Herm Edwards told his offense he expects the defense to be ahead. There’s a massive amount of turnover on the offensive side of the ball, and Edwards told reporters on Wednesday he thinks a veteran-laden defense can help carry the team and make the offense better. The Sun Devils project as a nasty front seven after being one of the Pac-12’s best run-stopping units a season ago.

Key in that projection: Merlin Robertson.

A fifth-year senior from Carson, California, Robertson is taking advantage of the extra season afforded to players because of COVID in 2020. In the middle of the Sun Devil defense, ASU will have a linebacker with a bank of nearly 2,500 snaps to call on. There’s nothing he hasn’t seen. There’s nothing he hasn’t done.

Robertson was the Pac-12 Freshman Defensive Player of the Year in 2018 after leading the team in tackles (77), tackles for loss (8.5), and sacks (five). He became just the second true freshman in program history to accomplish that feat.

In the years since, Robertson has had a winding and at times painful journey. His play dipped a bit in 2019. He lost his father in February of 2020. Then COVID hit.

Robertson was expected to play his way into an NFL Draft pick at the outset of last season. Instead of turning pro, he’s back for a fifth year.

At ASU’s first day of fall camp, he drew the attention of local media in attendance.

“He’s a father, a husband—and a really good husband, too, and a good father,” coach Herm Edwards told reporters on Wednesday. “Just watching him mature and watching how he’s changed his body. You look at him now, wow, he could be in one of those magazines where you can flex. He’s all lean, cut up, looks good.

“It’s just maturity and I think he’s a guy that has aspirations to play at the next level. He watched a lot of his teammates that left, and he could’ve probably left, but I think he thought, ‘You know, I need to play one more year and get some more good stuff on tape.’ I’m glad he’s back. He’s played a lot of football games for us. And he is a playmaker. He always has made plays since he’s been here, even as a freshman. He always makes a play or two, so it’s good to have him here.”

Robertson seems to have taken it upon himself this summer to work his way into the best shape of his ASU career.

He had 28 quarterback pressures and 35 stops, per PFF, as a freshman in 2018. He has just 24 combined pressures in the three seasons since, and hasn’t recorded a sack since 2019.

For a defense hoping to be a strength, Robertson looks to be a lynchpin.