12 big takeaways from Arizona State’s Big 12 media day

Jul 9, 2024, 2:52 PM | Updated: 8:40 pm

If Kenny Dillingham finds traction in his second season leading the Arizona State Sun Devils, he will sure as Sparky’s hell have earned it.

He’s hit recruiting hard despite an NCAA investigation hitting his program and, for six months, no athletic director working in a permanent capacity. ASU won three games last year in Dillingham’s first season and turned the roster over, including at the quarterback position.

And then there’s the whole new conference thing.

Dillingham was in Las Vegas on Tuesday for the first of two Big 12 media days leading into the college football season. Here’s what we learned from the Sun Devils’ head coach and others through appearances at the podium and on ESPNU.

1. What has Dillingham learned in Year 2, entering Big 12?

Dillingham admitted he’s learned how to better delegate to his staffers. He ran through one offensive coordinator, Beau Baldwin, after Dillingham took over play-calling mid-year in 2023.

ASU replaced Baldwin with Marcus Arroyo, a big name and former head coach himself, who certainly will relieve some offensive duties from Dillingham.

“I love football … And you don’t just get to watch football anymore,” Dillingham said of what he learned a year into his role. “What I’ve learned is I’ve got to trust the people around me to do football more and I’ve got to remove myself a little bit from that and not get as involved in game weeks. Just because I love it so much.

“I got to trust that if I ask somebody to make Italian food and he makes chicken parmesan that I’m going to like the chicken parmesan. I didn’t want him to make meatballs. If I wanted him to make meatballs, I should have told him to make meatballs. I’ve got to trust that.”

2. Big 12 scheme variation can’t compare

Arizona State’s head coach is preparing his players to see wildly different schemes lining up against them, especially on the defensive side.

“This league probably has the most variation of schemes especially defensively of any league I’ve been in. I’ve been in most of ’em except the Big 10,” Dillingham said on ESPNU.

He listed odd and even fronts — some with simulated pressures, some with three-high safeties.

“You have to build that into your preparation in fall camp so your quarterback doesn’t see that for the first time on gameday or going into a week,” Dillingham said. “You don’t have enough time.”

3. What’s the identity of the Big 12 coaches?

Dillingham is the youngest and most unproven of the group. Many have grown football programs at smaller outposts, places you wouldn’t think are built for big-time college football.

“For me in general, you see ball coaches,” Dillingham said.

Mike Gundy has built a brand at Oklahoma State since taking over there in 2005.

Kyle Whittingham has maintained something similar at Utah, the preseason media poll favorite to win the conference.

UCF’s Guz Malzahn has won at the highest level, in the SEC at Auburn, where he and Dillingham crossed paths.

Brent Brennan worked with few resources to win at San Jose State before taking over at Arizona.

Sonny Dykes has been around before a breakthrough title game run with TCU a few years back.

Kansas’ Lance Leipold has soaring stock after flipping the narrative at a basketball school.

You know Deion Sanders’ deal.

4. How about that new rival head coach?

Jedd Fisch’s Wildcats closed Arizona State’s season with a clinic last year, a 59-23 win.

You can be sure it didn’t sit well with the Sun Devil alumus. Dillingham was asked if he’s spoken to Brennan since he took over at Arizona. He gave a, uh, nice enough answer.

“We’ve talked a few times,” Dillingham said. “His son came to our camp this year. Good quarterback, good high school quarterback. Good guy. Glad to have him in our league.”

Brennan will speak to reporters on Wednesday.

5. A new experience for fans to bring energy back to Tempe

Dillingham is selling his players and his Sun Devil fans on taking something from the conference switch.

The Big 12 can teach them how to bring a rabid feel to Tempe.

Dillingham wasn’t slinging bad vibes, but he did admit the Pac-12 atmospheres were sometimes dull, estimating that ASU played “1.5” games with a silent count last season.

“I think most games on the road this year we’re going to have to be on a silent count,” Dillingham said.

6. The commissioner agrees

While Dillingham can sell you on small Big 12 outposts bringing big fan energy, Big 12 commissioner Brett Yormark brings confidence that it can translate to money.

He called the football conference the “deepest in football.” His goal is to push the Big 12 ahead of the SEC and Big 10.

“I think there’s a lot of parity. There’s 16 great coaches, there’s a lot of star power,” Yormark said. “Many of our programs have been building the last couple of years.”


7. So how’s ASU’s quarterback room shaping up?

Jaden Rashada’s transfer to Georgia at the tail end of spring ball may have been a surprise. But Dillingham believes he has two very different options in Sam Leavitt, a Michigan State transfer, and Jeff Sims, who has started at Nebraska and Georgia Tech.

“I feel good. I think we have a young guy in Sam Leavitt who cares. He’s passionate,” Dillingham said. “He actually reminds me of (former Oregon quarterback) Bo Nix in terms of his personality, his swagger, his demeanor, his type-A-ness — which is good ’cause I’m the opposite. I can balance him out. You try to be perfect but you have to go to the next play.

“Then you have a guy like Jeff Sims, who has every physical tool. He’s 6-foot-7, not quite that big (at 6-foot-4), built like a Greek god. So he has all the physical tools to go out there and be successful. Been a starter for four straight seasons now in college football. I think we have a great balance.”

8. Arizona State’s got size. Here’s how Dillingham knows

Multiple times, Dillingham pointed to this statistic:

Two players from the 2023 Sun Devils could squat over 600 pounds. Heading into 2024, it’s at six.

Forty-four players could squat more than 400 pounds last year. As of Tuesday, it’s now topping 65 players.

9. Corporate sponsor brand name

Yormark said “nothing’s imminent” about a sponsor becoming part of the conference’s name but did not deny he is looking at it.

He has experience with NASCAR when the Winston Cup Series became the Nextel Cup, then helped rename the then New Jersey Nets’ Continental Airlines Arena and helped push to sponsor the Barclays Arena with the franchise’s move to Brooklyn.

“Naming rights aren’t foreign to me. I see the value in them,” Yormark said. “If they’re the right naming rights and they’re the right partner. We’re going to explore it and see where we land.”

10. Tablets bring another new quirk in college football

Big 12 and Microsoft have a new tablet deal with the technology now allowed on the sidelines, yet another change that will come with corporate sponsors.

Dillingham is not worried about business deals. On the field, it adds another change.

“It’s like cheating. You don’t have to see the game live, you don’t have to adapt,” he said. “I think what it’s going to do is create bigger game plans. You’re almost going to have to carry, in my opinion, a larger game plan.”

11. A more scary Skattebo

Dillingham mentioned that running back Cam Skattebo, who piled up 783 yards last season, has focused on adding speed to his physicality.

“Our strength coach, Joe Connolly, he’s been great for me over the last year and a half,” the running back said on ESPNU. “When coach Joe brought to my attention that I needed to get faster, that’s kind of something that I focused on.”

Skattebo said the focus on improving his speed involved his running form.

“I didn’t really know how to run properly,” he said. “I run very tense. The thing is to run more relaxed when I run. It comes more natural (now).”

12. So what game is highlighted on Arizona State’s schedule?

“I’m excited to steal one back from Oklahoma State,” Skattebo said.

That could come on Nov. 2 in Stillwater.

Arizona State held up decently in a 27-15 loss in their second game of the year at home in 2023.

It gave the Sun Devils a decent look at Ollie Gordon II, the projected Big 12 Offensive Player of the Year who finished with an NCAA-leading 1,732 yards and 21 touchdowns by the end of the season.

Gordon will not miss playing time after a DUI arrest, Gundy told reporters on Tuesday.

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