The candidates are now known, a bit of the battle has already ensued and though there are rumors and general speculation regarding the pecking order, August camp still begins with a bunch of "ORs" in big bold letters on the depth chart at quarterback.
By the accounts of many, sophomore Mike Bercovici (pictured) exited spring drills as the clubhouse leader largely due to his strong arm, limited turnovers and improving mobility in the pocket. Bercovici's passing skills have never been in doubt, and his leadership skills greatly exceed his underclassman status in school. Though he is the least nimble of the three main candidates, it's unlikely that athleticism will be the factor that determines the starter.
Michael Eubank (pictured), somewhat of a "people's champion" for his Cam Newton-like measurables and skills, has the drive and versatility to be an impact player at quarterback—even if it's not in a full-time capacity. Of course, Eubank did not come to ASU to be a one-trick pony or a part-time player, so it is a safe assumption he's busted his tail the past three months to help shore up any inadequacies in his game.
The player that just refuses to fade away, Taylor Kelly (pictured), had a solid spring and brings a mixed bag of skills that keep him in a dark horse kind of position—and in the thick of the battle. Kelly punctuated his spring with an excellent spring game performance and shouldn't be expected to simply roll over and allow either Bercovici or Eubank to slide right into the starting role.
Spring vs. Fall
In the few months since spring drills ended, there have though no official starter has been named, any alleged leaks of information that have occurred side favorably with Bercovici. However, none of the three has the experiential credentials to assume automatic victory in the three-way battle.
Many think at this point it will be Bercovici, with a dash of Eubank and Kelly on the side. Perhaps true, perhaps false—but if any of the three enters practice with any sort of assumptive disposition, there could be some unexpected twists and turns.
Keep an Eye On
The first giveaway fans will be in tune with is simply who comes out first on day one—the one who essentially is the "starter" when practice begins. Reps very likely will be divided, at least initially; equally among all three candidates, but the inherent vote of confidence given to the player to take the first snap on the first day could go a long way in determining this race.
Also, of course, how the reps are split and what plays are rehearsed will definitely be worth a look. It's uncertain whether there will be an absolute starter or some measure of a split system, so as practices proceed, players will undoubtedly settle into their respective niches.
The general signs of improvement, stagnancy or even regression will also need to be analyzed. With all three players still having a chance to start, how has each of the three handled the three-plus months since spring drills ended?
Basically, has there been any behind the scenes decisions on the depth? If so, how exactly will that break down and furthermore, how will the candidates carry themselves if/when the first, second and third-team quarterback rankings are established?
The predicted strength of perhaps the entire team, ASU returns the owner of one of the school's top single-season efforts of all time and a stable of exciting runners beside him.
Cameron Marshall, only the second Sun Devil to rush for over 1,000 yards since 2001, tied the school single-season rushing touchdowns record with 18 last year—and the majority of it was done at less than full strength. Marshall missed the vast majority of spring drills due to ankle surgery but claims he feels as healthy as he has in quite some time. With first-time starters covering most of the offense, Marshall is more of a necessity than a luxury and will be heavily relied upon in 2012.
Behind Marshall exists a group that, if the stars align, could be as exciting as ASU has seen in over a decade.
In the spring, senior James Morrison (pictured) was as opportunistic as any player on the roster by stepping in for the injured Marshall and immediately gaining the attention and respect of the coaching staff. Though many critics fear Morrison may be nothing more than a practice all-star, the coaching staff insists that Morrison is in perfect position to earn extensive reps this season. The senior brings a running style completely compatible with what Todd Graham wants in his offensive execution.
Kyle Middlebrooks was on his way to a sensational spring before being shelved due to a shoulder injury, which will prevent him from participating in full contact drill for the first couple of weeks of camp. Graham spoke very highly of Middlebrooks' efforts that were shown in the spring, but the influx of talent this fall will certainly create a challenge. Far from the traditional every-down back, Middlebrooks is generally at his best when used in a variety of ways out of the backfield.
One of the biggest wild cards in this group, if not on the entire team for the 2012 season, is Deantre Lewis. The sophomore has fans cautiously optimistic that he can regain his exceptional form he exhibited in his 2010 true freshman campaign. After missing all of 2011 due to an offseason gunshot wound, Lewis returned this spring and had shown some flashes though still not at the consistently outstanding level he exhibited in the past. Honest expectations for Lewis are scattered at best as it's uncertain whether he'll be simply a platoon player or if he can emerge comparable to the explosive player he was in 2010.
Though ASU's returning running backs creates a depth chart that is certainly more than adequate, the Devils will welcome to the fold one of the top high school running backs in the country and the top-rated junior college running back in the nation.
