A long road to a new home: How a road trip changed Darius Slade's life and the ASU defense

Posted: Updated:
Darius Slade during an ASU practice (Photo: Ralph Amsden) Darius Slade during an ASU practice (Photo: Ralph Amsden)

Whenever he's done playing football, Darius Slade likely will have a job with the Arizona Office of Tourism waiting for him.

But more on the future later.

In the present, Slade can be found battling for a starting role on the Arizona State defensive line during the Sun Devils’ spring practices. After all, he’s pretty hard to miss.

Slade cuts an imposing figure. At 6-foot-5, 257 pounds, he looks the part of the modern defensive end, a lengthy, athletic pass rusher who can turn the edge and create havoc in the backfield.

However, looking the part and playing the part are two very different things.

Slade has not appeared in a college game in two full seasons. He’s already come back from one major injury and battled smaller ones. His journey has taken him from the east coast to a championship stop in the Midwest before falling in love with the desert.

All along, he’s been chasing his chance. 

This spring has seen him continue his quest. Unfortunately, a nagging injury has slowed his progress. It's another challenge, and another obstacle to overcome. It will not impact his approach.

"I'm coming along OK,” said Slade. “A little bit slower than expected. I'll get it. I'll keep working at it."

Those who know Slade have no doubt of that fact, and the Sun Devil defense hopes—and needs—to soon reap the rewards of that effort.

Jersey Boy

Most college football fans know that California, Texas, and Florida are the elite producers of high school talent in America. Georgia, Ohio, and Louisiana are not far behind. 

While New Jersey is not at that level, the state is no slouch, either.

Darius Slade grew up in Montclair, a town of just under 40,000 residents, and played football at Montclair High School. Like many from the region, success was gradual.

"A lot of guys come out of nowhere,” Slade said. “I didn't really feel like I stood out until my junior and senior years. It takes time for Jersey guys."

For Montclair, Slade was worth that wait.

As a junior, he tallied 13.5 sacks in helping the Mounties to a 12-0 record and a state championship. The next year, he exploded for 23.5 sacks as Montclair became the first New Jersey school to claim consecutive state titles since 1974.

With that success came offers from top programs.

Slade initially committed to Nebraska before switching his commitment to Michigan State a month later. He appeared to be on his way to becoming a Spartan until a coaching change changed the course of his life.

Over 18 seasons at Penn State, Larry Johnson had become one of the most respected defensive line coaches in the nation. Among his accomplishment, seven of Johnson's players had earned first-team All-American honors, and six would become first round NFL Draft picks. One of those players was Jared Odrick, Slade’s cousin.

Through that connection, Johnson had formed a bond with Slade and his family. During his recruiting process, Slade did not want to play at Penn State, but in January of 2014, Johnson was hired by Urban Meyer as Ohio State as assistant head coach and defensive line coach.

Johnson immediately reached out to Slade.

"That was a tough decision,” Johnson said. “I had just gotten there. We talked on the phone, and I went out and visited him and his mom and dad and just told them 'I'm here, and it's a great opportunity for you.' At that time he was looking around, and he wasn't really sure that he had made the right decision."

But with Johnson now in Columbus, Slade knew his decision was made.

“When the opportunity came along to go to Ohio State with Coach Johnson, it was an automatic switch to me,” Slade said. "Coach Johnson was one of the best defensive line coaches in the nation. Track record? Great. My cousin played for him, so he had a lot of impact on my decision. It was the best fit for me."

Slade found himself with one of the nation’s elite programs. In fact, as he redshirted that first season, it was the elite program, as the Buckeyes would go on to win the national championship.

Even though he was not yet contributing on the field, Slade worked hard to prepare for his opportunity, whenever it would come.

"He was awesome. Darius was eager to learn,” said Johnson. “He's one of those guys that is like a sponge. Everything you gave him, everything you talked to him about to develop as a player, he would work it. That's the thing that I admire about Darius. He wasn't afraid to work at his skillset to make himself better. I think that's what drives him. He wants to be the best player in the country. He does whatever it takes to do that."

The work ethic was there. But so too was a loaded depth chart ahead of him.

