Pre-Spring Top-10: Who Needs It Most?

In the first of a series of Top-10 lists as we countdown to the start of spring football practice, Devils Digest's Joe Healey breaks down the 10 players with the most on the line this spring.

10. WR Kevin Ozier

Over the past calendar year Ozier has generally provided a feel-good story (save for an alleged locker room incident), as his play last spring helped propel him into a contributing role in 2011 and ultimately a scholarship. With the departure of wide receivers Gerell Robinson, Aaron Pflugrad, Mike Willie and George Bell as well as the denial of T.J. Simpson's plea for a sixth year, Ozier now skyrockets from his former scout team role to a likely first-stringer. With that promotion comes great responsibility, as he will have to play the most consistent football of his career and will be viewed as a player that should be a routine playmaker, different from his previous underdog role. If he shows a well-rounded skill set, he could remain in the starting lineup in the fall. However, if he falters, the numerous returning receivers as well as fall junior college transfer Alonzo Agwuenu will look for every opportunity to take his first-team role.

9. LB Anthony Jones

Though he was widely regarded by ASU's previous coaching staff as the team's most athletic linebacker, Jones has yet to substantiate that claim on the field. After being ruled ineligible for the duration of his redshirt freshman season in 2010, the Chandler Hamilton High School product managed only six total tackles last year as a reserve in all 13 games. Despite the modest productivity through the first half of his career, attention was often given to 2012 to be Jones' true breakout opportunity due to the loss of four scholarship linebackers that all saw action as starters in 2011.

Additionally, the spring will be an advantageous opportunity for Jones as fifth-year senior leader Brandon Magee's availability is uncertain as he continues to heal from last year's season-ending Achilles injury, while the numerous members of the 2012 signing class that will compete for time at linebacker and the hybrid "Rover" position all will not arrive until the fall. The end result of this equation is that Jones is as experienced and talented as any linebacker available for full-time duty this spring. However, that window of opportunity will shrink as months pass leading up to the start of the 2012 season so his potential will have to materialize for Jones to concretely be promoted from a backup to a starter.

8. LB Isreal Marshall

Especially after Brandon Magee's season-ending injury during fall camp, Marshall was inches away from earning playing time as a true freshman in 2011 but was withheld from immediate duty and redshirted. With that being the case, Marshall brings tremendous promise to the field as a versatile and tenacious defender but has yet to experience formal field action. It is plausible that Marshall could be a first-team linebacker in the spring or at very worst a reserve in frequent action, but with little to no formal film for ASU's coaches to know his true abilities, he will have to shine immediately to create a strong impression. Marshall has background playing safety and linebacker at the high school level, so he could be a solid candidate for an outside ‘backer role or the new "Rover" position. Marshall has a great attitude and a praiseworthy work ethic, but will need a memorable spring to remain a first-team option in the fall among players such as Magee, Anthony Jones, incoming junior college transfer Steffon Martin and others.

7. DL/OL Mo Latu

It has been rumored that Latu may see some action at center as ASU works to replace multi-year starter Garth Gerhart, however Latu also appears to be the most viable candidate as a true nose tackle in three-man defensive fronts as well. Latu may have seen action last year had his NCAA Clearinghouse status not delayed and had his conditioning been at a better level. There is quite a bit on line the line (pun intended) for Latu this spring as he will primarily compete with Kody Koebensky and Devin Goodman for action at center, while mammoth fall junior college transfer Mike Pennel has the size and experience and reported athleticism to make an immediate transition. Also, depending on formation, tackles such as senior Corey Adams and junior Will Sutton have an obvious experience advantage over Latu, creating obstacles in any instance. Hopefully any position experimentation isn't a detriment to Latu's development; whether on offense or defense, Latu could certainly benefit from ample practice repetitions.

6. OL Brice Schwab

Thankfully Schwab brought three years to play two at ASU, otherwise he would be long known as nothing more than a "Could Have Been". Schwab's story is well-known among ASU enthusiasts—he was one of the nation's most sought-after junior college linemen as a four-star prospect in 2010 and signed with ASU over a multitude of major offers, including USC, to whom he was verbally committed prior to Pete Carroll's departure. However, the proposed mammoth, dominant left tackle showed up to ASU in poor condition and bounced between tackle and guard as a junior, splitting time as a starter and reserve. With senior offensive linemen such as Mike Marcisz, Adam Tello, Dan Knapp and Aderious Simmons on the 2011 roster, Schwab redshirted to postpone his senior season to 2012 where he could be a viable starting option, likely at guard and possibly at tackle.