Scottsdale Saguaro's D.J. Foster (pictured), Scout's highest-rated running back on the west coast last season, starts his Sun Devil career with an amount of local fanfare perhaps not seen since the days of Zach Miller and Terrell Suggs. Foster will undoubtedly be a contributor of some kind in 2012, and as August camp rolls on fans will see exactly how that role unfolds.
As if Foster's signing wasn't enough, Marion Grice, the top-ranked junior college running back last year by Scout.com, chose the Sun Devils on signing day to give ASU one of its most fully loaded running backs stables in several years.
In all, Graham, running backs coach Larry Porter and offensive coordinator Mike Norvell have a potential embarrassment of riches at running back and the only downside is that there will only be one football to share among them.
Spring vs. Fall
In the spring, Marshall and Middlebrooks missed a great deal of practice time, making Morrison the clear clubhouse leader for most of the spring. Though Morrison certainly took advantage of his elevated position, the carries certainly will not be nearly as easy to come by this fall.
Marshall is 100 percent healthy. Middlebrooks will be back to full strength in a few weeks. Lewis has had about three more months to continue and return to form. And of course, the two star-studded newcomers are now on campus.
One certainty is that Marshall is the first-team running back. Well, I guess at least for now. Graham insists that Morrison will see ample playing time. The rest also offer talents too impressive to keep on the sideline.
Keep an Eye On
The division of carries and overall snaps will be a very intriguing element to check out in camp. With a handful of potential stars at running back, limited practice action may not keep them happy. Though the scenario is one that every football coaching staff would love to have, the separation of labor is a key question mark.
Also, though each player brings major talent to the fold there are question marks.
Can Morrison be consistent through every practice? Can Lewis return to his freshman form? Will Middlebrooks be able to crack the upper rotation? Will Foster and Grice catch on quickly?
Newcomers to Watch
No one needs to tell fans to keep a steady eye on D.J. Foster or Marion Grice. Both players have the skill set to completely define the "high octane" style that Todd Graham wants to showcase. Expectations are high for both players—perhaps a tad too lofty—so the early practice sessions will give some inclination as to whether the two will be immediate superstars or role players to begin with.
It's no secret that ASU is generally starting from scratch at wide receiver, with Gerell Robinson, Aaron Pflugrad, Mike Willie and George Bell gone from last year's lineup. T.J. Simpson, a sixth-year candidate due to multiple injuries, was denied the extension of eligibility, further limiting the proven worth of ASU's wide receiver depth chart for 2012.
Senior Jamal Miles (pictured) is the unquestioned leader of the group, but for the first time in his career he'll be asked to master a route-running repertoire befitting a traditional top receiving target as opposed to the patterns he previously used to showcase his all-purpose athleticism.
Juniors J.J. Holliday and Kevin Ozier as well as senior Rashad Ross saw ample first-team action in the spring and figure to remain candidates for consistent first-team action this year. Holliday has loads of talent and has shown to be a reliable pass-catcher but between depth issues and injuries he has yet to truly contribute on the field. Ozier has steadily improved after coming to ASU as a walk-on and could be one of the offense's most improved players in 2012, but this will be his first opportunity to prove worth as a starter. Rashad Ross has all-world speed and could be a devastating deep threat, but his technical inadequacies are likely to cause a blunder or two this season.
Junior college transfer Alonzo Agwuenu (pictured) had a spectacular sophomore season in 2011 and will be counted on to contribute from day one. All hopes are that he can immediately enter competition for first-team reps, as his size alone (6-4 210 lbs.) is a quality no other receiver on the roster can match. With the likes of Robinson and Willie gone from the roster, Agwuenu appears to be the most fitting candidate to be a physical receiver in every required way.
Senior A.J. Pickens has been an enigmatic player both during his career as a whole and this offseason. ASU's third-leading returning wide receiver in terms of receptions from 2011, Pickens has not capitalized on the general depth openings made by the mass exodus of players from last season's roster. Pickens exited the spring listed as a second or even third-string option behind Miles at one receiver position.
Kevin Anderson showed some promise during the spring before being sidelined due to injury. Even at full health, any measure of contribution from him this season would be a surprise.
Blandin has great height but presumes to be headed for a redshirt season; however Smith's combination of receiving skills and quickness may give him an opportunity to compete right away. Smith likely will battle for time with the likes of Anderson and Pickens, and regardless the disparity in age and experience Smith may be able to add a dimension that his competitors don't.
Spring vs. Fall
The depth of the returning players is unlikely to change; players such as Anderson, Chambers, Holmes and Pickens would have to be men possessed in order to leap into the starting lineup.
The most noticeable differences figure to be the fall newcomers, specifically Agwuenu but Smith as well. As Sun Devil fans know, junior college transfers can be an unpredictable bunch—for every Ryan Torain there's an Aaron Austin—so immediately anointing Agwuenu as an all-world talent at this point is certainly premature.