"Ohio State, man, the competitiveness is so high,” Slade said. “Every day, you have to bring it. As far as taking the right steps, knowing your keys, knowing your gaps, there's not a lot of room for error. If you want to play there, you have to do extra. The talent level on the defensive line is so high."

Slade saw action in seven games as a redshirt freshmen in 2015, notching a career-high 11 plays against Rutgers. Slade was aiming to see a greater role in 2016, but he would not get that chance. During fall camp, he ruptured his Achilles tendon and would miss the entire season.

Unable to participate physically, Slade focused on the mental side of the game. That time spent recovering also gave him a new perspective.

"I learned a lot in the film room,” said Slade of his time recovering from the injury. “Being a student of the game. At the same time, I learned to appreciate being able to play the game. I built up more love for the game. I was something that I feel like I needed. A lot of time when I was healthy, I doubted myself. Going through that process, I feel like it strengthened me mentally and physically."

Witnessing that dedication struck a chord with his position coach.

"He never missed a workout. He never missed a practice,” Johnson said. “When he was in practice, he was encouraging the young players. He was in every meeting. He never disengaged from the unit. That really talks about Darius' character. He's the kind of guy that always wants to be around the players. He was well liked by guys in my unit, really well liked. He was there in practice, and he worked hard in the weight room."

Gradually, Slade worked his way back from the injury and into playing shape. However, that did not clear up his path to meaningful playing time.

The loaded Buckeye depth chart was daunting enough on its own, and Slade was having to play catch up from his lost year. Although Johnson had a “long-range plan” for Slade, the player found himself reevaluating his place in the program.

"It was the rotation, the way the rotation was working,” Slade said. “Tyquan Lewis, Sam Hubbard, and Jaylen Holmes all returning, I felt like I was going to be that fourth man in, or that fifth man in. I felt like I could just go somewhere else and have a better chance. It was hard. I love the guys there. I felt at home there. At the same time, in this business, you sometimes have to be selfish.”

Worried that his time may never come if he stayed in Columbus, asked himself a hard question: Was Ohio State the right place for him?

A trip out west gave him the answer.

Love at First Sight

You could mount a pretty solid case that Arizona is the Buckeyes’ home away from home. Since 2002, Ohio State has played seven postseason games in the Grand Canyon State.

Most recently, the Buckeyes played in consecutive Fiesta Bowls following the 2015 and 2016 seasons. It was during that first trip to the Valley that Slade fell in love.

"I'm an east coast guy, so being on the west coast was already amazing to me," Slade said. “My first time out here, I fell in love with the heat, coming in from the cold. I fell in love with the palm trees, with the scenery. I fell in love with the state. It was so different to me.”

It wasn’t long before his doubts about his future in Ohio intersected with his growing love of the desert. Perhaps the grass—and cacti—was greener on the other side.

“When I first thought of transferring, Arizona State was one of the first schools was interested in,” Slade said.

With his growing desire for a fresh start, Slade sought counsel from his coaches at Ohio State, most importantly Larry Johnson.

"I was sad a little bit, but my approach has always been to give them all the information necessary,” said Johnson. “So what I did was give him all the necessary information to help him make a great decision. Talk to mom. Talk to dad, and the ultimate decision was his. I can't tell you whether to stay or go, but I can tell you the reasons why.”

Slade took some time to consult with his family. When he told Johnson that he had decided to leave, Johnson put aside his desire for Slade to stay in order to fully support his choice.

“He said 'I'm good,’” Johnson recalled. “When he said that, I hugged him and said, ‘I wish you the best. Go do great things.'"

After receiving his release from Ohio State, Slade kept the process quiet. He took time to study the depth charts and defensive schemes for various schools. Among the programs he considered were Arizona, Oregon, USC, and Baylor. He reached out to some programs, and Arizona State was the first to reply.

After speaking with recruiting coordinator Donnie Yantis, a visit to Tempe was scheduled. Those welcoming palm trees were waiting.

“After my visit here, I knew it was a go for me,” said Slade of ASU.

Another factor in ASU’s favor was the presence of then-defensive coordinator Phil Bennett, and specifically, his new coordinator getting Johnson’s seal of approval.

