Herm Edwards' Sun Devils look like leading contenders in the Pac-12 South heading into 2021
Wild finishes against USC and UCLA kept the Arizona State Sun Devils out of the 2020 Pac-12 Championship Game. After coming just a few snaps away from winning the South division for the first time since 2013, the pieces are present for a breakout 2021.
The same month that one story of awakening monsters, "Godzilla vs. King Kong," begins streaming, Arizona State takes to its first official practices of the 2021 season. Will this be the year the long-considered sleeping giant of the West comes to life and terrorizes the Pac-12 like a cranky kaiju? The talent Herm Edwards has cultivated entering his fourth season shows plenty of promise.
5 Storylines to Watch During Arizona State's Spring Practice
1. What's ahead for Jayden Daniels?
After an impressive freshman debut, Daniels quietly strung together solid numbers as a sophomore. Perhaps most intriguing in his second-year stat line was the uptick in his rushing production, from less than three yards per carry in 2019 to almost seven per attempt in 2020. Daniels also scored more rushing touchdowns despite the pandemic-shortened campaign lasting one-third as long as the 2019 season.
His efficient passing — he's thrown just three picks in 17 games — coupled with dynamic rushing set Daniels' ceiling high. Could he be a Heisman Trophy contender in 2021? The next phase of his game to develop in the same vein as his improved running may be on display in offseason workouts.
2. Year 2 of Zak Hill's offense
One central component of Daniels' evolution will be the maturation of the offense in Hill's second season as coordinator. A "season" with just four games combined with a start-stop-start offseason doesn't make for the best circumstances to implement a new scheme.
A full spring leading into the summer, coupled with Arizona State's returning talent, should open opportunities for new looks from the Sun Devils' offense. The run game in particular has remarkable untapped potential with Chip Trayanum and Rachaad White back in the mix. In his last season overseeing the Boise State offense, Hill utilized a multifaceted run game with George Holani, Robert Mahone, and Andrew Van Buren all seeing significant touches to combine for more than 2,000 yards.
3. Antonio Pierce's defense
With Marvin Lewis switching responsibilities in the coming season, Pierce gets to put his sole signature on the Sun Devils' defense. The fast-rising young coach's energy and his own background as a tenacious pass rusher could translate to an aggressive style.
Of course, restraint is important, and Arizona State fans know that well after the last few years of Todd Graham's tenure saw huge point totals given up commensurate with going overly aggressive on the blitz. Striking a balance is going to be a key for the Sun Devils, who have some havoc-creators in the front seven like Jermayne Lole and Merlin Robertson, but a high-risk/high-reward secondary sometimes prone to giving up big plays.
4. The look of the secondary
Speaking of that unit, ASU is coming off a bottom-third finish against the pass in 2020. In its losses, Arizona allowed both USC and UCLA to complete more than 70 percent of their pass attempts. The Sun Devils return plenty of experience in the secondary but will need depth and greater consistency. Evan Fields opted to return for 2021, as did Jack Jones.
Jones, a former USC transfer, famously said his goal was a Heisman while with the Trojans. The 2021 season is his last opportunity to make a mark after an impressive 2019 at Arizona State gave way to a shortened 2020.
5. Coaching consistency
Aside from Pierce taking on sole defensive coordinator duties, after having split the job with Lewis, the coaching staff is the most intact any group has been for Arizona State predating Edwards. Much is made of player experience in college football, and deservedly so, but coaching-staff stability can be just as impactful.
Having Hill and Pierce return as the coordinators, along with Shawn Slocum in the special teams role, should allow Arizona State to diversify its playbook in 2021. With leaders Daniels and Robertson keying each side of the ball, this coming season's Sun Devils should be the most aggressive and most consistent we've seen in the Edwards era.
— Written by Kyle Kensing, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a sportswriter in Southern California. Follow him on Twitter @kensing45.