Under Kenny Dillingham, Sun Devils rebuild ties to Arizona

TEMPE — When Arizona State announced Kenny Dillingham would be the football program’s next head coach on Nov. 27, the news quickly spread throughout the college football world. After a rapid ascent through the college coaching ranks following his start as a graduate assistant for the Sun Devils, Dillingham returns eight years later to take over the program. As the Sun Devils’ 26th head coach, he is the first alumnus to be hired to lead the team.

“I’m home,” Dillingham said. “This place is special. The state is special. The people in this room are special. … I’m fired up to be here, fired up to be a Sun Devil.”

Kenny Dillingham greeting Nap Lawrence, longtime Sun Devil and athletics supporter, who donated $1M during the press conference. Photo Credit: Sun Devil Athletics

For fans and alumni of Arizona State, seeing Dillingham return to his roots is as close to a literal home-run hire as you can get. Not only does it usher in a change for Sun Devil Football’s overall model, but it also brings with it a new burst of energy and youth as the football landscape continues to change.

“I think, today more than ever, people say kids are changing, kids are changing, kids are changing,” Dillingham said. “I completely disagree. I think people are just allowing kids to change and people are scared to tell kids the truth. That’s the one thing that I can stand on, is if I tell you something’s going to happen, it will happen and I think that’s a big reason why I’m sitting here today. I’ve never been scared of tough conversations.”

Dillingham also understands the importance of having support from your fan base, and he’s working to build a culture that’s more inviting for people living in the Valley to get involved.

“We need this entire valley to come together,” Dillingham said. “You want to win at the highest level? You want to maximize this place? We need everybody in this room. … This is one of the biggest metropolitan areas in the country. It’s growing at a rapid rate. We need The Valley behind us. We need the state behind us. We need butts in seats. ” 

ASU athletic director Ray Anderson has long been under fire from fans for his decisions regarding Sun Devil athletics. Throughout the years, he’s made a number of questionable moves, inevitably impacting the long-term success of ASU. Brash at times in how he presents himself, Anderson has gotten into it with fans at events on more than one occasion, leaving many with a bad taste in their mouths towards the university’s sports programs and its leadership.

The lack of support was apparent, with low turnout for most of ASU’s games this season.

The Sun Devils needed something, or someone, to remind them of what it means to have pride in their program and where they come from, and Dillingham was just the guy.

“I mean, I was an offensive coordinator at 21, dealing with parents who are worth millions of dollars,” Dillingham said. “I’ve been an offensive coordinator at Memphis. I’ve led men at Auburn at 27, led men at Florida State at 29. I’ve been leading men at Oregon. It’s all about leading people.” 

Much of Dillingham’s early life was connected to ASU. He reminisced on days when he used to toss the ball around in the parking lot during tailgates in the days of Jake Plummer prior to becoming a student, and his wife Bri also has ties as former member of the ASU Dance Team. For the Dillinghams, Maroon and Gold truly is in their DNA.

Ray Anderson speaking with Coach Kenny Dillingham and his wife Bri prior to the press conference announcing his hiring. Photo credit: Sun Devil Athletics

Dillingham noted he was going to make Arizona a priority once again, and seems to be looking at what UofA’s coach Jedd Fisch did to connect with local recruits in hopes of leading them home.

With a solid staff put together and the new direction of the program, it’s already caught the attention of former Arizona players as a number of former the state’s high school grads are announcing their return to play for Dillingham and the new staff at Arizona State. Some of the players returning include:

Samuel Benjamin – Former Idaho State defensive lineman from Ironwood Ridge High School

DeCarlos Brooks – Former Cal running back out of Chandler High School

Jacob Conover – Former BYU quarterback out of Chandler High School

Krew Jackson – Former Kansas State linebacker out of Queen Creek High School

Tristan Monday – Former University of Wisconsin linebacker out of Saguaro High School

Tate Romney – Former BYU linebacker out of Chandler High School

Jake Smith – Former Texas and USC wide receiver out of Notre Dame Prep in Scottsdale

Bram Walden – Former Oregon offensive tackle out of Saguaro High School

Slater Zellers – Former Cal longsnapper out of Notre Dame Prep in Scottsdale.

The list doesn’t mention Ben Coleman, who was widely considered Cal’s top offensive lineman last season and is a new Arizona State transfer. In an interview with Devils Digest by Hod Rabino, Coleman noted he was being recruited by the Sun Devils previously and was in attendance for the 2017 Territorial Cup win. Coleman said the only reason he didn’t sign with Arizona State at the time was due to the situation surrounding Coach Graham, as he had five family members on his mother’s side who all were Sun Devils.

