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Arizona Sports reviews Herm Edwards’ first year leading ASU football

Arizona State head coach Herm Edwards speaks during an event for the Las Vegas Bowl, Friday, Dec. 14, 2018, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/John Locher)

Arizona State wanted to think outside the box when it decided to replace coach Todd Graham.

It did just that when Herm Edwards was tabbed to lead the Sun Devil football program a decade removed from his last coaching days. But after a weird introductory press conference, ASU quickly settled in with a new coaching staff with duties divvied up, leaving Edwards to focus on what he does best: leading.

The Sun Devils hit the recruiting trail hard, pulling in a surprising first class that impacted the on-field product from the beginning of Edwards’ season. ASU had a signature win against Michigan State, beat rival Arizona and made a bowl game.

But Edwards’ team also finished 7-6, far from the expectations set out by Vice President for University Athletics Ray Anderson and Edwards himself.

How should we judge the head coach’s first year on the job? Let’s just say it’s complicated.

We asked 98.7 FM Arizona’s Sports Station’s hosts to attempt a review of the beginning of Edwards’ time as leader of the Sun Devils and what’s expected next season and beyond.

John Gambadoro, co-host of Burns & Gambo

Herm Edwards’ first year was nothing short of a success.

The expectations were low with Herm being away from college football for almost 30 years and some of the losses, including running backs Kalen Ballage and Demario Richard, who combined for 1,696 yards of production in 2017! Plus, the two coordinators he planned on keeping, Phil Bennett and Billy Napier, both bolted, leaving Herm to scramble to come up with a staff.

What he accomplished this season was not so much about getting to a bowl game, being in contention for the Pac 12 South title heading into the Oregon game and beating Michigan State at home. It was about restoring some lost luster to the Devils program. ASU fans can now believe that they have a program that can compete for Pac 12 titles.

ASU is killing it with recruiting as evidenced by three top-20 quarterbacks coming in. They have a favorable schedule next season, a system the players believe in as well as a coach they would run through a wall for. The train had a lot of empty seats on it during that first month of the Edwards hiring, but you have to believe it’s almost sold out after a solid first season.

Doug Franz, co-host of Doug & Wolf

There is a tremendously positive energy that resonates throughout the program.

The Sun Devils had the same record as last year.

The defense allowed eight fewer points per game this year, allowed 40 points or more in a game only once, and won that game. Last year ASU was 0-4 in games allowing 40-plus points.

One of the reasons Graham was fired was because he finished second in a middling division, which is the same spot the 2018 Sun Devils finished.

I’m not on the train, but I’m standing in line at the ticket counter. Herm Edwards and his staff had a great year. Sun Devil fans should feel great about the fact every needle is pointing north. It doesn’t mean everything is great though. There were so many wins that could have been losses and losses that could have been wins. Acting like there was anything definitive would be way too premature.

I believe in the future of ASU football, but I’m not going to drink the Kool-Aid just because Herm Edwards is a fantastic human being.

Dave Burns, co-host of Burn & Gambo

It’s amazing to me how expectations define whether something is a success or failure. Hold up Herm Edwards’ first season next to Todd Graham’s last season, and in some ways it doesn’t look that different. But because the bar was set so low for a TV personality returning to coaching after years away from the profession, it feels like a success.

But it was a success. They were a Merlin Robertson targeting call away from perhaps playing for the Pac-12 title. Their competitiveness was evident in every game. Their willingness to use younger players helped them now and in the future. And the benefits appear to be paying off in the form of future recruits. Defensive coordinator Danny Gonzales is a rising star and someone who, in my mind anyway, is probably the next head coach of this program.

There’s a lot to like.

Next year will be a challenge. Replacing a three-year starter at QB is never easy, regardless of what you thought of Manny Wilkins. And no one can just fill N’Keal Harry’s role. But it’s clear Herm Edwards knows what he’s doing.

Vince Marotta, co-host of Bickley & Marotta

Yes, the Arizona State Sun Devils finished 7-6 for the second straight year. And yes, ASU lost a bowl game for the fourth time in its last five tries, but somehow these results feel different than they have in the past.

There are a couple reasons for that. First, the presence of Herm Edwards. I was one of the more vocal naysayers in town when Edwards got the ASU job seemingly out of nowhere. I listened to the university’s plan to revamp the football program and run it according to an NFL model. I doubted it, mostly because it sounded so strange and also because mediocrity with brief splashes of unsustained success have defined the Sun Devil football program since it joined the Pac-10 in 1978.

But ASU looked different on the field too. They featured the run. They actually played defense under first-year coordinator Danny Gonzales. They were competitive in every game, and heck, if a couple calls in San Diego and Oregon go their way, they might have had a different bowl destination.

Arizona State lauded Herm Edwards’ ability to connect with people, but the school actually may have undersold it. We’ve seen an uptick in recruiting (especially at the pivotal quarterback position) and there’s a general optimism about ASU football moving forward.

That general optimism is shared by me.

Luke Lapinski, host of The Rundown and reporter

I had two pretty distinct thoughts the day the Sun Devils hired Herm Edwards: 1) ASU was hyping the move up way too much, but 2) he would at least be a great person to have around the program. Beyond that, I didn’t really know what to expect.

Now as they wrap up year one at 7-6, I can’t help but be impressed. When this was all first announced, we didn’t even really know how it would work logistically. It was clear Herm was a great guy who knew football and would be able to recruit, but there was no real indication as to how that would translate on gamedays. Would the assistants be handling the majority of in-game stuff? Who even were the assistants?

As it turns out, Herm has taken over. He’s a calming force on the sideline, managing the clock and bringing an NFL mindset to the college game — where so many coaches just focus on trying to pile up crazy stats, rather than having the offense and defense work together to secure actual wins. And the addition of Danny Gonzales at defensive coordinator was a game-changer.

So yeah, to me 7-6 is a success. For now, at least. And yes, I get that they went 7-6 in 2017 under Todd Graham, but this feels different. This feels like a baseline to work up from. They beat UofA and mixed in signature wins over Michigan State and USC, and now Herm can really start to add his players going forward. Plus, an extremely young but talented defense that took some hits early this season gained experience and should be a major strength in 2019.

The questions are really on offense now, where the Devils lose N’Keal Harry to the NFL and will have to replace longtime starter Manny Wilkins at quarterback. Those won’t be easy holes to fill, but recruiting is going extremely well, especially at QB. And they’ll have Eno Benjamin back to be the centerpiece of the offense anyway.

Beyond that, ASU’s on the map nationally now. That was solidified the second they hired Herm, so it’s important that they put together decent results right out of the gate. With everyone watching, this became a great opportunity to build up the program’s image. But if they had struggled to a 4-8 record or something — a distinct possibility given how difficult the schedule appeared — that would’ve been a reason for many curious onlookers across the country to just write this off as a failed experiment and move on.

Instead, they seem to be setting the foundation for something. And at the end of the day, guys want to play for Herm. He dances at practice and takes the team on crazy road trips to get milkshakes and generally just makes it a fun experience. But he’s also a disciplinarian who commands respect from his players. That’s a strong mix that many coaches struggle to ever achieve.

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