TEMPE – For the record books, the 2023 ASU football season will go down as just two numbers: 3-9. However, that record doesn’t show the adversity, progress and impact that defined coach Kenny Dillingham’s first season in Tempe. Now, with a new athletic director and another recruiting cycle on the horizon, the Sun Devils have already begun the offseason changes.
Offensive coordinator Beau Baldwin is not returning next season, according to ESPN’s Pete Thamel. Baldwin departs ASU after a rough first season. During his time, Baldwin’s offense averaged 17.8 points per game, ranked 123rd of 130 FBS teams. The Sun Devils’ total offense ranked 109th in the FBS, with an average of 322.2 yards per game. After ASU was shut out 29-0 by Fresno State and scored only three points in the second half through three games, Dillingham took over play-calling duties for the rest of the season.
More offseason changes have already begun with the roster as redshirt junior tight end Jalin Conyers announced Wednesday on Instagram that he will enter the transfer portal as a graduate transfer. Conyers, one of ASU’s offensive bright spots, finished this season with 30 catches, 362 receiving yards and one rushing touchdown while also spending time playing quarterback in the season’s final three games.
As a vocal leader and veteran on the team, the decision comes as a surprise given that Conyers praised the culture that Dillingham had built in one season after Saturday’s 59-23 defeat to in-state rival Arizona.
“Coach Dillingham and everybody is doing a great job,” Conyers said. “There’s no one that’s not bought in, and if you’re not bought in, then you’re free to leave.”
Junior linebacker James Djonkam also announced his intent to enter the portal on X later Wednesday. He served as a backup to redshirt freshman Tate Romney in all 12 games this season, compiling 20 tackles and two QB hurries.
These are the first changes following ASU’s final game. Dillingham called the lopsided loss “rock bottom” after the Wildcats outclassed the Sun Devils, who conceded 619 yards of offense to ASU’s 309 yards.
However, Dillingham knows this season is the first step to building long-lasting success.
“I didn’t take this job and expect to go and win eight games,” Dillingham said. “The buy-in, what we’re doing, the direction we’re going (is) 100% the direction that (ASU) needs to be headed. It’s what needed to be done this year. Sometimes, you have to hit rock bottom to bounce back up.”
The program’s troubles started before the first kickoff when ASU announced a self-imposed postseason ban ahead of the NCAA’s ruling on the ongoing investigation into COVID-19 recruiting violations in 2020 committed by former coaches. Then, ASU was plagued with injuries throughout the season, forcing the offense to play most of the season with an undermanned offensive line and start a program-high four different quarterbacks throughout the year, including Conyers in two games.
For Dillingham, the lack of depth was the most significant setback throughout this season.
“That was, if I take one thing away from this year, the most disappointing thing was the inability to practice in-season,” Dillingham said. “We didn’t get any better. We got worse. And it pains me to say it out loud as our football team from week six or seven got worse as the season progressed because we were so banged up that we couldn’t practice versus each other.”
Despite the insurmountable adversity that ASU faced this season, Dillingham relished that the program didn’t get any worse from a record standpoint from season to season.
“We won the same amount of games we won last year,” Dillingham said. “Through all the adversity that we faced, we didn’t get any worse through the craziest year I’ve ever been a part of, and I’ve coached Pop Warner. We faced more adversity than when the lights wouldn’t turn on at the park, and you had to practice in the dark.”
ASU booster Edward Sandidge is also confident that Dillingham is leading the program in the right direction following a rough season.
“What happens today is not nearly as important as what’s going to happen in the future,” Sandidge said. “Kenny is a fantastic individual. He’s going to turn this thing around.”
Now that the hellish 2023 season is behind them, Dillingham & Co. are focused on moving forward immediately and starting to build for next year.
The first step of significant change for the next season was the resignation of Ray Anderson on Nov. 13. Slow to embrace the name, image and likeness era, his departure sparked an influx of donations and memberships to the Sun Angel Collective, an organization that helps facilitate NIL deals and money to ASU athletes. The rise in memberships was the first sign of new fundraising being diverted to the football program for NIL programs, something Dillingham knows is arguably the most important part of building a program in this era of college football.
“I’m going to go fundraise because that’s what the name of the game is nowadays,” Dillingham said. “So I’m going to go fundraise, fundraise and fundraise. The staff is going to go out and recruit players, and I’ll go out and recruit some players, but I’m recruiting people who want this place to win as well. That has nothing to do with players, and that’s one of the biggest factors in college football right now.”
The most significant factor in the offseason progression will be the hiring of a new athletic director. While many names are floating around, the program will focus on hiring a proven candidate with the ability to improve the NIL programs around ASU to allow the athletic program to attract high-level recruits and transfers and retain talent already in the program.
“We need an athletic director that can go after the big guns and get money for the program,” Sandidge said. “There’s a lot of people out there that have a lot of money that are willing to give it to ASU if the right person asks.”
The funds are just as crucial for retaining players as it is for attracting more talent. The athletic program saw a mass exodus of players from the men’s basketball team last offseason and has already started losing significant players, including Conyers and Djonkam.
With less than a week before the winter transfer portal opens on Monday, and with key players like freshman quarterback Jaden Rashada and junior running back Cam Skattebo likely to receive interest from other programs, getting the collectives around ASU more funds will allow the football program to better retain its current talent.
In Dillingham’s words, dating back to his opening press conference, ASU athletics needs to continue to “activate the Valley.”