ASU, Arizona football programs enter 2022 heading in different directions
Dec. 10, 2020. 70-7.
Every Arizona State and Arizona football fan remembers that Territorial Cup score.
Immediately following the game during a pandemic-shortened season, the Sun Devils were living on cloud nine while the Wildcats were at one of the darkest points in recent program history.
A year and a few months later, the programs have gone in different directions that those results didn’t necessarily reflect. From coaching changes to the world of recruiting with emergence of name, image and likeness, here is what has changed since then for the Sun Devils and Wildcats:
Expectations entering the 2021 season were very high for Arizona State despite the program going 2-2 in the COVID-19 shortened year that was highlighted by a beatdown of the rival Wildcats. Those expectations were not met as an NCAA investigation revealed over the summer hovered around the program.
Arizona State’s 8-5 record this past year marked the third time in four seasons that Herm Edwards and the Sun Devils made a bowl game.
Quarterback Jayden Daniels, mentioned as a potential Heisman Trophy candidate before the year, ended up regressing. In four of the team’s five losses, ASU trailed it’s opponent at halftime, struggling to make a comeback in the second half.
For the Wildcats, expectations were very low for first-year head coach Jedd Fisch. Arizona began the season with eight consecutive losses, ammounting to a 20-game losing streak, the longest in school history. A 10-3 victory over the California Golden Bears was the only win of 12 games for the Wildcats.
In the 2021 Territorial Cup matchup, it was the Sun Devils winning for the fifth consecutive time, beating up a banged up Wildcat team, 38-15.
The day after the 70-7 loss, Arizona head coach Kevin Sumlin was fired to finish 9-20 in three seasons for the Wildcats.
To fill the vacancy, Arizona turned to Fisch. Most recently an assistant coach under Sean McVay with the Los Angeles Rams from 2018-19 and a quarterbacks coach with the New England Patriots in 2020, Fisch was immediately thrown into the fire of a depleted program.
After the 1-11 campaign, most of the other coaches from Fisch’s first season are returning for a second year. Defensive coordinator Don Brown, however, was hired as the head coach for the University of Massachusetts. He was replaced by former UCLA defensive line coach Johnny Nansen.
In Tempe, ASU’s coaching staff has faced a massive overhaul in the past year amid an NCAA investigation into alleged recruiting violations.
Offensive coordinator Zak Hill and defensive coordinator Antonio Pierce resigned after the 8-5 season. Three other assistants who were on administrative leave during the 2021 season are no longer with the team. Glenn Thomas is the new offensive coordinator and interim defensive backs coach Donnie Henderson has been promoted to defensive coordinator.
To repair the program, Edwards has also brought in help to evaluate the offensive side of the ball. Super Bowl-winning head coach Brian Billick will serve as an offensive analyst for ASU in 2022. The history between Edwards and Billick stems from the NFL and connections from time as television analysts as well as connections through coaches.
“Like (special advisor) Marvin (Lewis), you have relationships with people and it just felt like at this point in time to do something for our offense and to give it a spurt and an outside look … We’ve got to do a better job offensively,” Edwards said during Newsmakers Week on Bickley & Marotta.
Amidst the chaos the program is enduring, Edwards remains positive with the backing from ASU president Michael Crow and vice president of university athletics Ray Anderson.
“As a coach, you realize that your No. 1 priority is your team and I have always had that mindset,” Edwards said. “It’s about the players and the people in the building … We’re excited about the players we’ve brought in here, they’re excited about being a part of the program and the team that is here with a lot of veteran guys, are excited about the guys we’ve brought in … We’re moving on. We’re getting ready for spring football and getting prepared to figure out how this thing is going to shake out.”
Taking over the Wildcats in 2021 already put Fisch and his staff in a disadvantage of players Sumlin recruited.
“We were in a weird situation,” Fisch said on Bickley & Marotta. “We arrived here on campus and we had no scholarships left … everyone signed early.”
With a 12-game losing streak heading into the 2021 season, Arizona was not an appealing destination for high school and transfer players.
“What we had to do is (2022) was our first recruiting cycle, this was our first class,” Fisch said. “So we didn’t look at what our record was a year ago, we looked at it as, what type of program are we going to run here, what’s our culture? What’s it going to look and feel like? We had 12 months to get our first recruiting class signed.