During his time at Baylor, Bennett coached Phil Taylor, a former Penn State transfer, and that relationship left an impression with Johnson.

"When he said Phil Bennett was going to be there, I was extremely happy,” Johnson said. “Coach Bennett did a great job taking care of Phil (Taylor), a really great job. I felt really comfortable that if Phil Bennett is there, he'll get the best out of Darius.”

As a transfer, Slade had to sit out the 2017 season. He went to work on the scout team, doing so well that he earned co-Offensive Scout Team MVP honors along with Owen Rogers. The experience acclimated him to the program, and it also provided a valuable lesson.

"Be humble. Just because I'm coming from a bigger program, doesn't mean anything is going to be given to me,” Slade said. “I'm going to work for it just as hard as anyone else.”

He was finally settling in, both on and off the field—although last year did give Slade a chance to experience Arizona’s summer for the first time.

"The biggest adjustment was definitely the heat,” Slade said with a laugh. “I came from 80-degree temperatures to the 100s. The sun was very hot. It was a big adjustment for living. But it's been pretty fun. I recommend it to anyone else. Coming out here is good living.”

But just as he was finding his stride in his new desert home, everything changed yet again.

The Bull

Mere hours after ASU wrapped up their regular season with a victory over Arizona in late November, Sun Devil head coach Todd Graham was fired. It was a controversial move.

From Slade’s perspective, the firing triggered a mix of sadness and hope.

"To me, Coach Graham and the coaching staff were great coaches,” Slade said. “But I did notice a lot of players here wanted better. We wanted to be coached harder and coached better so we can win some more games and take this program to the next level. Once it came out, we were a little upset."

Those feelings subsided after ASU announced the hiring of Herm Edwards as head coach. While many fans and media members questioned the move, it quickly became a popular pick in the Sun Devils' locker room.

“With the new coaching staff, we got very excited," Slade said. "(Edwards is) one of the most down-to-Earth coaches I've ever met in my entire life. He knows the game very well. He's a great coach overall. You can talk to him about football, about life in general. It's an honor to play for him and to pick his brain and learn everything I can from him."

Needless to say, it was a significant change of styles from Urban Meyer, Slade’s former head coach at Ohio State.

"Coach Meyer is different,” Slade said. “With Coach Meyer, everything is about working hard. He's not really into too many conversations. But once you get to know Coach Meyer, and you play hard, and you do very well for the program, he opens up a bit more. I feel like Coach Herm is definitely more of an open guy, more of a joking-type of coach. It's easy to love him."

While Arizona State leadership wanted to retain Phil Bennett as defensive coordinator, several factors ultimately led him to step down. The revamped defensive coaching staff would soon add Danny Gonzales as coordinator, and Shaun Nua as Slade’s new defensive line coach.

"Coach Nua is an energetic guy. Dedicated to the game,” Slade said. “Knows a lot about the game. Played in the NFL. Younger, so he can be a little more hands on. That's another guy, that I was excited when I heard he was coming. I'm looking forward to learning as much as I can from him."

With new coaches came a new defensive system, as Gonzales brought the 3-3-5 scheme he ran at San Diego State over to ASU. It's a scheme designed for versatility and to generate turnovers. 

"With this type of defense, I feel it is more of a team defense,” Slade said. “There really aren’t individuals standing out, everyone has the opportunity to make plays. We have corners and safeties dropping into coverage and then coming off the edge. It's not just going to be a Darius Slade or a (Koron) Crump or a Jay Jay (Wilson) or anybody else, it's going to be everybody."

During spring practices, Slade has been working to learn the new scheme and the defensive end’s role within it.

"I'm more of a 4i (a defensive end who lines up on the inside shoulder of an offensive tackle),” Slade said. “I'm moving all around. I feel like my biggest attribute is my speed. I haven't really haven't been able to use my power, because I'm still trying to learn the defense. I'm still learning."

Slade opened the spring as a starter at one of the end spots, but a hamstring injury sidelined him for several practice. Since returning to full practice, he has run with the second-team defense.

