Assistant Antonio Pierce keys ASU football’s late recruiting surge
At 12:53 p.m. Arizona time, Arizona State revealed the first major coup of its National Signing Day. The tweet flashed, signaling that 3-star offensive lineman Jarrett Bell from Norco (Calif.) would be signing with the Sun Devils over fellow front-runners Nebraska.
It would set off a chain reaction, as the Sun Devils racked up six more new signees over the course of two and a half hours to cap off the first signing class of the Herm Edwards era with a frenzy.
In addition to Bell, ASU secured national letters of intent from Aashari Crosswell, Jermayne Lole, Geordon Porter, Darien Butler, Brandon Aiyuk and Merlin Robertson. The sextet of Californian talent, lured to Tempe in large part due to the efforts of new linebackers coach Antonio Pierce, vaulted the Sun Devils from the basement of the Pac-12 recruiting rankings to fifth, and from 74th in the country entering Wednesday to 36th by the time the afternoon was complete.
Crosswell, a 4-star safety, and Lole, a 4-star defensive end (247Sports), got the gears moving in announcing their commitments to ASU in a joint video. The package deal between the two Long Beach Poly products came as little surprise to Pierce, who’d coached the pair this past season before leaving the school to join the ASU staff.
“You’re just confident, because at the end of the day, you’re dealing with kids and parents and the biggest factor you’re dealing with, other than playing time, is trust,” Pierce said of his relationships with Crosswell and Lole. “I can look all those kids in the eyes, and they knew me personally and they knew I wasn’t going to lie or tell them something that wasn’t going to happen over the next month or four years of their lives.”
The two are part of a concerted effort for the Sun Devils to retake a foothold in California. Through Wednesday’s National Signing Day, 13 of ASU’s 21 signees hail from the state, include. For Pierce, they were relationships built over years spent together on the gridiron.
“Jermayne Lole, I actually went to school with his mother, so I’ve known him for a long time,” Pierce said. “He’s an explosive player, reminds me of Joseph Wicker who I coached as well. I think he’s going to be a dynamic player in our system. He’s a guy that moves very well for an interior lineman, and he plays with what I call ‘ill intent.’ He’s a guy that, when we get up against the big boys, will be okay.
“Aashari Crosswell, to be honest, is the best football player on our (Long Beach Poly) team. I coached a lot of players that made it to the SEC, the ACC and other Pac-12 schools, but he was the best player on our football team last year. I blame myself for not winning enough games because last year I didn’t give him the ball and didn’t do different things with him. He’s a dynamic player. He has a natural feel for the game, a high football IQ. He has the ability to make plays. He’s one of those guys that can see the ball and just track it and it’ll find him.”
After the Sun Devils landed the services of Porter over UCLA, Tennessee and Texas A&M, the next leaf off Pierce’s branch of influence fell. ASU landed 3-star outside linebacker Darien Butler and capped off the afternoon in securing 4-star linebacker Merlin Robertson after Aiyuk’s signing. Both Butler and Robertson have a wealth of experience playing against Pierce’s Long Beach Poly teams in southern California — an area where ASU struggled to recruit high school talent in 2017.
“As a coach at Long Beach Poly, I wasn’t really seeing this university, Arizona State, around,” Pierce said. “You have to make that point to them that things were different, that coach Herm Edwards has made of point [of recruiting] southern California and to get those guys here so we can beat the USCs and the UCLAs. That’s how you beat them, by getting those guys that understand the competition they’ve been playing against since they were little kids.
“I was (surprised they were still available). I was shocked, because I was the coach for two of them and was trying get them to other schools. Those schools kind of played them slow, and they tried to come in late once we got on board. It’s just understanding them and seeing them grow. It’s understanding them and what their needs were, and what they needed just matched up.”
After missing out on Robertson in high school — he pushed the then-eighth grader to attend Long Beach Poly before he chose to attend Junipero Serra High School in nearby Gardena, California — Pierce finally landed his man.
“I’ve known Merlin since he was in the eighth grade,” Pierce said. “I was trying to get him to go to Poly, but he went up at Serra (High School). I was recruiting him back in the day. He’s a nasty individual, and I mean that in a very malicious way. He’s going to move some walls in this building, going to move some chairs. He has the identity that we want our linebackers to have going forward, and I think he’ll come in early and compete right away.”
Butler earned Pierce’s impression and piqued the former NFL linebacker’s interest as an opponent at Narbonne High School, and emerged as one of Pierce’s favorites in his first recruiting class as a college coach.
“I played against him four years in a row, him and Merlin Robertson. Those are guys that I know firsthand, and Darien was a pain in my butt. He was the guy who was a very physical individual. He’s every bit of 5-foot-11, weighed in the other day at 232. He’s one of the guys that, when I asked everybody in the area, everybody felt he was one of the better linebackers in all of southern California. I felt the same way. If he was 6-foot-2, he wouldn’t be available. He’d be a national recruit. Sometimes you get knocked down for your height, and sadly I was when I came out, but I think he can play football.”
Pierce expressed an admiration for a trait mirrored between Robertson and Butler, each of whom the Sun Devils were able to land after coming in late in the process.
“I want them to have fire, passion, a high football IQ, read and react,” Pierce said. “I call them ‘ill intent’ guys who play with a purpose, and I know what their purpose is in life. I want guys who love ball, because not all guys love ball. It’s hard to play linebacker. You have 300-pound linemen, you’re trying to tackle 200-pound running backs who are quick and you’ve got to run with a 4.4 wide receiver down the seam. It takes a special mindset to play linebacker, and there’s going to be some special guys playing there for us this year.”
The late flourish of talent, which in many ways became the story of the best transitional recruiting class of any ASU coach in the recruiting site era. It also, in the eyes of Pierce and new coach Herm Edwards, established a blueprint for classes to come.
“It was fun,” Pierce said of his first signing day. “Obviously, coach (Edwards) had a plan. Everybody sat down and he gave us our direction to try to go after defensive guys. Obviously, coaching in California, being from California, living in California, you know a lot of those guys and have relationships. Just going out there and letting them know the direction the program was heading and the message that Herm Edwards was delivering.”
This story appears on ArizonaSports.com courtesy of a partnership with SunDevilSource.com, part of 247 Sports and home for the most detailed information on Arizona State football.