Former NFL coach and ESPN analyst Herm Edwards is the new face of the Sun Devils, who are picked to finish last in the Pac-12 South Division
Arizona State is coming off a season in which it defeated Oregon and Washington, reclaimed the Territorial Cup from rival Arizona, finished second in the Pac-12 South Division and qualified for a bowl game.
That wasn’t enough for coach Todd Graham, who posted a 46-32 record over six seasons with one Pac-12 championship game appearance, to keep his job.
The Sun Devils want to play to win the game. Or at least more of them.
Herm Edwards, who hasn’t been on a college sideline in 29 years and didn’t coach at any level the past nine years, was hired as the program’s new coach in December after Graham was fired immediately after the regular season.
“I didn’t really know what to think just because there was so much going on,” wide receiver N’Keal Harry said of Arizona State athletic director Ray Anderson, a former sports agent, shaking things up by luring his former client away from television. “We had just beat U of A the night before. It was really a shock, especially with all the coaching changes I’ve already had.
“But I trusted our athletic director, I trusted their whole staff and I feel like Herm can really make a difference.”
The arrival of Edwards, who most recruits only know as a popular ESPN pro football analyst, a job he held since 2009, has been met with skepticism.
Arizona State is picked to finish last in the South Division and was the only team not to receive a first-place vote in the Pac-12 preseason media poll.
“I’ve never had a job, I’ve always been involved in football — playing football, coaching football, talking about football,” Edwards said at the Pac-12 media day event on Los Angeles. “That’s what I’ve done, that’s what I do. It’s not like it’s something new to me. I think sometimes when you step away from it people think, ‘Well, he’s out of football.’
“Out of football maybe on the sidelines, but mentally you’re never out of football.”
Edwards was an NFL head coach for eight seasons, posting a 54-74 overall record with the New York Jets (2001-05) and Kansas City Chiefs (2006-08).
The loquacious rookie Pac-12 coach noted that he was recruited by legendary Arizona State coach Frank Kush out of high school and played in the Pac-8.
Edwards began his college career at California before a stellar NFL career (1977-86) spent mostly with the Philadelphia Eagles. His coaching career began at San Jose State, where he coached defensive backs from 1987 to 1989 before spending the past three decades playing, coaching or analyzing the NFL.
“My biggest concern is getting the guys that have just come in, the new players, the tempo of practice. They haven’t felt that yet,” Edwards said when asked what his biggest concern is entering fall camp. “You can already tell they don’t understand the tempo of just running with those guys and lifting. It was kind of shocking, because when you’re talking with them, ‘Yeah, coach, I’ve been running and I’ve been lifting.’
“And I’m chuckling, just like a rookie coming into the NFL. Yeah, I’ve been working, then all of a sudden the first day you go, ‘Oh, they’re a little bit different.’”
Rob Likens is the program’s fourth offensive coordinator in as many seasons, but the new staff inherits several established standouts at key positions who are familiar with the tempo of the Pac-12.
Senior quarterback Manny Wilkins enters his third season as the starter. In 2017, he passed for 3,270 yards and 20 touchdowns and had the sixth-best passer rating (142.6) in the FBS.
This season Wilkins should enjoy better protection. The offensive line, which allowed 41 sacks last season, returns four starters and adds left tackle Casey Tucker, a Stanford graduate transfer.
“I think what he is trying to do is instill in our program just being more professional,” Wilkins said of Edwards. “He came in here and he has treated us like adults. There’s not really a whole lot of rules or anything — you can’t do this, you can’t do that — it’s kind of a respect that you’re going to get out of something what you put in.
“As long as we continue to work hard, the rest will take care of itself.”
Harry, a 6-foot-4, 213-pound junior, had 82 receptions for 1,142 yards and eight touchdowns last season.
“We’re going to be driven by our offense. There is a veteran presence over there,” Edwards said. “Obviously, you have a quarterback like Manny Wilkins, you have a receiver like N’Keal, you’ve got some offensive linemen with some veteran presence. I think we’ve brought in a good core of running backs.
“They get it. They know how to play over there.”
Edwards said the defense remains a work in progress, but the cupboard is not bare.
Cornerback Chase Lucas was the only freshman to be named first- or second-team all-Pac-12 last season, linebacker Koron Crump is one of the conference’s most talented pass rushers and senior nose tackle Renell Wren is an NFL prospect
The Sun Devils’ schedule includes difficult nonconference games against Michigan State and San Diego State ahead of the Pac-12 opener on Sept. 22 at preseason favorite Washington.
Season one of the Edwards Experiment at Arizona State also includes road games at USC, Oregon and Arizona.
“Of course you hear about it just because it’s all over social media, it’s all around us, but at the end of the day I’m real good at just shaking that kind of stuff off,” Harry said of the low external expectations. “It’s not going to matter when the season starts. Right now the goal is just to prove everybody wrong.”
ARIZONA STATE SUN DEVILS
Coach: Herm Edwards, first year
Key players: QB Manny Wilkins, WR N’Keal Harry, RB Eno Benjamin, CB Chase Lucas, LB Koron Crump, NT Renell Wren
2017 record: 7-6 overall, 6-3 conference
2018 projection: The Sun Devils are picked to finish sixth (last) in the South Division in the Pac-12 preseason media poll
Nonconference opponents: Texas-San Antonio, Michigan State, San Diego State
Plays Oregon: Nov. 17 in Eugene
Full schedule: Sept. 1 vs. UTSA, Sept. 8 vs. Michigan State, Sept. 15 at San Diego State, Sept. 22 at Washington, Sept. 29 vs. Oregon State, Oct. 6 at Colorado, Oct. 18 vs. Stanford, Oct. 27 at USC, Nov. 3 vs. Utah, Nov. 10 vs. UCLA, Nov. 17 at Oregon, Nov. 24 vs. Arizona
Sunday’s preview: Colorado