TEMPE – Arizona State wrapped up spring football Sunday after getting in a full complement of 15 practices, something the program was unable to do in 2020 due to COVID-19.
Not only did the Sun Devils get through the entire spring, they did so without any interruptions, COVID-19 or otherwise. So what did ASU’s coaches learn?
The offensive and defense are largely installed. The team looks focused. And more than anything, the Sun Devils seem motivated after their 2020 season was cut short.
“I told everybody, like, ‘Man, I didn’t come back here to be average. I didn’t come back here to be good. I came back here to be legendary, to be great,’” said sixth-year cornerback Chase Lucas, who passed on a shot at the NFL to return to ASU. “And like I said, it’s everybody. I’m gonna hold everybody to that standard.”
Lucas highlights a group of players who took advantage and returned for the 2021 season after the NCAA awarded players a free year of eligibility due to COVID-19.
Because of this, ASU returns all 11 starters on defense and the bulk of its starters on offense, and that experience has made a difference. Players are confident, they know the Sun Devils’ schemes and are ready to showcase their talents for one final season.
Lucas in particular has made an impression as a leader this spring. Defensive backs coach Chris Hawkins praised him for holding the younger defensive backs accountable as they transition to the program from high school.
“Chase Lucas is everything for this program,” Hawkins said. “And I mean everything. He’s a kid that doesn’t miss practice. He’s a kid that takes every single rep. He gets mad when you take him out on certain reps. There was a day we had practice, and we gave him, we called it a vet day for him, Jack (Jones), DeAndre (Pierce) and a few others. They just sat down and didn’t practice, and he was pissed off.
“And as a leader, he walked around yesterday with a paper in his hand showing everybody’s film minutes, and he literally got on everybody’s case who wasn’t watching film. And I think right now he’s in a totally different headspace. He’s a kid who wants to get drafted as high as possible, and he’s acting like that every single day.“
Lucas credited Marvin Lewis, who coached ASU’s defense in 2020, for instilling a meticulous note-taking and film-watching mentality in his and other Sun Devils’ minds. This attention to detail allows ASU’s players to take full advantage of the expertise of their coaching staff.
“Coach Lewis, he hit it really big last year, really getting on all of us like, ‘Why don’t you guys have a notepad and pencil out?’” Lucas said. “‘You guys want to be in the NFL? Well, this is the pro model. This is what the NFL does.’ I believe we took that into the spring ball.
“And me managing people’s film times and all that, it was just like we knew what we were doing before we touched the field. And I got to give a lot of credit to the coaches. From the D-line all the way to the secondary, I think they’ve done a phenomenal job teaching.”
Lucas said he wants to set the example for the younger defensive backs that he wishes he had when he was their age. During his first years in the program, Lucas felt like he didn’t handle himself off the field as well as he would like. Now, he has made some changes in his life, and he can see the differences on and off the field.
“What I would tell my (younger) self is just lock in, pay attention, doing things that is asked of you,” Lucas said. “And I think that’s something that took me a couple of years to figure out and deal with some off-the-field things. I feel like I’m gonna always tell myself everything ties in together. What you do off the field is an exact representation of how you play on the field …
“I feel like if I were to learn that or if I had some guys to show me that leadership when I was a freshman or sophomore, I don’t know if I’d (still) be here. But at the end of the day, like I said, I’m blessed to have been in this position and to help out the young guys too.”
He said the atmosphere in the DB room is vastly different from how it was when he entered the program. The culture used to be one of unhealthy competition where players talked down to each other and competed in a negative way. Now, Lucas said, the environment is entirely different.
“I feel like I’ve been telling everybody, this is probably the most talented group I’ve ever been a part of. As well as the camaraderie, man, it’s something that you just got to see for yourself,” Lucas said. “We got 27 guys in the DB room, and not one person hates on another. And that was something that I never had coming up here. People were always trying to compete, but compete negatively. They would talk about each other.
“Man, I just feel like this room is very special. … I really give credit to me, (DeAndre Pierce) and Jack because we push them guys every day. We push no matter what. I don’t care what it is, if it’s regular ball drills, if it’s watching film, I’m pushing everybody every day. And it doesn’t even (just) translate to the DB room. It translates to everybody, the offensive linemen, the running backs, everything.”
Lucas the leader is a welcome sign for the ASU secondary, and one that could portend a number of all-conference selections come fall.
