At Millikan High School in Long Beach, Calf., Alden Darby did just about everything for his football family. Meanwhile, his real family was doing very little for him.
Darby played quarterback, running back and wide receiver in a Wing-T offense for Millikan, and was a standout cornerback on defense. As a senior in 2009 he led the team in passing and rushing yards and yet somehow found a way to finish third in receiving yards. He also led the team in interceptions and passes defended. If they'd asked Darby to be drum major, he probably would have done that too.
The performance by Darby last season was made all the more impressive by the fact that he often didn't know where he'd be sleeping on any given night or where the money for his next meal would come from. Throughout his life, Darby said his birth parents were frequently in jail or just absent and he had no place to call home much less a stable living environment.
But Darby persevered. In January, Arizona State coaches offered a scholarship -- his first -- and Darby accepted. It didn't mean his path to college was guaranteed, however, far from it.
"I had to do a lot," Darby said. "Actually, that's when the real work started. I was missing four core classes, I had to get into a lot of extra classes, I had to drop the wrong classes, I had to drop football (in the spring). Around January [ASU coaches] came in and changed my whole schedule, looked at my transcripts.
"I was in online classes, zero period (before school) and seven and eight periods (after school). I took about nine classes (in the spring). It was really hard. I couldn't work out, no social time, it was tough, all in the books every day. And it was a big transition to me because I wasn't used to all schoolwork but being [at ASU] was so important so I knew I had to get it done."
Now that he's got a stable environment, Darby is excelling. His background gives him a meaasure of maturity and perspective many incoming freshmen don't have, and it's translated on the football field and in film sessions and position meetings. Monday, Darby became the first true freshman on the roster to work with the first-team defense, doing so at nickel back.
"I love it, it's fun," Darby said. "The nickel role is fun blitzing off the edge and covering and just being with the [first-team] defense, I love it. I've still got work to do but I'm getting a lot of reps and getting good looks out there so I think it's going pretty good so far.
"I knew what I could do on the field and what I was capable of but then again I was kind of nervous and shy like maybe I might not bring what I can do well because I'm a freshman and maybe I'll just sit back in the corner, but it hasn't been like that. It's like, 'I'm here to play,' so that's been my mindset and the way the coaches want me to be. Everything is about getting on the field and I like being in that role."
Sun Devil head coach Dennis Erickson said Darby is a guy who would have had more scholarship offers coming out of high school -- Arizona eventually offered and Boise State offered a greyshirt opportunity -- if his grades were in better shape earlier in high school, but his program will be the beneficiary of Darby's hard work to become a full academic qualifier.
"I would say he's going to play," Erickson said. "We want to put him in nickel situations because he's so athletic and can run. It'll give him something to focus on so he doesn't have to learn everything. He's very athletic, can run. Again, he was a guy who kind of got lost underneath the radar that probably would have been heavily recruited. You've got to find guys like that."
A big part of Darby's accelerated growth over the last couple weeks has been due to the mentorship of junior cornerback Omar Bolden, who is persistent with his advice -- and praise -- to Darby.
"That's a blessing," Darby said of the relationship with Bolden. "I came here like, 'I'm going to have to learn all this stuff on my own,' but on the first day, Omar kind of took me under his wing and he's been showing me new things every day and it's definitely sped up the learning [process]. So that's definitely a blessing. It's like a big brother on the field. Whenever I don't think he's watching me, he's watching me, like, 'Oh Darby, you've got to break with your left foot,' or little stuff like that because he wants me to be good."
More than just wanting it, Bolden expects it. He knows it's what should happen if Darby stays focused on the task at hand.
"He's going to be real good," Bolden said while watching from the sidelines Monday. "Real good."
The adjustment to college hasn't been easy but with the help of Bolden and a seemingly excellent approach, Darby's taken to it about as well as any first-year player who has joined the program this summer.
"It's so different that it's kind of been like I started off at a new position I never played before," Darby said. "It's a lot of different footwork stuff, a lot of different techniques I never learned in high school. A lot of routes I didn't get in high school and it's faster. You've got to think on your toes at all times.
Many young players spend their time on the sidelines goofing around, but Darby is constantly dialed in. He's frequently heard yelling the defensive calls to teammates and providing situational commentary. It's the mental reps where Darby said he learns the most.
Best of all, there's no distractions. When practice is over, Darby will get a big meal and he'll have a safe, clean place to rest his head at night. It's the type of thing many of his teammates might take for granted, but he never will.
"Back at home with my background, I was everywhere," Darby said. "There was no telling what would happen every day. Just to be here I feel like I got a place of my own. That's a big thing for me, I have my own place. I got a fresh start and I'm in control of what I want my life to be from here on out. That's a really good feeling."
New look defense
The ASU defense worked for the first time in camp on instillation of a 3-4 defensive alignment -- what is commonly called a "30 front" in football parlance. In the look, there are three down linemen and four linebackers. Senior Gerald Munns and sophomore Vontaze Burfict played the role of inside linebackers.