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August 14, 2013

Open spots getting scarce on Sun Devil defense



Coach Todd Graham has a very good problem.

He has a bunch of athletic players that he wants to get on the field. The problem is there are only two starting positions open on the Arizona State defense, spur linebacker and free safety.

Right now senior linebacker Anthony Jones is taking the first team reps spur. His athleticism helps him make some tremendous plays at the position. But some mental lapses like missing calls and not fulfilling his gap responsibility have caused him to struggle.

Redshirt freshman Carlos Mendoza has been taking the second team reps. Mendoza still is not 100 percent after getting his knee scoped earlier this summer. Graham said he has to fight through that injury and compete at his highest potential for the job.

"I think he's about 5/8 speed, 6/8 speed," Graham said. "[Mendoza] had that knee scoped and had to drain it the other day, missed a practice, one or two. I think he's fighting through that. Anthony (Jones) has been solid, done a solid job for us. So we'll see."

One player may have a chance to start at spur even though he hasn't taken any reps there.

Graham said first-year safety Marcus Ball is one of the only true freshmen he has coached who has the total package. In recent practices, Ball has split first-team duties with freshman safety Laiu Moeakiola.

If junior college transfer junior safety Damarious Randall can return to practice next week and compete with Moeakiola, then Ball can be involved in the spur conversation.

"Marcus Ball is another guy who could factor in there," Graham said. "I'm going to have a hard time finding not finding a place for him due to his athleticism. I think if Damarious [Randall] was ready we could [rep him at spur] but right now we can't do that. He still might win the starting free safety job. If you asked me yesterday it might be Laiu (Moeakiola), if you asked me today it might be Marcus. So it's back and forth."

After the departure of Brandon Magee and Keelan Johnson, Graham recruited heavily to fill those voids. While it's still early, it appears he was successful and has several legitimate options. Finding the right two players for the starting spots will be the challenge.

Defensive end locked down

Graham might be a long way from a decision when it comes to the spur and free safety position but said another position that appeared contested is already decided.

Senior defensive lineman Gannon Conway was given the opportunity to compete for the starting defensive end position. He has not disappointed his coaches.

"One guy I want to point out who has really trained himself and really far exceeded my expectations for him is Gannon Conway," Graham said. "He has been absolutely a completely different guy. A guy who gets not only, no question, the starting defensive end, but established himself as a consistent player there. I'm really proud of him."

Junior college transfer junior defensive lineman Marcus Hardison did have a shot at taking the starting defensive end position from Conway. According to Graham's comments it appears Hardison will be on the two deep behind Conway.

Switching positions

Early in fall camp players can be moved around a lot to find their best fit.

Nobody has bounced between positions more than freshman linebacker Chans Cox. He started at devil, moved to SAM, then was put back at devil and Wednesday, he was wearing a maroon jersey playing tight end.

Like most of Cox's stays at different positions, his time at tight end appears not for long.

"It was just something I was trying for the day," Cox said. "There might be more times when I go over to the offensive side of the ball; just wanted to get used to it. The coaches wanted me to go over there just a few times to get some reps in so if they ever need me to switch over I can go over and do that."

Graham said Cox should be back with the defense tomorrow.

A more subtle change in positions happened on the defensive line Wednesday.

Senior defensive lineman Davon Coleman has been practicing at the 1-technique position, which is slightly shaded off the helmet of the center. Wednesday he moved out and took reps at the 3-technique in between the guard and tackle, and the 5-technique end post.

Coleman said he does not mind shifting around the line and understands why the coaches asked him to.

"I think they're just trying to move everyone around and see who's in the best position to play what, so I guess that's what they wanted to do today," Coleman said.

Sophomore defensive lineman Sean O'Grady has also played well at the 1 and 3 techniques. With Coleman moving, and sophomore Mo Latu attending to a family matter out of state, O'Grady got an increased amount of reps on the second team defensive line at the inside positions.

WRs on display

ASU fans present at practice Wednesday got another fleeting glimpse of the talent of junior college transfer sophomore wide receiver Jaelen Strong.

After catching a pass from Kelly on a slant route, Strong broke through the tackle of senior cornerback Osahon Irabor, cut up field and blew past the safeties for a 35-yard touchdown.

Later in the practice sophomore wide receiver Richard Smith, a player Graham called his most improved on offense from last season, was at it again.

On the first play of the last team drill Kelly threw a 46-yard bomb to Smith for a touchdown. Smith's victim this time was junior cornerback Lloyd Carrington.

Graham, a defensive coach to the core, said he was happy to see his receivers make those kinds of plays, but with an understandable caveat.

"I like the balls being thrown down the field like that," Graham said. "I don't like like it being caught on me."

Another coach's perspective

ASU's practice got a lot more attention than is typically the case at Camp Tontozona, Wednesday.

The Pac-12 network was there filming its camp report for ASU. Former UCLA quarterback and coach Rick Neuheisel was working for the network.

No player on the ASU roster will get more national attention than senior defensive lineman Will Sutton, and he'll also be the focal point of offensive coordinators, Neuheisel said.

Offensive minded coach Neuheisel said this season will be a unique opportunity for the players surrounding Sutton on defense.

"As a 3-technique he's going to draw a lot of attention from guys like (sophomore defensive lineman Jaxon) Hood to make some real plays," Neuheisel said. "And it'll be difficult to go and chip (junior linebacker Carl) Bradford and chip (senior linebacker Junior) Onyeali. Those guys are going to have great chances because of what Will is doing inside. So to me it's a great opportunity for the other guys in white shirts to take advantage of the attention he's going to command."

Notes

  • Junior quarterback Taylor Kelly was back with his helmet on and fully participating in practice Wednesday.

  • It was the same story with green jerseys Wednesday. Freshman wide receiver Cameron Smith, junior college transfer junior wide receiver Joseph Morris and junior college transfer junior safety Damarious Randall continued to rehab injuries on the sidelines. Running backs senior Kyle Middlebrooks and sophomore Dante Alexander were wearing green jersey but did participate in practice.

  • ASU President Michael Crow was present and watching practice.

  • Senior linebacker Chris Young was pumped up Wednesday. It definitely was his most physical and vocal practice of camp. During the skeleton passing session he knocked two receivers to the ground, including 6-foot-4, 200 pound freshman receiver Ellis Jefferson.

  • Junior punter Dom Vizzare got first team reps on the punt team. He looked more consistent with his reps when compared with true freshman punter Matt Haack Wednesday, a persistent trend.


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