ASU football‘s defense has improved leaps and bounds this season with a pair of freshmen, Merlin Robertson and Darian Butler, leading the charge.
Heading into the 2018 season, newly anointed Arizona State head coach Herm Edwards and his staff knew they would be particularly young on the defensive side of the ball.
In what was an injury-riddled season on defense, first-year defensive coordinator Danny Gonzales started as many as four true freshmen on the defensive side of the ball.
This amount is often unheard of at a Power-5 school such as Arizona State with many players simply redshirting or playing in a rotation.
While this may be less than idle, the results were there never the less. The team improved their defensive marks in all three major defensive categories in total defense, passing defense, and rushing defense from a year ago.
The Sun Devils marks from 2017 to 2018 went up from 107th in total defense to 68th, made the biggest leap in passing defense from 199th to 78th, and 79th in rushing defense to 61st.
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These marks can still be considered just a little above average, but they show something much deeper about this young defensive unit. They show growth in a unique system brought in by Gonzales, and the ability to only get better.
Despite the young defense, the Sun Devils lost all five of their games on the year by seven points or less in large part due to their defensive unit. A unit that was led by, of course, a true freshman.
Freshman linebacker and recently announced Pac-12 Defensive Freshman of the Year Merlin Robertson was the heart and soul of what will be an intriguing defense to watch moving forward.
Robertson finished the regular season leading the team in tackles (77), sacks (5), and tackles for loss (8.5) in route to his conference honors.
The freshman was just the third Sun Devil to win the honor as he joined Vontaze Burfict and Junior Onyeali in the exclusive fraternity.
Robertson was part of a linebacking core that is key in Gonzales 3-3-5 scheme that has a linebacker blitzing on almost every play. Joining Robertson in this linebacking core was fellow true freshman Darian Butler who also made an impact in his inaugural collegiate season.
Butler finished the season third in tackles (60) while also coming in a close second to Robertson in tackles for loss (8) alongside two fumble recoveries. The pair of linebackers offered Sun Devils fans and coaches alike a glimpse into the future of the potential that ASU possesses.
This potential has already shown to be some of the best in the conference with the selection of Robertson as freshman defensive player of the year and will continue to get better as both Butler and Robertson gain more experience.
The foundational season for the duo of freshmen will take its next step as the pair will have a chance to participate in their first bowl game in Sin City as ASU takes on Fresno State.
Butler and Robertson will be tasked with limiting a talented Fresno State offense that averages 420 yards per game along with nearly 35 points per game. This performance will be more than just another game for the duo. It will be much more than that.
This game will another stepping stone in what has been an already successful freshmen season for the twosome.