As spring practice opens, ASU football enters second year of Kenny Dillingham era with higher expectations in 2024

ASU football coach Kenny Dillingham sets the tone for spring practice with an emphasis on competition and improvement after a challenging 3-9 season in 2023. Photo by Reece Andrews/Cronkite News)

TEMPE – Arizona State football is beginning the second year of the Kenny Dillingham era and after a forgettable campaign in 2023, Sun Devil faithful will get a taste of what is in store for the struggling program in 2024 when ASU opens spring practice Tuesday.

The team is coming off its second straight 3-9 season, marking the program’s worst stretch in nearly 80 years. The Sun Devils also are riding back-to-back 2-7 finishes in the soon-to-be-defunct Pac-12 Conference as they prepare to make their Big 12 Conference this season.

It’s a chance for a fresh start for a team that has struggled with injuries and a lack of depth.

Speaking to the media Thursday, Dillingham emphasized that the bar has been raised for the Sun Devils entering 2024. He expects competition within spring ball to be cutthroat and that the established level of performance will influence teams for years to come.

“I would say this year the minimum standard that we can reach is much higher than the minimum standard that we could reach last year,” Dillingham said. “Everybody knows we want to go out there and compete every day. That’s just who we are, that’s who I am, that’s who this team is always going to be. There’s only one way to do things, and that’s all in.

“That’ll be from now until forever.”

The program announced Thursday that quarterback Jaden Rashada, who missed most of his freshman campaign with a knee injury, will miss most of spring ball with a hand injury. Upon his commitment to Tempe over a year ago, the former Florida commit was seen as the next heir to the quarterback throne and destined to lead Sun Devil football back to the promised land.

Those expectations remain, but Dillingham has stated that he will not hesitate to have veteran quarterback Trenton Bourguet and Michigan State transfer Sam Leavitt compete for the role in spring camp. The team will also give an equal amount of reps to walk-on quarterback Navi Bruzon out of Peoria High School.

“We’re going to have a good competition in the spring,” Dillingham said. “I think adding Sam (Leavitt) to the room, adding Navi (Bruzon) to the room adds pretty good depth there. And I think putting in a new system and we’ve been able to get a bunch of walk-throughs leading up to spring ball, and now we’ll be able to get spring ball reps with three guys taking reps and then Jaden adding back in, they’ll be a plethora of reps for these guys. So by the end of spring ball, these guys are going to have a really good grasp of this system and what we’re trying to get accomplished.”

Quarterback depth became a major problem for the Sun Devils in 2023. Rashada missed nine games, recently-transferred Drew Pyne missed 10 games with multiple leg injuries and Bourguet missed four. Near the end of the season, tight end Jaylin Conyers and running back Cam Skattebo lined up at the position.

It was just one of the many offseason prioritizations for the Sun Devils as they looked to build a deep, young roster to build upon for the future of ASU football. Highlighted by Leavitt, ASU’s transfer class included 23 players. Leavitt, who acknowledges the deep competition that looms within the team’s quarterback room, chose to come to the Valley for ASU’s enhanced coaching staff.

“I feel like anywhere you’re going to go, you’re going to have competition,” Leavitt said. “I wasn’t going to go into a situation where there was already a confirmed starter, but that didn’t really play a factor for me. It’s really just about the situation in terms of the offense I’m going to be coached by.”

In addition to new players, the Sun Devils will welcome new coaches. Offensive coordinator/QB specialist Marcus Arroyo, hired shortly before Leavitt’s transfer, brings a wealth of experience to the sidelines. He has had stops before arriving in Tempe, including serving as the Tampa Bay Buccaneers QBs coach (2014), Oregon Ducks assistant head coach, offensive coordinator and QBs coach (2019) and UNLV head coach (2020-22). According to Dillingham, he and Arroyo will have a “60-40, 70-30” split when running the offense.

“You’ve got 15 practices in the spring. You just want to know how much they will take,” Arroyo said. “I think Jaden and Sam, the quarterbacks, the guys we’re bringing in, see the offense collectively and what we’re able to do. How we’re able to produce, who we put around them, the weapons around them, the wide receivers here, the tight ends, the offensive line we built and how we believe about the front, it matches up really well.

“I think that’s a big piece of the quarterbacks, understanding how the positions played, not only individually but collectively as a system.”

For a program that’s struggled to embrace the concept under the leadership of former athletic director Ray Anderson, Dillingham emphasized that progress with their NIL situation is “unbelievable” since the final game of 2023. It’s a process that’ll take time, and the second-year head coach urges the Sun Devil faithful for positivity and optimism as the program strives to reclaim its former glory.

“You can either help find the solution, or you’re part of the problem,” Dillingham said. “If you’re complaining on Twitter, part of the problem. Beautiful. Don’t really care, right? If you’re finding a way to help, part of the solution. If you post something negative on Twitter, we may not get a kid because of you. You post something positive about a kid, we may get them.

“So are you part of the problem or part of the solution?”

Aaron Schmidt EH-run shmit
Sports Reporter, Phoenix

Aaron Schmidt expects to graduate in spring 2024 with a bachelor’s degree in sports journalism and a minor in film and media production. In addition to the Phoenix Sports Bureau, Schmidt reports for The Arizona Republic and The State Press. He has also interned with Arizona’s Family and Arizona Sports 98.7.

Reece Andrews REES AN-drooz (he/him)
Sports Visual Journalist, Phoenix

Reece Andrews expects to graduate in May 2024 with a bachelor’s degree in sports journalism. Andrews has worked for the State Press and at WCSN. He has also been in Cronkite News Los Angeles.