It also doesn’t mention five-star defensive end Clayton Smith, who transferred from Oklahoma to Arizona State on Jan. 19.

But Dillingham didn’t just get to work attacking the transfer portal for local guys; They also made a strong push at closing in on some of the undecided recruits currently in their backyard for the class of 2023.

Able to make a late impression on a couple kids, Arizona State was also able to sign two local players by the end of the regular signing period in February. Those players include:

Sirri Kandiyeli – From Mesa Mountain View, a two-star offensive guard

Lenox Lawson – From Red Mountain, a three-star wide receiver


While former coaching staffs have put an emphasis on the facilities for the student athletes as the main recruiting point, the actual staff itself seems to be the big draw for players. Of Dillingham’s staff, newarly all of them have ties to Arizona in one way or another. Here’s a full breakdown:

Shaun Aguano

After being shoved into the head coaching position just days into the start of the season last year, Aguano did his best to make the best out of the situation the team fell into. Initially, there was talk of Aguano possibly being hired officially as the team’s next coach, which was backed by a number of high school coaches across the state and voiced in a letter penned by Brophy coach Jason Jewell.

When it became apparent Arizona State was going to go in a different direction and hire a new head coach, Dillingham’s name immediately shot to the top of the list. As rumors regarding his potential as the next leader of the Sun Devils circulated, Dillingham made it known if he was hired, he would be sure to keep Aguano on staff.

Aguano is the most senior member of the Sun Devil coaching staff, joining the program as the running backs coach in January 2019. Prior to arriving at Arizona State, many remember Aguano for his days at the helm of the Chandler Wolves.

Spreading his culture of “Ohana,” which is still deeply entrenched in the program today, Aguano took over the Chandler Wolves back in 2011. He had spent the previous 10 years leading up to being named the coach as the Wolves’ offensive coordinator. In his eight years at the helm, Aguano led Chandler to five state-championship appearances and an overall record of 63-8.

Vince Amey

A former four-year letterman at Arizona State, Amey was a member of the Sun Devils’ last Rose Bowl team back in the 1996-1997 season. In 1998, Amey entered the NFL draft before eventually landing in the Arena Football League. Amey closed out his career as a member of the Arizona Rattlers before retiring in 2007.

After his playing career came to a close, Amey quickly jumped into coaching, joining Charlie Ragle over at Chaparral where he became the offensive line coach. There, he helped Ragle and the young athlete-turned coach Dillingham win the 2011 state championship title. From there, he accepted a job at the University of Arizona as a strength and conditioning coach, where he stayed until the end of the 2014 season.

Entering 2015, Amey was promoted to defensive analyst before moving into the role of defensive line coach for the Wildcats in the 2016 and 2017 seasons.

After parting ways with the Wildcats, Amey spent one year as a defensive coordinator at Marana High School in 2018. He then left and served as a defensive coordinator for teams in both the now defunct Alliance of American Football and the XFL before joining Ragle and the Idaho State staff as the defensive coordinator.

Beau Baldwin

Baldwin is one of the few additions to the new staff with little to no former ties to Arizona. He joins the staff as the new offensive coordinator after spending the last three seasons as the head coach at Cal Poly.

Bryan Carrington

Carrington’s ties to Arizona are a little different than other coaches ASU brought in. He joins the Sun Devils after spending the former year at TCU as their offensive analyst and recruiting coordinator. Prior to that, Carrington was at USC as the Trojans’ running back quality control analyst. But he really established himself as an up-and-coming coach during his stint at Texas from 2017-2020.

While with the Longhorns, Carrington was the main man responsible for the recruitment of former Salpointe Catholic star Bijan Robinson, as well as former Notre Dame Prep receiver Jake Smith. Carrington has already snagged 11 five-star recruits in his young career, and was selected to participate in the Bill Walsh Diversity Coaching Fellowship with the Los Angeles Rams.

In Carrington’s case, the relationships he already worked to build with former elite student-athletes will only help the Sun Devils when it comes to trying to repair the shattered bonds between in-state high schools and the program.

AJ Cooper

Cooper is born and raised in Arizona, attending Sunnyslope High School in Phoenix where he played both linebacker and tight end until graduating in 2002. Continuing on his football journey, Cooper went the smaller, local route of playing at Glendale Community College as a tight end through his sophomore season in 2003.

From there, Cooper transferred to North Dakota State, where he finished his career before signing with the Green Bay Packers as an undrafted free agent in 2006. After failing to make the Green Bay roster, Cooper returned to his alma Matter as a graduate asssistant. After three seasons, he was promoted to the defensive ends coaching position before also taking on the responsibility as special teams coordinator another four years down the line.

