Countdown to College Football Kickoff: Top NFL prospects at Arizona State
College football is scheduled to return Saturday, August 29. Each day until then, NFLDraftScout.com will be evaluating the rosters of the best teams in college football, including all 64 within the Power Five conferences.
Arizona State Sun Devils
Head Coach: Herm Edwards (third season)
2019 Record: 8-5
2020 NFL Draft Picks: Brandon Aiyuk, WR, San Francisco 49ers – First Round, No. 25 overall
Eno Benjamin, RB, Arizona Cardinals – Seventh Round, No. 222 overall
Don’t look now but former NFL head coach Herm Edwards is building something at Arizona State.
For the second consecutive season, his Sun Devils pulled off a fiery home upset of a highly ranked conference foe in November, upending eventual Rose Bowl champion Oregon’s chances at a playoff berth with a 31-28 win, after nearly doubling up Utah (38-20) in Tempe in 2018.
Last year’s big win over Justin Herbert and the Ducks was highlighted by the play of Arizona State’s own quarterback, then-freshman Jayden Daniels, who outplayed the eventual No. 6 overall selection by the Los Angeles Chargers that day, completing 22 of 32 passes for a season-high 408 yards and three touchdowns with no interceptions. Daniels earned Edwards’ trust from the outset of the season, becoming the first true freshman quarterback to ever start the opener at Arizona State and eventually earning Honorable Mention All-Pac-12 honors as Offensive Freshman of the Year, tossing 17 touchdowns on the year against only two interceptions while also chipping in another 355 yards and three scores on the ground.
While Daniels’ stellar start should have Sun Devils’ fans excited, Arizona State is facing a complete makeover at the other skill positions, losing the bulk of their receiving and rushing yardage last year to the NFL in the form of draft picks Brandon Aiyuk and Eno Benjamin.
An offensive line boosted by graduate-transfers Kellen Diesche (Texas A&M) and Henry Hattis (Stanford) as well as the return of sixth-year player Cade Cote, however, should help Arizona State’s offense regain its rhythm.
Edwards’ intensity can be seen in the Sun Devils’ defense, which boasts playmakers at every level, led by a talented and experienced secondary that will draw plenty of interest from the NFL.
Finally, one area that must not be overlooked when discussing the Sun Devils is their pair of NFL-caliber specialists in punter Matt Turk and placekicker Christian Zedejas, who combine to give Arizona State arguably the best legs in college football.
You might remember the former, a nephew of the 19-year NFL punter Matt Turk, who actually entered last year’s draft but in a seemingly unprecedented ruling by the NCAA, was allowed to return to ASU after going undrafted due to the complications of the Covid-19 pandemic. The 6-0, 226 pound Turk set a school record last season – his first at ASU – by averaging 46.0 yards per attempt, which tied for 11 nationally and earned him First Team All-Pac-12 honors.
Zendejas, a former walk-on also in his first year as a starter, was a surprise star for the Sun Devils last year, leading the Pac-12 with 23 field goals (out of 27 attempts). His four successful field goals were pivotal in ASU’s 20-14 win over Florida State in the Sun Bowl, tying the single-game record for the bowl.
While each is draftable, one has to go back to Edwards’ favorite position – cornerback – to find the Sun Devils’ best NFL prospect, one with the agility and ballskills to perhaps give ASU its third consecutive first round pick, and fourth since 2015.
Featured 2021 NFL Draft Prospect: Jack Jones, CB, 5-10, 170, 4.45, SR
Given that he started just one game for in his debut season last year for Arizona State, it might seem preposterous to suggest that Jones could be an early round NFL draft pick next spring.
The same electric athleticism and ball-skills which helped him earn five-star grades from recruiters back in 2016 – and more importantly lead the USC Trojans in interceptions after starting 14 games for the conference champions as a true sophomore – was readily apparent at ASU last year, as well, warranting the Honorable Mention all-conference votes he received last year.
