After 2 years sidelined, top football safety ready to lead ASU on the field

Having to sit and watch one year was bad enough. Xavion Alford has been sidelined for two years.

There probably isn't another player in the Arizona State football camp more excited about the coming season than the junior safety. Alford arrived in Tempe a year ago from USC where he was injured and actually never played in his final season there. But since he had spent the year before his USC days at Texas, he needed a waiver to be eligible. That was denied.

So that was the second year he was relegated to the role of spectator. He made no secret of that, frequently expressing his disappointment on social media.

But he's finally eligible and proving to be the leader of a secondary unit that has athleticism and depth.

"The monkey's off my back. After everything, now I get to release it, no more barriers," Alford said. "It was a struggle out here watching my teammates and going to work every day and not really being able to help the way I wanted. But I put in the time I needed to, helped out with the scout team. Now I get to be out there flying around with the defense so it feels good."

Hands-on coach: ASU's Dillingham taking more active role with offense until new WR coach is hired

Teammates are taking a cue from him.

"He's really the leader back there," said Cole Martin, a newcomer who played last season at Oregon. "He gets us motivated, gets us amped up. We definitely look up to him a lot. He's been through a lot and you can tell how much he really wants this, wants us to do well."

Alford, who has two seasons of eligibility left, says he wasn't surprised his waiver was denied and he had to sit out last season. Wide receiver Jake Smith was in the same position with similar circumstances, having been slowed by an injury, and the school got word of his denial in early August. So it was a forgone conclusion that Alford's would follow the same pattern. It did.

Head coach Kenny Dillingham didn't mince words when talking about the denials at the time.

"I knew that was the way it was probably going to go," said Alford, who will complete an undergraduate degree in liberal studies next month. "I was still hoping for the best though. It just feels good to finally be able to be out there helping my team now."

Who is Xavion Alford? Meet ASU's secondary leader

Last season the Sun Devils boasted a solid secondary led by veterans Ro Torrence, Jordan Clark and Chris Edmonds, all of whom have since departed, and some say Alford was right up there with those players from a talent standpoint. He certainly came in with a solid resume.

Alford, 6-foot and 200 pounds, is one of the nearly two dozen players on the squad from Texas, a product of Shadow Creek High School just outside of Houston. He was ranked No. 139 nationally overall, No. 8 at safety and No. 16 overall in Texas by Rivals, with 247Sports pegging him in almost the same positions.

The number of offers and who they were from spoke volumes — Alabama, Miami, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas and USC, just to name a handful.

He chose Texas and appeared in two games in 2020 but transferred to USC in the spring of 2021. He saw significant playing time at strong safety and on special teams over 11 games and registered 31 tackles, a team-best three interceptions and three deflections, which helped earn him USC’s 2021 Co-Defensive Perimeter Player of the Year Award.

Last season he was out with something he deemed a "minor medical procedure" but didn't elaborate any further.

Then came his decision to transfer to ASU. And yes, all of the Texas connections were a factor. There were some familiar faces, many of those from his Texas roots. He also liked the feeling he got from the then-new coaching staff.

"It was just the family feel. I didn't know very much about Arizona, what to expect coming out here but just the people I was around, coaches, staff, the other players. We're all trying to do something special here," he said.

Dillingham appreciates the leadership Alford has shown in trying to tutor teammates in his position group.

"He's done a really nice job for us. He's a leader for our team. Guys are gonna rely on him. I was listening to Myles Rowser the other day talk. He was talking about how 'X,' who plays the same position took him in, trying to teach him the defense, trying to get him engaged," Dillingham said. "And right there is our leader because you're taking a guy that's competing for your spot and you're helping him grow. Him on the football field, there's a reason he was a high, high, prized recruit. That wasn't an accident and you can see it now."

Cornerbacks coach Bryan Carrington, one of the assistants spearheading the Texas-to-Tempe movement, gives his player words of praise, too.

"He's a really good football player," he said. "He's a guy that's been in college half of my coaching career. He's had a lot of experiences. He is a smart, instinctual football player, a great communicator. So putting him in the secondary gives us a veteran that's a vocal leader, somebody the other guys respect, a guy that’s going to work day in, day out. He's on a different level of motivated."

ASU football coaching search continues

Dillingham said he has interviewed six candidates for the position of wide receivers coach that came open when Ra'Shaad Samples went to Oregon late last week.

The always-prepared coach said he has a list of coaches for each position that he keeps at the ready, although it occasionally needs updating. He implied that it might not take long to have a replacement in camp.

"We talked to six guys so we're in a good spot. Hopefully we're able to make a move in the next week, if not sooner," he said. "We've narrowed the list down to a few guys. We're very, very close."

Dillingham has been working on the offensive side of the ball with the receivers, as has graduate assistant Brady White, a former quarterback at ASU and Memphis.

How to watch ASU football's open practice

The Sun Devils have been holding spring drills on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays in the morning but Saturday's session has been moved to 6:30 p.m. because the annual Pat's Run is being held that morning and many streets will be blocked off. The Saturday practice, held at the Kajikawa practice fields, will be open to the public. It is the second session this spring Dillingham has opened to the public.

This article originally appeared on Arizona Republic: After 2 years sidelined, a top safety ready to lead ASU on the field