In 2014, Cooper left for Wyoming where he held the same two titles of defensive ends coach and special teams coordinator from 2014 to 2019. When Nick Rolovich first was hired by Washington State, Cooper was brought on to be part of his staff as the Cougars’ defensive ends coach. While dealing with a lot of turbulence among the program regarding the COVID-19 vaccinations and Washington State staff members, Cooper was one of the coaches retained at the conclusion of the season, where he remained and continued climbing the coaching ladder until the Sun Devils came calling and he had a chance to come home.

Joe Connolly

Besides Aguano, Connolly is the only other former staffer to be retained under the new Dillingham regime. Connolly initially joined the Sun Devils leading up to the 2018 season as head coach of football sports performance. Helping to bring in a well-rounded staff under him, he and his team ensure they provide the best strength training, nutrition programs, scientific approaches and different techniques to maximize each athlete’s potential capabilities and prevent injuries.

Connolly is responsible for developing a number of recent Sun Devils who have gone on to the NFL, including Brandon Aiyuk and Eno Benjamin.

DJ Foster

Not too long ago, Foster was Arizona State’s own hometown hero on the field, joining the Sun Devils out of Saguaro High School in Scottsdale. Foster played at Arizona State under coach Todd Graham from 2012 to 2016, where he also got to interact on a deeper level with Dillingham as he served as a GA. Now, he returns to the Sun Devils to take over as the program’s manager of player development. His familiarity with much of the staff dates back over a decade, with Mohns being his former high school coach. Foster also recently served on Saguaro High School’s committee in charge of the football coaching search and was responsible for helping to officially hire former ASU offensive coordinator Zak Hill as the Sabercats’ next head coach.

Jason Mohns

While Mohns is a 2004 graduate of Arizona State University, his ties to the program stretch back to his father, Greg, who coached alongside Sun Devil legend Frank Kush. Known for transforming the Saguaro Sabercats into a national powerhouse, Mohns is joining the ASU staff as the Sun Devils’ tight ends coach.

His own coaching career began while he was still a student at ASU, establishing the Scottsdale Argonauts Youth Football Club. Mohns’ first high school head coaching job came in 2005 at Salt River High School, located on the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community near Scottsdale, after spending the former season as the team’s wide receivers coach.

In 2007, Mohns made the move to Saguaro High School where he took on the role of the freshman football coach. Prior to the 2010 season, Mohns made a move within the program to become the varsity running backs coach before becoming the Sabercats’ offensive coordinator in 2011.

In early 2012, Mohns was named the varsity coach after former coach John Sanders was relieved of his duties despite leading the Sabercats to four state championships in the past five years. Knowing the bar was set incredibly high, Mohns shattered the expectations, compiling an overall record of 123-19 while leading the Sabercats to an additional seven state championships.

A number of former Sabercats have gone on to continue playing in both the NCAA and NFL, including Christian Kirk, Byron Murphy, Foster and Kelee Ringo.

Charlie Ragle

A New Mexico native, Ragle was a two-time all-state running back while playing at Animas High School before going on to attend Eastern New Mexico University, where he was a three-year starter for the Greyhounds.

In 2000, Ragle had moved to Arizona and officially made the transition to coaching. Joining the Moon Valley Rockets as their defensive coordinator for his first coaching job, Ragle made an immediate impact. He spent the next four years with the program, helping the Rockets finish with a perfect 14-0 record and a state championship trophy during his final season there in 2004.

Following Moon Valley’s offensive coordinator David Huffine, who left to join Ron Estabrook’s staff at Chaparral, Ragle departed following the 2004 season. Ragle spent one season with Chaparral in 2005 as a defensive coordinator before a one-year stint as a graduate assistant with Arizona State under former coach Dirk Koetter in 2006.

Ragle returned to Chaparral for the 2007 season as the Firebirds’ coach after it was announced Estabrook was retiring. Continuing Chaparral’s level of excellence on the field, Ragle led the Firebirds to an overall record of 63-7 as well as three state championship trophies in his five years at the helm.

In 2012, Ragle was hired by former Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez to serve as the Wildcats’ football program’s director of operations. Following the conclusion of the 2012 season, Ragle was promoted to special teams coordinator and tight ends coach, where he remained through the 2016 season.

Ragle then made the jump from Arizona to Cal in 2017, joining Justin Wilcox’s staff as the special teams coordinator and tight ends coach. In 2019, Ragle narrowed his focus to working solely with special teams for the next three seasons before finally getting his shake at a head coaching job.

