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ASU’s Robert Rodriguez looking to ‘change the narrative’ of defensive line

Arizona State defensive end Jermayne Lole (90) drags down Michigan State quarterback Brian Lewerke (14) for a sack during a college football game between the Michigan State Spartans and Arizona State Sun Devils on September 14, 2019 at Spartan Stadium in East Lansing, MI. (Photo by Adam Ruff/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

The Arizona State Sun Devils have seen quite the turnover of defensive line coaches, hiring six over the past six seasons.

No. 6 is hoping to curb that trend.

First-year defensive line coach Robert Rodriguez comes to the Sun Devils football program having spent the last five seasons with the Minnesota Vikings, adding to the fusion of NFL and collegiate voices in ASU’s ranks.

He’s already seeing the positives in getting the best of both worlds.

“I think it’s such a great mix. The thing about the NFL is there’s so much dedication to the game and so much detail involved in what we do,” Rodriguez told Tim Healey of the Maroon Monsoon show on 98.7 FM Arizona’s Sports Station on Thursday. “It really becomes a great chess match, it’s very exciting. Coaching matters, the details of the game matter and there’s just so much that you have to invest into the game in order to survive.

“I’m not talking about thrive, just survive, in that league and those who weren’t evolving and constantly watching the game and thinking about new and innovative ways to do it, they can’t survive. That mentality taken into the college game is really exciting. … They get to be college athletes at this great university, this awesome place, but their education and their education in football are second to none. The knowledge they get to receive is unbelievable.”

Rodriguez enters his first season with the Sun Devils in an unprecedented time. He was working remotely with coaching staff near the beginning of his tenure with the team due to the coronavirus pandemic.

But now he’s in Tempe full-time, and finally getting his hands on the group of athletes he inherited.

They might not be recruits that Rodriguez personally had a hand in bringing aboard, but they’re Sun Devils, and that’s all that matters to the D-line coach.

“I have a high standard, so that needs to be established. I’m not hard to please,” Rodriguez said. “The first thing we base it on is honesty. The thing I try to do is be genuine to my players. … When people say ‘player’s coach,’ I don’t really want to put it in that way. I’m a teacher first and foremost. I hope I put forth a great example of how to work and how to care about your team before yourself.

“My coaching style’s about knowledge, being a teacher, being available to my guys and doing whatever it takes to make them successful. … True coaches are teachers and they’re not successful until that guy succeeds. That’s where I see myself. … I want to make the average player good, the good players great and the great players the best. That’s my drive every single day.”

Luckily for Rodriguez, ASU returns a handful of defensive linemen, most notably juniors Jermayne Lole and linebacker-turned-lineman Tyler Johnson.

Last season, Lole paced the Sun Devils in sacks (6.5), was fourth on the team in tackles (71) and added two pass deflections to his 2019 resume. For his efforts, he was named an All-Pac-12 honorable mention.

Rodriguez views Lole as a natural pass-rusher, who can beat the man in front of him and torment opposing quarterbacks. Throwing “the consistent mismatch” in Lole on the edges will only give the junior more opportunity to put his skillset to proper use.

Johnson chipped in 2.5 sacks (third on the team), 21 tackles, two passes defensed and a forced fumble. Johnson returns to the program after initially retiring from the game due to injuries in January. In two seasons with the Sun Devils, he’s amassed 6.5 sacks, 59 tackles, three pass deflections and two forced fumbles.

“Tyler’s got a really good skillset. Tyler, also when he wants to go, is impressive,” Rodriguez said. “Physical, really just a big man with good balance, good athletic ability, smart guy. He can diagnose and see quite a bit of things, so he’s been able to have a lot of position versatility.

“Transitioning to what we’re doing, he’s doing a good job, really is. This last week I think was his best week. He’s done a lot of good things for us. Tyler has a lot of potential. I really hope for his sake that he just remains consistent and continues to dedicate himself to what we’re doing.”

Fellow juniors D.J. Davidson and T.J. Pesefea have also caught Rodriguez’s eye as he works to transition the line from 3-3-5 to a base defense with four down linemen.

Rodriguez has seen a different player in Davidson that he originally saw on tape, noting just how powerful the 320-pounder is. He finished with 1.5 sacks, 51 tackles and a pass deflection in 2019.

Pesefea, while behind Davidson at the nose spot, has starter qualities and reminds the coach of some of his Vikings players who were “making the people around them better.” He’s the most improved guy in Rodriguez’s group of linemen, the coach added.

“My guys are responding by working their tails off,” Rodriguez said. “Those guys are fully committed to changing the narrative around here about what this D-line has been all about. … What we do determines how our defense as a whole is gonna play. Those guys know that.

“On a daily basis, I put that responsibility on their shoulders. What we do and where we go is gonna direct traffic for the rest of this defense. If we want to be the team we want to be, we need to be consistent, aggressive and disciplined on the defensive line. I’m excited to see us get out there and get this done.”

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