ASU Football: Defensive freshmen growing into veterans

TEMPE, AZ - OCTOBER 18: Aashari Crosswell #16 of the Arizona State Sun Devils tackles Bryce Love #20 of the Stanford Cardinal for a loss of yardage in the first quarter of the game at Sun Devil Stadium on October 18, 2018 in Tempe, Arizona. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
TEMPE, AZ - OCTOBER 18: Aashari Crosswell #16 of the Arizona State Sun Devils tackles Bryce Love #20 of the Stanford Cardinal for a loss of yardage in the first quarter of the game at Sun Devil Stadium on October 18, 2018 in Tempe, Arizona. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images) /

The ASU football defense began the year with a new coordinator in Danny Gonzales. As the season has progressed, new players have made a big impact as well.

When the word veteran is used in sports, most people think of a player who has been around for multiple years. But ASU has changed this assumption as freshmen continue to start games on the defensive side of the ball.

“I came out here. I worked hard,” freshman safety Aashari Crosswell said. “Everything is paying off right now. But they don’t consider me as a freshman anymore, they consider me as a veteran.”

Crosswell has played in every game for the Sun Devils in just his first year.

“Freshmen playing at this time of year, none of them, and I mean none of them have played this much football in one season,” defensive coordinator Danny Gonzales said.

At this point of the year, high school football players are most likely finished playing unless their team is contending for a state championship. The young men that enter college have not experienced the long duration of a college football season.

“They’re a little bit worn out, but I don’t think it’s affecting the way they’re playing,” Gonzales explained. “It won’t because we won’t allow it.”

Gonzales and his players agree on at least one thing for certain. It is the notion that excuses are not acceptable in the Sun Devil football program.

“We do a good job of preparing guys here,” senior defensive back and captain Demonte King said. “We don’t really do the whole ‘you’re a freshman’ excuse thing. Once you’re on the field, you’re a starter.”

The freshman players have accepted the challenge of being put in a position to compete at a high level.

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“It’s gonna help us. Whatever we have to do. The coaches have always been saying from day one, if we have to play freshmen, we’re going to do that,” Crosswell said. “I feel like all of us playing as a freshman is just getting us better, and we are making the team better. All of these freshman right now is making the team better as a unit.”

There’s no denying the claims. ASU’s defense has significantly improved in 2018 under Gonzales compared to the past few seasons when the Sun Devils were in the cellar among many statistical categories.

New faces like Crosswell, linebacker Merlin Robertson and Darien Butler just to name a few are performing at a veteran level that has exceeded any expectations. Their play is translating into a very successful season on the defensive side of the ball down the stretch.

“The goal was to come in and actually play and start,” Butler said. “That was the plan the whole time. When we actually get in there, we have to be ready no matter what. Come Saturdays, no one can save you. You have to be ready.”

The accomplishments of these emerging young players can also be attributed to the leadership provided by the upperclassmen. Their encouragement and support eases the mental challenges of playing college football for the more inexperienced guys.

“They expect you to play at the high level,” Butler said. “They just push us and tell us we can do it. They never doubt us or anything.”

Although there are high expectations, the defensive freshmen have given assurance to their leaders. That trait of reliability has gone a long way.

“We have seniors on this defense,” Butler said. “We have guys who have been here and they know what to do. It’s just making sure that they trust me enough to put me on the field with them. So, it’s really a big deal for me.”

It usually takes a while for players to mature into college football. But the readiness of the newcomers is what has surprised the most this season.

“This is a grown man game, and they’re grown men,” King said. “We understand what they can do. We think they are up to par to be on our defense, obviously, because they are playing.”

In ASU’s game versus UCLA, there were six freshmen on the field together at one point. Players like safety Cam Phillips stepped up in the moment.

“For an entire unit on the side of the ball, I’ve never been a part of something like that,” Gonzales said.

Phillips played 66 snaps against the Bruins according to Gonzales. He ended as the leading tackler for the Sun Devils.

The experience the freshmen are receiving is invaluable. It is a piece of the bigger picture for the program as they become more prepared for the future than ever before.

And the most important thing is it eliminates excuses, a major aspect for a team in the middle of a culture shift.

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All this ‘they’re young and they’re freshman’ and all of that stuff, those are excuses,” Gonzales said. “If you wanna be good, you don’t make excuses.”

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