Year Two of the New Leadership Model at Arizona State begins less than two months after Year One ended.
The Sun Devils get to work early, jumping into 2019 spring football practices faster than Punxsutawney Phil retreats to his burrow. And why not? February temperatures in Tempe are downright mild, and ASU can continue on the positive momentum established late in head coach Herm Edwards' debut campaign.
The hire — introduced with a variety of buzzwords and met initially with eye rolls — preceded Arizona State being picked to finish last place in the Pac-12 South. The Sun Devils instead came in second, winning games against USC, Utah, UCLA and a come-from-behind thriller at Arizona during the regular season's final month.
The early jump on spring practices finds the Sun Devils not far removed from that exciting, last month, but also setting the tone for an offseason with some key personnel changes.
5 Storylines to Watch During Arizona State's Spring Practice
1. The man after Manny
Quarterback Manny Wilkins was a steadying influence for Arizona State the previous few seasons, not just amid the change from Todd Graham to Herm Edwards at head coach. Before Graham's dismissal, Arizona State underwent repeated coordinator changes. The unflappable Wilkins persisted despite tumult. His departure sets the scene for a quarterback competition reminiscent of three years ago when Wilkins was a somewhat surprising winner for the job Mike Bercovici vacated.
Junior Dillon Sterling-Cole has experience the others in the four-man race lack, all of whom are freshmen. But the trio of youngsters — Jayden Daniels, Ethan Long and Joey Yellen — all have promise. This competition should continue into summer, and may whittle down as spring unfolds.
2. N'o more N'Keal
Although the quarterback competition deserves center stage, replacing wide receiver N'Keal Harry may prove the most difficult task facing Edwards and offensive coordinator Rob Likens in the offseason.
One of the best, and most uniquely skilled receivers in recent Pac-12 history, Harry's versatility gave Likens flexibility with his play calls and formations. Replicating all Harry brought to the Sun Devils won't fall on one player, but rather a variety of Arizona State receivers. Brandon Aiyuk, Frank Darby, and Kyle Williams all showed flashes of potential to become the No. 1 guy in Harry's absence, but increased production from all three is likely a must in 2019.
3. Running with the Devils
The most pronounced difference in Arizona State's offense from 2017 to '18 was the emergence of a previously missing, power-run game. The Sun Devils were one of the worst rushing offenses in the Pac-12 in 2017, but Eno Benjamin emerged as one of the conference's premier ball carriers a season ago.
He's back, and so too is the offensive line that paved the road for his 1,642-yard, 16-touchdown campaign. Arizona State also has former junior college transfer Isaiah Floyd back, who chipped in 209 yards a season ago. Springtime may be beneficial for integrating Floyd more into the mix, as well as promising youngster A.J. Carter.
4. The next step for a surprising defense
Defensive woes were the constant of the last few seasons in Graham's tenure. However, Danny Gonzales immediately turned that around his first season coordinating the Sun Devils' defense.
Arizona State took nicely to a 3-3-5 look, which Gonzales perfected at San Diego State under its originator, Rocky Long. The emergence of several freshmen as key playmakers made the implementation of a new scheme easy. Key for Gonzales in 2019 is refining some of the raw ability demonstrated this past season.
Despite its tenacity and ability to both get into the backfield and generate turnovers, Arizona State finished 10th in the conference in rushing defense. Darien Butler and Merlin Robertson being a year older as the cornerstones of the linebacking corps should help with making necessary strides in that regard. Ditto Tyler Johnson, another of the freshmen stars, anchoring the defensive line.
5. Edwards' stamp
The hire of Edwards a little more than a year ago was... unorthodox, to say the least. Athletic director Ray Anderson's use of language that would sound more at home in a real estate expo at the Learning Annex than in a college football coaching intro presser raised eyebrows.
Yet, despite the corporate-y lingo, Edwards' first season offered some positive surprises. A program begins to take on more of its head coach's vision in Year 2, so the approach of the New Leadership Model could bring more surprises in 2019.