Keep an Eye On
Development and adaptation will undoubtedly be huge for ASU's wide receivers—all of them.
Jamal Miles is still refining his effectiveness as a true wide receiver, as is speedster Rashad Ross. Ozier has never been asked to play a major role, so his new every-down requirements could create a learning curve. Holliday has not been able to stay healthy enough to show his skills in game action and Pickens has been inconsistent. Anderson, Chambers, Holmes, and of course the three newcomers, have never played a down of football at this level before.
Though each receiver has at least one area of concern, excuses can't be made. This group does not have the benefit of a seasoned quarterback—a Jake Plummer from 1996 or an Andrew Walter from 2004—to show them the ropes. In fact, their challenges may be amplified by the simultaneous "work in progress" quality that they will collectively share with the quarterback.
Of course, ASU's run game will heavily influence the pass game and is expected to make life much easier for the wide receivers and quarterbacks alike.
Newcomers to Watch
After hauling in 73 receptions for 1,025 yards with 19 scores last year, the 6-foot-4, 210-pound Agwuenu brings traits to Tempe that may somewhat offset the losses of players like Gerell Robinson and Mike Willie.
All bets are off with this year's wide receivers group; there's really nothing standing in the way of Agwuenu capturing a starting role in the four weeks of August camp before the season opener. Of course, that is a concept much more easily said than done, as Sun Devil fans can point to George Bell, a former JUCO player who surpassed 2,000 yards during his two-year community college career but struggled mightily at ASU, as a reason to mellow the immediate enthusiasm for a transfer such as Agwuenu.
Smith could be a potential dark horse if he asserts himself immediately. A quick, agile athlete, Smith has drawn some comparisons to his fellow Long Beach Poly High School alum DeSean Jackson. Smith could have a Jamal Miles type of impact over the course of his career, which, like Miles, could begin with limited duty as a true freshman.
For the first time in a long time, this position actually warrants analysis separate from just an add-on to the wide receivers.
On the end of spring depth chart, Chris Coyle (pictured), despite being held out of spring drills, was listed as the clear three-back with midyear junior college transfer Darwin Rogers as the top tight end and the number two three-back.
Junior Max Smith is listed as Rogers' top reserve at tight end with former running back Marcus Washington behind Coyle and Rogers at three-back. Washington, who saw limited action in the backfield as a redshirt freshman in 2011, was surprisingly effective in the spring.
Coyle, who has bounced around from tight end to wide receiver and back, is a bona fide breakout candidate in 2012 and recently was cleared to return to contact. Rogers is expected to remain the top tight end and shouldn't have a tough time holding on to that role.
True freshman Kody Kohl and perhaps fellow freshman Terrell Davis will practice at three-back/tight end.
Spring vs. Fall
The most significant difference will be the return of Chris Coyle, a player who the staff believes is an ideal fit for the three-back position. Coyle, whose contributions over two years have been sparse to say the least, is expected to be a major focal point in the offense. Between his emphasized role and the need for new quarterbacks to have a safety valve, Coyle should earn an abundance of opportunities.
Just like he did in the spring, Darwin Rogers expects to run with the first team in the traditional line of scrimmage tight end role. Behind him, players such as Max Smith and Marcus Washington presume to fill the depth chart.
Even with Coyle's return, the tight end/three-back positions are still very thin as the two-deep barely can be filled by scholarship players.
Keep an Eye On
Coyle brought a big-time receiving résumé to ASU out of Oaks Christian High School but in two years on the field he has yet to even scratch the surface of displaying it at the college level. That lack of production likely is more of a product of scheme and health issues more than ability, but fortunately for him those factors are much more favorable this season under Graham.
Aside from the schematic interests, ASU having such collectively green quarterbacks may turn Coyle into a consistent short-range dump-off target as the starting quarterback continues to perfect his craft. Coyle will, however, have to bring himself up to speed quickly after having a minimal role the past to seasons and missing the spring due to injury.
Newcomers to Watch
Though he enrolled a semester ahead of most of his signing classmates, Darwin Rogers likely will see a substantial number of reps in his first season at ASU. Unlikely to be the next Zach Miller or Todd Heap, Rogers still brings enough skills to make his contributions worthwhile.
True freshmen Kody Kohl and perhaps Terrell Davis may be used in the tight end and/or three-back roles, but neither of the two has a greater immediate opportunity than Rogers.
When looking ahead to the start of practices, the first five on the field should be easily predicted—Evan Finkenberg at left tackle (pictured), Jamil Douglas at left guard, Kody Koebensky at center, Andrew Sampson at right guard and Brice Schwab at right tackle.