Entering the spring, Schwab, who showed physical improvements in 2011, figures most likely to top the depth chart at left guard, where Marcisz and Tello shared starting responsibilities last year. With fellow senior Andrew Sampson slated to start at right guard, there is a substantial drop-off in experience at the backup guard spots with players such as sophomores Sil Ajawara and redshirt freshman Vi Teofilo and perhaps also sophomore Jamil Douglas as the potential backups. Despite the seniority advantage, Schwab would greatly benefit from a strong spring campaign to not only solidify a starting role for the fall but also steer momentum in a better direction after a start to his Sun Devil career that has not lived up to expectations.

5. OL Tyler Sulka

With tackles Dan Knapp and Aderious Simmons gone from the roster, Sulka appears to be the likely incumbent to see first-team snaps at right tackle in the spring. However, if four-star fall freshman arrival Evan Goodman is able to earn immediate playing time as some have speculated, it is reasonable to believe that Sulka could be the one demoted. Though Sulka showed some promise as a redshirt freshman in 2011, even the exodus of two senior tackles still does not fully guarantee him a starting position for 2012. If he is able to perform in a noticeably consistent fashion during the spring, he could create a sizeable challenge for Goodman to earn playing time when the fall arrives. Conversely, if Sulka struggles, the coaching staff may look for every possible opening to place the true freshman into action.

4. RB Kyle Middlebrooks

Last spring, Middlebrooks was considered by many to be the most outstanding overall player for ASU as he showed sensational skills as a runner and a receiver, prompting many to eagerly anticipate his sophomore season in 2011. Unfortunately, even with no viable running back behind starter Cameron Marshall in the wake of Deantre Lewis' unavailability, Middlebrooks only made scarce contributions to the tune of only 150 rushing yards and 135 receiving yards with zero touchdowns despite playing in all 13 games. Additionally, as Rashad Ross emerged, Middlebrooks' kickoff return responsibilities diminished. Perhaps most disadvantageous is Middlebrooks' identity crisis—he's not quite a running back, not quite a wide receiver and has yet to etch out a viable, consistent role in the offense.

If all goes well, when the 2012 season kicks off ASU should have no shortage of talent at running back—but Middlebrooks may be on the outside looking in at the depth chart with the likes of Cameron Marshall, Deantre Lewis, Marion Grice and D.J. Foster in the fold. However, of that list, only Marshall brings any sort of guarantee as Lewis, who is expected to be limited in the spring, has still yet to fully test his physical abilities after last year's gun shot wound, while JUCO transfer Grice and incoming true freshman Foster have never played an FBS snap.

Ultimately, Middlebrooks should have every necessary opportunity to prove himself this spring; but prove he must, as the running back depth chart—if/when fully stocked—will create an uphill battle for the junior.

3/2/1 QBs Mike Bercovici, Michael Eubank and Taylor Kelly

The three-player race for quarterback duties is somewhat paradoxical in nature as each of the three has an area of advantage, but in general no player of the three brings significant enough proof to yet be an unquestioned leading candidate.

Bercovici is undoubtedly the most efficient pocket passer of the three, with a very strong arm and improving accuracy. Though he did not redshirt as a true freshman in 2011, he saw action in only two games.

Eubank, the prize of ASU's 2011 recruiting class, has the potential to be a "five-tool" type of quarterback with his combination of size, speed and throwing ability, but at the end of the day he has yet to play a collegiate game and only had one season as a full-time starter in high school.

Lastly, Kelly is the most seasoned of the trio (though only a third-year sophomore) and by way of his admirable mobility and accuracy was more impressive in the two games he played than the two Bercovici played last year—though ultimately both players saw action only in "mop-up" situations.

Probably due to a combination of intrigue and assumption that his previous recruiting connection to Todd Graham and staff creates an insurmountable preference, many fans are leaning toward the belief that Eubank is the odds-on favorite to emerge as the starting quarterback. Though Eubank has the skills necessary to shine in Graham's offense, he is still a completely blank slate as a college football player, let alone a starting quarterback.

Bercovici can't be counted out, as last spring he showed ability and leadership beyond his years after graduating high school early and enrolling at ASU last January. Thirdly, Kelly has always remained in the thick of things even when challenged by the younger Bercovici, so don't expect him to bow out of competition in the spring.

In all likelihood, spring depth charts will feature a big fat "OR" between Bercovici, Eubank and Kelly's names as there's no semblance of a pecking order quite yet, and the entire spring session may conclude without much separation.

In the end, the spring is crucial for the three for many reasons, not the least of which is the fact that there is such closeness in eligibility that if one candidate takes authoritative control, the other two could then face the grim reality of being a career reserve. However, due to the lack of experience of the group, it seems very feasible that no candidate will gain control over the spring and the competition will spill over to fall camp. But rest assured, spring practices will set the tone for the ultimate decision so none of the three can afford to take steps back.

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