Ninety Nine Yards and College Chaps had the opportunity to spend some time recently with Coach Danny Gonzales. Gonzales is the Assistant Head Coach & Defensive Coordinator at Arizona State University. Here’s what Coach had to say about life in Tempe…….
Last season for Arizona State
You had a very young defensive line last year, starting as many as six freshmen at times in games. How much of a challenge was that as a Coach? What was the most pleasing thing about how that season went?
You know, we have a long way to go before we meet the expectations to be as good as we want to be. But the young guys, their transition from the speed of the game from high school to college – it took probably half the season before those guys were really used to the speed of the game. Now physically they probably were not ready to play. So, I give them a lot of credit for playing as well as they did.
They kind of got worn out towards the end of the season. That was probably the most concerning thing as we were going along, was how they were going to hold up against guys who were 3 and 4 years more mature and had been in college weight programs. But I was proud of their effort and I was proud of what they did and we made good progress. We have still got quite a ways to go to be where we want to be. But we made good progress last year.
Last season, that Michigan State game seemed to be the stand out fixture, but you also beat USC, UCLA and UTAH – who won the conference – all of whom were big scalps. What was the season highlight for you?
I think playing well early on against Michigan State was really good. It gave the guys a lot of confidence. We had a big time advantage on that night as it was 108 degrees at kick off. And the game kicked off at 8.30pm our time, which was 11.30pm to their body time. So they will have something ready for us this year. It won’t be 108 degrees in East Lansing, so we’re going to have our guys ready to go.
Beating UCLA and USC in the same season has only been done five times here since we joined the PAC 10 in 1978, so that was exciting. It was exciting for the young guys to be able to do that especially as the USC game was played in the Coliseum. And then going in to the Utah game, I think other than the people in our locker room, nobody believed we could win that game. Our guys had no doubt. It took about a quarter and a half to get used to the speed of what they were doing.
But from that point on we played very well, we had a good day and the home crowd here in Sun Devil crowd here in Tempe is amazing. At the end of the UCLA game they (UCLA) had a hard time getting the ball off, they couldn’t hear the snap count and we got a couple of sacks because of it. So we need to pull on those little things to keep going next year. Those were probably the highlights, especially for that young group.
The 2019 Arizona State season
The schedule is tough again for you this season. You talked earlier about having to go to East Lansing. You’ve got Michigan State, Cal, UCLA, Oregon State and Utah all on the road. How do you prepare for those tough games on the road?
You know Coach (Herm) Edwards always says that a good run game and a good defence travel well. Our goal around here is to be great on defence and to be top 15 nationally every year. That’s what we expect our standard to be. We have quite a bit of improvement to go from 73rd where we finished last year to get in that realm nationally.
And then offensively, if we are able to run the ball, we will have a chance. I mean we played in nine one score games last year and we were 4-5. We’ve got to make a few more key stops in those games so that instead of going 4-5 in those games we can go 7-2, to 9-0 and see where it takes us from there.
And is there a particular game you are looking forward to? Or is it just one game at a time?
It’s definitely one game at a time. I get as nervous for Kent State as I do for any of the other ones. I’m just hoping that our guys are ready to play. You only get 12 guaranteed opportunities – so for as hard as these guys work all year long, all but about 5 weeks of the year, to only have 12 guaranteed opportunities to then hopefully have 13, 14 or 15. Each one of them has to be just as meaningful. And if you look ahead you ruin the one opportunity that you have. So, we’ll try try and take it one game at a time.
But I know around here, and I was exposed to it last year, when we play that team down South that I don’t want to refer to. But there’s those Wildcats. It’s a different deal on that day. I know that game is special around here for everybody. If we can start off right and continue to win all the way to that point it makes that game even more special.
You have had some players left to go to the draft and some players returning for you but I wondered how the off season recruiting had gone for you this year?
You know, on paper its gone really well. The biggest thing is that you don’t really know for 2-3 years how good that recruiting class really is. Because we were so inexperienced last year and had to play all those Freshmen – our 2018 class, the 10 guys we signed from the point that we got hired in late December thru that first signing date in February 2018 – those guys have proved to be pretty good players.
We have a Freshman All American Linebacker in Merlin Robertson who was also Pac 12 Defensive player of the year. Aashari Crosswell was named as an All American. And then as you said earlier we had 5 to 6 Freshmen starters at times during the season. That recruiting class appears to be pretty good.
