It has been nearly 22 years since the Sun Devils, led by Jake Plummer, played in their last prestige bowl game—a 20-17 loss to Ohio State in the 1997 Rose Bowl. Since that season, the Arizona State football program has had varying levels of success. Under Dennis Erickson from 2007-2011, the Sun Devils experienced some highlights—they were ranked as high as no. 6 in the nation in his first season and almost won the Pac-10. But Erickson ran the program with a laissez-faire attitude, hoping for players to hold themselves and one another accountable, a novel concept that did not work—Arizona State was the most penalized team in all of college football in two of Erickson’s final three seasons. After that first 10-win season, Erickson’s teams finished at or below the .500 mark for the next four years until he was fired in 2011.
ASU started the post-Erickson era by trying to hire Kevin Sumlin, who would go on to coach at Texas A&M, where he led a relatively unknown quarterback named Johnny Manziel to a Heisman Trophy. But as A&M tossed some of its new SEC money at Sumlin, Arizona State zeroed in on Todd Graham.
Graham’s regime was virtually the opposite Erickson’s—and it yielded results. ASU saw success both on the field—in 2013, the Sun Devils hosted the Pac-12 title game, which they lost to Stanford 38-14—and on the recruiting trail. Graham strung together back-to-back 10-win seasons in 2013 and 2014, and he began securing big-name recruits like quarterback Brady White, receivers Jaelen Strong and N’Keal Harry, and defensive backs Damarious Randall and Chase Lucas.
But eventually, the tide started to turn against the “Toddfather.” Opposing coaches figured out Graham’s blitz-heavy schemes, Mike Bercovici faltered as a starter, and Graham’s coaching cabinet was raided each offseason. Graham and the Sun Devils couldn’t adapt, and the team’s best record from 2015-17 was 7-6.
Last November, Arizona State fired Graham, but the school still wanted to build on the (albeit limited) success the program had during his tenure. So it was a shock when the team hired Herm Edwards—a coach who has historically been of the Erickson “hands-off” school of thought but now seems to skew more toward Graham’s philosophies—in December. Edwards has not coached college football since the 1980s, has not been a head coach in any capacity since he was fired from the Chiefs in 2009, and hadn’t exactly been a highly sought-out talent after his two stints with the Jets and Chiefs left him with a career .422 coaching record.
Why would ASU choose to hire a man who hasn’t coached in college in almost 30 years? And what does success look like for the Sun Devils with Herm at the helm?
ASU has long struggled to carve out a defined place in the college football landscape. Even within the team’s own conference, ASU is a relative afterthought. The school doesn’t have the draw of a prestigious academic institution like Stanford, the built-in football narratives of USC, the flash of new success (and incredible uniforms) like Oregon, and, up until this year, it hadn’t had a big coaching name like Chip Kelly at UCLA.
Being stuck in this middling place isn’t for a lack of effort. The school is reportedly pouring $300 million into training facilities and renovations on Sun Devil Stadium. It reached out to Nike to redesign its logo in 2011, only to turn around and take that new design to Adidas in 2014 when it saw a chance to play a more prominent role with their company. The school has worked hard to elevate the team’s brand in the eyes of recruits—and it’s been waiting for the on-field success to catch up.
So while Edwards’s hiring seemed shocking at the time, it felt a bit like the culmination of what ASU had been building toward. Edwards will never be an offensive architect like Kelly or a defensive schemer like Kirby Smart. But he brings attention. Almost immediately after Edwards was hired, he did just that. First came a video of Herm learning how small and form-fitting the new football jerseys are:
Then there was this exchange at his inaugural press conference:
Here’s the initial exchange between @DevilsDigest and new Arizona State head coach Herm Edwards.— Stu Jackson (@StuJTH) December 4, 2017
Edwards: “Devils Digest? I’m Catholic now, I’m Christian, watch out for them Devils. I’m just saying. We’re good brother, we’re good. I ain’t takin it personal.”
This is gold. pic.twitter.com/mvTSTUorIf
Both of those clips went viral, and for the first time in decades, it seemed the national media cared about what was going on in Tempe. No one had been eager to watch Erickson’s inaugural presser. And few people cared what Graham had to say after games. But everyone is interested in how, exactly, Herm plans to pull this thing off.
And he won’t be tasked with doing it alone. Quarterback Manny Wilkins is the heir apparent to the Pac-12 passer throne now that Sam Darnold, Josh Rosen, and Luke Falk all have left for the NFL. Wilkins is a Heisman long shot—Bovada doesn’t currently list him among its 34 betting options—but he has the talent to lead the Sun Devils on a run through the conference. He won the ASU starting job his sophomore year and he’s held onto it ever since, even as he was challenged by the likes of Brady White, Bryce Perkins, and Blake Barnett. All three tried to take the job, failed, transferred, and are now the starters at other programs. But Wilkins won the job because of his leadership and his ability to make sound in-game decisions.
The Sun Devils also boast one of the nation’s top wideouts in N’Keal Harry, who could be the first receiver taken in next year’s NFL draft. Harry was one of the most highly touted prospects in school history, and the big-bodied receiver has yet to disappoint. Watching him line up his freshman year, you couldn’t help but rub your eyes and ask what sort of desert mirage was being played on you—at just 18 years old, he already had the build of an NFL player. As a freshman he did this to the Utah defense:
As a sophomore, he had the second-most receiving yards in the conference and 14th most in the nation despite the Sun Devils offense ranking 37th nationally in yards per game.
Rounding out the offense is Eno Benjamin, the highly touted out-of-state running back who’ll be taking over for the thunder-and-lightning combo of Kalen Ballage and Demario Richard—both of whom graduated in May.
On defense things are a bit murkier. Four-star cornerback Chase Lucas looks every bit the lockdown defender that he was projected to be, but beyond that, two freshman linebackers—Darien Butler and Merlin Robertson (yes, there is a linebacker named Merlin)—could see serious playing time, and redshirt senior linebacker Koron Crump will be leading a defensive unit that is still picking up new defensive coordinator Danny Gonzales’s turnover-forcing system.
As for what success means for the team under Herm, that’s a separate conversation. Unlike virtually every other program in the country this season, the Sun Devils may not be aiming for a certain number of wins. Obviously that’s the goal down the road—coaches don’t keep jobs if they don’t win—but this season, Edwards’s status as an influencer may matter more.
Arizona State needs Edwards for his ability to get eyes on the program—whether that’s people tuning in to root for the team or tuning in to see Edwards burn the program to the ground. Athletic director Ray Anderson knew going in that this hire would be a gamble, but he also recognized that it was going to take something big—and something slightly outside the box—to get ASU to the next level.
It is unclear how many games Herm and the team will win this season. The Sun Devils’ schedule opens with UTSA, no. 11 Michigan State, San Diego State, and no. 6 Washington, which means that an 0-4 start is not totally out of the question. And it doesn’t get any easier from there: The team will face no. 13 Stanford, travel to Los Angeles to face no. 15 USC, head to Eugene to play at no. 24 Oregon, and then wrap up the season in Tucson facing Heisman hopeful Khalil Tate. Wins would be difficult to come by for any coach with this stretch, let alone one that’s returning to college for the first time since 1989.
Success under Herm Edwards this season—and throughout his tenure at ASU—will be tough to define. The goalposts will be moved, and then moved again while he is in charge. But if he can field a competitive team, somehow figure out what recruiting looks like in the 21st century, and continue to bring eyes to this program, that may just be enough.