Arizona State Sun Devils

Sun Devil Football Preseason Watch List Central

(Tempe, AZ)  ASU football players to watch.

Five members of the Sun Devil Football program earned a spot on one of the Pac-12 Preseason All-Conference teams, the league announced on July 26th.

D.J. Taylor landed on the First Team, while LaDarius Henderson and Merlin Robertsonwere Second Team selections. Kyle Soelle and Xazavian Valladay rounded out the group, as they each received Honorable Mention distinction. This comes on the heels of 13 Sun Devils earning a spot on the All-Conference team following the 2021 campaign. Here is more information on each of the five honorees:

D.J. Taylor, First Team Return Specialist
Exciting sophomore play maker D.J. Taylor has been receiving plenty of preseason love, with the latest coming in the form of a First Team All-Conference nod as a return specialist. Taylor is one of the most explosive athletes in the country, serving as the main punt and kick returner for the Sun Devils each of the past two seasons. During the 2021 campaign, he appeared in 12 games, collecting 716 all-purpose yards. He yielded 525 kick return yards on 24 attempts last season, including an electrifying 60-yard return against Washington State. Taylor added 191 punt return yards on 14 attempts, averaging 13.6 yards per return. He was incredible in the season opener against Southern Utah, returning three punts a total of 87 yards, highlighted by a 47-yard return. He also eclipsed 40 punt return yards in victories over UNLV and Colorado.

Taylor burst onto the national scene as one of the top return threats after a historic 2020 freshman season. He finished that year as the highest-graded kick returner in the Pac-12 with a grade of 81.1 from Pro Football Focus – good for 12th nationally. He averaged 36.9 total yards per kick return attempt (including yardage on kicks taken out of the end zone), which was seven yards per return more than any other player in the Pac-12 and fourth among any player in the FBS with at least five kickoff returns.

Arguably the highlight of his Sun Devil career came when returned a kick 107 total yards for a touchdown against Arizona, the longest of any player in the FBS that season, according to PFF. He took the opening kickoff back for a touchdown in the Territorial Cup, the first Sun Devil to accomplish the feat against Arizona. Despite his knack for success on returns, he was actually the fourth-highest graded player on kickoff coverage in the Pac-12 – also with a score of 77.7. Taylor nearly had another kickoff return for a touchdown against UCLA, but was tripped on a 42-yard return and earned a 15-yard penalty to set the Sun Devil offense up with prime field position.

LaDarius Henderson, Second Team Offensive Lineman
Senior offensive lineman LaDarius Henderson has been a force throughout his Sun Devil career, but is primed for a breakout fourth season in Tempe. He is considered one of the best ten returning offensive lineman in the conference, earning Pac-12 Second Team honors. Henderson elevated his game to help pave the way for a prolific rushing attack, as running back Rachaad White went over 1,000 yards in only 11 games. He played a pivotal role in ASU averaging 202.3 rushing yards per game, good for 24th in the FBS and the most for a full season at ASU since 2012 (205.4) – and just the eighth time ASU has rushed for over 200 yards per game since joining the Pac-12 in 1978. Henderson earned Pac-12 Offensive Lineman of the Week honors in October after the road victory over No. 20 UCLA.

Henderson was extremely consistent and reliable, starting all 13 games for the Sun Devils at left guard in 2021. Arizona State played 753 plays on offense this year, of which LaDarius Henderson recorded 741 snaps. Henderson finished the season as the 11th-highest graded guard overall on offense in the Pac-12 (71.3). He allowed just 10 quarterback pressures on the season – tied for fourth-fewest among Pac-12 offensive guards and among the Top 50 fewest among all guards in the FBS. He was also tied for 38th among FBS guards with just one sack allowed on the year.

His success at guard is even more impressive when you consider he started his career as a starter at left tackle. Henderson has found a home at left guard, emerging as one of the Sun Devils top players and NFL prospects.

Merlin Robertson, Second Team Linebacker
No stranger to the Pac-12 All-Conference Team, Merlin Robertson finds himself honored with another preseason accolade. The 2022 Butkus Award Preseason Watch List member is also a Pac-12 Second Team selection. He is looking to become a three-time All-Conference player, having previously been recognized in 2018 and 2021.