On paper for 2019 we think we’ve got some really good players including a couple of quarterbacks in there. And then another quarterback in Ethan Long who we plan on using all over the field. So I think the recruiting aspect is going well.
Every coach knows that if you don’t have good players, you’re not going to be a very good coach so we need to continue that. And as we continue to win around here those players should get better and better. And if we can keep sending guys to the NFL draft, it helps with everything around here.
Road to the NFL Starts Here
You spent a lot of your career coaching Safeties. How does this group compare with other groups that you have coached?
I’m really excited by our young guys that we have around here. And I think potentially that they have the chance to maybe be the best group that I’ve coached. Now in 2013 at San Diego State we had Nate Berhe and Eric Pinkins who were both taken in the NFL draft. I think we’ve got a couple of guys that have that same opportunity over the next three years. And then the class that just got here, the 2019 class we just talked about, I think is super talented. If we can get some decent pressure up front we have a chance to be really really good. They are young, they are fun to be around and they absolutely love the game of football which makes it even more enjoyable.
I wanted to talk about a couple of your players in the team just now, Eno Benjamin and Merlin Robertson, who as you mentioned before are stand out players. For me, they look to be well on track to having pro football careers ahead of them. As a coach is it obvious when you see kids early who is going to progress through College in to the pro game or do you get surprised every now and then.
You definitely get surprised every now and then. But for the guys like Merlin and Eno and N’Keal Harry you can see those guys have a special talent from the time they are young. They understand the game, they play it different from most of their co-players. So its not that hard to tell but what you don’t want to do as coach is screw them up. So you give them enough information that they can hone their skills and play fast. You dont want to confuse them and slow them down as then you’ve done them a disservice, so we try to keep it very simple for those guys.
Merlin, I think had a tremendous freshman year. He wont sneak up on any body this year. He’s 6’3 & 250lbs and he can run. He’s a good kid and the kids like to be around him. He is a good leader on the field so we’re going to try to keep him from going through a sophomore slump. So we’ll just keep it simple and play it fast.
Eno Benjamin on the other hand…
So at my previous school, San Diego State, we recruited him really hard and he ended up coming here to Arizona State. We had a group of really good running backs there (at San Diego State) that he would have fit that same mould. I’m really really glad he’s on this team now and that I’m here. Our offensive coaches have a pretty big advantage because its almost like the triple option. They don’t have to block one guy because Eno will make that first guy miss. The first guy never tackles Eno Benjamin. And then he’s perfected that spin move. He works on his craft, he’s a hard worker in the weight room. He’s got a bright future ahead of him.
The key for those two guys is to keep healthy. We’ve got a great academic program around here – we’re a top 100 public university. Those guys should both be graduated after their third year so when they leave to the NFL , if they leave early as we anticipate Eno having a good enough year to do that, he’ll leave with his degree which is the most important part and as long as the coaches don’t screw him up – they have the chance to be really special.
At the Pac 12 media day there was a lot of talk about 9am kick off’s , how significant an impact on your game day preparations would that be if you had to have an early kick off?
I think eating a pre game meal at 5 or 6 o’clock in the morning would be a little different. I played in a couple of 10 o’clock kick offs in my career and it was a little different. As far as the game time, we practice at 9am every day around here so our kids would be physically and mentally prepared to do that.
I think your biggest question mark would be around how many people would show up. If you’re winning a bunch of football games I don’t think it will matter – people will show up. If not it gives them another excuse to stay home and watch it on TV. But if it gives the Pac 12 an advantage in any way, if it puts us on tv in front of more faces and gets more people to come out here to play football or more people to come watch it out here – I’m all for it. So just being one of the great institutions of the Pac 12, whatever we can do to celebrate this great league and make it more known we are willing to do.
Herm & Marv
How has it been working with Coach Edwards and having Marv Lewis in the facility. What’s it like when you hear Herm Edwards saying you were his first call?
I was very honoured. I did not know Coach Edwards personally but I knew him from afar, watching him on TV like most people. I’ve known Coach Lewis as our paths have crossed quite a few times. He coached at the school I went to, at the University of New Mexico when I was younger. So being able to be around these two guys is just a great honour and for Coach Edwards to think highly of me and give me the opportunity.
I just absolutely love working with him – he’s a great human being , a great football coach with a great football mind. And then when he told me he had the opportunity to get Marv Lewis back in to the game when he resigned from Cincinnati – you know, the funny thing with old ball coaches, we cant be at home alone for very long – we get bored, we get lonely. We just want to be around other football guys.
