ASU’s impressive opening win had positive takeaways for rest of season
College football is off to a contentious start.
Chip Kelly and Kevin Sumlin underwhelmed in their Pac-12 debuts; Nick Saban is in midseason form, berating a reporter after a 37-point margin of victory; Ohio State proved the folly of Urban Meyer’s three-game wrist-slap, dropping 77 points on Oregon State; and Willie Taggart’s dream job at Florida State began with fans wondering about the return policy on football coaches, and if the Seminoles kept the receipt.
The profession can be a cesspool of tyranny, bad manners and power-drunk leaders. It’s a problem that Arizona State most certainly does not have. And after winning the offseason in spectacular fashion, Herm Edwards is making the country rethink one of the most-maligned hires in college football history.
Arizona State’s lopsided victory over Texas-San Antonio on Saturday isn’t headline news, a victory that must be mitigated by the quality of competition. But the takeaways are clear:
N’Keal Harry is an elite playmaker. If he didn’t play wide receiver, you’d say he was the real Heisman Trophy candidate in Arizona. His first touchdown set the tone for an enjoyable debut. His second touchdown will remain on the big-play highlight reel for the rest of the season.
The Sun Devils have a good group of running backs. They seemed extremely physical up front. And it’s clear that Edwards made a smart tactical decision when he agreed to lead the program, even though he initially sounded as if it were only a personal favor for his former agent, Ray Anderson.
But Edwards didn’t roll into Tempe with a parade of cronies and friendlies, guys who could slip off the radar and into retirement if the train never left the station. Instead, he hired a rising defensive coordinator Danny Gonzales, who admitted to be star-struck by Edwards during their initial conversation. He hired Antonio Pierce, a former Wildcats star who learned the craft from some of the best coaches in the business. And he personally changed the narrative by tirelessly conducting an estimated 500 interviews, while barely a word was uttered by his counterpart in Tucson.
Sumlin was considered a great score for a program left rudderless following the termination of Rich Rodriguez. At the time, no one questioned his bunker mentality or why he allowed Edwards to control the entire conversation. But in a season that seemed to come with an HOV lane to the Rose Bowl, the new coach should answer why his team never seemed in the game against BYU, and how Khalil Tate had only eight rushing attempts.
The biggest asset at ASU might be the guy who seemed so replaceable entering Todd Graham’s final season. The one who felt betrayed by the former head coach, especially after running into Blake Barnett on campus before the Alabama blue-chipper transferred to Tempe.
Manny Wilkins thought about transferring but held strong. He held off Barnett, who ended up leaving for yet another school. He is now viewed as one of the best leaders ASU has ever produced, in the same company as Pat Tillman and Anthony Robles. He stayed loyal to a program that didn’t always show him the same courtesy, resisting the urge to flee for a better opportunity.
Now, he gives Edwards a senior quarterback with nearly 30 games of experience. He made some nice throws in the opener. He knows how to run the team. He knows how to conduct a press conference. And he knows how to get the ball to Harry.
This weekend, ASU will be one of the featured proving grounds in college football. If the Sun Devils can hang with or upset Michigan State, they might show up in the rankings. But they’ll definitely show up on SportsCenter.
That’s the power of Coach Herm, a guy who delivered a different kind of energy to ASU, embracing every interview, leveraging his television fame into television appearances and inheriting some underrated pieces along the way.
Namely, a sizzling playmaker and an experienced quarterback who is more than just a great story. That can take you a long way in college football.
Reach Bickley at email@example.com. Listen to Bickley & Marotta weekdays from 10 a.m. – 2 p.m. on 98.7 FM Arizona’s Sports Station.