ASU football head coach Herm Edwards knew how difficult this job would be when he took over in Tempe almost two years ago. He was well aware his labor may not bear meaningful fruit for quite some time, acknowledging that college football’s greatest programs are not built overnight.
Yet the success of Edwards’ first season on campus, combined with the early flashes of excitement from this year’s team, has created a facade surrounding the Sun Devils.
With key pieces from last year’s team departed and a true freshman quarterback at the helm, few expected a team that would balloon to 5-1 and spend five weeks in the AP Top 25 rankings. Yet, that’s exactly where this underclassmen-heavy roster found itself just a few weeks ago.
Instead, some prepared for a performance much more akin to the Sun Devils' last two games, a pair of disappointing losses to the Utah Utes and UCLA Bruins. The contests exposed a number of flaws throughout the team, ranging from the expected to the confounding.
As the season seemingly teeters between the best and worst-case scenarios, the defeats serve as a stark reminder of just how far the team has to go, and the magnitude of the task lying ahead of Edwards.
“There’s a process to it, it’s hard and it’s tedious,” Edwards said of the team’s uneven progression. “You’ve got to enjoy the journey through the process. The final result never shows up right away.”
That final result, Edwards explained Monday at a press conference, is made easier by the identification of freshman quarterback Jayden Daniels as the Sun Devils' long-term starter. His progression through ASU's final four games will likely be the focal point of the team as it fights for bowl eligibility.
While offensive coordinator Rob Likens would certainly like to swap the outcomes of ASU's last two games, he is the first to recognize the potential lessons learned from a rainy day in Salt Lake City.
“Leadership is built-in adverse times,” Likens explained. “It’s easy to be a leader when it’s sunny and 70 degrees outside. Anybody can do that. It’s hard when everything is challenging all around you.”
These lessons are not lost on Daniels, whom teammates observe has forged his own unique style of leadership. While his predecessors may have relied on more theatrical forms of motivation, Daniels instead opts for something a bit more subdued.
“Remain the same and just stay how I am,” Daniels said on his leadership style. “You’re going to win some, you’re going to lose some, but it’s how we bounce back.”
This week, bouncing back stands as a tall task against the visiting USC Trojans. Despite last week’s 32-point beatdown at the hands of the No. 7 Oregon Ducks, the Trojans possess both enough talent and intrigue to inspire a week’s worth of motivated practices.
“Guys are just wanting to get the bad taste out of their mouth,” Likens said of the team’s mood. “You look for the older, experienced guys to do that and lead these guys in the right way.”
One of those experienced veterans is redshirt junior wide receiver Frank Darby, a vocal presence both inside and outside the locker room. An infectious personality, Darby feels some responsibility to keep spirits high as the team looks to get back to its winning ways.
“I feel like that’s my role on this team, to try to push everybody up,” Darby said. “Right now my whole mindset is to try and get into some of the players, try to tell them, 'let’s keep going, let’s finish this.”'
As Darby later explained, a respectable 9-3 record is still very much in reach for ASU. The biggest improvements necessary for ASU to return to the win column likely lie on the defensive side of the ball and, according to defensive coordinator Danny Gonzales, with one aspect in particular.
“Third down has been our kryptonite right now,” Gonzales said. “That’s the difference between us being good on defense and not right now.”
Even as ASU aims to distance themselves from a brutal trip west, the undeniable stench of losing remains. The humiliating nature of the UCLA loss still looms large, a loss that sophomore safety Aashari Crosswell said never should have happened.
As the defense works to atone for its dreadful performance, Crosswell knows it’s time to hold his teammates to the highest of standards.
“After you take an 'L,' people around you, your teammates, coaches, they show their true colors,” Crosswell said. “You're going to see who’s really about it and who’s not, who’s with you and who’s against you. That’s what we’re doing right now.”