So, I was super excited as these two guys have coached on two of the greatest defences in the history of this game.
In 2002 when Coach Lewis was with the Baltimore Ravens and he had Ray Lewis and those guys and they won the Super Bowl.
They went 5 straight games in that season where the offence didn’t score a touchdown and they won three of those ball games. I mean that is amazing and then to go on and win the Super Bowl in that same year.
When Coach Edwards was with Coach Dungy in Tampa Bay and that defence won games 9-7 and 9-6 – that was routine for those guys, they lived in that world. And I tell our guys on defence all the time I have no problem living in that world. You just can t give up big plays, because one play might be the difference in the game.
And being able to learn from these guys and take their experiences and take their words of wisdom has just been fabulous for me. Since I’ve been here with Coach Edwards for the last two years now and Coach Lewis in the last 6 months its been phenomenal.
I have seen some clips on YouTube about your knowledge and history of the game. You seem to have an encyclopaedic knowledge of the game. Do you enjoy that? Do you spend time reading up and studying the game? Or do you just have a natural knack for remembering this kind of stuff?
You know, I do have a pretty good memory, I can remember stuff but I’m a big history buff whether it be world history, whether it be the game of football.
The game of football has been really kind to me. I have two degrees because of it. It’s created a wonderful life for my family. We’ve been very fortunate and I’ve been blessed in the opportunities that I’ve had.
When I worked with Coach Long for 20 years we were very successful and when you’re successful you have other opportunities that give you opportunities to set your self up with your family and thats the most important thing for me.
I think if you’re going to be invested in something you might as well be all in.
And to be all in you have to know why they have been good and where it comes from. And as I said earlier I love the game of football and any opportunity I get to watch it, whether it be an old game or old cut ups.
Football is like everything else in this world. It’s like clothing styles – everything seems to circle its way back around and we can steal things that guys did in 1980, perfect it and adapt it to what they are doing in todays college game.
So there is power in knowledge and the more you learn the more you are willing to open yourself up to the more opportunity you have to be successful.
I’ve been fortunate that I’ve been around guys that have been coaching for a long time. Coach Long has been a college coach for nearly 40 years. Coach Edwards in his career as a coach, a player and scout has been involved with football for over 40 years also. I’m a seeker of knowledge and I try to soak up everything like a sponge and use it to my advantage if i can. As I said if you’re going to be invested in something you might as well be all in.
I’ ve heard this before from other coaches where they take little bits from each coach that they have worked with. And you talk about working with Rocky Long and Herm Edwards and Marv Lewis. Is that what happens – you just take little bits as you go along and accumulate this knowledge as you go and you end up being a little bit of everybody?
I think so. I was very fortunate I played for Gary Patterson who was the defensive coordinator at the the University of New Mexico, (now the Head Coach at at TCU), when I was a Junior and Sophomore. And then Coach Long came in with Bronco Mendenhall – who is now Head Coach at Virginia. And I have strong relationships with all those guys. I think you can take bits and pieces of what they teach and how they teach it.
But I think if you are going to be a successful coach, the only way to do it is to be yourself. If you try and be who they are, I think you do yourself a disservice and its not genuine. So I think you learn everything you can from those guys. You can take aspects but you got to have your own personality and put your own twist on it or you don’t have a chance to be successful.
I was taught a long time ago in this business, in recruiting and in coaching you’ve got to the able to build trust with players, your other coaches and with your recruits. And the number one way to do that is not to lie. If you don’t lie you don’t ever have to remember what you say. And when you try and take someone else’s personality on and be somebody else it just doesn’t come across as genuine. So I think you can take certain aspects from every coach I’ve worked with – which I have done. I think I have bits and pieces of all that they have shared with me and then I just try to be myself. When you do that you have the best opportunity to be successful.
Arizona State Sun Devils
I saw a quote attributed to you which said “I have a vision of making Arizona State to be a very, very unique place” – what did you mean by that?
Well you know if you look back at the history of our program, we have played college football for 122 years. Our first coach Frederick Irish, who had the 3rd longest tenure of any football coach in Arizona State history and then you go all the way to Coach Kush who was here from ‘59 to ‘78 as the Head Coach. He had an idea of how to make Arizona State football great and he did it with some disadvantages to what we have now. The conference he started in, the Border Conference, wasn’t nearly as good, although a good conference in that day and age, as the Conference now.
They moved up to the WAC (Western Athletic Conference) and it took them about 7 seasons before they were dominant in the WAC. And then they dominated that league.
