ASU football faces the challenge of starting again

The Sun Devils will have several obstacles to overcome when the football season returns Saturday after three canceled games

As ASU football head coach Herm Edwards put it, it feels like his team is “opening the season again.” 

After a 28-27 down-to-the-wire loss at USC in Week 1, the coronavirus hit the Sun Devils hard, leading to three weeks of no games. 

But ASU is preparing for an opponent again. This Saturday the team will host the UCLA in Tempe — the Bruins have already played four games this year (2-2). 

"We’re confident about playing a game, we’re excited about playing a game," Edwards said. "We haven’t played in a month, it’s kind of like our first game."

Not only was ASU unable to play on Saturdays, but players couldn’t practice together or go to the facility.

Offensive coordinator Zak Hill, whose scheme had Sun Devil defenders on their toes throughout the offseason, said he'll have to balance Saturday's game plan between evolving it from Week 1 and not overcomplicating it for his own players. 

"You have to be smart with how much you put on the kids," Hill said. "It's like you're starting over again and jumping back into it." 

Co-defensive coordinator Antonio Pierce mentioned the team has had a great week of practice ahead of its return, calling it "training camp part three." But, how ASU holds up physically in a game after such a long hiatus won’t be seen until Saturday. 

"We keep hitting the reset button around here," Pierce said. "We are not going to know what kind of shape we are in until Saturday night."

Pierce said these next games will also determine where the team stands entering spring ball in preparation for what could be a more normal season in 2021.

Defenders who talked to the media this week, including redshirt junior linebacker Kyle Soelle and redshirt sophomore defensive lineman Michael Matus, talked about how they stayed in shape during the hiatus, which included them running in their neighborhoods, stretching and sticking to strength coach Joe Connolly’s prepared regiment. 

But, Edwards is concerned about the conditions of his team after such a break. 

"I think anytime you’ve been off this long and haven’t played, it’s back to getting into football shape, and conditioning is a big part of it," Edwards said. "You see a lot of these guys that are able to come back, and their football stamina is not like it would be. When you start playing football games, you get into this football mode, you get in shape as you play. And so now all of the sudden, we had a little time off, so we got to find our way back into that football shape."

Matus said the team went through film and "mental reps" on Zoom over the past few weeks, similar to the summer and after the Pac-12 initially canceled its season. He commented that his improvements as a player are more substantial when he is on the field, but seconded Pierce's statement that the team has practiced well since returning this week, in spite of the time off. 

While Edwards displayed frustration of going through eight months of protocols without issue before facing a major setback early in the season, he and his players expressed how ready they are to “turn the page" with only three games left.

"We've still got games to play, games to win, that's a big mindset on the team," Soelle said. "We have to finish the season and show that we're a good football team."

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