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March 25, 2013

Ajawara getting shot as ASU looks for fifth OL starter

Todd Graham 3/24/2013 from Chris Karpman on Vimeo.


He has a memorable name and is entering his fourth year in Tempe but Sil Ajawara knows a lot of Arizona State fans have little to no idea who he is. He'd like for that to change, and if he keeps playing the way he has this spring, he just might get his wish.

Ajawara, a 6-foot-4, 295 pound junior, has been a career backup along the offensive line, a position group that by nature gets less attention than skill players. But he also knows that he's yet to show what he's capable of and that's partly the reason he's largely an unknown to all but the most ardent fans.

This spring, Ajawara started from last Tuesday's initial practice working with the first team at left guard, and on Sunday moved to work with the top group at right tackle, essentially swapping spots with Jamil Douglas.

"It feels good getting the opportunity," Ajawara said. "It's exciting more than anything else. Since I've been here, people have said, 'This kid has potential but he's not shown it.' It's about me making a change to my mindset that I'm going to play this year, I'm going to get my job done and make everyone around me better rather than hinder the team."

To be fair, Ajawara was put behind the eight ball prior to his sophomore season, when it was learned in July that he'd suffered a sports hernia while doing heavy weightlifting. The setback kept him from feeling normal until after the season had already started, and his core strength wasn't back to its previous levels until recent months in the program's winter conditioning.

Before the hernia, Ajawara was primarily focused on getting into ideal playing shape, something that took all of his redshirt season and much of the following year. He's now 40 pounds lighter than when he enrolled at ASU.

"I came [to ASU] the worst shape I'd ever been in my life honestly," he said. "I weighed about 335 pounds and a bad 335. It didn't look like it should, like most guys look at 335. So it took just a lot of cardio, a lot of stair stepper and coaches like (head strength coach Shawn Griswold) and Josh (Storms) to really help push you and keep you motivated. I feel a lot lighter, I feel I can move better. That's especially important with this transition to tackle where I'm going to need to be able to move."

With his newfound physique, Ajawara has become one of the Sun Devils' more athletic linemen and the transformation led to new offensive line coach Chris Thomsen trying out Ajawara at tackle. It's the first time he's played the position since high school.

"It's a bit of a change up," Ajawara said. "They're just trying to get that continuity with Jamil over on the left side with [left tackle Evan Finkenberg] so it's a lot of work getting back to that deep set instead of trying to firm it up. Trying to keep the players that have played together as much as possible so we don't have to change everything up.

"We know Jamil can play both positions very well as you guys saw the last couple days. It's just a matter of me learning the position, how well I can get adapted to it. And with people like (devil backer) Carl (Brandford) and (defensive tackle) Will (Sutton) constantly going up against you, you have to learn quick or you're going to be toast."

ASU head coach Todd Graham said the offensive line is in pretty good shape because it returns four players who have started. The trick is finding someone to step up and fill the void left by Brice Schwab at right tackle. Three players are in a battle for the starting nod, including Ajawara, the only one of the three to get first-team reps through the first four spring practices.

There's also the possibility ASU could go with Douglas at right tackle in order to get the best overall five on the field. That's the reason he worked at the position for the first three practices. In the event that happens, Ajawara becomes the odds on candidate to start at left guard, because he's the only one of the three who has played both inside and outside.

"We're looking for that (right) tackle position," Graham said. "I think probably Evan Goodman, Sil and (Tyler) Sulka are the three guys who will compete for that. Obviously they'll be, along with Fink, our tackles. We want to make sure we get Jamil out there enough because he's so athletic that if we have to -- it's all about getting the best five out there."

Graham said there's a battle between Mo Latu and mid-year junior college transfer Nick Kelly for the backup center position behind Kody Koebensky, with Latu also the second-team right guard.

"I continue to be impressed with (Nick) Kelly," Graham said. "He just battles you. He's going to be a really good pick up for us and a guy that does have a redshirt year and three years. Right now he's the back up center, he and Mo are kind of competing there."

Running back depth improved

Without adding anyone to its roster at running back, the Sun Devils are improved at the position this spring not only due to the improved physical presence of top players Marion Grice -- up about 10 pounds from last season -- and D.J. Foster -- about 20 pounds heavier -- but because of the re-emergence of junior Deantre Lewis.

Some two years after being shot in early 2011, Lewis is finally starting to again look like the player who had 909 yards from scrimmage (including a 5.9 yard per carry average) and six touchdowns as a true freshman in 2010.

Last year, Lewis spent much of the season working on defense as a nickel back, partly because he still hadn't completely returned to form athletically.

"Deantre has stuck out to me the most (of the backs)," Graham said. "I think he's healthy now and has a chance to be a really great contributor for us."

ASU also has a big physical specimen at depth in redshirt freshman Terrell Davis, a 232 pound back who may get opportunities to carry the ball in short yardage and goal line situations, plus be a lead blocker.

Recruits show up in numbers

For the second consecutive day, a number of high profile recruits attended an ASU practice on Sunday. A day earlier, ASU's third junior day of the year allowed for a number of out of state visitors, headlined by Palmdale (Calif.) running back Demario Richard, to observe practice at Sun Devil Stadium.

On Sunday, the emphasis was more on local recruits. Rivals250 national recruits Kyle Allen, Natrell Curtis, and Casey Tucker were some of the biggest names. Scottsdale (Ariz.) Chaparral receiver Tyler Whiley was in attendance both days and his teammate Trevor Wood showed up Saturday.


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