Sampson has 37 career game appearances to his credit with 22 starts including all 13 games last year. Finkenberg has started 21 of 25 career games through two seasons, while Schwab started four of the nine games he played in 2010 before redshirting in '11. Douglas and Koebensky played in all 13 games last season as reserves and on special teams.
Despite the losses of full-time starter Garth Gerhart and center, Mike Marcisz and Adam Tello who shared starts at left guard and Dan Knapp and Aderious Simmons who split starting duties at right tackle, the line's overall performance in the spring was better than generally expected.
Make no mistake about it, however, there are still areas in need of improvement and the lack of any measure of experience in the line's depth remains a major concern. It is of the utmost importance that ASU remain healthy along the offensive line in 2012; with inexperienced quarterbacks and a likely focus on the run game, if the line is porous and/or injury-plagued, the team's overall success will undoubtedly suffer.
The offensive line in generally needs to be a reflection of Todd Graham's ideals as head coach; if the front five can be focus, determined, disciplined and tough, the team's offensive consistency will benefit tremendously. It can't be over emphasized how crucial the health and cohesion of the offensive line is for ASU in 2012. With two first-time starters and a player that hasn't seen game action since Nov. 7, 2010, Graham and offensive line coach Bob Connelly will need to eliminate learning curves as quickly as possible, especially with a challenging first month of the season on the schedule.
From left-to-right, tackle Kyle Johnson, guard Sil Ajawara, center Devin Goodman or Mo Latu, guard Vi Teofilo and tackle Tyler Sulka figure to comprise the second-team line at the beginning of camp. Johnson has 17 career game appearances over three years, while Sulka played in eight games as a redshirt freshman with one emergency start at Utah. Ajawara contributed in only two games as a redshirt freshman last season, with Goodman, Latu and Teofilo all redshirting in 2011.
Sophomore Billy McGehee and true freshmen Evan Goodman (pictured) and Stephon McCray will make their practice debuts with the Sun Devils later this week. The jury is still out on what to expect from any of these three this season, but a second team role or two could be a possibility. The coaches love McGehee's athletic upside, but he is also generally considered a work in progress and may be destined to redshirt in 2012. Goodman is one of the jewels of ASU's 2012 signing class and McCray has high potential as an interior lineman, but the natural adjustments from high school to college level play for offensive linemen curbs enthusiasm for a year or two.
Spring vs. Fall
Evan Finkenberg at left tackle, Andrew Sampson at right guard and Brice Schwab at right tackle appear to be near locks at their positions—especially Finkenberg and Sampson. Kody Koebensky has a solid edge over Devin Goodman and Mo Latu at center, as does Jamil Douglas over his competitors at left guard.
When spring practices began, Finkenberg and Sampson were the only ones that garnered full faith as unbeatable starters—so there was some definite progress there. What also helps the collective cause of the aforementioned five linemen remain starters is the tremendous lack of collective experience among the reserves, a concern that won't be greatly remedied through the remainder of the offseason.
Keep an Eye On
Finkenberg and Sampson are known commodities; Schwab asserted himself well in the spring and he and Douglas face little viable competition as August practices begin. However, though Koebensky was the clear-cut choice at center after the spring, Mo Latu and Devin Goodman may give him a run for his money in the coming weeks.
Latu, who reportedly has improved his conditioning, has a high ceiling as an offensive lineman, as evidenced by the coaching staff switching him to the interior o-line from defensive tackle.
Admittedly it would be a substantial surprise for either Latu or Goodman to supplant Koebensky in the starting lineup, but the development of both players—if primarily for depth purposes at both center and guard—will be an area of intrigue.
Additionally, it will be interesting to watch the cohesive toughness of the team; with Cameron Marshall back from offseason surgery, James Morrison emerging as an effectively tough runner and Marion Grice being added to the backfield the Devils will have the pieces at running back to pick up tough yards. However, those pieces won't fully come into play if the blockers up front aren't able assert their collective will.
Newcomers to Watch
Among the laundry list of "Things to Watch" in the August practices, many eyes will be on the early progress of true freshman Evan Goodman. The four-star recruit comes to Tempe with tremendous potential and expectations, though as is common knowledge his position of offensive tackle is one at which true freshmen seldom thrive. Also, with reignited drive of Brice Schwab this spring, there is no dire need to throw Goodman into the lineup.
However, Goodman could legitimately crack the two-deep as Tyler Sulka at right tackle, and more specifically Kyle Johnson at left tackle are reserves that aren't impossible to leapfrog. In all, whether for use in the 2012 season or not until '13, Goodman is expected to be a cornerstone of the future of ASU's offensive line and will be surveyed with eager eyes in August.
Billy McGehee comes to ASU after a one-year stint at the junior college level, while Stephon McCray will begin is true freshman season soon. Though McGehee played a year of JUCO ball, his high school career was very limited and he is still very much a developmental project.