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August 10, 2013

Graham counting on newcomers

Three major themes emerged from Saturday's Arizona State's media day. A number of freshmen and especially junior college transfers have to adjust quickly because they will see the field; stopping the run is the defense's main concern; and the focus of the Camp Tontozona trip will be team bonding.

Highly anticipated junior college transfers like sophomore wide receiver Jaelen Strong and junior defensive lineman Marcus Hardison will play right away this season. Strong should start. Others like safety Damarious Randall, receiver Joe Morris, 3-back De'Marieya Nelson, center Nick Kelly and linebacker Antonio Longino should also factor on the two-deep and one or more could start.

Coach Todd Graham and his staff will be paying close attention to those players this fall.

"Obviously the biggest challenge for us is those junior college guys is getting them ready," Graham said. "I think they will have the biggest impact."

For the talented freshman class there is less of a chance to start, but for a select few it's still possible.

"I think on defense there's a chance for one to start maybe," Graham said. "On offense I think there's a chance for probably two to start."

Right now it would be safe to assume the freshman on defense Graham is referring to is freshman safety Marcus Ball, because he's the only first-year freshman to receiver reps with the top group.

On offense Graham is almost certainly talking about freshman wide receiver Ellis Jefferson, a player Graham said has had as good a camp as any newcomers.

"E.J. Jefferson has probably been the guy that's really stuck out to me," Graham said. "[He's] big, fast [and] physical. The guy loves to block. It's nice to have size that like that. He's been very impressive."

The other freshman who conceivably could start on offense is wide receiver Cameron Smith, a player who beat starting senior corner Osahon Irabor deep for a touchdown Saturday.

Even if the junior college transfers and freshmen don't get the starting title, they will be key factors to ASU's success.

Many will fill the second string on the depth chart and get rotated into the game. Freshmen like linebackers Chans Cox and Viliami Latu, safety James Johnson, receiver Ronald Lewis all have a chance to varying degrees.

Then there's kicker Zane Gonzalez and punter Matt Haack, both of whom could start as true freshmen.

Graham now has a couple more weeks to get them game ready.

For the freshmen that do not get to suit up on Saturdays, Graham wants them to keep their heads up.

"It's not a bad thing to redshirt," Graham said. "Now it's like a bad thing to redshirt. I tell people five years from now we'll to wish we had another year of D.J. [Foster]."

Stopping the run

Last season ASU had a flashy defense.

The group was good at making the exciting plays like sacks, tackles for loss and interceptions. Graham wants those plays and they are the major goal for the pressure heavy defense.

This season the Sun Devils need improve on the plays that don't show up on the highlight shows. A huge focus this fall camp will be stopping the run.

A good run stop is a linebacker filling a hole and tackling the running back for a two yard gain, or a defensive lineman closing down a gap before a ball carrier can even reach the second level.

It might make fans yawn but it will affect ASU's win/loss column this season.

"We got to do a better job stopping the run," Graham said. "The key to that is just being consistent. We're not consistent right now. But we're a whole heck of a lot better. We've gotten bigger inside, we've gotten deeper and we're faster."

Graham said to be a good run stopping defense it is a balancing act.

There needs to be a good scheme put in place. But when it comes to run it is more important to be fundamentally sound and consistent throughout the game.

In defensive meetings the theme coaches and players discuss is playing on the opponents' side of the ball.

Senior linebacker Steffon Martin said the defense can't accept the force of the offense to get better at stopping the run.

"The linebacker goal or key this year is destroy the line of scrimmage," Martin said. "If you look at the beginning of our schedule with Wisconsin and Stanford, they're known for pro-style offense, I-formation…So we have to destroy the line of scrimmage because there's no team that's won the national championship that didn't have a good run defense."

Like Martin said, ASU's schedule is front loaded with teams that have power based running plays. Graham has adjusted practice and the defense has mostly been going up against formations with tight ends on the line, two backs and barely any receivers. They have not been practicing against much spread.

Graham singled out junior linebacker Carl Bradford in particular and said that is part of his game he needs to improve on.

Bradford agrees.

He feels confident in his ability to read the tackle and switch to a run mindset quickly after the snap. He is working on the actual combat during the play this fall.

"[I'm focused] a little bit more on the technique," Bradford said. "Taking the right step, taking your step up-field and using leverage. That's one big thing -- using leverage, getting low, getting underneath the blocks and exploding through. So stuff like that is what I'm working on."

Changes at Camp T

ASU does not have any two-a-days scheduled for Camp Tontozona, where it will be from Monday afternoon through Saturday next week.

Graham said it is possible for that to change. He made Camp T a day longer this year and really wants to focus on the team getting to know each this year.

He was inspired last year when the players had an unplanned campfire that really brought the team together. So there will be more activities like that planned for the team next week.

Notes

  • Bradford explained his secret on how he has gotten lower to the ground on his pass rush. Apparently over the summer he did a lot of "hoop drills." He would put a big hula hoop on the ground and run around it, dip his hip and stay balanced all the way around the hoop.

  • Martin has big goal for his season. He wants to record over 100 tackles after having just 27 last season. Only one player had more than 100 tackles on the team last season.

  • Graham commented on the physicality of Morris. He wants to use Morris as a gunner in kickoff cover because of his physical skills. Morris said he had "goosebumps just thinking about it."

  • Graham said he was surprised senior tackle Evan Finkenberg and senior cornerback Osahon Irabor were not named to the preseason all-conference team or national position watch lists. But he said the selections at the end of the season are the ones that really matter.

  • Graham is looking to senior wide receiver Kevin Ozier to be the leader of the wide receiver group, help the new players adjust and bring the group together.


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