ASU Football: Sun Devils look to balance Senior Day with divisional race

With Senior Day looming, ASU football hopes distractions won’t avert expectations in their quest for a Pac-12 South title.

The emotions of Senior Day will saturate the dry heat of Sun Devil Stadium come Saturday afternoon. But if Arizona State doesn’t win – then why celebrate?

“You got all their parents and the stuff that they do at the beginning of the game down on the field,” said defensive coordinator Danny Gonzales. “You got all the talk about the Pac-12 South.

“All that stuff doesn’t mean anything if we lose.”

Saturday’s home finale marks the beginning of the end for ASU’s seniors. As they leave the locker room, pay homage to Pat Tillman‘s statue and grace the field of maroon and gold, everything will soon be done for the final time.

The moment, however difficult, is one that cannot be prepared for. The present must take over.

Even with his life indulged in football, Herm Edwards doesn’t know what the day will bring for a head coach.

“I have to go through it,” he said. “It’s an important day for the families. I will address them and thank them for allowing their son to attend this university.

“Most of these kids I did not recruit. They were here before I got here, but I’ve gotten to know them. I respect them and respect what they have to do.”

What the Sun Devils can prepare for, however, is a football game. The opponent is UCLA, a team that’s had more downs than ups in their first year under Chip Kelly.

After an 0-5 start, the Bruins scored back-to-back wins over California and Arizona, as offensive weapons Dorian Thompson-Robinson and Joshua Kelley flashed brilliance a la Darron Thomas and LaMichael James from Kelly’s Oregon days.

The success, however, was short-lived. The Bruins have since met their victories with back-to-back blowout losses, ending their bowl eligibility and kicking Rose Bowl hopes to another year.

In spite of the struggles, ASU’s coaching staff has been preparing for “their hardest game of the season,” a test that begins with preparing for two quarterbacks in Thompson-Robinson and former Michigan standout Wilton Speight.

The pair have split snaps in recent weeks, and in their last two games sharing the field, each contributed a touchdown while exceeding 100 yards passing.

“They [UCLA] won’t relax – they won’t think they’re not good,” Gonzales said. “It has not affected our kids. I don’t think there’s a single guy on our football team that thinks it’s going to be easy.”

As memorable as the game could become, it will certainly bring difficulty, especially to standout seniors Manny Wilkins, Demonte King, Renell Wren and Jalen Harvey.

Wilkins characterized his five years at ASU as “the story of a boy turning into a man,” where he’s seen four offensive coordinators, two head coaches and plenty of memories to choose from.

“It’s going to be very emotional,” he said. “I grew up tremendously here, so this place will forever be special to me. And I know when I walk out that tunnel for the last time, it’s going to be hard to comprehend it.

“I look forward to giving Sun Devil nation and my teammates, my coaches, this program, this university a win my last time here.”

Like Edwards, Gonzales didn’t have much time to acquaint with the seniors. But along the way have been unique memories, including stories where King proved his worth in team camp, Harvey’s successful transition to safety and working to make Wren one of the most successful nose tackles in the country.

As brawny and rugged he may be, Gonzales is sure to reflect with fondness on those that set the foundation for his system.

“They believed in what we were trying to build from the very beginning,” he said. “There was no push back from any of them, which is very uncommon when you have a coaching change.

“That group has been awesome.”

In a season full of turns, Saturday will celebrate the leaders that never caved in. Signing off from Sun Devil Stadium won’t be a departure, but a commemoration, for their service.

But there is still work to be done. That alone could make the memory much more special.

“We [the seniors] haven’t talked once about senior night,” Wilkins said. “All we’ve talked about is – ‘beat UCLA.’ Everybody has to continue to do their job. If everybody on the field does their job, we’ll be successful.”

All quotes in this article were obtained firsthand by Devils in Detail unless otherwise noted.