“Over those 12 months, we were able to let every one of those recruits who want to come and visit with us meet with our players and let them know what it looked and felt like.”
After the 1-11 season, recruiting was the fastest solution to produce hope for the program. Fisch delivered that hope.
The jump in recruiting classes is a huge accomplishment. After landing no recruits of four stars or better in 2021 while ranking 11th in the Pac-12 and 76th in the nation, according to 247 sports, Arizona flipped the switch. In 2022, the Wildcats received commitments from four four-star recruits, ranked second in the Pac-12 and is in the top 25 in the nation.
In addition to the recruits, Arizona landed Washington State transfer Jayden de Laura, who comes off a Pac-12 Freshman of the Year over the campaign with the Cougars.
“He brings obviously a lot of confidence, he brings a lot of talent, he brings a lot of football knowledge of the Pac-12 so now when you’re sitting there with him, Jordan McCloud, who only played two games for us last year … and then you got Will Plummer coming back and you have Noah Fifita arriving on campus, we got a much different quarterback room than we did,” Fisch said.
Arizona State’s recruiting was initially a strength for Edwards and his staff when he took over in December 2017. Over the past three seasons, the recruiting class improved each year, bringing in 15 combined four-star recruits, including quarterback Jayden Daniels.
However, the investigation hindered the 2022 recruiting class, which ranks last among all Pac-12 teams and 103rd in the nation, two years after ASU had the 28th-ranked recruiting class in 2020. Daniels also decided to enter the transfer portal on Thursday.
“Anyone who decides to leave the program has the ability to do that with the portal,” Edwards said. “I did this in pro football and when you have minicamp and the veterans don’t show up because of contracts or whatever, you don’t talk about the guys that aren’t here. You just talk about the players that are here. That’s my mindset and it’s only fair to the players that are here working everyday, the kids that showed up this morning.”
To give the offense and the entire team more firepower, Edwards needed to fill in the holes that transfers and seniors left after the 2021 season. With the most recent recruiting class ranking as the worst among all Pac-12 teams, Edwards has found an alternative way to bring in new faces.
“Our path is real simple, even before this [investigation] transpired. We were going to go into the portal,” Edwards said. “It’s the free agency of college football … We’ve got about four scholarships left and we’re going to dabble in the portal.”
Name Image and Likeness (NIL)
Part of the recruiting process now involves dealing with Name, Image and Likeness (NIL) deals that were approved by the NCAA in 2021, allowing collegiate athletes to earn money through sponsorships, merchandise and more.
At Arizona, most of the Wildcats’ programs — men’s basketball not included — are collaborating to bring in the best players in the nation.
The Friends of Wilbur and Wilma Collective and the Arizona Assist Club are two organizations designed to give the athletes easier access to NIL deals with local businesses, all working to create Arizona as a premier destination for athletes.
“We’re just getting started with it right now. We’re trying to have a better grasp of understanding, what is the right thing to do, what can we do, what is the best way to do it?” Fisch said. “ I think there is also plenty of opportunities, in a college town, that our guys can go out there and they can be the celebrities.
“They don’t have to compete with Kyler Murray or J.J. Watt or Devin Booker or some of the elite of the elite pro players in those areas. What we’re excited about is giving our guys the opportunities to do so.”
Like Fisch, Edwards also recognizes the importance of recruiting high school and transfer players with NIL on the mind. Edwards, as well as ASU president Michael Crow and vice president of university athletics Ray Anderson, expressed some skepticism with the current state of NIL deals in college football.
“That has become a big factor in college football,” Edwards said. “I think eventually it will work it’s way out but they have to put a cap on it. Because if not, it is going to be very difficult for a lot schools to deal in that world.”
While the performance of the Wildcats in 2021 was one of the worst seasons in school history, Fisch appears to be creating momentum for a program to dig out of a rut.
As for ASU, with the drop in recruiting, roster turnovers, a wide open quarterback position and an offense that will see it’s third different offensive coordinator in Edward’s five years as head coach, there is a lot of work that needs to be completed before the 2022 season.
Arizona State’s five-game winning streak over Arizona might have indicated the Sun Devils had things going well.
But starting just after that 70-7 Sun Devil rivalry win, things have gone in unexpected directions.
Their meeting on Nov. 25, 2022, could be another benchmark game for both programs.