It will be an uphill battle to kick off the Kenny Dillingham era, but the vibes in Tempe are in a much better place heading into 2023 than 2022.
Dillingham left his cozy offensive coordinator job at Oregon to come rebuild his alma mater, knowing the potential of a bowl ban was on the horizon. So when program leadership dropped the bomb of a self-imposed bowl ban on the brink of football season, the 33-year-old Dillingham stayed on brand, leading with extreme confidence and passion
Despite the abruptness of the bowl ban, Dillingham said it is time to move forward.
"To Sun Devil nation, move on. Just move on. Let's show support for the team because that's what this is about," Dillingham said in his Aug. 28 press conference. "This is about the athletes. It's not about me (and) it's not about anyone else in the organization."
The new coach — youngest coach in the FBS — put it bluntly when asked about how he will further develop young talent after losing valuable bowl practices.
"I couldn't even begin to process going into a game without the full intent of putting everything to win the game," Dillingham said in the same press conference. "That's what we're about. We're about responding to adversity and being successful, and that's being the very best we can be every single day with everything we do."
The Dillingham era will be assembled with a completely fresh staff, with only Shaun Aguano returning from the 2022 staff as the running backs coach. Former Cal Poly coach Beau Baldwin will handle offensive coordinator duties, while Brian Ward, former defensive coordinator at Washington State, will call plays on defense for ASU.
The Sun Devils will welcome 78 new faces to the team this season due to Dillingham’s diligent recruiting. In the midst of all these new players, a few familiar faces will contribute to this season's offensive success.
Redshirt junior tight end Jalin Conyers had a promising second half last season that will be expected to spill over into this season. Conyers had 228 receiving yards after the catch in the last six games of last season. He finished with 170 total yards after contact, placing him fifth out of all FBS tight ends.
Redshirt junior wide receiver Elijhah Badger will be another valuable asset for the team, but he'll have to wait until the second half of Thursday's game to show his worth. Badger, along with his teammate Will Shaffer, will be unable to play in the first half of Thursday’s game due to a misconduct penalty he received during the last game of the previous season. Badger is expected to build off of last season, when he finished with 70 receptions, 25 missed tackles forced and 24 explosive receptions going 15+ yards.
The team's offensive efforts will rely heavily on one new face in particular: freshman quarterback Jaden Rashada, who was named starting QB last week. He’s the second true freshman in program history to start in the season opener, but his performance in practices has been promising.
Baldwin praised Rashada for his ability to utilize the whole field so that the offense has more freedom and firepower. He also brings selflessness to the table, which the team responds to in an exciting manner.
"I got a lot of passion, and (I know) that things won’t be perfect," said Rashada on Aug. 23 on facing adversity during plays. "Just knowing how to deal with losses and wins during plays, and just keeping your head on straight and staying level with it."
The Sun Devil defense will have its work cut out for them this season.
Having one Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback on the schedule, USC’s Caleb Williams would be enough to keep Ward, the defensive coordinator, up at night. This season, however, he could be facing the entire group of finalists, with Washington's Michael Penix Jr. and Oregon’s Bo Nix. According to BetMGM, all three are top-10 in preseason odds to win the trophy, with Williams the favorite to repeat.
The good thing for ASU’s defense? They come in completely healthy. Not so good? The amount of inexperience in the front seven.
In the box, two redshirt freshmen are atop the depth chart to begin the season, defensive tackle Tristian Monday and linebacker Tate Romney. Leadership from junior defensive end B.J. Green will be vital. The versatile pass rusher had 11 QB hits last season, coming in fourth among FBS interior linemen.
The Sun Devil secondary should be improved from a season ago. With returning cornerbacks redshirt junior Ro Torrance and redshirt senior Jordan Clark, plus senior safety Chris Edmonds, the Devils have well-established voices.
"I'm not necessarily worried about the bowl game of the championship," Clark said after practice Aug. 27. "We play all those same teams this year and I'm just ready to play football and compete."
Redshirt senior cornerback Demetries Ford had quite the 2022 season at Austin Peay. The incoming transfer was named 2022 Associated Press Third Team FCS All-America and was the third highest graded FCS corner in the country, with an opponent completion percentage against Ford finishing at a measly 43.5% rate.
Another transfer to look out for is redshirt senior safety Shamari Simmons. The 6-foot safety recorded three interceptions and 63 total tackles in 2022, including a career-best 12 tackles against Alabama as well as two pass breakups.
Another aspect of the Dillingham era is the presence of Charlie Ragle, who was named the assistant head coach and will foster the program's special teams unit. Ragle has been a long-standing presence in Arizona football, bringing to ASU his experience from the high school sphere and from the University of Arizona, where he worked at the start of his collegiate career.
The special team consists mostly of a veteran group of players, among them graduate transfer punter Josh Carlson. Carlson is bringing punting experience from his career at New Mexico State. Graduate students Slater Zellers and Dario Longhetto will also add experience to the unit.
Kickoff is at 7 p.m. MST at Mountain America Stadium. The game will be also broadcasted on Pac-12 Networks and ESPN 620 AM.
Edited by Vinny Deangelis, Alexis Waiss and Caera Learmonth.