Herm Edwards and the ASU football coaching staff pioneered a defensive transformation. Now, the unit must meet expectations.
There are plenty requirements for a college football player to meet. But at Arizona State, a select few don’t matter:
Your experience. Where you played. Who recruited you. And above all – your age.
The message became a rallying cry for coach Herm Edwards during his first full recruiting cycle. On Dec. 19’s early signing day, the program welcomed 17 new players, including three quarterbacks and eight prospects from the coveted state of California.
The bottom line?
You have a chance to play, right away. If you’re the best in practice, you’ll play on Saturday’s.
And they meant it, too.
In 2018, ASU engineered one of its program’s biggest defensive overhauls. First-year coordinator Danny Gonzales brought Rocky Long‘s 3-3-5 scheme from San Diego State, a system he told azcentral.com that “affords you the ability to do more with less.”
By less, he didn’t mean weaker pieces.
"“Why I say that is, we can get every traditional defense that everybody’s ever run, we just do it a thousand different ways so people have a really hard time targeting where we’re going to be and where we’re coming from.”"
With senior linebackers Koron Crump and Jay Jay Wilson returning, it was expected Gonzales would rely on veteran leadership. Instead, much like his scheme, he pursued the nontraditional by starting three freshmen, a number that grew to six by the end of the year.
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Outside linebacker Merlin Robertson led the project from the jump. Finishing with a team-leading 77 tackles, 8.5 tackles for a loss, 5.0 sacks and an interception, he was named the Pac-12 Freshman Defensive Player of the Year, becoming the third Sun Devil to receive the honor.
Safety Aashari Crosswell, a product of Antonio Pierce’s player lineage from Long Beach Poly High School in California, was also honored as an All-Pac-12 Honorable Mention. He finished as ASU’s leader in interceptions (4), the most by any Sun Devil player since Kareem Orr in 2015.
Linebacker Darien Butler and defensive lineman Tyler Johnson made perhaps the two most important plays of the season – a forced fumble in the first half of a win at USC, and a fumble recovery in the midst of a 19-point comeback against Arizona.
Collectively, the results were astronomical. By season’s end, the Sun Devils improved in several categories from 2017, including points per game (32.8 to 25.5), yards allowed (451.4 to 405.4) and turnovers per game (1.3 to 1.6).
Under previous coordinators Phil Bennett, Keith Patterson and Chris Ball, the Sun Devils ranked outside the nation’s top-75 for points allowed in each the previous four seasons. In one year under Gonzales, it ranked in the top-50 for the first time since 2012.
Over the past few weeks, that success has become a calling card for recruiting. Going forward, it needs to be the team’s identity.
Sophomore slumps are among the biggest curses in sports. It happened to Miami linebacker Shaquille Quarterman in 2017. Defensive back Marcelino Ball struggled in his second season at Indiana. It can occur on offense, too, as Arizona quarterback Anu Solomon couldn’t ever regain the same success he had in his breakthrough 2014 season.
Under Gonzales’ tutelage, it doesn’t seem likely. Even after ASU’s defense would make game-saving plays, he would criticize his unit as ‘not good enough,’ imploring them to improve from missed tackles and blown coverage.
But it is a possibility. And for the freshmen who’ve had much achievement, motivation must come beyond one great season.
There are arrivals that should provide an extra impact. On Signing Day, ASU scored the additions of defensive back Jordan Clark, Keon and Kejuan Markham from Long Beach Poly and Saguaro HS athlete Connor Soelle.
The pieces will be necessary to fill the impending holes of Demonte King, Jalen Harvey and Dasmond Tautalatasi. Still looking for additions to the defensive line, Renell Wren must also be accounted for.
Having tasted success, the defense must stand tall in 2019 and beyond. If they do, we’ll know this transition worked.