One of the standouts through the team's first two games of the season has been senior linebacker Anthony Jones, who recorded his second career interception against the Hornets and played a pivotal role in Arizona State's final defensive stand against the Badgers.
Originally from Mississippi, Jones moved to the Valley at the age of 16 and attended Phoenix prep football powerhouse Chandler Hamilton High School where as a senior he was rated as the top linebacker in the state.
After redshirting as a freshman, Jones played in 13 games for the Sun Devils in 2011 as a contributor on special teams. Last year, as a full-time player on defense, Jones saw action in 11 games and collected 26 tackles and one tackle for a loss. He also recorded his first career interception, which he returned 36 yards for a touchdown against Oregon.
Yet, throughout his first three years in Tempe, Jones routinely struggled with his on-field effort on consistency. Often described as one of the better overall athletes on the team, he lacked a position on the field he could call his own. He bounced around from special teams to various linebacker positions and even up at safety on a couple of occasions just to get on the field.
"At first it was difficult but then again it's just like, if you keep working and if you know you're good enough to play a spot, it'll all work out," said Jones on his struggles Tuesday after practice. "So I just kept working and it all worked out for me."
But the 6-1, 215-pound redshirt senior committed himself to the team's offseason workout and practice routine in an effort to secure a starting spot at the SPUR linebacker/safety hybrid position. He spent time watching film over the summer while learning the details of his defensive responsibilities and eventually beat out sophomore Carlos Mendoza and junior college transfer Antonio Longino for a starting position, where he has shined in the first two games.
Jones collected his second career interception against Sacramento State in week one and had three tackles in last Saturday's win over Wisconsin. However, he will be remembered the most for his heads up play where, in the midst wild confusion on the final play of the game, he dove on an assumed fumble by Badger quarterback Garrett Stave as time expired, denying Wisconsin the opportunity to line up for a potential game-winning field goal.
Jones (and his teammates for that matter) could not comment on last week's bizarre finish. However, that play certainly demonstrated Jones' maturity as a player as well as his savvy as a veteran.
"I feel real confident where I'm at now, at SPUR," said Jones. "I feel like I know everything about the position just about, inside and out. I feel real confident because this is, like, my first year just sticking to just one spot and not shuffling around from, like, WILL to SAM to back to SPUR. So, I feel real good with where I'm at now and real confident.
"It's my senior so I want to win it all. It's like, we really haven't done much since I've been here, so why not dedicate yourself to five more months and go as hard as you can go and make this the best run you've ever had at ASU? I really dedicated myself to that and feel real confident in what we're going to do this year."
Arizona State enters this week ranked (23rd AP/USA Today) for the first time since October 2011 as they get set for their first road contest and conference matchup of the season when they travel to Palo Alto to take on fifth-ranked Stanford this weekend.
The Sun Devils are 6-3 in their last nine conference openers, including wins in their last two (USC in 2011, Utah in 2012) and hold a 16-11 advantage all-time against the Cardinal, but have not won a game at The Farm since 2007.
The challenge that awaits Arizona State isn't lost on the linebacker.
"You've got to be disciplined and assignment-sound because this team won't beat themselves," commented Jones. "This is the defending Pac-12 champs, so we've got to go in and do what we can. They're a running team. A physical running team. But we're a good defense and we're going to go over what we need to go over. If we can just stay assignment-sound, then we'll be good."
With its two wins this year over San Jose State and Army, Stanford comes into this weekend's matchup as winners of their last ten contests dating back to last season when they were narrowly upended in South Bend by Notre Dame. On the other hand, Arizona State also enters Saturday on their own five-game winning streak.
Discipline and defense have been just a couple of the reasons both teams have fared well to start the year. Through the first three weeks of the college football season, the Sun Devils lead the nation in fewest penalty yards, averaging just 10 per game and the ASU defense has yet to be flagged for an infraction.
Arizona State is also third nationally, averaging just two penalties per game, while Cardinal rank first overall with just 1.5 per contest.
"We've done pretty good," remarked Jones on the play of the defense. "We have a true test this weekend though. Last weekend was a good test too but as a whole, as a defensive unit, we've done real well. I feel like it's because of that brotherhood that we have and we all know each other. There are a lot of seniors out there, so we're just trying to go out with a bang."
Through two games, opposing offenses are averaging 304 yards per game against the Sun Devil defense, but just 141 yards rushing, which is down from the 185.5 yards per game they yielded in 2012.
"It's still a work in progress but I feel like we've made a big jump from last year," said Jones. "I feel like the inside run is something we've really been focusing on because we're athletic enough to play against the pass but we've got to be physical to stop the run and I feel like we've done that."
After matching the toughness and physicality of Wisconsin last weekend, Jones and his Sun Devil defensive teammates get another stiff test against Stanford this Saturday. The Cardinal average just over 400 yards per game and feature a balanced running/passing attack.
Led by junior quarterback Kevin Hogan (28-45, 395 yards, five touchdowns and one interception) and senior running back Tyler Gaffney (236 yards and three touchdowns), the Cardinal have averaged 34 points in their first two games of the season.
"They have a lot of similarities (to Wisconsin) but at the same time, they're different too," said Jones. "It's just about stopping the run and staying assignment-sound. You've got to be disciplined and assignment-sound because this team won't beat themselves. This is the defending Pac-12 champs, so we've got to go in and do what we can."
After two days of chatter and speculation over the team's wild finish against Wisconsin, Jones is just glad to move on and focus on the next challenge. It's been three years since the Sun Devils and Cardinal last squared off against each other and both teams have hopes of contending for a conference crown at season's end.
"It's over and done with and we got a win under our belt and now we're playing the Pac-12 defending champs, so you have to focus on that," said Jones. "If not, then I don't know what you're playing for."