"He's a very athletic guy, but he hasn't practiced a lot of football,” Edwards recently said. “He's a little bit behind, and rightly so because he hasn't been practicing. This is a game of participation. Availability is critical, because this game takes that if you're going to be good at it. He's fallen behind, but he's into it.

“The thing about football, there’s a hardening process that you go through as a player. There’s a hardening factor. You get that in practice. He’s got to go through that.”

Despite the setback, Edwards sees a potential weapon.

"We need him. He's a big, strong, athletic guy that can help us,” Edwards said. “He has some attributes you can’t coach. He has speed, he has some length, he’s very athletic.”

After Slade underwent a full series of practices last week, he feels he is back on track.

"I feel a lot healthier,” said Slade. “The training staff got me right. I feel very healthy, but at the same time football-wise, I got to keep working at it."

When healthy, Slade has impressed his teammates on the practice field.

"He's a bull. He's an animal,” said ASU cornerback Chase Lucas. “He's going to get to that quarterback or get into that backfield. I feel like that with all of our defensive linemen. Darius, he's a bull. He's a real bull. I love him being on the field with me."

In addition to the field, Lucas also appreciates what Slade is bringing into the locker room.

"He's the only one in the locker room that has won a national championship,” Lucas said. “Even though he doesn't talk much, he's a leader on the field, and he leads by example. When he does something wrong, he corrects himself right away. He has that championship mentality. I feel like that if we can carry that onto the field and we can lean toward him a little bit more, I feel like we will be a really, really good defense."

Becoming a really, really good defense will be a welcome change in Tempe.

While ASU showed improvement last season, 2017 was the third consecutive season in which the Sun Devil defense was among the worst statistical units in the nation. Don’t think for a second that the players are overlooking that fact.

“All of us are pissed off,” Slade said. “The past few years, we haven't been so good defensively. We walk around with chips on our shoulders. Something to prove. We're tired of not being mentioned at the top of the Pac-12. This year is going to be one of the best years we've had defensively in a long time."

Slade feels that the root of that change will come not from scheme or personnel, but from a new mentality.

"(We’re) very dedicated guys that are going to show a lot more emotion,” said Slade. “It's not going to be stuck by the rule book. We're going to go out there and be angry every play. Fasten your seatbelts for the defense. We're coming this year."

Hands On

Spring practices are a time of optimism for any program, yet considering the dark cloud that hung over Arizona State football just a few months ago, the turnaround in Tempe is encouraging.

One the heels of a strong showing on National Signing Day, Herm Edwards made each of the 14 spring practices open to the public. That gesture has proven popular, with large crowds attending each session. There now appears to be a positive buzz building among fans about the Sun Devils.

“The vibes out here are good,” Slade said. “Lately, everyone has been so excited for the season, which is great. As a team, we need to get more involved with the fanbase. Everyone has been asking about Coach Herm. Everyone is coming out to practice. Everyone is excited and I feel they have a reason to be."

Those close to Slade are equally excited about his chance to become an important contributor this fall.

"If he stays healthy, look out, he might be the newcomer of the year in that conference,“ Johnson said. “He's a really outstanding pass rusher. He's got some really great skills in his toolbox he can use. He works extremely hard. He's a physical player. You guys are going to be surprised by what he brings to the table."

"I have a lot of expectations for him,” Lucas said. “Real big expectations. Coming in, then him winning defensive scout player of the year. You have to have big expectations for him. He went to Ohio State, he won a national championship, he transferred, he sat out a year. You have high expectations, and I know that he's going to fill those expectations."

Slade continues to work diligently each day for his chance to show what he can do. It has been a long time since he saw game action. His drive has taken him across the country, to a new team and a new home. Along the way he has had to battle setbacks, but the thought of finally hitting the field in Arizona State's season opener on Sept. 1 propels him.

"I couldn't be happier. I think about it every day," Slade said. "I wake up, I think about the first game, the excitement we're going to have and the success we're going to have.

"I've sat and watched from the sideline for so long, I can't wait to get my hands on somebody out there."

Copyright 2018 KPHO/KTVK (KPHO Broadcasting Corporation). All rights reserved.