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August 8, 2013

Freshmen show preparedness for opportunity

Todd Graham 08/07/13 p.m. session from Chris Karpman on Vimeo.

The Arizona State night practice for newcomers is quieter than morning practice for veterans, except for freshmen safeties Marcus Ball and James Johnson.

The practice is quieter because coaches take more time to instruct the new players and also, the newcomers don't yet have the ability to articulate everything taking place on the field as well as experienced returners.

Players had a unique opportunity Tuesday and Wednesday night to have extra reps and extra face-to-face time with their coaches, something coach Todd Graham said he's done since he was at Tulsa four years ago. Two of the rookies made a big impression at the field safety position vacated by Keelan Johnson, a spot Graham needs someone to step up.

"James Johnson and Marcus Ball are two guys who are competing for the free safety spot," Graham said. "Obviously Laiu (Moeakiola) is in there as well. But I've been very impressed with the way they communicate."

Wednesday night was their last chance for extra attention. The newcomers rejoin the veterans Thursday night.

Besides Ball's pure athleticism, his booming voice stuck out during practice Wednesday. Ball believes raspy yelling will be a big role in his success playing safety.

"It helps a lot because like I said we're the, 'T.K.,' of the defense," Ball said. "We've got to speak to not only our safeties and our corners, we have to speak to our whole defense just to let them know what's coming. I think I was born to lead. Communication is not a problem, it's just knowing what you are communicating, the concepts, what you're communicating is going to put you in an advantage."

Ball went on to explained that, "T.K," is a name secondary call themselves. It means they are the, "Taylor Kelly," or quarterback of the defense.

Ball and Johnson could see competition at the field safety spot additionally heightened when junior college transfer Damarious Randall is cleared to practice.

True freshmen receivers Ellis Jefferson and Cameron Smith also are making their presence felt and will likely push for playing time this season.

Jefferson caught everyone's attention late in practice with an acrobatic catch. He jumped for a pass thrown behind him, changed direction and reached across his body for the ball.

It was not Jefferson's only highlight of the night. He was very consistent catching the ball and ran very improved routes compared to Tuesday's practice.

But it was what he did Wednesday morning caused the improvement later that night.

"When we were with the vets this morning I made sure I watched and focused and had a mental thought of what my position I was doing while they were they were in the formations," Jefferson said. "When coach was talking with the twos and I wasn't in I was making sure I was paying attention."

Jefferson said he will have to overcome the upperclassmen's experience to win the competition for playing time or even perhaps a starting nod.

"I've got to make sure I know my assignment; that's what I feel like the guys ahead of me have. They know what to do," Jefferson said. "They've been here three, two years. I've only been here for two months. So I just got to focus in."

All told, a number of freshmen have demonstrated a reasonable chance for playing time this year, including Ball, Johnson, Jefferson, Smith and perhaps receiver Ronald Lewis, linebacker Viliami Latu, who is 6-foot-3, 245 pounds, kicker Zane Gonzalez and punter Matt Haack.

"It's a big adjustment from high school," said Latu, who could compete for a backup spot at the SAM position. "Just getting used to the speed of everything is the biggest challenge. I feel like I'm starting to get it though."

When a true freshman makes an impact for a team right away, it is uncommon. When a junior college transfer comes in and makes an impact immediately it is almost expected.

Junior college transfer junior tight end De'Marieya Nelson took advantage of the extra coaching from position coach Chip Long Wednesday night.

Nelson said he was not happy with his performance Tuesday but was more satisfied after Wednesday's practice. He gave credit to Long for his success.

"He was just telling me that this is a different level than junior college," Nelson said. "I have to be more physical, I have to be faster and I have to be mentally tough and mentally prepared for the game."

Nelson is listed at 6-foot-3 and 230 pounds. He looks a little leaner than the other tight ends like seniors Chris Coyle and Darwin Rogers.

His build works to his advantage playing the 3-back position and could be really useful when flexed out in the slot or even on handoffs from the backfield, something ASU didn't do with the position last year.

"My position requires a lot from tight end, to full back to slot receiver," Nelson said. "That brings a lot of confusion on the defense and creates a lot of mismatches."


  • Senior safety Alden Darby spent pretty much the entire practice behind freshman bandit safety Jayme Otomewo talking in his ear and coaching him up on footwork.

  • Freshman offensive lineman Jack Powers set himself apart from the other incoming linemen Wednesday with his flexibility. Despite being as tall as anyone on the team at 6-foot-6, Powers showed the ability to keep his pad level down, sink his hips and stay balanced in his run and pass blocking steps. That is not an easy skill to teach someone who is 260 pounds and should set him up for the future as he gets bigger and stronger.

  • Just like in the morning practice, the offense spent a lot of reps utilizing the flex position. With the 3-back inside the tackles it gives the defense another back in the box to worry about; a player who can block, carry or catch the ball.

  • Freshman devil backer Chans Cox struggled early in practice on his option reads. After some coaches' attention he improved his slide step and reading the quarterback's movement.

  • Toward the beginning of practice almost every newcomer lined up to practice their get offs for the kickoff team. Special teams coordinator Joe Lorig yelled out to the players, "Show me you want to be on kickoff." Coaches are open to new players filling positions on the kickoff team.

  • Defensive line coach Jackie Shipp was the perfect example of coaches adjusting the practice for the newcomers. He started off a slap and rip drill with two dummies and was unsatisfied with the way the linemen were turning their hips to start the drill. So he broke the drill down to one dummy and coached only the first couple steps and slap motion.

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