Monday Morning Sun Devil: ASU football growth measurable as spring practice starts

Spring practice for Arizona State football is underway and players including wide receiver Elijhah Badger hope to impress the coaching staff. (Photo courtesy Sun Devil Athletics)

ASU quarterback Jayden Daniels said his main goal before he leaves Tempe is to to “win a Pac-12 championship, win a Rose Bowl.” (Photo courtesy Sun Devil Athletics)

PHOENIX – In past years, Arizona State coach Herm Edwards has preached a desire for bigger, stronger and longer players up and down the Sun Devils’ football roster.

But this spring, Edwards has changed his tune.

“We look good coming out of a tunnel,” Edwards said. “That doesn’t win games for you, though. But we look different at all positions. I mean, at every single one of them. We look different. We’re longer, we got a little bit of some size to us now.

“And so that’s kind of what we were trying to do. And now you can kind of look at it and go, ‘Oh, OK. That’s what it looks like. So it’s kind of fun to look at (and) watch.”

With a three-year starter returning at quarterback and both lines of scrimmage in a better place, ASU appears to be set up for a successful season. But as Edwards observed, appearances don’t guarantee a thing.

ASU’s spring practice, which started Wednesday, represents a critical phase for the program after spring workouts were cut short by the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020. A full set of 15 practice sessions will go a long way toward laying the groundwork for a team that hopes to challenge for the Pac-12 South title in 2021.

Daniels, offense aim big

It starts with Jayden Daniels, the team’s electric junior signal-caller who expressed lofty goals for himself and the Sun Devils following their first practice of the spring.

“My first personal goal is to leave here, whenever I do, I just want to win a Pac-12 championship, win a Rose Bowl. That’s the main goal that I came in here wanting to do,” Daniels said. “And I know if I accomplish those things, then all the other individual accolades will come with it. But my main goal here is to win a Pac-12 championship and a Rose Bowl.”

ASU has not reached the Rose Bowl since 1997, when Pat Tillman still manned the defensive backfield for the Sun Devils and quarterback Jake Plummer was snaking through defenses. But it has also been a long time since ASU had a talent like Daniels under center.

With another year in offensive coordinator Zak Hill’s scheme and time to familiarize himself with young receivers like LV Bunkley-Shelton, Johnny Wilson and Chad Johnson Jr., Daniels should be more comfortable operating the ASU offense in 2021.

Edwards said a key to offensive success will be generating positive yardage consistently in first-down situations.

“We’ve got people that can score the ball when they get it in their hand, whether it’s the runners, or whether it’s some receivers. So the key is, what are you doing on first down?” Edwards said. “Can you move the ball, can you get into second-and-five or less? If you can do that, you’re going to get, you know, 10, 12 plays (per drive) and hopefully in between that, you get an explosive play. Now you’ve got a chance to score points.”

And Hill said the Sun Devils aim to score a lot of them.

“We’ve got some weapons on offense, so we’re excited about (that),” he said. “Obviously our No. 1 goal is to score points, and we know that. We’re not going to put a number on it or anything like that, (but) we want to score as many points as we can during the game.”

To do that, Hill knows the Sun Devils will have to improve their passing game. ASU’s offense ran the ball consistently well in the abbreviated 2020 season, but the passing game struggled – especially early in the year as Daniels adjusted to life without his favorite target, wide receiver Brandon Aiyuk, who the San Francisco 49ers made a 2020 first-round NFL Draft pick.

ASU defensive backs coach Chris Hawkins has deep ties to the Southern California region and is one of several assistants who could boost recruiting in that area. (Photo courtesy Sun Devil Athletics)

With a full spring ahead of him, Hill has planned specific drills to bring the Sun Devils’ aerial attack to life.

“We want to be intentional with our pass game and develop, and get more and more used to these concepts and how we can be more efficient and better with our protections,” Hill said. “You know, it’s all 11 players. So, from Jayden’s aspect and what we can do with the quarterback position, we’re working on those things, whether it’s technique, footwork, (dropbacks), or just getting our eyes right in the progression. Can we make signal adjustments? That type of stuff.

“And then each position is contributing to that. So, our wide receivers are hungry to go make plays. Obviously, (they had) limited opportunities in games (in 2020), so they’re all hungry.”

Regardless of how the passing game develops, Hill knows he has a luxury in the backfield with the combo of Chip Trayanum and Rachaad White at running back. White’s 10 yards per carry led the nation in 2020 and Trayanum showcased an impressive blend of speed and power during his freshman season, including a 25-yard touchdown run against USC.

With both players returning along with Aiyuk’s cousin Daniyel Ngata, who worked into the rotation toward the end of the 2020 season, ASU is set up for success in the backfield one again.

“At the end of the day, it’s really nice to have a Chip, it’s really nice to have a Rachaad, Daniyel and those backs do a really good job and they work hard,” Hill said. “And I think what the team sees from those guys is their leadership – how hard they’re going to work, how much they care about football and how much they care about working in practice. Because their preparation is phenomenal.”

ASU’s critical Southern California recruiting pipeline

The opening of spring workouts also provided a first look at a group of transfers that could make a difference in 2021. Tight end Jalin Conyers (Oklahoma), offensive lineman Triston Miller (North Carolina) and defensive lineman Travez Moore (Louisiana State) are among the new additions to the Sun Devils.

But while transfers like offensive linemen Henry Hattis and Kellen Diesch played important roles for ASU in 2020, the foundation of the roster is built on high school recruiting. Under Edwards, Southern California has been the most fruitful region for the Sun Devils to find impactful high school recruits.

So it was good news for the program when ASU received a commitment from four-star athlete Larry Turner-Gooden on Feb. 26. Turner-Gooden, from St. Bernard High in Playa Del Rey, California, is ranked the No. 57 player in the class of 2022 by the 247Sports Composite.

Turner-Gooden is the highest-ranked Sun Devils commit since Daniels in 2019. Southern California is an essential pipeline for ASU if the Sun Devils hope to maintain a high talent level as players like Daniels graduate or move on to the NFL.

Daniels, in fact, thinks the Sun Devils have established themselves as a desirable destination for players from Southern California under Edwards and recruiting coordinator Antonio Pierce. The ASU staff has deep ties to the region and has fortified those ties further with additions like wide receivers coach Prentice Gill, defensive backs coach Chris Hawkins and, most recently, linebackers coach Chris Claiborne.

“I mean, that’s all Antonio Pierce, Chris Hawkins, Prentice, Chris Claiborne, that’s all them. It started back with me, when they recruited me, but now this is going to keep growing,” Daniels said. “They do a good job recruiting, all those guys are from Southern California, so it makes it kind of easy. We’re not too far from home; we’re not too close. So why not come out here?”

The addition of elite prospects like Turner-Gooden promises to help the Sun Devils win games and look good coming out of the tunnel, too.

Sports Reporter, Phoenix

Christian Babcock expects to graduate in spring 2021 with a bachelor’s degree in sports journalism and a related area in sustainability. Babcock, who has interned with The Arizona Republic, is a digital reporter for Cronkite Sports this spring.