Less than a week from now, Arizona State wide receiver Frank Darby will sit down in front of the television with the hope that an NFL team will select a Sun Devil pass catcher for the third consecutive year.
After seeing N’Keal Harry and Brandon Aiyuk depart for the NFL, Darby has been waiting for his chance to finally chase his dreams of playing in the league. Those predecessors, each selected in the first-round, were not shy about those aspirations either.
Harry and Aiyuk pushed Darby to believe he could play in the NFL, which shaped his mindset for the future.
“Each and every day when I was training with them and they would talk about being drafted, when I was working out with them and doing similar things they were doing, I’m just like, ‘I could be a draft pick too,’” Darby said. “They helped me get to the level I’m at today and I also helped them get to the level they’re at today, too.”
Darby heralds from Lincoln High School in Jersey City, NJ. He came to ASU as a three-star recruit and redshirted his freshman season. From then on, he carved out a role on the team as the go-to deep threat.
Darby maximized his targets at ASU, hauling in 67 catches for 1,317 yards and 13 touchdowns over his four-year career. He averaged nearly 20 yards per catch over that span.
After a breakout 2019 campaign, many expected Darby to emerge as Jayden Daniels’ primary target in the passing game, but unforeseen factors prevented that connection from reaching its potential in 2020.
First, Darby suffered a rib injury during ASU’s first game of the season in November against USC and was sidelined for the majority of the contest.
Then, the seven-game season was shortened to four games due to a COVID-19 breakout which sidelined head coach Herm Edwards and several players.
When the football program was cleared to return, Darby managed six catches for 46 yards and a touchdown in the limited action that followed. He declared for the draft in December.
It may not have been the final season Darby had hoped for, but the promising game film from 2019 should intrigue draft evaluators. Here are a few breakdowns of Darby’s best moments.
The Sun Devils struggled mightily when they traveled to Utah and took on one of college football’s best defenses, but Darby wowed the Pac-12 broadcasters with an impressive sideline catch in the third quarter.
The body control and sideline awareness from Frank Darby on this comeback against Utah ✅ pic.twitter.com/8Gw2idJPp4— Cole Topham (@HamAnalysis) April 23, 2021
Darby ran a comeback on 2nd-and-7 against the Cover-1 zone look from the Utes. His release was contested and the safety quickly came over to provide support if Daniels planned to launch it deep.
Instead, Daniels sensed pressure from the Utah front and left the pocket early. He stuck with Darby while moving to the right and slung the football when Darby began his cutback.
The play was initially ruled an incomplete pass by the official, but the replay revealed Darby managed to keep his toes inbound while the rest of his body cradled the football.
The ruling was reversed, the Sun Devils were awarded the first down, and Darby’s catch was later named the conference’s top play of the week.
Darby scored twice in Arizona State’s blackout home game against USC, both of which were against man coverage.
#ASU WR Frank Darby built a track record of turning 1-on-1 matchups into boom plays.— Cole Topham (@HamAnalysis) April 23, 2021
1⃣: good hand technique and strength help Darby gain separation.
2⃣: Darby manipulates the cornerback into flipping his hips back outside before cutting on his slant for an uncontested TD. pic.twitter.com/DNr6pLLIkD
On his first touchdown reception, Darby understood he had a one-on-one press matchup with the cornerback guarding him, and the solitary USC safety started shading to the right as the ball was snapped.
Darby took three steps and then slightly drifted outside as the cornerback flipped his hips. Darby’s hands helped him gain separation. He batted away the contact as he accelerated and the distance widened. Darby then caught Joey Yellen’s pass in stride.
Due to the safety’s positioning in the Cover-1 scheme, there was no help from the secondary turning the play into a footrace between Darby and the cornerback.
He would not be caught, capping off the highlight with a bounding leap away from the last-ditch lunge at the three-yard line, coasting into the end zone.
Darby’s second touchdown was much closer to the end zone. The USC defense lined up in Cover-0, meaning all defensive backs on the field were in man coverage with no safety over the top. Darby’s opponent played off-man with a 7-yard cushion.
As Darby ate up that cushion, he realized he needed to make the USC cornerback shift his hips outside. The cornerback started the play slightly leaning inside, but as Darby advances and squares him up, he changes the direction of his backpedal.
Darby pounces on this, cutting on his slant while looking back toward Yellen for the ball. Yellen’s eyes never left him and Darby controlled the football through the contact at the goal line, continuing Arizona State’s fourth-quarter comeback against the Trojans.
Darby said that the first go route that he scored on during ASU’s 2019 home upset of Oregon was his favorite moment as a Sun Devil. Here is how Darby found success in the game that defined the season.
