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ASU football finishes year one of Dillingham era with more questions than answers

There is a lot of that work lies ahead for Dillingham and ASU this offseason, including fundraising and recruiting

Saturday capped the season for Sun Devil football with a loss, falling to the University of Arizona 23-59 in the Territorial Cup. The season was a learning curve for the team and its fans as a new coach tried to preach his football culture to his disciples, a slew of new players.

So, what was learned from the growing pains?

Their final record emulates these pains, going 3-9 overall and 2-7 in their conference, placing tenth in the Pac-12. This may not be a signal of growth to many, but head coach Kenny Dillingham insists the culture he's implementing off the field makes a difference. 

"When (juniors and seniors) come back and watch us play in two years, three years, 20 years, (they're) gonna get to say, 'We were the ones who had to drag people to be there five minutes early ... We were the ones who had to say yes, you have to sit somebody because he was late to something,'" Dillingham said. "Even though the outside world won’t appreciate it, I do."

Dillingham said he's proud of the junior and senior class for setting this culture, even if the outside world can’t see it. The players seem to be soaking in Dillingham's message, with some older players saying they believe in him.

"I've been a part of five different cultures, and this is the first culture I genuinely bought into," graduate linebacker Tre Brown said. "I love this culture. I wouldn't trade any place for where I am right now."

Now, it’s up to the younger players to carry that onward. 

The team will see the departure of 16 players in their senior class, many of whom were staples on the Sun Devil defense. Senior defensive back Chris Edmonds tallied 39 solo tackles, making a defensively menacing appearance in every game this season. Brown follows close behind with 29 solo tackles and three tackles for losses, only missing one game due to injury. 

Graduate defensive lineman Dashaun Mallory, redshirt junior defensive back Ro Torrence, and redshirt senior defensive back Demetries Ford are also saying goodbye, leaving the team with over 20 solo tackles and at least one tackle for loss as a farewell gift.

The defense was the backbone of the team this season, with minimal impact from injuries and consistently constructing a strong front against opponents when the offense failed to put up points. While they'll have some gaps to fill, the defense still has a strong presence with leaders such as junior defensive lineman B.J. Green and redshirt freshman linebacker Tate Romney

Graduate kicker Dario Longhetto and graduate punter Josh Carlson are also departing, leaving a dent in the special teams and punting arena. 

Some notable players on offense aren't graduating. Freshman quarterback Jaden Rashada saw playing time during the Territorial Cup for the first time since week two when he was sidelined due to injury. In those three games, Rashada had 485 passing yards and four touchdowns to kickstart his collegiate career. Having only played three games, he will be allowed to keep his redshirt for this season.

Redshirt junior wide receiver Elijhah Badger, redshirt junior tight end Jalin Conyers, and junior runningback Cam Skattebo are all key offensive players who aren't graduating either. However, Badger may enter the NFL draft rather than return to ASU. Skattebo, arguably ASU's most valuable and versatile player, will likely return to Tempe next season. 

The Sun Devil's Swiss army knife finished with 788 yards and nine touchdowns on the ground, 286 receiving yards with one touchdown catch, and even 130 yards passing and a touchdown pass.

Next steps for the program

The next few weeks will be paramount in building Dillingham's vision for his alma mater. Heading into his second campaign with the Sun Devils, Dillingham emphasized the importance of getting the community and boosters on board heading into another offseason of building. 

"I'm gonna go fundraise because that's what the name of the game is nowadays,” Dillingham said. "The staff's going to go out and recruit players. I’ll go out and recruit some players, but I’m recruiting people who want this place to win as well, and that has nothing to do with players."

So far, the alarm that Dillingham sounded has been heard loud and clear throughout the Valley. The Sun Angel Collective saw its members more than double the day following the resignation of former ASU Athletic Director Ray Anderson, breaking the record for single-day sign-ups in the collective's young history. 

READ MORE: Ray Anderson steps down as ASU Athletic Director

Getting the boosters back on board was huge, especially considering a chunk of them were allocating their funds towards a campaign to get Anderson fired rather than the athletic program. 

Another big focus for the ASU coaching staff will be the transfer portal. As players begin to make decisions on their futures at schools around the country, the full scope of possibilities for portal additions and subtractions will become much clearer. Still, it's an avenue ASU will no doubt look to take advantage of. 

With 78 new faces coming into the team this season, the list of additions will likely look much smaller than in years past. As for the players sticking around Tempe, the direction of Dillingham's blueprint has his squad ready to continue building this offseason.

"Coach Dillingham and everybody's doing a great job," Conyers said. "There's no one that's not bought in. If you're not bought in, then they're free to leave, you know, that's kinda the mentality we're going in with."

Edited by Vinny DeAngelis, Walker Smith and Caera Learmonth.

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