TEMPE – The Kenny Dillingham era has officially begun in Tempe.
Dillingham’s first practice Tuesday as ASU’s football coach set the tone for his new program with the sounds of music and his energetic voice blasting across the field as players ran drills in helmets and practice jerseys. Everywhere Dillingham walked, his microphone followed.
Dillingham knows the Sun Devils aren’t in the conversation for a College Football Playoff berth on the first day of spring ball, but there’s no reason they can’t start preparing their case.
“We want to compete, we want intensity about ourselves,” Dillingham said. “Our goal today was to own the ball. That means you have to tackle well and give effort to tackle well and take care of the football.”
The jolt of energy that Dillingham brings to ASU is exactly what the Sun Devils lacked during a 2022 season defined by an abysmal 3-9 record and the firing of coach Herm Edwards three games into the season.
The Sun Devils needed a coach who could regain control of the locker room and coaching staff – and Dillingham, 32, appears to be the perfect fit based on early impressions from his players.
“It’s crazy just having a coach that young and that passionate to be here,” redshirt junior and wide receiver Xavier Guillory said. “He’s from here, he’s a local guy. This is family to him so he truly takes this seriously.”
Dillingham, who started his coaching career in 2007 as an assistant with Chaparral High School in Phoenix, brings an infectious, upbeat vibe to the Sun Devils after a season as the University of Oregon offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach.
“That’s just kind of who I am. So I do believe that the players feed off of it (his energy), culture is based on the coaches. The coaches are the leaders,” he said. “If you want them to hit a standard, you have to live that standard as a coach.”
Healthy competition best describes Tuesday’s two-hour practice. Dillingham stopped the entire practice to call upon two players at a time to compete in one-on-one passing drills with the rest of the team cheering on.
“I kind of pick it off of who has competed earlier in the day,” Dillingham said. “I get a feel for who is in competition with each other earlier in practice and say, ‘OK, if you guys were talking crap and competing earlier, let’s do it in front of everybody because talk is cheap.’”
Dillingham carried a microphone to make sure his voice was heard. The prop continues the Sun Devils’ up-tempo practice style that Shaun Aguano adopted as ASU’s interim coach last season. Now Aguano serves as the running backs coach for the Sun Devils, and the culture he helped establish last season has carried over to spring.
“I’m glad Aguano and Dillingham are working together,” redshirt junior and offensive lineman Ben Bray said. “They have the same mindset. I thought Aguano said a lot of good things last year, and Dillingham adopted it and I appreciate them both.”
A key part of Dillingham’s philosophy to rebuild the program is attention to detail. At one point, he reportedly forced every player to break out of their post-stretch huddle three times until they met his standards.
Kenny Dillingham made all players break out of their post-stretch huddle three times until they got it right: “All we’re doing is breaking out of a huddle now. That’s it. It’s not even challenging.”
It’s a new era in Tempe. Discipline. Attention to detail.
— Chris Karpman (@ChrisKarpman) March 14, 2023
That discipline will be key on a team that boasts an upgraded roster of talent. ASU added 25 Division I transfers in Dillingham’s first recruiting class.
“You can say it’s a culture change, Coach D is really driving us in that regard,” Bray said. “It feels more like a family than last year. I thought last year we were close but we just keep getting closer.”
While there is plenty of time between now and the season opener on Aug. 31 against Southern Utah, the first day of practice was a step in the right direction.
“I thought they tried to do a good job,” Dillingham said. “I think anytime you put them in this environment, that you’re going full speed for 35 minutes at a time and put the strain on them.
“You know, it’s new. So I think there’s a lot of room for growth there but I think they were trying to do what we asked them to do. We pushed them to a point that they needed to be pushed today.”