antonio Longino, Kweishi Brown, Marcus Hardison, Demetrius Cherry, Edmond Boateng and De'Marieya Nelson are juco names on the defensive side of the ball for the Sun Devils. For the Utes, Bubba Poole, Junior Salt, Davion Orphey, Tevin Carter, Sese Ianu and Tim Patrick are a few of the former juco recruits making impacts.

It's business as usual for Arizona State, as former juco standouts Marion Grice and Chris Young signed with the Sun Devils in the 2012 class -- two of nine junior college signees that year. The 2013 class netted 10 juco additions, while six signed with Arizona State in the 2014 class. But the loss of two of those, defensive linemen Dalvon Stuckey and Darrius Caldwell, due to academic issues begged those same few questions as to how reliable junior college recruiting can be. Head coach Todd Graham, however, was quick to dispel any notion that the Sun Devils would shy away from recruiting junior college prospects in the future. In fact, the success of the juco prospects who see the field for Arizona State makes it much easier for its coaches to dip into those ranks.

This year, Arizona State holds commitments from two juco prospects, linebacker Davon Durant and tight end Raymond Epps.

"A lot of coaches say that when you get here, this could happen. But they're showing it," Epps said. "Getting the chance to go in there with only having two or three years left. For us juco players, we're seeing it. Why can't we go there and do the same thing?"

Numbers on the field are making an impact with many recruits, but it was one that came off the field that helped the highly regarded Durant make the decision to flip his commitment from South Carolina to Arizona State.

"They said they graduate 100 percent of their juco kids," Durant said. "That was a big part of it."

Many of Arizona State's recruiting wins in the juco ranks are on coveted prospects such as Durant, Hardison and Strong, but both the Sun Devils and Utes have shown they can dig deeper.

Booker and Arizona State center Nick Kelly were teammates at Sacramento (Calif.) American River College. Head coach Jon Osterhout was the offensive line coach when they went through their recruitments.

"A lot of times juco guys can be hit and miss," Osterhout said. "I was at Nebraska with [Bill] Callahan and we brought in a bunch of juco guys. There has to be diligence on the part of the recruiter. A lot of juco athletes are here for a number of reasons -- late bloomers, academic, socially they don't have it together -- and you want to find that diamond in the rough. All schools do a great job, but specifically the ones that peel back the layers of the onion, for lack of a better term, and get down to the core of who that individual is, are the ones that have success."

Osterhout had little doubt that Booker -- who originally signed with Washington State out of high school -- and Kelly would succeed at the next level, but it took some work by the Utah and Arizona State coaches.

Osterhout called programs such as Nebraska, Oklahoma, UCLA and USC about Booker, but the running back only received significant interest from Utah State and Weber State, while West Virginia sent an offer letter but never followed through. When Utah came into the picture late, Booker took an official visit to Salt Lake City and was hooked.

"I didn't know anybody at Utah, but they did a thorough job in their evaluation," Osterhout said. "They saw his upside as a football player."

Kelly's situation was similar.

"They came in to recruit our right tackle to see if they could slide him to center," Osterhout said of the Arizona State coaches. "I asked if they'd seen our center, who'd been offered by Wyoming and another Mountain West school."

Kelly popped on film when the Arizona State coaches sat down with Osterhout to watch it.

"They watched the first three or four series and then asked if he was around," Osterhout said. "They brought him in on a visit the last weekend prior to signing day and eventually signed him and the right tackle, although the tackle wasn't admissible into ASU. But they sure are happy with Kelly. They asked if we have any more guys like him."

Booker continues a line of successful junior college running backs at Utah, coming on the heels of Kelvin York and John White IV. The Utes signed 17 juco prospects in the 2012-14 classes and have one commit in the 2015 class, from wide receiver Kyle Fulks.

Junior college recruiting in the Pac-12 certainly isn't limited to these two programs. Arizona, Oregon State and Washington State all benefit greatly from scouring the juco ranks. But in a game that could help decide the South participant in this year's conference title game, it's the often overlooked aspect of junior college recruiting that could have a significant say in the outcome.