A closer look reveals that while Jones may have only started one game for the Sun Devils, he played in all 13, leading the team in both interceptions (three) and passes broken up (13), while chipping in 45 tackles and a forced fumble.
Given his tools and previous success, Jones’ play wasn’t surprising. It certainly was noteworthy, however, as Jones did not play in 2018. He spent the year at Moorpark College after being dismissed at USC by head coach Todd Helton following an academic suspension and other off-field issues in 2017, including a misdemeanor count of commercial burglary.
With his legal status cleared up, Jones was once again a highly regarded recruit, generating interest from virtually every program in the country, just as he did as a two-way star for powerhouse prep program, Long Beach Poly, then coached by former NFL linebacker Antonio Pierce.
Edwards made Pierce his linebackers coach upon signing with Arizona State and the connection with his former player paid off, helping lure Jones to the desert.
While Jones’ background and lack of ideal size are legitimate causes for concern, his raw talent is undeniable, making a meteoric rise up draft boards similar to the one enjoyed last year by former teammate Brandon Aiyuk possible.
Strengths: Easy mover with light feet, loose hips and greasy knees to change directions in a flash and accelerate even quicker. Has the straight-line speed to handle vertical threats and shows excellent balance out of his breaks, running the routes for receivers, at times. Experience playing on offense shows in his understanding of what receivers are trying to do with Jones exhibiting the route recognition to take advantage of his athleticism.
Excellent ballskills for a cornerback, showing the ability to track the ball over his shoulder and make difficult grabs look easy. Plucks the ball outside of his frame and turns into a scoring threat once the ball is in his hands, returning both punts and kicks at USC...
Plays with a gambler’s mentality, trusting his eyes and quickness to break on quick throws and ripping at the ball in an effort to force fumbles. Generally a reliable open-field tackler with long arms and excellent hand-eye coordination to lasso ballcarriers. More physical than he looks, flashing willingness to drop his shoulder into opponents.
Further, Jones plays bigger than his frame, in part because of his long arms, which he uses well to snake around the frame of receivers to slap the ball away as it arrives, as well as showing excellent timing and explosive leaping ability to compete on jump balls.
Weaknesses: Slim frame with relative tooth picks for limbs, raising concerns about his ability to match up with the monsters at receiver in today’s NFL, as well as Jones’ long-term durability. Plays bigger than his size but simply lacks ideal knockdown power, an issue made worse because Jones often tackles high, occasionally getting taken for a ride.
Too often is left hanging onto the ballcarrier, waiting for the cavalry to finish the job. A trash-talker, who can draw the ire of officials.
Requires a thorough vetting following a June, 2017 arrest and felony charges of commercial burglary and conspiracy to commit a crime following an incident at a Santa Paula restaurant. The charges were ultimately reduced to a misdemeanor with Jones placed on probation, in lieu of jail time. The arrest came roughly a month after Jones was ruled academically ineligible at USC.
NFL Player Comparison: Janoris Jenkins, New Orleans Saints – It is a case of risk vs. reward with these two twitchy, albeit undersized cover-corners. Both possess the playmaking ability to earn Pro Bowl votes – if they can stay out of trouble.
Current NFL Draft Projection: Second Round
The Top 10 NFL Prospects at Arizona State:
1. Jack Jones, CB, 5-10, 170, 4.45, SR
2. Chase Lucas, CB, 6-0, 175, 4.45, rSR
3. Merlin Robertson, OLB, 6-2, 235, 4.65, JR
4. Frank Darby, WR, 6-0, 192, 4.45, rSR
5. Kellen Diesche, OT, 6-7, 300, 5.15, rSR - Graduate-transfer from Texas A&M
6. Jermayne Lole, DL, 6-2, 270, 4.85, JR
7. Evan Fields, S, 6-0, 194, 4.55, SR
8. Darien Butler, ILB, 5-11, 230, 4.75, JR
9. Aashari Crosswell, S, 6-0, 190, 4.45, JR
10. Henry Hattis, OG, 6-4, 300, 5.20, rSR - Graduate transfer from Stanford
*All 40-yard dash times are estimates