College Football

Arizona State coach Herm Edwards is always teaching

May 17

By RJ Young
FOX Sports College Football Writer

In Year 4 at Arizona State, Herm Edwards has the Pac-12 right where he wants it.

For him, football has changed. You still have to run the ball, and you still have to play defense. But your offense can no longer afford to play 10 on 11; the quarterback has to be able to get himself out of trouble.

Your linebackers have to be able to run and cover, and your safeties have to be able to line up in a foot-nine-technique and pass rush. The sport is no longer played between hash marks.

The game is played out in space, in one-on-one matchups, with the ball in the air. You have to provide solutions to those problems, and you have to attack those problems with forward-thinking – not dogma.

"If you can survive in space," said Edwards, this week's guest on "The No. 1 Ranked Show with RJ Young," "you can have a pretty good career for football."

Teaching players to survive is Edwards' job. Giving his players the tools, the drills, the fundamental answers to problems on (and off) a football field is his job.

In that way, he still believes in the huddle.

"Sports is great in this sense: We huddle," Edwards said. "A mass of athletes and people come together in this huddle, and it becomes this team. And we all come from different walks of life. But it doesn't matter because we become a team because we huddle, and we have these conversations in the huddle. 

"And some guy might believe this, and some guy might believe that, and I believe that, but at the end, we communicate. And we listen. And we learn about each other."

His players have learned they have the foundation to compete for titles.

Herm Edwards returns a very experienced squad for his fourth season in Tempe. (Photo by Kevin Abele/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

The Sun Devils return virtually their entire team from a year ago, and the defensive depth is unprecedented, with NFL Draft hopefuls and sixth-year seniors all over defensive coordinator Antonio Pierce’s scheme.

The defense led the league in scoring defense (23.3 points per game) and was surprisingly good at creating takeaways and protecting the ball offensively. So good were the Sun Devils in those two categories that they quietly finished the season ranked No. 1 in the nation in turnover margin – despite playing just four games in 2020.

Offensively, Edwards’ team is one of just two programs in the Pac-12 South that returns a three-year starter at quarterback in Jayden Daniels.

He has thrown 22 touchdown passes and just three interceptions, living up to the expectations Sun Devil fans had for the first quarterback in school history to win the starting job as a true freshman.

Along with Daniels, linebacker Merlin Robertson, cornerback Chase Lucas and safety Evan Fields are all back, giving the Sun Devils a shot to play in their first Rose Bowl since 1997 and, perhaps, win it for the first time since 1987.

What I’m saying is Edwards has built a West Coast contender, and he has done that by being the hardest thing in the world: himself.

To look at his background and his upbringing, it would be easy to believe that Edwards is unique, isolated even. He’s the son of interracial marriage when such a thing was still illegal in many states.

His father, Herm Edwards Sr., was a Master Sergeant in the U.S. Army for 22 years. He met the woman he’d marry, a German woman named Martha, on a base in Germany shortly after World War II ended.

They were not welcomed when they moved to Fort Monmouth, New Jersey, where their son was born in 1954. They were harangued by both Black and white folks.

Some white folks were racist toward them, while some Black folks were xenophobic toward Martha for having the audacity to marry whom she loved.

In 1960, the family moved to Seaside, New Jersey, and found themselves unwelcome there, too. A petition was passed around among their neighbors asking their real-estate agent not to sell the Edwardses their home.

When the family moved to Fort Ord in California, they found the climate a bit more amenable, but not so much so that schools had desegregated. Indeed, Edwards was one of the first Black students bused across town in Berkeley schools in 1968.

Even as an adult and an NFL pro, Herm Edwards, perhaps most famous as a player for the "Miracle at the Meadowlands," was once refused entry into a nightclub in what became his hometown because he is Black.

Long before he became a coach, Edwards (at right, covering Steelers receiver John Stallworth) was a standout defensive back for the Eagles. (Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images)

Since then, he has become one of the select few Black men who have been head coaches at the NFL and FBS levels. Edwards also enjoyed a fruitful stint as one of ESPN’s most beloved analysts.

The benefit of his experience is not only wisdom but also understanding the brave nature and fearless execution of today’s players using their influence, particularly in forms of social media, to push for positive change for themselves and others.

"What I'm proud of," Edwards told FOX Sports, "when I watch young people in today's world, the power they have due to social media and the platforms and how they use them, is to create an atmosphere where we are America. And it is a collection of people, all different walks of life in different colors of different nationalities. And young people get that. They really get that."

As the anniversary of the killing of George Floyd approaches, Edwards is committed to his refrain, a refrain he has affected for nearly a year. For him, the quest to become a more perfect union isn’t so dissimilar from how he believes you win football games: We have to huddle.

"And until we're willing to huddle and listen, you can't solve anything, right?" he said. "Eleven guys walk into the huddle, and if everybody wants to call your own play, we ain’t got a play. Here's the play. This is what it looks like. We've practiced it. Now let's go execute."

The game has changed. It’s no longer played between the hash marks. It’s played out in space.

It’s played in the street, on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. It’s played in the relentless pursuit of a just society.

RJ Young is a national college football writer and analyst for FOX Sports. Follow him on Twitter at @RJ_Young. Subscribe to "No. 1 Ranked Show w/ RJ Young" on YouTube and wherever you get your podcasts. He is not on a StepMill.

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