At long last, ASU football's extended offseason is over, as the Sun Devils will kick off their season on Thursday night at home against Southern Utah University. The offseason brought an NCAA investigation of recruiting violations within the program and other distractions, but now the Sun Devils are excited to turn their focus to the field.
ASU head coach Herm Edwards, who is entering his fourth season with the program, said at a press conference Monday that season opening nights can be sloppy and unpredictable but can mean a lot in terms of establishing an identity for the season.
"We are excited about playing football man, we don't know what to anticipate," Edwards said. "I've always said that you prepare for an opponent, but it's really about you. It's what type of team you will be."
In 2020, ASU went 2-2, but it was a difficult season to assess given the impacts of COVID-19 on the program. After ASU lost their opener against USC, 28-27, the next three games on the schedule were canceled due to COVID-19 related reasons within the ASU program.
Edwards is optimistic for the outcome of the season but prepared for some early-season sloppiness.
"At times it won't look pretty. Again, it's the first day, the first game, so we got to deal with all of that," Edwards said. "We are going to find out a lot about things after the first game and you say 'you know what, we gotta tweak this.'"
In his second season with ASU, offensive coordinator Zak Hill is excited to finally see people in the stands at Sun Devil Stadium after a season without fans in 2020.
"I think our fan base is excited just to get back out there, fill the stadium up again, and feel that energy of game day," Hill said. "Last year was just so different, you know, going out there and playing games in empty stadiums, and you just lacked the energy and the vibe."
Rachaad White, a redshirt senior who transferred to ASU from a junior college in 2020, didn't get to play in front of fans in his first season with the program.
"You can't see because I got a mask on but if you can hear it in my voice I'm cheesing. Now with fans here, it felt like so long, so we are gonna be ready Thursday," White said. "You kinda think about (the fans) as a player, we all think about it, but when you get out there we are so zoned in, so locked in that we have natural instincts and tune it out."
White is part of a backfield that features sophomore DeaMonte Trayanum and redshirt freshman Daniyel Ngata, who were both impressive for the Sun Devils last season. The trio is expected to shoulder a large offensive load again this season.
White said the ASU backfield shares an unselfish, egalitarian mindset and that "you are only as strong as your weakest link."
Junior quarterback Jayden Daniels is entering his second year in Hill's system. According to Hill, his relationship with Daniels has only continued to progress.
"He's texting me thoughts, and we're kinda having that dialogue and feel good about the game plan," Hill said. "There's just more communication nowadays with the meetings, whether it's out of football or just in my office. He understands what we're trying to do on offense."
White echoed Hill's comments on the progression of the ASU offense's leader.
"What I love about Jayden is that he's got the same mindset as me," White said. "He does all the right things that a quarterback should do, he's just that next-level leader."
Defensively, ASU returns a veteran-laden secondary which features graduate student cornerbacks Chase Lucas and Jack Jones as well as senior safety Evan Fields and graduate student safety DeAndre Pierce. The defensive backs, which was one of the best units in the Pac-12 last year, is likely to be a strong suit again for the Sun Devils.
The NCAA's rule to give players an extra year of eligibility due to COVID-19 has benefited the Sun Devils in a major way as players like Lucas, Jones and Fields were all able to return to school for another season.
ASU's opponent, Southern Utah, is coming off a game where they were blown out by San José State, 45-14. ASU is favored heavily against Southern Utah, but Hill plans to treat the game like any other and utilize ASU's offensive talent to its full extent.
"My philosophy is we're not gonna hold back," Hill said. "Every game we want to be explosive we want to have fun, we want to be creative and utilize what we've got."
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