Arizona State's practice field sidelines were crammed with fans ready to see the first padded practice Thursday night.
Nothing on the field was more crowded than the competition at free safety, however, and it's only going to get more intense before the position is decided.
Right now three players are clamoring for the spot. Redshirt freshman Laiu Moeakiola, freshman Marcus Ball and freshman James Johnson all got reps today during team drills.
There will also be a fourth option when junior college transfer junior Damarious Randall is fully participating in practice. Coach Todd Graham said Randall has a groin issue that he working through, but he was dressed for the first time Thursday after being cleared by ASU academically.
Anticipating that development, defensive coaches moved Johnson to the bandit safety position for a lot of his reps Thursday, where he may compete with Ezekiel Bishop for the backup spot behind senior Alden Darby.
All eyes are on the free safety competition, where there is a heightened sense of urgency because the position is responsible for vocally aligning other players properly pre-snap. So far Graham has been pleased with his options.
"I think Marcus and James are guys who can compete," Graham said. "They're smart. Physically they can do it. Marcus is a lot bigger than Keelan (Johnson) was. The key is getting them to be smart and not giving up big plays. They haven't done that to this point. We're trying to strain them and see how they respond. Both of those kids are very calm. I'm sure it bothers them but they don't act like it does.
"Laiu has definitely got that leg healed up (from last season). He's running better. He's smart and playing fast. We've got three there and we've got to get it to two fast. And then when Damarious gets back he factors in too. This is a critical time for us. I think we've got to get a guy and go with it. That's a quarterback position. We've got to name a starter by the first week, that's the way I look at that."
Darby knows a lot about the battle because it is going on right next to him. He's had the best view of it as anyone, and probably has better insight.
Darby said the job is Moeakiola's to lose but the fight will be fierce till the end. The senior's advice for the young safeties to win the job was very clear.
"[Don't] act like a freshman," Darby said. "Act like the starter. It's like I tell Marcus every morning I say, 'Act like a starter.' When you get to the NFL they tell you to act like a pro. When you get here, act like a starter. Even though you are a freshman, even though you're playing second string act like you are going to start because the more you act like it the more it is going to happen."
If it is Moeakiola's job to lose then he might have felt Ball creeping behind him during Thursday's practice.
In the first 11-on-11 period of practice Ball came in and replaced Moeakiola before the first play.
Then later in practice the safeties lower on the depth chart were sent to work on pass coverage while the first team defense participated in a goal line run drill. Ball was headed over to pass drill but was asked by coaches to join the ones in the run drill.
Clearly Ball is not being treating like a freshman because he is not acting like one. The first word any player or coach brings up when asked about the three young safeties is mature.
Safeties coach Chris Ball said the coaches knew the maturity level of the safeties when they recruited them. But the way the freshmen communicated on the field in the first couple practices still surprised coaches a little.
"To be as vocal as they are at so young, it shocked me," Chris Ball said. "That's our number one thing that we have to do, we have to run the defense and you try to make that point. It takes time usually. But day one it was very impressive."
Johnson said he is very comfortable talking to the rest of the defense and leading in that way.
"I really try to emphasize being a leader, making sure everybody's lined up right," Johnson said.
The schemes and coverage shells come naturally to Johnson. He said the adjustment he has to make is learning the new ASU terminology or names of different coverages.
Johnson spent reps playing both the free safety and the boundary safety positions and should be considered legitimately in the running for a two-deep spot at both places.
The safeties competing for the job will have to make moves quickly. Ball agreed with Graham saying the coaching staff will start to weed out the competition early to get the starter more comfortable quarterbacking the defense.
Freshman linebacker Chans Cox got a different view of Thursday's practice.
During Tuesday and Wednesday's sessions Cox played in the devil backer position. He would put his hand down in a three point stance and rush the outside. He would also occasionally take reps at spur.
From the start of practice Thursday Cox was learning the SAM linebacker position. And the true freshman could not be happier about it.
"Coach Graham had me at devil trying that out," Cox said. "Now he wanted to see me at the SAM position because that's what I played in high school, was coming downhill. So far I like that a lot better. We'll just see, there will be times where I can go in at devil as well. For right now I really like that downhill SAM position."
Cox said if he as has good reps at the SAM he could split time with senior linebacker Steffon Martin. It may not be far-fetched because Graham said that Cox may wind up one of the top 11-to-13 players on the defense.
Martin was also behind Cox during defensive walk-throughs talking in Cox's ear. Martin even would pull on Cox's shirt to make sure Cox was in the right position.
Jefferson in the middle
For the second straight practice, freshman wide receiver Ellis Jefferson had a strong catch coming over the middle.
The 6-foot-4, 200 pound freshman seems confident running the middle seam route out of the Sun Devil 5-receiver position, usually in the slot. Jefferson's courage running through the defense's traffic caught Graham's attention.
"He made an unbelievable catch today," Graham said. "He picked up the system very quickly. We knew he was a really good player but he's shined. Especially today with the pads on. No fear catching the ball over the middle."
Like Randall, junior college transfer junior Joe Morris was dressed for the first time, but going through the NCAA mandated initial practice without shells, so he was not a full participant. ASU is hoping to get highly anticipated receiver Jaelen Strong dressed for Friday's practice.
At the end of practice sophomore cornerback Rashad Wadood was on the ground grabbing his hip. He worked with a trainer and was able to walk to the team huddle.
Redshirt freshman linebacker Carlos Mendoza took and hard jolt from Jefferson releasing off the line of scrimmage late in practice and that was Mendoza's last rep of the session.
Junior cornerback Lloyd Carrington consistently received first team reps at the field cornerback position throughout the entire practice, and has earned daily praise from Graham.
When the defense went into the nickel formation senior cornerback Robert Nelson was the third cornerback on the field. That might give some insight to where Nelson is on the depth chart out of the formation.
During kickoff return 6-foot-2, 245 pound freshman linebacker Viliami Latu was the middle man forming the wedge, or at least what used to be called the wedge.
During a run drill session tempers got hot between players. Some players slapped their hands on another player's facemask. Graham stopped the drill and reminded the players they did not commit any of those penalties last season and he will not tolerate extracurricular action again this season.
Junior running back Deantre Lewis lost control of the football during the gray area when the play is not for sure over yet. Running backs coach Bo Graham pulled him of the field and said a back cannot let of the ball until he hands it to the referee for the next play.
Blocking was a key focus for the wide receivers today. One drill receivers were standing working on replacing their hands quickly after a teammate knocks them down. The freshman Jefferson was used as an example of how to use proper technique to the other players.
In the last team scrimmage period, junior linebacker Carl Bradford blew right past junior tackle Jamil Douglas. There was not much Douglas could do on the play. Bradford has always had great explosiveness off the snap. But the sack show cased how he has worked to get his body lower to the ground during the pass rush. If he can do that then he can take a sharper angle and work back to the quarterback quicker.
Like last season senior defensive lineman Davon Coleman was used as a full back in the team's goal line package.