In the fourth year of the Herm Edwards era, Arizona State returns 15 starters and zero excuses. The Sun Devils have better continuity and greater talent and depth than at any point in recent history a year after they tantalized by leading the Pac-12 in scoring offense (40.2) and scoring defense (23.2) in a coronavirus-shorted four-game season.
All-conference candidates abound across the defense, and quarterback Jayden Daniels hopes to bring his young receiving corps along to balance out the league's best 2020 rushing offense (264.2 yards).
While everyone in the program agrees that this is their best opportunity to challenge for a Pac-12 championship, ASU coaches are actively working to ground their players every chance they get by promoting smart daily habits.
"We have a lot of guys coming back and it all looks good on paper, but we've got to put the work in on the field now," Edwards says. "We've always had high expectations internally, but when it becomes talked about publicly, that becomes a different thing and we will have to talk to our players about that to make sure we understand the work does not change."
Previewing Arizona State's Offense for 2021
Second-year offensive coordinator Zak Hill says Daniels underperformed in 2020 but believes better things are in store now that he has a stronger grasp of the scheme and more seasoned receivers.
"He's super athletic and he runs the ball well and he's dynamic and can escape things and scramble and we know that," Hill says. "Now, it's going to be improving his fundamentals, technique, his drops, his balance and becoming more consistent as a pocket thrower."
Daniels benefited from first-round NFL wide receiver pick Brandon Aiyuk in his freshman year and saw the team's top receiver, Frank Darby, go down to injury in the first game of his second year, leaving him effectively zero experienced players to throw the ball to.
While the receiving corps is still young in 2021, it is supremely talented and includes five former four-star recruits in addition to veteran Utah transfer Bryan Thompson, a battle-tested deep threat. Someone else needs to emerge though from the group and it could be freshman Elijhah Badger, a player some have compared to a younger version of Aiyuk.
"We want to be a balanced offense, and the development of the receivers is going to be critical," Edwards says.
Fortunately for Hill and Daniels, ASU returns a stellar run game led by a potent one-two punch of running backs Rachaad White and Chip Trayanum. Four returning offensive line starters are led by two all-conference candidates, left tackle Kellen Diesch and center Dohnovan West. White eluded would-be tacklers to average a nation-best 10.0 yards per carry last season in 42 rushes, and Trayanum is a punishing 230 pounds.
Previewing Arizona State's Defense for 2021
The Sun Devils led the Pac-12 in points allowed last year at 23.2, averaged the most takeaways per game and finished second in pass efficiency defense, all key indicators of a defense that is primed to again compete at the top of the conference. "You name a bunch of guys in our second group and you say, 'Wow, if that was a starter, I'm OK,'" says Antonio Pierce, who is now the team's sole defensive coordinator after sharing the responsibility last year with Marvin Lewis, who has moved into a special advisor role.
Everywhere you look, the Sun Devils have all-conference candidates, from cornerbacks Chase Lucas and Jack Jones to safety Evan Fields, linebacker Merlin Robertson and defensive linemen Jermayne Lole and Tyler Johnson.
Lucas, Jones, Fields and safety DeAndre Pierce, who has 25 career starts and beat out returning starter Aashari Crosswell last season after transferring from Boise State, form what may be the best secondary in the conference.
In the front seven, Robertson and linebacker Darien Butler are fourth-year starters, as is Lole at defensive tackle, while 2020 second-team all-conference defensive end Johnson is a third-year starter.
ASU improved its pass rush capability last season after switching to a 4-3 scheme and should only get better in the second year under position coach Robert Rodriguez, formerly with the Minnesota Vikings.
Put it all together and the Sun Devils should have one of their best defenses in decades.
Previewing Arizona State's Specialists for 2021
Punter Michael Turk, a first-team all-conference pick last season, has one of the strongest legs in program history and is capable of flipping the field with the very best in the college game. Kick returner D.J. Taylor earned second-team honors as a true freshman last season and is a game-breaker. Field-goal kicking could be a question mark.
This appears to be the most talented and experienced ASU team in many years, perhaps even going as far back as its last Rose Bowl berth in the 1996 season. With a generous front end of the schedule to build momentum, external expectations are so high that anything short of a Pac-12 South title will be considered a disappointment by a decent percentage of the program's fan base. Fewer than nine wins definitely won’t cut it.
National Ranking: 15
Podcast: Top 25 Breakdown and Predictions