Year 3 of the Herm Edwards era gets underway in earnest
Arizona State's 2019 was a roller coaster.
The Sun Devils opened strong, including a win in Big Ten country over Michigan State, to enter the Top 25. But after a home loss to Colorado, Arizona State hit a lull that threatened its prospects of returning to a bowl game in Herm Edwards' second season.
But the Sun Devils rallied, finishing the campaign stronger than it began with a marquee upset of eventual Pac-12 champion Oregon, and a Sun Bowl win over Florida State. Add a defeat of rival Arizona between the two, and ASU reached eight wins: its most since the 2015 season.
With electric dual-threat quarterback Jayden Daniels back, Arizona State could be a Pac-12 South contender in 2020 — but the Sun Devils have plenty of uncertainties to address as they begin the season in earnest with spring practices.
5 Storylines to Watch During Arizona State's Spring Practice
1. New faces taking over the defense
Danny Gonzales coordinated the Arizona State defense in the first two years of the Herm Edwards era, implementing a version of the 3-3-5 odd stack that Rocky Long innovated at New Mexico and later flourished with at San Diego State. Gonzales and Long are reunited at New Mexico, with Marvin Lewis and Antonio Pierce taking over Arizona State's defense.
Edwards and Lewis, who coached the Cincinnati Bengals for 16 seasons (2003-18), are longtime friends and he served as an advisor with the Sun Devils last season. Pierce has been Edwards' linebackers coach since he arrived in Tempe. The two will work in tandem to put together a defense that features plenty of returning production, most notably Darien Butler and Merlin Robertson at linebacker, and Jermayne Lole along the defensive line.
2. Replacing Eno Benjamin
Benjamin's progression from effective change-of-pace back as a freshman, to one of the nation's premier every-down rushers as a sophomore, and ultimately to coveted NFL draft prospect as a junior also reflected changes in the Arizona State offense over that time.
Benjamin's rushing totals dipped in 2019, but he eclipsed 1,000 yards for a second straight season and finished the campaign playing some of his best ball. His absence leaves a void unlikely to be filled with a single player. Instead, look for the spring to set the tone for a shift to committee work.
3. New faces in the receivers corps
A year ago at this time, the most prominent departure from Arizona State's roster was that of N'Keal Harry. While no one Sun Devil filled his shoes, a pair that stepped up — Bradon Aiyuk and Kyle Williams — are the stars having to be replaced this spring.
Aiyuk, in particular, emerged as the star target for Daniels, hauling in 65 reception for 1,192 yards. His over-the-top speed was at times game-breaking, with the Oregon game providing a primary example. Returning leader Frank Darby matched Aiyuk's eight touchdown grabs, but the rest of the receivers room is going to be heavy on new contributors in 2020.
4. What's next for the offense?
In addition to the question marks at running back and wide receiver, the more pressing question for Arizona State's offense is what new offensive coordinator Zak Hill brings on that side of the ball. The Sun Devils have had a revolving door at the position since Mike Norvell left for Memphis, with Chip Lindsey, Billy Napier, and most recently Rob Likens, manning the post — and that's not to mention Jay Norvell's stint as passing game coordinator.
Hill was tabbed to replace Likens after his firing last December. Hill's offenses in his four seasons at Boise State were successful, albeit with an approach one might not associate with the brand of offense best suited to Daniels' electrifying style. How Hill tailors his scheme to Daniels — and how Daniels adapts his play — will be a fascinating storyline in 2020.
5. Early enrollees with a chance to shine
A top 25-ranked recruiting class includes eight early enrollees who will make their first impressions at spring practices. Among that group are a trio of 4-star prospects: running backs Daniyel Ngata and DeaMonte Trayanum, and linebacker Jordan Banks.
Given the recent production of true freshmen under Edwards and his staff, including Daniels, Robertson, and Butler, don't be surprised to see another emerge this spring or summer with buzz leading into a prominent role come autumn.
— Written by Kyle Kensing, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a sportswriter in Southern California. Follow him on Twitter @kensing45.