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ASU DC Danny Gonzales’ personal and personnel challenges vs. SDSU

(AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

TEMPE, Ariz. — ASU defensive coordinator Danny Gonzales faces a conundrum.

The Sun Devils just limited Michigan State to 13 points. San Diego State, whom ASU is playing against Saturday, has a similar offense dictated by a physical run game.

But Gonzales has to create a new game plan, one that the Aztecs won’t be able to learn from watching ASU’s film against Michigan State last weekend.

“You can never take on a running team the same way two weeks in a row,” Gonzales said. “The game plan that we had against Michigan State, which is a very similar offense to San Diego State, we can’t use because they’ll practice all week.”

Gonzales credited defensive lineman Renell Wren as the catalyst of stopping the Spartan run game last week. His consistency in getting into the backfield forced MSU to alter their strategy.

“Michigan State’s answer was to abandon their run game and run outside,” Gonzales said. “The difference between San Diego State and Michigan State … Michigan State (offensive linemen) was not used to our movement, so they were a little bit slower.

“San Diego State won’t be slow because they’re used to the movements.”

When the SDSU offensive line gets to you, it hits hard.

“Their O-line is as physical as anyone in the country,” Gonzales said. “They’re going to try and kill you.”

What happens if the Aztecs key in on Wren’s tendencies and manage to avoid him? The school consistently produces top running backs.

In 2016, Donnel Pumphrey rushed for 2,133 yards and was subsequently a fourth-round NFL draft pick. Last year, Rashaad Penny ran for 2,248 yards — including gashing ASU for 216 on just 18 attempts — and was a first-round NFL pick.

Two weeks in, current SDSU running back Juwan Washington looks to be following in their footsteps. With 314 rushing yards to his name, Washington has the third-most of any D-1 back.

“They put the ball in his hands every way they can,” Gonzales said. “We’ve got to tackle with three, four, and five guys just to have a chance to contain him.”

Gonzales faces a conundrum.

He has a soft spot for SDSU after coaching there for seven years.

“If we beat them, which is the goal and that’s only outcome I’d want, I’d feel a little bad for those kids,” Gonzales said.

If it were up to him, ASU wouldn’t even play his former team.

“I wish we didn’t have to play this game, because I recruited most of those kids,” Gonzales said. “I know them all, and I love all those kids dearly.”

Head coach Herm Edwards said he went through the same emotions when he would coach against Tony Dungy, who hired Edwards as a defensive backs coach when Dungy became the head coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 1996.

“The guy’s like my brother,” Edwards said.

But with that bond comes familiarity.

Gonzales is as much an expert on SDSU’s defense as anyone outside the program, and it’s been beneficial to quarterback Manny Wilkins through the first three days of the week.

“I’ve had the chance to sit down with Coach Gonzales and really pick his brain,” Wilkins said. “What little things to pick up on, what is the safety looking at in this certain formation, those type of things.

In fact, it’s been beneficial throughout camp going into the season. With Gonzales at the helm, ASU and SDSU have very similar defenses.

Wilkins has been able to, in effect, practice against the Aztecs since their former defensive coordinator was hired in late December.

“I think what’s going to help them is the fact that we’ve practiced against each other about 50 times in the last year,” Gonzales said.

But that’s just a blink in the amount of time the Aztecs have had to prepare.

“I was trying to explain that to our guys on defense today, that what the San Diego State offense is going to see, they’ve seen every day, they’ve seen it for the last 10 years,” Gonzales said.

The 3-3-5 defensive scheme at SDSU was a reason ASU showed interest in Gonzales, head coach Herm Edwards said.

“Because of all the multi formations and the personnel groups, you don’t have to change defensively. You can keep five defenders on the field,” Edwards said. “It was unique in the sense that I said, ‘That’s really the way to go in college football, if you can master that defense.’”

Gonzales’ experience at SDSU is a double-edged sword.

“They’ve done it for 10 years,” he repeated. “We’ve done it for 50 practices so far.”

Gonzales faces a conundrum.

His defense is playing well. In two weeks, they’ve only given up two touchdowns.

But it’s only been two games, and he has felt the need to remind them – and the media – of that.

“There’s a fine line between being arrogant and being confident,” Gonzales said.

How do they toe that line?

After a couple seasons of struggling to tackle the ball carrier, players of all experience levels are playing at a high caliber. While Wren wreaked havoc on the front line last week, true freshman linebacker Merlin Robertson won National Defensive Player of the Week for recording nine tackles, 1.5 sacks and forcing a fumble.

Jalen Harvey, who replaced an injured Dasmond Tautalatasi in the middle of the game at the Tillman linebacker spot, finished with 10 tackles. He’s a converted wide receiver.

“If they continue to progress at the way they’ve been progressing, we’ll be pretty good,” Gonzales said.

The team has been very nearly dominant through two games, but it’s only two games. The defensive coordinator has been trying to convey that.

But it’s important to keep the guys confident.

How can Gonzales convince these unproven players that they’re good enough to compete with anyone, while at the same time, repeating what he has so often said to the media?

“We’re not very good yet.”

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