ASU football’s New Leadership Model as laid out by Athletic Director Ray Anderson when he announced Herm Edwards as the next head coach is not off to a great start.
Its premise was to turn the program into a NFL model, built on the foundation of retaining the current coordinators and coaching staff.
Well, with the news that defensive coordinator Phil Bennett has decided to forego another season in Tempe, citing family reasons, and that offensive coordinator Billy Napier has taken the head coaching job at Louisiana-Lafayette, Anderson, and ASU, struck out.
And as far as the retention of the other assistant coaches, only two have confirmed to be a part of the new regime.
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“Assistant Head Coach and Running Backs Coach John Simon and Co-Offensive Coordinator and Wide Receivers Coach Rob Likens will be a part of my staff going forward,” Edwards said in a statement Friday.
As the top-man of this model, Edwards isn’t going to be doing too much coaching — that responsibility was largely going to fall on the coordinators and assistants.
Now, this plan will still march on without Bennett, Napier and whatever assistants leave, but as Anderson tried to justify and defend the firing of former head coach Todd Graham, he, before announcing his new model, explained very simply why keeping assistants is so important.
“(Junior quarterback) Manny Wilkins doesn’t need a fourth coordinator in four years,” Anderson said. “That will not be our direction.”
Well, by no choice of their own, ASU’s train was on the tracks churning that direction with no destination in sight.
It’s not just Wilkins who will be affected, either. Every member of the team who built continuity with their coordinators, had learned their playbook and had made improvements under that coordinator is going to, in some ways, be forced to start over.
Continuing with the train analogy that Anderson and Edwards laid out during the latter’s introductory press conference, there needs to be a bridge connecting the current players to the new era under Edwards.
But with the news that Likens is promoted to offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach, the bridge will not be completely blown up.
For the players that have seen their coaches whittle away one-by-one, promoting a popular coach to coordinator will make the transition of power to Edwards much smoother.
“It would be great [to see Likens become the offensive coordinator],” wide receiver Ryan Newsome said Friday. “I think a lot of the guys love coach Likens, his energy, what he brings to the team is what nobody brought.”
Although Likens lacks the NFL experience that seemed to be on the wish list for anyone that Anderson and Edwards bring into the program, he has comprehensive college experience, including three seasons in the Pac-12 (two as the assistant head coach and wide receivers coach at Cal in 2013 and 2014 and the previous season at ASU) and two years as the offensive coordinator of Kansas (2015-2016).
His lack of NFL experience may be a good thing too. Edwards hasn’t coached in college since he was the defensive backs coach of San Jose State in 1989 — he’s learning the college game and recruiting aspect on the fly.
As for the possible defensive coordinator replacement, Mike Jurecki of 98.7 FM Arizona’s Sports Station is reporting that ASU is going to offer the position to former Cardinals and Bills defensive backs coach Donnie Henderson.
Henderson has only coached two seasons in college, and teamed up with Edwards, there would be five total years of college coaching between them — both only working with defensive backs. Likens has been in the college coaching game since 1992, and would be the only one to have college coordinating experience if Henderson is hired.
Likens also already acts as the offensive coordinator during practice if Napier isn’t there. He did just that during Friday’s practice in the absence of Napier, and throughout the season he has put on the headset if Napier was sick or out recruiting as he was on Monday and Tuesday, according to freshman running back Eno Benjamin.
Benjamin has a close tie with Likens as well. Along with Likens calling him and leaving a voicemail while he was injured, telling him to trust God, he recruited Benjamin in high school while acting as Kansas’ OC.
“I remember one day he came he came to my school and it was pouring rain and he didn’t have an umbrella,” Benjamin said. “But he stood out there to watch me practice and so I’ve kind of been really close with that guy since, I think, my sophomore year of high school.”
Players and coaches alike rave about the energy and enthusiasm that Likens brings to the practice field and film room every day.
Wilkins said Friday that he would love for Likens to be named the offensive coordinator, saying that he “brings a different level of passion to this game.” And, for someone that Anderson specifically named as one of the main reasons to keep the coordinators in the first place to approve a possible candidate, that should go a long way.
With the public vitriol that came with the Edwards hiring and that state of disarray that the program seems to be in after the rocky start that the New Leadership model has gotten off to, a guy with the experience and love from the players that Likens has should be a perfect bridge into the Edwards era and can keep the continuity for a team that coaches are in flux.
All quotes in this article were obtained firsthand by Devils in Detail unless otherwise noted.