Robertson has started 38 of his 41 career games, collecting 237 total tackles, 15.5 tackles for loss, and seven sacks as a Sun Devil. He is equally as effective in the passing game as he has been stopping the run, picking off at least one pass in all four seasons as he enters his fifth season with six career interceptions. Robertson has also added three forced fumbles and four fumble recoveries, showing a nose for the ball. He has been a consistent and reliable force, playing 2,434 snaps since 2018, the 11th most of all FBS linebackers. Robertson has only 24 career missed tackles which is tied for 16th– fewest out of 114 FBS linebackers to play at least 1,500 snaps over the past four years.

Kyle Soelle, Honorable Mention Linebacker
Two-time team captain Kyle Soelle enters his sixth season with the Sun Devil Football program as a Pac-12 Preseason All-Conference Honorable Mention selection. In 40 career games, he has collected 137 tackles and 11.5 tackles for loss while providing a stable force at the second level of the Sun Devil defense.. Soelle led the team in tackles with 82 this past season–– 14 more than any other player. His 7.5 tackles for loss ranked third on the team –– fourth among Pac-12 true linebackers. He left it all out on the field in the road matchup with Oregon State, making a career-high 15 tackles. Known as a team leader, he recevied the Frank Kush Captains award in 2021.

In his first season as a starter, Soelle capitalized on the opportunity, impacting the game in many ways during a breakout junior campaign. He was a team captain and one of the leaders of the defensive unit. Soelle finished with 26 tackles, the second-most on the team, recording nine tackles in two of the four games. He worked hard on improving his ability to cover in space, with it paying off in a big way in the Territorial Cup. The local product from Scottsdale read the eyes of the quarterback, coming down with his first career interception to set the Sun Devils up in excellent field position. He was tied for 14th among all linebackers in the league with 14 defensive stops, despite playing significantly fewer snaps than many of those ahead of him.

During his first two seasons as a contributor in Tempe, Soelle excelled on special teams and provided essential depth at linebacker. He used that time to develop his body and turn into one of the most improved players in the nation over the course of his five-year career.

Xazavian Valladay, Honorable Mention Running Back
After being named to the Doak Walker Award Watch List earlier in the month, Xazavian Valladay adds another preseason accolade. He joins Arizona State after four seasons at Wyoming, where he emerged as one of the nation’s most complete running backs. The workhorse carried the ball 626 times as a Cowboy, rushing for 3,281 yards and 19 touchdowns. He left Laramie second in program history in career rushing yards and is the leading returning rusher in the nation. His versatile skill set makes him one of the most unique offensive weapons in the country. The running back can also do damage as a receiver out of the backfield, hauling in 51 passes for 584 yards and two touchdowns at Wyoming.

He eclipsed 1,000 yards on two occasions, highlighted by a 1,265-yard campaign in 2019 which was the third-most yards in single-season program history. Thanks to his efforts, he was named First Team All-MWC. He would go on to lead the Mountain West Conference in rushing in both 2019 & 2020. During an outstanding 2021 season, Valladay rushed for 1,070 yards on his way to earning Second Team All-MWC honors. Through the course of his Cowboy career, he put together 14 100-yard performances with the Cowboys, including a 204-yard game in the Arizona Bowl victory over Georgia State in 2019.

Sun Devil Football fifth-year linebacker Merlin Robertson lands on the Butkus Award Preseason Watch List, the latest Sun Devil to be identified as one of the best at his position heading into the 2022 season.

Instituted in 1985, The Butkus Award goes to the top linebacker in college football. Robertson is in exclusive company on this list, joined by 50 of the best defenders in college football. Very few of that group have the career resume that Robertson boasts, as he returns to Tempe after already having put together four productive seasons. This is his fourth career appearance on the Butkus Award Preseason Watch List, previously earning a spot each year from 2019-21.

Robertson has started 38 of his 41 career games, collecting 237 total tackles, 15.5 tackles for loss, and seven sacks as a Sun Devil. He is equally as effective in the passing game as he has been stopping the run, picking off at least one pass in all four seasons as he enters his fifth season with six career interceptions. Robertson has also added three forced fumbles and four fumble recoveries, showing a nose for the ball. He has been a consistent and reliable force, playing 2,434 snaps since 2018, the 11th most of all FBS linebackers. Robertson has only 24 career missed tackles which is tied for 16th– fewest out of 114 FBS linebackers to play at least 1,500 snaps over the past four years.

This past season was Robertson’s best from a pass defense standpoint, as he finished with a career-high three interceptions and added four pass deflections. Robertson also made 64 tackles, the third time he eclipsed the 60-tackle mark in his career. Among Pac-12 linebackers with 400+ snaps, Robertson was the sixth-highest graded one (65.9). Thanks to his efforts, he received Pac-12 All-Conference Honorable Mention distinction.