Then he had an opportunity to leave.
The story goes that they lied to him and didn’t provide him with what he was going to have at the school that was going to hire him. He made his way back here and from ‘69 to ‘75 they went 51-6. That record by any program in major college football history is just something that is almost impossible to do. And it was done here in a great league.
So, he was able to get Arizona State football into the PAC 10 (it was the PAC 10 at the time) and we got invited into the PAC 10 in 1978. In those 40 years that we have been in that league, we’ve struggled to continue the success that he had. We’ve had times when we have been very successful, but Coach Kush won 8 or more games in 13 of his 22 seasons, Since Coach Kush resigned as coach here we’ve had 12.
We need to continue to build and we have everything we need here.
We have a great metropolitan area in the Phoenix area. It’s very welcoming for people to live and you can get great recruits here. The state of Arizona football and Arizona inter athletic scholastics has gotten a lot better because of the number of people who are now here living in the community. So it gives you another great opportunity. And while a lot of people are concerned about the in state recruiting world, if we keep winning more games more of those kids are going to want to stay home.
If you look at the tradition when Coach Kush was here, he was from Pennsylvania. They had probably 8-11 kids on the roster every year from that neck of the woods. We’ve got plenty of coaches here that have contacts – we’ve now got a little bit of a pipeline in Georgia – so we look to continue to be successful with those kids. But the predominance of our roster will be from California. I think you have an opportunity here with the commitment Ray Anderson and Dr Crow has given Coach Edwards and the staff, you have an opportunity to be very special.
And like I said at the beginning of the interview, you are a special coach when you have special players.
If we find the right guys in recruiting and we coach them well you’ve got an opportunity to be very special here. In 1970 we won the Polling National Championship and in 1975 we won the Sporting News National Championship. Now that we have a CFP I think we are in a good enough league to build a good enough team.
It starts with the Offensive line and the Defensive line and then you work your way out from there. If you’re mean and nasty and win every game in preseason and then go through the conference undefeated, you’re going to be in the conversation to be in the CFP. And I think we have the ability to do that here.
I think every Power 5 has the ability to do that. Some of them have more challenges. But i think we have a great opportunity with everything we have here. And it starts with Dr Crow giving us the support that we need and so far they have done that. And thats why I’m excited to be here. My family loves the City of Tempe and I think we can build something very special.
You played football at New Mexico, you have coached at San Diego State and now you are with the Sun Devils at Arizona State. What’s Coach Danny Gonzales thoughts for the future? Whats his aspiration for whatever is next – whenever that might be?
I try not to look too far ahead into the future. You get pulled in many directions. I’ve been very protected in this career so far. Like you said I’ve played at New Mexico and I coached there for 12 years with Coach Long. And then I coached at San Diego State for 8 years. I had opportunities to to go to other places but I was given a lot of great advice that I took wholeheartedly. I was patient with the opportunities that came and when Coach Edwards came and offered me this, it was an opportunity that I couldn’t refuse.
I’ve got a family with 4 kids and my wife is the greatest thing in the world to me. We’ve got two boys that actually attend Arizona State and Ive got two younger girls that are 5 and 7. It’s very uncommon in this profession that kids get to go through school without having to move. We got my two older boys through middle school and then they got to go through high school without having to leave. Our younger girls are now entering kindergarten and 2nd grade.
So if I can be in Tempe for the next 12 or 13 years I would be extremely excited.
That would make two things happen. That would mean that we are pretty dang good on defence around here and we have won a bunch of football games for 12 or 13 years and then my girls would be graduated from school in the same area with the same friends.
That’s important to me. If we build this thing like I think we can. You know, you lose 10% of your support every year unless you are winning championships. Well, when we get to year 9,10,11 and 12 we better be winning championships or they are going to be running me out of here. So that is the long term plan and you never know whats going to happen. But that’s what I would like to envisage.
I’m sure the Sun devils would be delighted with that plan as it comes to fruition. Well that leads me nicely to say thank you very much Coach Danny Gonzales. I wish you and The Sun Devils the very best for the coming season. I hope you have a great season and thank you very much for taking the time out to talk to us.
No problem George, thank you. I appreciate you having an interest in our programme. Good luck with your website. I think its awesome that you guys are spreading the game of football over there in Europe.
With thanks to Coach Danny Gonzales and the Communications team at Arizona State University.
Photo credit (title): Dwayne Ong, 247 Sports