Herm Edwards building ASU up with a strong running game, defense

Editor's note: The seventh in a series of articles previewing Pac-12 Conference football teams in reverse order of how they were projected to finish in the preseason conference media poll.

Arizona State continues to zig while others zag.

The program was externally mocked last year after hiring Herm Edwards, a former NFL head coach who had not been on a a college sideline since 1989, away from ESPN.

Edwards, 65, silenced many of his critics by guiding the Sun Devils, who were picked to finish last in the South Division, to a second-place finish behind Utah.

Arizona State, voted third in the South (tied with UCLA) in the 2019 preseason Pac-12 media poll, will continue to focus on running the ball and playing sound defense during Edwards’ second season.

The offense, which lost veteran quarterback Manny Wilkins to graduation and dynamic wide receiver N’Keal Harry to the NFL, will be in the sure hands of running back Eno Benjamin.

The 5-foot-10, 201-pound junior broke the school’s single-season rushing record and was fifth in the FBS with 1,642 yards last season. Woody Green had held the mark since rushing for 1,565 yards in 1972.

Benjamin also set an Arizona State record with 300 carries and rushed for 16 touchdowns.

“That’s the foundation of it all,” Edwards said. “Run game travels, good defense travels. Just put it in a suitcase and go. You can’t stop people from running the ball, if they really want to run it. Running is a will thing. You’ve got to want to do this.

“You have to be committed to it because running is ugly. It’s not, ‘Oh, minus one, hmm,’ the first thing the coordinator wants to do is throw it. Um, not so fast.”

 

The Sun Devils return an experienced offensive line that paved the way for Benjamin’s historic season and only allowed 16 sacks.

Remarkably, no Arizona State running back, including workhorse Benjamin, has lost a fumble since 2016, a streak of 902 consecutive carries and 32 games.

“Now you see fewer and fewer teams that are running the ball that way,” center Cohl Cabral said. “Stanford is known for that, and the Big Ten is very similar to that. I think that’s where we want to get to is being able to run, control the ball on the ground and not have to put the ball in the air 40 times a game just to hopefully put enough points up.”

The top storyline of Arizona State’s fall camp is still the quarterback competition. Junior Dillon Sterling-Cole is trying to fight off three freshmen — Jayden Daniels, Joey Yellen and West Linn export Ethan Long.

The candidate who demonstrates the best decision making will be rewarded with the starting job.

The Sun Devils only turned the ball over 11 times last season, which ranked fourth nationally, and outscored opponents 71-27 in points off turnovers.

“They all take care of the ball pretty well,” Benjamin said. “That’s one thing, if you want to win games you’ve got to be able to take care of the ball, and our quarterbacks do that well.”

Harry was a first-round pick of the New England Patriots after making 73 catches for 1,088 yards and nine touchdowns last season.

Arizona State returns seniors Brandon Aiyuk and Kyle Williams, who combined for 77 catches for 923 yards and five touchdowns.

“We don’t have N’Keal Harry, but as a whole group I feel the receivers can match the production that he made,” Benjamin said. “I think we’re going to be in pretty good shape.”

Under the direction of Edwards and defensive coordinator Danny Gonzales, the Sun Devils improved from 103rd in points allowed (32.8 ppg in 2017) to 53rd (25.5 ppg in 2018).

Longtime NFL head coach and defensive coordinator Marvin Lewis has joined the staff this season as a special adviser.

“We go way back, we have a 30-year history,” Edwards said of his friend Lewis. “So we have kind of the same ideas in how we implement that, some of the things he’s kind of changed in his head coaching career in the National Football League has kind of added into some of our practice plans.”

Arizona State was 4-1 in game decided by three points or less, despite breaking in a lot of young players on defense.

Merlin Robertson (77 tackles, 8.5 for loss), Aashari Crosswell (four interceptions) and Darien Butler (70 tackles) were the only true freshmen in the Pac-12 to play at least 700 defensive snaps last season.

Tyler Johnson had 20 quarterback pressures and four sacks over the last seven games as a redshirt freshman.

True freshmen and redshirt freshmen accounted for 34.7% of the team’s tackles last season.

“As the years go by, these guys become leaders, they become the foundation of the football team,” Edwards said. “That first group of guys that played last year are really kind of the emphasis of the youth that we’re moving to. I think this year the guys will witness a lot of other young players.”

Even with a new quarterback, Edwards’ team should be 2-0 entering their marquee nonconference game Sept. 14 at Michigan State. Like Oregon’s 7-6 Redbox Bowl victory, Arizona State beat the Spartans last season in a defensive brawl (16-13).

The Sun Devils avoid defending Pac-12 champion Washington and Stanford in the conference’s unbalanced schedule.

The Ducks fly south to Tempe for a Nov. 23 game. Oregon held on for a 31-29 win last season at Autzen Stadium to knock Arizona State out of the running for the Pac-12 title game.

During Pac-12 media day last week in Los Angeles, Edwards’ players were well-versed in Edwards’ NFL cliches when asked to look at the big picture.

“We don’t want to overlook anybody. If we overlook Kent State (in the opener), they could come in and kick our butt,” Cabral said. “So you go into every game like they’re a championship team and let the chips fall where they may.”

ARIZONA STATE SUN DEVILS

Coach: Herm Edwards, second year (7-6 at Arizona State)

Key players: QB Dillon Sterling-Cole, QB Jayden Daniels, RB Eno Benjamin, C Cohl Cabral, LB Merlin Robertson, PK Brandon Ruiz

2018 record: 7-6 overall, 5-4 conference

2019 projection: The Sun Devils are picked to finish third (tied with UCLA) in the South Division in the Pac-12 preseason media poll

Nonconference opponents: Kent State, Sacramento State, Michigan State

Plays Oregon: Nov. 23 in Tempe, Ariz.

Full schedule: Aug. 29 vs. Kent State, Sept. 6 vs. Sacramento State, Sept. 14 at Michigan State, Sept. 21 vs. Colorado, Sept. 27 at California, Oct. 12 vs. Washington State, Oct. 19 at Utah, Oct. 26 at UCLA, Nov. 9 vs. USC, Nov. 16 at Oregon State, Nov. 23 vs. Oregon, Nov. 30 vs. Arizona

Thursday’s preview: Stanford