During a shortened 2020 campaign due to COVID-19, Robertson was one of the conference’s best defenders. He enjoyed a great season opener against USC, collecting ten tackles, one tackle for loss, one fumble recovery, and an interception on his way to winning Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Week. Robertson was one of the few Sun Devils to appear in all four games, providing a necessary presence while making 24 tackles without a single credited missed tackle.

He managed to build off an incredible freshman campaign by delivering an excellent sophomore season. Robertson forced three fumbles in 2019 and collected 72 tackles, while only missing eight tackles, second-fewest among Pac-12 linebackers. Robertson was a big part of the ASU defense that finished the regular season 21st nationally in allowing just 116.8 rushing yards per game – the best ranking at the end of the regular season for ASU since the 2009.

Robertson wasted no time making an impact in the Maroon & Gold, as he put together one of the best freshman seasons in program history. He led the team in tackles (77), tackles for loss (8.5) and sacks (5.0) and added an interception, two breakups, a fumble forced and a fumble recovered. He was the first freshman to lead the team in tackles since Jason Shivers in 2001 and the first freshman to lead the team in tackles for loss and sacks since Junior Onyeali in 2010. He became the fifth Sun Devil to earn a Pac-12 Freshman of the Year honor and the third to be named the Pac-12 Defensive Freshman of the Year. He joined Vontaze Burfict (2009) and Junior Onyeali (2010) as the third person to win Pac-12 Defensive Freshman of the Year. At the end of the season, he earned Freshman All-America honors from the FWAA, The Athletic and 247Sports

An independent Butkus Award Selection Committee comprised of 51 experts, including professional, college and high school scouts, and prominent sports journalists, conduct the selection process.

The Butkus Award is focused on recognizing linebackers who consistently play off the ball on their feet in a two-point stance in traditional LB form. Outside linebackers primarily rushing the passer in 30 fronts are regarded as pass rushers, not linebackers.

Sun Devil Football senior fullback/h-back Case Hatch was named to the Allstate AFCA Good Works Team®, the American Football Coaches Association announced on July 21st.

The nominees are student-athletes with exemplary community service, academic dedication and impact on and off the field. Case Hatch more than fits the criteria, as he has given his time to help others his entire life.

Hatch is part of several organizations and participates in community service efforts throughout the Valley.  Dating back to 2019, he has been volunteering his time with Feed My Starving Children, attending 2-3 events a year during the holiday season. During that time he has also been involved in an organization called Work for Just Serve, which offers an ongoing list of service opportunities. He is also a part of a church that puts on events for youth groups, kids aged 12-18, bringing in speakers and providing support.

Since 2021, Hatch has volunteered with Neighbors Who Care, working with the organization about once a month, helping less fortunate families with various needs. He has also recently gotten involved with the Arizona Animal Wellness Center with his wife, working at a shelter in Gilbert. Once a month they spend a few hours helping clean out kennels, refill water and food, and interacting with the dogs.

Prior to his arrival at ASU, he went on two-year mission to Fort Lauderdale. Hatch took advantage of several local volunteer opportunities that the church offered, using this time away from football to assist the community.

Hatch is also known for his “good work” on the field, serving as a captain and emerging as a team leader in 2021. He helped pave the way for Rachaad White’s 1,000-yard rushing season out of his fullback position, taking pride in doing the dirty work. Hatch has been a major contributor on special teams throughout his career, including being named a First Team Pac-12 All-Conference specialist back in 2019. His combination of physicality, versatility, and intelligence will be a major asset for new offensive coordinator Glenn Thomas.

The final 22-member team and honorary coach are selected by a voting panel of former Allstate AFCA Good Works Team members and journalists. They look for exceptional leadership on and off the football field. After the final team members are announced in September, fans can vote for this year’s Allstate AFCA Good Works Team captain through the official page on

Established in 1992, the Allstate AFCA Good Works Team is one of the most coveted community service awards in college football. From the 114 nominees, the final roster of 23 award recipients will bring together 11 players from the NCAA Football Bowl Subdivision; 11 players from the NCAA Football Championship Subdivision, Divisions II, III and the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA); and one honorary head coach. To be considered for a spot on the Allstate AFCA Good Works Team, each player must be actively involved with a charitable organization or service group while maintaining strong academic standing.

Press Release courtesy of Sun Devil Athletics – Connor Smith


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