TEMPE – For the first time since arriving in the Valley, Sun Devils coach Kenny Dillingham put his pledge of “Activating the Valley” into full effect.
Sun Devil fans got to see their new bench boss and the 2023 Arizona State football team in action Saturday at the annual Arizona State spring football game following the conclusion of Pat’s Run.
The game wasn’t up to Dillingham’s standards – he expected a crowd of more than 40,000 – but it still demonstrated the energy and excitement that he has promised to return to the school’s football program and fan base.
“It was a good environment. I think the guys had a lot of fun. Football is fun. But I was expecting more if I’m being honest with you,” said Dilllingham, who was hired in November to replace Herm Edwards. “We say we want to be a football town, and while it was a good crowd, it is not what a football town is supposed to be.”
Nevertheless, in his first spring game in Tempe, the Sun Devils coach showed why his youth and creativity made him such an appealing candidate to lead ASU football back on the right path.
The game featured a variety of innovative and unorthodox moves by Dillingham, who brought in NFL players and “Bussin’ With The Boys” podcast hosts Will Compton and Taylor Lewan to coach the intersquad teams. The fans also got in on the action, reeling in punts from the Sun Devils special teams, catching passes from the team’s quarterbacks and a game of knockout, featuring five fans and an ASU football player.
While the fan turnout was marked as a “disappointment” by Dillingham, the difference in the environment at Sun Devil Stadium compared to the previous regime was clear.
“This is the polar opposite of anything I’ve experienced. Honestly this is the most fun I have ever had in a spring as a whole,” ASU quarterback Bennett Meredith said. “We had a blast today and everyone saw our excitement after we scored our first touchdown and our whole sideline cleared. It’s just a different energy this year and everything’s incredible.”
Wide receiver Andre Johnson, who scored a touchdown on a trick play, couldn’t agree more.
“It’s really high energy here,” Johnson said. “I think the fans were more involved and the players were into it more and the player-fan interaction made it a great day.”
Sun Devil fans also got a look at the quarterback competition that has been the topic of conversation all camp long. Featuring incumbent Trenton Bourguet, redshirt freshman Meredith, and newcomers in Notre Dame transfer Drew Pyne and four-star recruit Jaden Rashada, Bourguet once again stood out as the early favorite in what is shaping up to be a highly competitive competition.
Elijhah Badger pulled in an over-the-shoulder grab to kick off the scoring in the game, while highly touted tight end Jalin Conyers broke free past two defenders for a 60-yard score. On the opposing side, Ro Torrence and Jordan Clark each secured an interception, while B.J. Green got to the quarterback on multiple occasions.
The honorary coaching duo of Compton and Lewan also made their sideline debuts at the spring game, providing the team with a collection of hysterical moments and additional fuel to the fire at Saturday’s affair.
“It was fun. They have a great podcast and bring great energy,” said offensive lineman and Cal transfer Ben Coleman. “Their pregame speech was hilarious and we were happy they were able to come and add some juice to the game.”
“It was sick,” Meredith added. “We are one of the only schools in the country who had something like this for our spring game. We’ve been working hard the past four weeks and it was a reward for us to come out and play football in front of the fans and to switch things up a little bit.”
Compton and Team Maroon defeated Lewan’s Team Gold 23-15, however, the bigger score was the national attention the former Tennessee Titans duo brought to the Arizona State football program.
“It’s rare to see something like this, but I also think it’s that wave of new things to make things fun, entertaining and bring fans out and get everybody involved,” Compton said. “I know with him being a first-year head coach, I feel like this was an awesome move by him. Hats off to the coaching staff and the team.”
Special teams coordinator Charlie Ragle, along with Dillingham, coached Lewan when he was a four-star recruit at Chaparral High School. Lewan, who credits Ragle with “helping jump-start his career” by moving him to offensive line in his senior year of high school, believes that Dillingham is putting the right pieces together in Tempe.
“It really seems like this is the kind of place players will want to come to,” Lewan said. “You got Mill Avenue, Tempe and then Scottsdale right up the road. This should be a hotbed for players to come here and have a good time and also get into the league, and I think Dillingham is going to do that.”
With the conclusion of Sun Devil football’s spring schedule, the team will have the summer off before preseason practices and a highly anticipated return to Camp Tontozona in August. Fans will have plenty to be excited for come Aug. 31, when Arizona State hosts Southern Utah in the team’s season opener.