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August 10, 2013When Arizona State players return kicks during practice they are required to run the whole 100 yards to the opposite end zone.
The ASU coaches are more concerned what happens before returner starts to run, though. For special teams coordinator Joe Lorig the player who wants the returning job has to do one thing.
Catch the ball.
"We chart it every day and we make sure that we are getting guys back there that are not only explosive but they can hang on to the ball," Lorig said. "Our number one objective is to get the ball back. So one hundred percent possession of the ball is the biggest thing."
This early in camp it is still up in the air as to who the ASU punt returner and kick returners will be. There has been a plethora of players catching kicks during the special teams period.
Players returning kicks in practice have ranged from offensive weapons like senior running back Marion Grice, sophomore running back D.J. Foster and sophomore wide receiver Richard Smith to defensive specialists like senior safety Alden Darby and senior cornerback Robert Nelson.
Junior college transfer sophomore receiver Jaelen Strong was even catching balls shot high in the air by the machine before his first practice started. And another newcomer, junior college transfer Damarious Randall could be an option once his sore groin has healed.
Coach Todd Graham said he would like to put the ball in the hands of his best playmakers.
"Marion Grice and D.J. Foster would be who I would want to put back there," Graham said. "I think that Robert Nelson is a great kick returner, [junior safety] Damarious Randall is a phenomenal kick returner. So we have quite a few options on that deal. [On punt] Rick Smith is a heck of a returner. We got a lot of options when it comes to that. So I expect us to be better."
Smith is leading the competition for punt returner. His familiarity with catching the ball should help him with ball security, but a couple years ago, Smith wouldn't haven even wanted to be in the running for the job.
"What's crazy was my whole life I was scared to do it until my junior year of high school," Smith said. "I went back there to catch it when the other players were hurt and I did good. So ever since then I just liked it."
Having a lot of return options is nothing new for the ASU coaches.
Lorig said the difference this year is at the amount of depth he has at the other positions on special teams.
If some of the younger players make the first string on special teams it will be an advantage for the Sun Devils.
"It causes you to not have to play your starters on everything," Lorig said. "So guys can go in that are fresh and you still have good talent."
Douglas moves again
Junior offensive lineman Jamil Douglas is flexible.
He is flexible in the way that he can move for 6-foot-4 and 303 pounds but he also flexible in the way that he can play any spot on the offensive line.
Douglas came into fall practice anchored at the right tackle position. But coaches mixed things up Friday.
Douglas replaced junior Sil Ajawara at left guard, his old position. Junior Tyler Sulka took his spot at right tackle.
Douglas and Sulka got the first team reps at their new positions the entire practice.
Offensive line coach Chris Thomsen said the situation is fluid and the coaching staff is trying to get the best five guys.
"Yesterday was our first day in pads and we got a look at one first team group and then we changed that up a little bit, just to see how things would fit," Thomsen said. "I saw some good things out of Sulka at right tackle today and I still saw some good things out of Sil at left guard with that next group. I really can't say until I watch the film.
"Ultimately I feel confident in both those guys and we need both those guys to win a championship."
Sulka has his chance now. He said he was awarded the opportunity after solid practice Thursday.
He also weighs 289 now, up a good bit from last season. The extra size has also helped give him an opportunity to move up to the depth chart.
"The weight that I gained was something that was really crucial when I put on pads yesterday," Sulka said. "I felt a little bit more momentum when I was pushing guys in front of me today. It just felt better to have a little bit more anchor on my pass sets."
Douglas started all 13 games last season at the left guard position, so it was like riding a bike today for him during practice.
In a pass blocking drill Douglas was able to gain leverage against his old foe, senior defensive tackle Will Sutton. Sutton returned the favor later. But 1-for-2 is good for Douglas's first day back against one of the nation's best inside rushers.
Douglas is now comfortable playing the right tackle and left guard position. Thomsen is confident that he could play the other two spots on the line without a problem.
Thomsen said Douglas's ability to swing to any position will help the team further along during the season.
"Inevitably somebody will probably get banged up as we go throughout the year," Thomsen said. "That's what those guys have to know. Whether they're on the first or second group right now they got to stay ready and they got to be flexible and be ready to adapt to the situation. Sometimes that happens during the middle of a game. So a guy like that gives us some flexibility for sure."
Junior college transfer sophomore wide receiver Jaelen Strong made his practice debut Friday.
Because of NCAA rules he cannot wear shells for two practices. He participated in some wide receiver individual drills but was not in contact team drills.
Like fans, the coaching staff has high expectations for Strong.
"They told me that they want me to be the best player in the Pac-12 this year," Strong said. "They're going to work me. They're going to strain me. I just have to keep my head up and do as they ask and I will do that."
Grandville Taylor, who Graham said has had a good start to camp, and junior college transfer Antonio Longino
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