Maroon & Gold spring practice
After a season where only a small number of family members could attend games, ASU opened Sun Devil Stadium up to 5,200 fans Sunday to get a glimpse of what the Sun Devils have been working on the past four weeks.
They saw a team still in progress, but one teeming with talent, both young and experienced. The first-team defense, headlined by returners like Lucas, stifled Jayden Daniels and the offense. Young players like wide receiver Elijhah Badger and cornerback Tommi Hill flashed during the modified scrimmage.
Coach Herm Edwards was happiest that the Sun Devils simply made it through the spring session. He reminded reporters that last spring, ASU held seven practices and then had to pivot to Zoom instruction like the rest of the educational world.
This spring, the Sun Devils were able to allow young players more opportunities to develop and grow within the scheme while learning to utilize their unique talents.
For ASU’s final practice, the team took the field at Sun Devil Stadium in 80-degree heat and Arizona spring sunshine. Edwards said his goal was to cause the players to strain, to experience what it can be like in a game situation. Temperatures during opening-week games can often be in the 100s at kickoff.
Edwards even had the officials call uncommitted penalties to lengthen drives.
“I wanted to see them really react to what it feels like in a game,” he said. “When it’s hot, when you got to play eight or nine plays in a row with the fatigue factor, and can you line up and do your job? And so I thought that was important to me to watch.”
While the Sun Devils strained under the sun, Antonio Pierce called his first action as ASU’s sole defensive coordinator. The Super Bowl champion said after the practice that he would call the defense from down on the field as he did Sunday.
“I do plan on being on the sideline,” Pierce said. “Better feel for the game. (Linebackers coach) Chris Claiborne will be upstairs, he’ll be our eyes up there. So then I’ll work with the linebackers on the sideline, but I will call the game from the sideline.”
Pierce co-coordinated ASU’s defense in 2020, but stepped into the solo defensive coordintor role after Lewis elected to pursue NFL head coaching opportunities. Lewis was not hired and has returned to the program as a special advisor, the role he held in 2019.
Pierce knows his unit has lofty goals, but as someone who has dealt with hype and heightened expectations before, he knows the key to success lies in ignoring the noise and remaining focused on the goals ahead.
“Our goal is just to stay focused, brick by brick,” Pierce said. “Not worry about expectations or what the outside noise is telling us with how good we look. Obviously this is a work in progress. We’re not where we want to be. That goal is to keep working on in the spring. These guys gotta get with (ASU sports performance coach) Joe Connolly, with our strength program and keep getting bigger, stronger and faster, which we want to do.
“We’re bringing in athletes that look the part. Mentally, we gotta keep being sharp in the classroom. But we know what our expectations and our standards are as a defense. That’s been set here with coach Edwards from day one, and it’s not going to change.”
He also enjoyed how players like Lucas were holding each other to those high standards without the coaches having to get involved.
“At the end of the day, the winning teams I’ve been on, the players are the ones who kind of get the show running,” Pierce said. “As coaches, we don’t need to keep pushing them along. Once they do that within themselves down in that locker room, that’s when we’ll have a winning organization and program here.”
Future Sun Devil in attendance?
Four-star quarterback AJ Duffy is one of the top uncommitted signal-callers in the country in the class of 2022. And on Sunday, he was in Tempe to take in the Maroon & Gold practice.
Duffy made his presence known on Twitter, tweeting out a simple sunglasses emoji with the location set as Sun Devil Stadium.
— Aj Duffy (@anthonyjduffy) March 28, 2021
He is expected to announce his college commitment soon. The crystal ball on 247Sports and the FutureCast on Rivals both list the Sun Devils as the favorite to earn Duffy’s commitment, but Florida State and Michigan State are also pushing hard for the talented quarterback from IMG Academy in Florida.
Duffy tweeted out a graphic from the Florida State staff on Friday. He attended Rancho Verde High School in California before transferring to IMG, but with his new school in close proximity, the Seminoles have increased their effort to bring him into the fold.
— Aj Duffy (@anthonyjduffy) March 26, 2021
If he commits to the Sun Devils, it will be a welcome sign for a program potentially set to replace Jayden Daniels if he has a standout season and declares for the 2022 NFL Draft.
Current backups Trenton Bourguet, Finn Collins and Daylin McLemore are solid players, but a prospect of Duffy’s caliber would raise the ceiling of ASU’s program for the next three to four years and ensure another elite passer will be on campus if Daniels does in fact elect to leave.