In each of his two seasons as Arizona State’s head coach, Herm Edwards has exceeded expectations, at least externally. But he’s still not content. The Sun Devils have not won a Pac-12 South title under his direction, which Edwards regularly asserts to be their primary goal.
To that end, Edwards dismissed the team’s offensive architect and two other assistants and hired new coordinator Zak Hill from Boise State to install a more adaptive scheme. He wants to capitalize on sophomore quarterback Jayden Daniels, one of the top first-year players in college football last season. “This is now his offense, and he gets that,” Edwards said of Daniels. “He’s in this building every day. He meets with me, our other coaches, is taking on more of a leadership role. He understands the team is built around him.”
The Sun Devils will be different on defense as well after Edwards decided to transition to a more traditional 4-3 scheme following the departure of former coordinator Danny Gonzales to New Mexico, with former NFL head coach Marvin Lewis co-coordinating along with promoted assistant and ace recruiter Antonio Pierce.
With a maturing Daniels and a lot of defensive talent and experience returning, this is the first year outside voices are starting to discuss Edwards’ Sun Devils as a legitimate contender in the division.
Previewing Arizona State's Offense for 2020
A lot of key offensive pieces have departed, including record-breaking running back Eno Benjamin and the nation’s leading after-the-catch receiver, Brandon Aiyuk, both first-team All-Pac-12 performers.
Still, Daniels remains the centerpiece and should only be improved following a freshman season that included 2,943 passing yards with 17 touchdowns against just two interceptions, a stunning ratio for a true freshman.
Daniels will retain the benefit of one of the Pac-12’s top big-play threats, senior wide receiver Frank Darby,
the conference leader in yards-per-catch and touchdowns-per-reception last season.
The Sun Devils enrolled two highly regarded freshman running backs in January, Daniyel Ngata and DeaMonte Trayanum, and signed the best-regarded four-man wide receiver recruiting class in program history. Freshman slot receiver LV Bunkley-Shelton could be one of the league’s top newcomers at the position.
In order to bolster the offensive line, ASU signed Texas A&M grad transfer Kellen Diesch and Stanford grad transfer Henry Hattis to plug in at left tackle and left guard, respectively. Sophomore Dohnovan West started at guard last season and was perhaps the unit’s top player.
Hill’s offense heavily incorporates tight ends and uses a lot of shifts, trades and motions to diagnose defenses before the snap. The scheme relies heavily on audibles and misdirection play-actions and requires more from the quarterback and receivers, who have to make adjustments on the fly. There could be some early hiccups as everyone assimilates, but Daniels has the type of improvisational playmaking skill to smooth it all out.
Previewing Arizona State's Defense for 2020
The Sun Devils return a wealth of experience and talent at all three levels.
In the transition from a 3-3-5 to a pro-style 4-3, the Pac-12’s leading returning defensive line tackler Jermayne Lole has moved inside from end to 3-technique tackle, where he can use his quickness against interior offensive linemen. Athletic junior Tyler Johnson, the team’s best edge pass rusher, flirted with retirement in the offseason but is back and moving from linebacker to defensive end. Juniors D.J. Davidson and T.J. Pesefea form a very good two-deep at nose tackle for a unit that should be among the better run-stopping fronts in the Pac-12.
At linebacker, juniors Merlin Robertson and Darien Butler are two-year starters and among the team’s top three returning tacklers. But Robertson admitted to slipping into a sophomore slump due to family distractions and a loss of focus and wants to step up his game.
There is as much talent in the secondary as there has been at any point recently, led by senior cornerbacks Jack Jones and Chase Lucas and safeties Evan Fields and Aashari Crosswell, all of whom are all-conference candidates.
Lewis and Pierce want to turn their players loose with more one-on-one opportunities across the board, from pass rushing to more man coverage behind it, and believe they’re ready to become one of the Pac-12’s top defenses.
Previewing Arizona State's Specialists for 2020
ASU received good news in early June, as punter Michael Turk was granted a waiver to return after declaring early for the NFL Draft. Turk should be among the nation's top punters in 2020. Though he doesn’t have a particularly big leg, junior placekicker Cristian Zendejas is very accurate, making 23-of-27 field goal attempts last season and all but one from inside 40 yards.
Even with new schemes on both sides of the ball, it’s hard to imagine the Sun Devils backsliding in 2020. They return a ton of experience on defense and a stabilizing force in Daniels at quarterback, a player who could well become one of college football’s biggest names over the next two years. If he gets enough support from his offensive line and skill players, Daniels is the type of player who could lead ASU to challenge for the Pac-12 South title as soon as this season.