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ASU Football: Antonio Pierce’s instant impact

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ASU’s new linebackers coach has brought new credibility to the defense.

Tyler Rittenhouse/House of Sparky

Lost in all the spotlight of the Herm Edwards’ regime in Tempe is a coaching staff with some impressive names.

Defensively, the Sun Devils have struggled mightily the last few seasons, and have added some big names in attempt to fix those woes. Danny Gonzales came from San Diego State to lead the unit and former NFL player Shaun Nua is mentoring the defensive line.

One name on the coaching staff stands out more than anyone else.

Former Super Bowl champion and New York Giants linebacker Antonio Pierce has catapulted in the football coaching world. Pierce excelled while leading Long Beach Polytechnic High School for four seasons in Southern California, and his prestige translated to recruiting success for the Sun Devils.

Pierce has been credited with bringing in freshman linebackers Merlin Robertson and Darien Butler, both of whom the Sun Devils expect to contribute immediately.

It’s easy to understand why Pierce can recruit these talented players. He carries himself with a cool confidence that has bred success in football. Wearing his pitchfork clothing and swaggering around the athletic facility, he’s a force to gravitate toward.

“Recruiting right now is all a game,” said Pierce. “You have to weed out all that stuff and see who fits your system. Who loves it when it’s the fourth quarter and you’re down by 20 and you still have to play hard-nosed football.”

Robertson was one of the players that Pierce helped lure to Tempe near the end of the recruiting cycle. ASU was behind the eight ball early on in recruiting due to the coaching change, but were able to rally late and recruit an enticing class.

“He’s been trying to get me since eighth grade when he wanted me to go to Poly. When he came here (ASU) everything just fell into place perfectly,” said Robertson.

Pierce has another unique perspective on the in-state rivalry with the University of Arizona. He played two seasons in Tucson as a Wildcat prior to his NFL career and is a member of the school’s ring of honor inside Arizona Stadium. His allegiance has changed, but not his passion for the rivalry.

“It’s true hatred for one another. I was on the other side of the fence and you hated to play the Sun Devils. And it was one of those rivalries where regardless of what the record was at the end of the season you were coming for each other,” said Pierce. “You knew it was going to violent, physical, 60-minute ballgame.”

His new challenge at Arizona State is to lead a linebacker unit in a scheme that he’s unfamiliar with. Learning the 3-3-5 while employing a starting unit consisting of a freshman and a converted running back, it’s no small task for a first time coach at the collegiate level.

“I think we have a good group of guys, they’ve all bought in to the idea that the stronger our group is the better our football team will be,” said Pierce. “For those younger guys they’ve come in right away, got in shape, learned the system and done everything we ask of them.”

ASU’s linebackers being taught by Pierce have the advantage of learning from someone who excelled at the position. For Nick Ralston, Pierce has been a great teacher as he prepares for playing a new position.

“He’s a very vocal guy, he played in the league 10 years and he brings a lot of knowledge to the table,” said Ralston. “I’ve never played linebacker before, so to learn from someone who played at the highest level is a blessing for me.”

With the Sun Devils set to embark on a new era with Edwards at the helm, expectations for the 2018 season aren’t high. But Pierce wants to make sure that his players reach for lofty heights.

“I told them when I got here we will be the best unit in ASU history. As a group of 15 guys in that room I need 15 badass guys to play like it,” said Pierce.