Frank Darby mastered the go route during his four years playing for the Sun Devils, and that expertise was a critical factor in ASU's upset of #6 Oregon in 2019. pic.twitter.com/4aufqMxUBS— Cole Topham (@HamAnalysis) April 23, 2021
In the first clip, Oregon set up in 3-3 stack: three defensive linemen, three linebackers, and five defensive backs.
This formation is a variation of the nickel package, although it is a bit non-traditional. Instead of placing an extra cornerback in coverage on the field, the Ducks brought in another safety to hawk the middle.
Here is how it broke down. The three defensive linemen provided pressure on Daniels while the three linebackers drop into coverage. Oregon’s two cornerbacks were tasked with the short boundary. As a final line of defense, the three safeties patrolled the deep zones.
On the ASU side of things, it was pretty simple. The ball was designed to go to Darby here. If the deep shot was there, Daniels was going to let it fly. Eno Benjamin moved to his pass protection spot and Brandon Aiyuk played decoy on the left sideline.
Daniels’ second read was Kyle Williams’s over route, but the middle got crowded fast. Ultimately, once Daniels rolled out, his options were a deep throw to Darby downfield (the primary read) or run the ball himself. Daniels pulled the trigger.
Darby’s route was crafty. He took three steps into a jab outside to leverage the cornerback, who extended his arms to contest Darby’s release. Darby sidestepped the contact and fended off the contact with a swim move.
He kept his eyes downfield as he ran through the stem of his route until he got past the first down markers. He then slowed his pace, sunk his hips, and turned his head to the left as if anticipating the ball.
Daniels helped sell the curl by setting his feet as Darby moved. The safety took the bait and hesitated on his pursuit angle, which gave Darby the opening he needed.
With his momentum still moving forward, Darby snapped his head back and continued down the right sideline. He swiped away the safety’s attempt to slow him down and looked for the ball. By then, the ball was already on its way.
He tracked Daniels’ dime into his hands at the eight-yard line and stayed in-bounds to tie the game, with the score being 7-7 after a successful extra point from Cristian Zendejas.
Overall, Darby’s deep streak against Oregon showcases his big-play threat and understanding of nuanced route-running. He gets himself into position with minimal resistance and runs his route with the perfect blend of speed and patience.
Later in the game, Darby scored on another go route. He won at the line once again and used his frame to box out the cornerback for the contested catch.
NFL Draft Process
Following the 2020 season, Darby accepted his invite to the 2021 Senior Bowl, where he made an impression on the event’s coaches, scouts, and media.
He performed well in workouts and drills, which Darby said gave him encouragement about his standing in this year’s class of wide receivers.
“When I went out there and was able to go out there and compete with guys from SEC, ACC, seeing different guys I’ve never competed against all the years I’ve been in college and going out there and still being able to beat those guys, my confidence level shot up to the sky,” Darby said.
Most notably, onlookers quickly realized what made Sun Devil fans so eager to embrace Darby when he arrived in Tempe. His infectious personality, positive attitude, and work ethic were on full display in Mobile, Alabama, and he quickly became a camp favorite.
There are small moments that go unnoticed, too. When Darby went down with an ankle injury during last year’s spring practices, his cheery nature failed to dissipate.
Instead, Darby limped the sidelines in a walking boot, encouraging his teammates as his booming voice radiated across the practice fields.
Darby is a natural leader because he seamlessly forms a bond with every person he comes into contact with, whether it’s fellow members of the locker room or people outside the football program.
That easy-going nature, energy, and pure joy that defines Darby is what he hopes will define the legacy he leaves at ASU.
At his pro day, Darby measured 6-foot and weighed 200 pounds. His fastest 40-yard dash time was 4.56 seconds. Darby recorded 19 bench press reps and 34.5 inches in the vertical jump. All results were confirmed by Senior Bowl Executive Director Jim Nagy.
After admitting he felt nerves headed into the workout, Darby said the butterflies vanished once he finished the 40-yard dash and was happy with his performance.
“I felt like I did a really good job out there. I trusted my training and went out there and tried to perform at a high level and take advantage of the opportunity,” Darby said. “And as long as I walk off that field with a smile on my face and my head high, I felt like I did a really good job.”
According to Justin Melo, a writer for The Draft Network, Darby has met virtually with the Indianapolis Colts, New York Jets, New York Giants, Houston Texans, Carolina Panthers, Green Bay Packers, Buffalo Bills, and Tennessee Titans throughout the draft process.
NFL Network analyst Lance Zierlein described Darby as an “impressive deep-ball talent” who needed to improve on his ball tracking skills.
Tony Pauline of Pro Football Network labeled Darby as an “underrated receiver with high upside,” but noted Darby’s tendency to catch the ball with his body instead of his hands.
Both analysts acknowledge Darby’s size and speed make him a viable option at the next level if he can overcome the aforementioned technical issues.
Of all the NFL teams that have expressed interest in Darby, which one would be a good fit for the jovial Sun Devil deep threat?