The release of head coach Todd Graham at the conclusion of Arizona State's 2017 regular season was a surprise quickly surpassed in magnitude when longtime — and long-retired — NFL coach Herm Edwards was named his replacement.
Edwards ended a nearly 10-year long retirement to take over at Arizona State, and the Sun Devils' upcoming spring practice marks his first time on the field with a college program since he was defensive backs coach at San Jose State in 1989.
A strong finish to national signing day put Arizona State in the top 40 nationally for 2018 recruiting, so the Edwards experiment is off to a surprising start. How will it play out on the field? Spring practices begin to shape the story.
5 Storylines to Watch During Arizona State's Spring Practice
1. Herm Edwards as CEO?
When Edwards was introduced as Arizona State's head coach in December, he was presented as a CEO for the football program; that is to say, his duties would be perhaps less hands-on, and more allowing coordinators and position coaches to shine. After Graham's defensive fingertips were evident on teams that ranked at the bottom of the Pac-12 in various categories, the less invasive approach might be a necessary departure. What that looks like in practice as opposed to concept will be the defining trait of Edwards' tenure.
2. New coordinators taking over
The chain-of-command when Edwards was introduced as CEO featured returning offensive coordinator Billy Napier and defensive coordinator Phil Bennett. Both are gone are just one season in their respective positions.
Turnover is nothing new at Arizona State in recent seasons, and in this instance, offensive coordinator Rob Likens is a familiar face. The former assistant to air-raid guru Sonny Dykes served as the Sun Devils quarterbacks coach and passing-game coordinator in 2016 and ‘17. Defensive coordinator Danny Gonzales is a newcomer, but his unit at San Diego State ranked No. 21 nationally in points allowed a season ago.
3. New-look running game
Arizona State's backfield featured a two-headed monster in running backs Demario Richard and Kalen Ballage, both of whom could be drafted in late April. Add the mobility of quarterback Manny Wilkins, Arizona State had the pieces to be one of the nation's most prolific rushing attacks. However, the Sun Devils averaged just 4.04 yards per carry as a team in 2017.
Ballage and Richard's exit takes away a perhaps underused weapon in the Arizona State arsenal, leaving Likens to rebuild with some fresh faces. Youngster Eno Benjamin (above, right) is the top returning ball carrier, averaging 6.2 yards on 23 carries in his debut campaign, and he has the frame to convert to an every-down capacity.
Likens coordinated a Louisiana Tech offense in 2012 that showcased record-setting running back Kenneth Dixon, a player with similar traits to Benjamin. The possibility of Arizona State's offense emulating that look, which was among the nation's most prolific in 2012, begins with these spring workouts.
4. Finding new sack creators
The aggressive pursuit of sacks under Arizona State's old coaching staff might not be the philosophy of the Sun Devils’ new staff. In Gonzales’ lone season as defensive coordinator at San Diego State, the Aztecs ranked No. 79 nationally in the category, as opposed to No. 19 in 2017, with an emphasis placed more on run containment.
Still, generating pressure in the backfield will be of importance to the Sun Devils in 2018, and they must find playmakers capable of filling the holes left by departing leaders. Hard-hitting D.J. Calhoun is gone from the linebacker corps, along with 2017 breakout star Alani Latu. Defensive lineman JoJo Wicker opted for early entry into the NFL draft, and turned some heads at February's Scouting Combine.
This trio was responsible for more than half (18.5 of 36) of Arizona State's sacks a season ago, and leave considerable voids along the front seven.
5. Special teams
Placekicker Zane Gonzalez left Arizona State following the 2016 season as one of the best specialists in college football history. He cast a long shadow in the desert, which freshman Brandon Ruiz stepped into. Ruiz connected on 70.4 percent of his field goal attempts in his first season replacing Gonzalez, a success rate that trailed any of his predecessor's four seasons as the Sun Devils’ kicker.
Having that near-automatic facet (Gonzalez connected on 92 percent of his field goals in 2016) gave ASU an added dimension. Once the Sun Devils crossed midfield, it felt like they were almost assured points.