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Sun Devils determined to change low expectations narrative

ASU LB Kyle Soelle: “Three-win team we’ve seen, we’re at rock bottom. We’ve seen it all and we just can’t wait to get on the field.” (AP Photo/Rick Scuteri)
ASU LB Kyle Soelle: “Three-win team we’ve seen, we’re at rock bottom. We’ve seen it all and we just can’t wait to get on the field.” (AP Photo/Rick Scuteri)

This summer, it is Arizona State football versus the world.

The players scrolled through the tweets and transfer portal talk, which became laminated and fastened to their weight room equipment. The unappealing conference rankings that pale in comparison to the expectation set a year ago. The scathing Athlon Sports magazine preview with a section from an anonymous Pac-12 coach who labeled the program as “the biggest dumpster fire in college football.”

The outside noise is not only loud in volume but has remained at a constant throb even as the college football offseason slumbers into its dog days.

It was mentioned in the first question lobbed at senior linebacker Kyle Soelle during the team’s second week of summer Zoom sessions. Usually bringing an all-business attitude to his time with the media, a think smirk crept across Soelle’s face and stayed there through the duration of his response.

“Everyone’s doubting us,” senior Kyle Soelle said Wednesday. “Three-win team we’ve seen, we’re at rock bottom. We’ve seen it all, and we just can’t wait to get on the field.”

Last season, Soelle contributed 82 tackles, a sack, and an interception from the middle linebacker position. It was his fourth year at ASU. Soelle knows to judge the team on their commitment to what has produced results.

“We see the work that gets put in every day,” Soelle said. “We see the performances we put on in practice, and we compete with each other every day. So we know what’s realistic. And we understand what the standards are within the building and not outside.

“Inside the building, we have a championship standard. We fell a little short last year, but we feel like, with everyone that we brought back, we’re still right there in contention.”

Soelle is expected to continue in his role as team captain, but there are several seats open at the table. Cornerback Chase Lucas is now a Detroit Lion. Linebacker Darien Butler is with the Las Vegas Raiders. Quarterback Jayden Daniels now wears a different uniform for the LSU Tigers.

Inevitably, new faces have taken on leadership roles with the team. Nickel cornerback Jordan Clark is a well-respected figure in the locker room. As the Pac-12 Network broadcast of ASU’s spring game in April concluded, Clark was captured leading a closing speech with the entire defensive back group huddled around him. His ascension, in his words, has been “smooth” because of the camaraderie within the unit.

“The great part about the secondary group in years past was that we had leaders like Chase and Jack (Jones), but we all held each other accountable,” Clark said. “There was no alpha; there was no guy that was above everyone else. It was equal opportunity and equal accountability for everyone in the group from the beginning, so transitioning to a leadership role, per se, has been an easy transition. But my teammates hold me accountable just as much as I do them throughout the entire program.”

Clark has served as the team’s primary nickel choice over the spring but has also spent considerable time at the Tillman safety position. Versatility will be expected from Clark this fall, and he has embraced the job by taking elements of his predecessors and implementing them into his game.

From Lucas: “Passion and love for the game . . . He really just loved Arizona state. And he loved playing football. And he approached working, and he approached every game with that intent.”

From Jones: “Supreme confidence all the time, always feel like you’re the best football player in the room.”

From former ASU safeties Evan Fields and DeAndre Pierce: “Those guys did a great job of pouring into me while they were still here, just with all the knowledge they have from the situation they’ve been in. So I really feel comfortable back there, and I can’t wait to kind of showcase that.”

The back half of the secondary entered the spring as a major area of concern. Khoury Bethley (Hawaii) and Chris Edmonds (Samford) were brought in to replace Fields and Pierce, who exhausted their eligibility. Clark wasn’t shy about displaying his confidence in the new arrivals. He views Bethely as a top 25 prospect at his position. For Edmonds, who nabbed three interceptions in 2021, he said the game film “speaks for itself.”

“Although they haven’t played as many snaps here, we’re still an experienced group,” Clark said.

After finishing first in points allowed, ASU’s defense is expected to be its strongest asset again this season. However, the impressive campaign did not come without its blemishes. A potential game-altering interception turned punchout fumble recovery at BYU comes to mind. So does a two-score lead blown after halftime at Utah a few weeks later. Soon after, the Sun Devils exited their bye and allowed 28 unanswered points to Washington State.

Soelle remembers those moments vividly but understands the importance of recognizing the teachings brought by failure.

“When we approach adversity like that, you pick people up, you stay positive, you move past the negative, and you just remember the goal at hand always,” Soelle said. “And I think those learning lessons last year, you’re gonna see them on the field this year, and it’s something we really harped on in this offseason. You know, not shooting ourselves in the foot, not allowing small things to affect the team. So we’re gonna continue to do that and looking forward to display it in full.”

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