In late 2021, Ragle was named Idaho State’s head football coach, where he reconnected with Amey to bring him on to his staff. After one season with the Bengals, Ragle resigned from his job with Idaho State to reunite with Dillingham at Arizona State as the special teams coordinator and assistant head coach.

Ra’Shaad Samples

While Samples doesn’t have any ties to Arizona, he’s done a significant amount to solidify his role as another up and coming coach for both the NCAA and the NFL.

Samples joins Arizona State after spending the 2022 season working with the Los Angeles Rams as the running backs coach. Prior to working in the NFL, Samples spent three years with Southern Methodist University. In 2019, he joined the Mustangs as an offensive assistant. Prior to the 2020 season, he was promoted to the running backs coach and recruiting coordinator, before also taking on the role of the assistant head coach for the 2021 season.

A former four-star wide receiver at Oklahoma State, he later transferred to the University of Houston before being forced to medically retire due to a number of concussions. After his playing career came to a close, Samples stayed affiliated with the team by becoming a student assistant for both the 2016 and 2017 seasons.

In 2018, Samples joined the Texas coaching staff, reuniting with former Houston coach Tom Herman, as the Longhorns’ assistant wide receivers coach.

Saga Tuitele

Tuitele also doesn’t have any former connections to Arizona, but he does have proven success as an offensive line coach, especially in run-first programs.

He joins the Sun Devils after spending the most recent season at Fresno State. Prior to that, he served as Army’s offensive line coach and run game coordinator for two years, where in 2021, the squad had the second-highest average in the FBS for rushing yards per game at 280.6.

Before joining the staff at Army, Tuitele held the same title with New Mexico, where he led the Lobos to the highest number of rushing yards, rushing yards per game and rushing yards per carry nationally.

He also spent seven seasons with Cal Poly from 2009-2015. During his first four seasons with the Mustangs, he was offensive line coach as well as the co-offensive coordinator. Prior to the 2013 season, Tuitele was bumped up to be the official offensive coordinator for the Mustangs, as well as their offensive line coach.

Brian Ward

A Glendale native, Ward got his start by coaching at McPherson College in 1997 after his playing career came to a close there in 1996. In his first season as a coach, Ward was the defensive coordinator, as well as the coordinator for Special Teams.

In 1999, Ward returned home to take a job working as both the defensive backs coach and the defensive coordinator for Glendale Community College. He stayed through the 2000 season before departing for Wabash to accept the title of assistant head coach.

Throughout the years, Ward continued to move around the country while continuing to climb the coaching ladder. More recently, he coached at Syracuse from 2016-2019 before spending the 2020 and 2021 seasons with the Nevada Wolfpack. Ward then spent one season in Pullman with Washington State as the defensive coordinator before eventually returning to his roots in Arizona with the Sun Devils.

Reviewing the Moves

When it came to finding Arizona State’s next head coach, it seems as though the Sun Devils have essentially hit the jackpot with Dillingham and his staff. However, it’s hard not to notice it’s similar to the approach taken by Arizona two years prior when hiring Jedd Fisch.

Fisch brought the idea of attacking the local scene hard. While he was speaking about his intentions to repair strained relationships with high schools across the state, many claimed they wouldn’t be able to win big with local kids and questioned the tactics the Wildcats were taking to rebuild their football program.

Now with Dillingham, Arizona State has made it clear they have the same intentions, finally looking back at the community and asking how they can help make it more appealing for fans and alumni to be involved with the program.

Dillingham is greeted by former ASU Football player and Chandler Unified School District Athletic Director Marcus Williams, who now serves as the program’s Associate AD, as he arrives for his introductory press conference. Photo credit: Sun Devil Athletics

For local high school coaches, they’re already pleased with the increased effort to communicate and build relationships with local kids. For players, the new staff has gained a ton of attention nationally and has lured a number of local kids back to the motherland through the transfer portal to finish their collegiate careers.

Only time will tell if Dillingham and his new staff are the answer to Arizona State’s problems, but as of now, its a much more smooth transition to head coach than the Sun Devils have had in the past. Even former head coaches Herm Edwards and Graham had rocky struggles to get off on the right foot with fans from the jump. It doesn’t seem to be the situation with Dillingham, though. There seems to be a different vibe surrounding the staff and their attitude and approach are a fresh and welcomed change.

Fans will have their first opportunity to see what the Sun Devils will bring to the field on Sat., April 15 following the conclusion of Pat’s Run. It’s the first time ASU’s Spring Game will coincide with the legacy event with the hope of drawing in bigger crowds for the game. All of this wraps in to Dillingham’s overall vision to #ActivateTheValley.

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