“We should be top three in the Pac-12, in my opinion, every season. There’s no reason we shouldn’t be, every year, top-15 nationally, if we do what we’re supposed to do."
This was the vision laid out by Arizona State athletic director Ray Anderson on Nov. 26, 2017, the day he announced Todd Graham had been fired after six years as ASU's head football coach. One week later, Anderson left experts and Sun Devil fans stunned when he hired Herm Edwards, a longtime friend whom he used to represent as an agent.
The decision to hire Edwards, who had never been a head coach in college football, wasn't just an outside-the-box hire; it was outside the galaxy. The decision was met with derision and skepticism, including from yours truly.
But with his first season now in the books, Edwards has all but silenced his detractors. Picked to finish last in the Pac-12 South, the Sun Devils were competitive in every game they played in 2018, earning wins over ranked Michigan State and Utah teams, and recording an epic comeback victory in the annual Territorial Cup matchup. Aside from the Las Vegas Bowl, in which the Devils were without their top players on offense and defense, ASU didn't lose a game by more than seven points in Herm's first season.
So, Edwards' Devils overachieved, in the minds of most fans and experts, in Year One. But consider: ASU went 7-6 overall and 6-3 in the Pac-12 under Graham's watch one season earlier. And much of ASU's success came thanks to players brought in by the previous coaching staff, including senior quarterback Manny Wikins, star running back Eno Benjamin and wide receiver/likely first-round draft pick N'Keal Harry.
No, it wasn't realistic to expect Edwards to win 10 games and take ASU to the Rose Bowl in his first season at the helm. But it's important to remember that Herm and his coaching staff have a long way to go in order to meet Anderson's vision for a program that hasn't been to the Rose Bowl in 22 years, and hasn't won it in 32.
Under Edwards, can the Devils become that perennial top-15 team that competes for conference championships on an annual basis?
"There’s a reason I signed up to do this job. That’s our mindset, and that will always be our mindset," Edwards said Wednesday about Anderson's vision. "It’s a process. I think Ray, as well as (ASU president Michael) Crow, we understand the process, and we’re going to continue to work on it every day.
The first step in getting there will come down to Edwards' ability to retain top-level assistant coaches, something his predecessor failed to do. Priority No. 1: Retain defensive coordinator Danny Gonzales, who worked wonders with a young unit that featured five freshmen starters on defense, including Pac-12 Defensive Freshman of the Year Merlin Robertson. Gonzales, along with recruiting director/linebackers coach (and former Arizona Wildcat star) Antonio Pierce, have blazed the recruiting trail and have been instrumental in getting high-school athletes to buy into ASU's long-term vision.
Under Edwards, the Sun Devils have recruited well on both sides of the ball. On Wednesday, they introduced their 17-player early recruiting class for 2019, headlined by an elite trio of quarterbacks, including Jayden Daniels, the nation's top dual-threat QB. With Wilkins on his way out, one of those three commits will likely start as a true freshman next season.
As of Wednesday's early signing period, ASU had the fifth-ranked recruiting class in the Pac-12, and the 30th-ranked nationally; both marks are steps up from a year ago. Seven of the Sun Devils' 17 signees were rated as four-star prospects by at least one major recruiting outlet.
"When you look at some of the players that we’ve obviously signed, it makes you feel we’re going in the right direction," Edwards said Wednesday. "That’s the whole key to it."
ASU benefits from Edwards' star power on the recruiting trail, too. High-school kids look at him as a celebrity, thanks to his nine years as an ESPN analyst. Family, friends and neighbors all congregate at the homes of ASU's targets when Edwards makes a recruiting trip, just to get a glimpse of him. ASU football has seen an astounding influx of national attention simply because Edwards is the coach.
ASU head coach Herm Edwards will be on ESPN's signing day show at 12:10 pm. He will also be part of their coverage for the college football playoffs. The continued exposure the Sun Devils receive from that network is invaluable.— DevilsDigest.com (@DevilsDigest) December 19, 2018
By exceeding low expectations in his first year, Edwards has earned something important from Sun Devil Nation: the benefit of the doubt. But if some ASU fans remain skeptical, it's because they have seen this movie before: a new head coach who experiences instant success, largely with the players brought in by the previous regime, and then settles in to a mediocre 6 to 8 wins each season, capped by a mid-level bowl game.
It's now up to Edwards to prove he won't be the next Todd Graham, or Dennis Erickson, or Dirk Koetter. Herm's train is on the right track, but he knows it has a long way to go in order to reach the top-15 station.
"Good things are going to come, but hey, there’s (going to be) some hard times. That’s the way it works," Edwards said. "Football’s a funny game. You get knocked down, you've got to get up. We’ll get up when we get knocked down. We’ll keep pounding the rock, and we’ll get there."