Harts pushing to be an early contributor at safety in his freshman season
Last week, defensive backs coach Tony White raved about freshman safety Willie Harts in an interview with Devils Digest regarding the performance of his position group during camp.
If you didn’t see the story, or want to revisit it, you can do that here, but he essentially said that Cam Phillips, who’s taken all the reps at first-team safety aside Aashari Crosswell, can’t rest on his laurels because he knows he has someone behind him who could supplant him at any time.
As the interview progressed, it seemed that he was referencing Harts as the player most likely to challenge Phillips for reps. Fast forward almost a week-and-a-half later, the freshman from Pittsburg, California, has continued to hold his own at second-team safety.
“They have a lot of trust in me,” Harts commented about the coaching staff. “I feel that I can live up to their standards, so I’m doing all I can and trying to keep that spot.”
Defensive coordinator Danny Gonzales is another coach who’s liked what he’s seen from the newcomer thus far, and believes he’s shown the potential to be an immediate contributor.
“He’s really smart in the classroom,” Gonzales said, “his feet are impeccable, and that gives him an opportunity- I say it all the time, the further you are away from the football, the easier it is to play as a freshman and be successful.
“Between him and (fellow freshman safety) Kejuan (Markham), I think those guys give us a big opportunity to have great depth there. Now they haven’t played yet, and when the big lights come on, you never know how somebody’s going to respond. But right now, because of what they’ve shown in the classroom- especially Willie- it gives them a chance to be successful.”
Of course, Markham has impressed just as much, arguably even more so than Harts when he’s been on the field. After all, Markham already had two interceptions through roughly the first week of practices, before missing most of this past week due to injury.
Our Cody Whitehouse wrote about Markham’s potential to also make an immediate impact just a few days ago, so for now, we continue the focus on Harts.
As much as he’s been lauded for his defensive skills and instincts throughout this preseason, Harts was a talent on both sides of the ball at Pittsburg high school, where he played on the varsity team since his freshman season.
He played the three main skill positions on offense at different points (quarterback, running back, receiver), accruing over 2,000 all-purpose yards in his time there.
Last season, he accounted for 15 total touchdowns; six rushing, four receiving, two passing plus a kickoff return, punt return and, of course, a pick-six.
“I like the best player on the field, whether it’s at running back, whether it’s at wide receiver, punt returners, kick returners, I mean they have to do everything,” Gonzales said. “A good high school (defensive back) should have bad tape, because if all he does is play DB they should never throw it at him if he’s really good, and when you get to see him do all those other things you can tell what kind of athlete they are.
“You can tell what kind of feel for the game they have, and Willie was there, mister All-American at Pittsburg high, so I’m not a fan of guys that only play DB.”
Harts himself admitted that playing as many positions as he did in high school has helped him adapt to the speed of the college game thus far.
“It helps a lot because I see the field from every perspective, from quarterback to running back to wide receiver,” he said.
Interestingly enough, it’s been another fellow true freshman who’s undertaken a similar, multi-positional role in ASU’s offense, who has challenged Harts as much as any other pass-catcher in practice to this point.
“I got to go with Captain America got to go with Ethan (Long), has given me the most problems on the field,” Harts said. “His speed and size, he moves very well for his size.”
Considering Harts has to regularly go up against this quarterback/receiver/fullback/special teams blocker during scrimmages, his position coach’s advice to him makes a lot of sense.
“Coach White tells me to look beyond what I’m looking at,” Harts commented, “he wants me to think outside the box and step up my game level.”
White was the first Pac-12 coach from any school, let alone just from ASU, to reach out to Harts during his recruiting process. In last week’s interview, White compared Harts to Crosswell as a ‘freshman who gets it,’ which of course in Crosswell’s case last year led to him starting from week one and going on to lead the team in interceptions and passes defended, with four and nine, respectively.
While this can’t realistically be the case for Harts barring unexpected injuries or circumstances- at least the part about starting at safety out of the gate- he feels that he’ll be ready when his number is called.
“I feel like I would be ready, I could handle it…I told (special teams coordinator and assistant head coach) coach Slocum anything he needs, just put me in,” Harts added when asked if he could contribute on special teams as well.
In this manner, it would be no surprise to see Harts on the field from week one. Even playing safety, it’s possible Harts sees action pretty quickly thanks to coach White’s philosophy on having a rotation of players in the secondary.
When asked last week how realistic it is that freshmen will see the field early in the season, White essentially said that you can’t expect to play deep into the season if you only play your starters (in stark contrast to the previous head coach’s philosophy). He went on explaining specific math behind it, saying that if you save your starters 25 plays each game, it equates to saving them about three games over the course of a season.
With that in mind, these first two games could prove the best stretch of the season to keep the starters fresh while also getting Harts and his fellow freshmen valuable playing experience early in their college careers.
That is, assuming things go as planned for the Sun Devils in these early season games and they have a comfortable lead by the start of the fourth quarter, if not the second half.
Time will tell. Perhaps Harts and one or more of the other freshmen use some early game action to make their case for playing time down the road. Gonzales certainly has seen that potential thus far in practice, although he also sees his area for growth.
“His natural knack for where the ball’s going to go,” Gonzales said about what’s impressed him about Harts so far. “Now there’s a couple of times that he’s lined up and, confidence-wise, he doesn’t think that he can run with somebody or something so he plays a little soft. As he continues to get over that, he has a chance to be a dominant cover guy.”
He and Kejuan are starting to develop that, they’re starting to believe- I would rather in practice they take some chances to be like that, even if they give up a big play here and there, so that they understand what chances they can take and what chances they can’t take, and we’re trying to convince them to get to that point right now.”
Harts himself even credits Crosswell and Phillips as key players in his development thus far, and says they’ve “helped keep his head clear.”
Nonetheless, no matter how soon Harts, and Markham for that matter, contribute on the field for ASU, it’s clear the coaching staff sees them as key pieces to a burgeoning young secondary for this season and future ones to come.
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