Fall Camp Preview: ASU offense
Quarterback Returners: Taylor Kelly (RS-SR), Mike Bercovici (RS-JR) Newcomers: Coltin Gerhart (FR), Manny Wilkins (FR) Outlook: ASU enters the 2014 season with not only with one of the Pac-12’s most established quarterbacks but also one of college football’s most veteran signal callers as Taylor Kelly enters his final year with a string of 27 consecutive starts. Though it seems like just yesterday that Kelly was third in a three-man race to start at quarterback, two years later he is in the cusp of entering the highest levels of Arizona State’s passing record books thanks to two impressive seasons starting for Todd Graham. Tenured as Kelly is, there is still room for improvement, as evidenced by an extremely subpar effort in the Holiday Bowl to conclude the 2013 season. Kelly benefits from the return of proven playermakers such as Jaelen Strong and D.J. Foster, but will hope De’Marieya Nelson can advance appropriately in order to replace the sturdy First-Team All-Pac-12 member Chris Coyle at tight end, while also keeping his fingers crossed that first-year contributors such as Ellis Jefferson, Eric Lauderdale and De’Chavon Hayes can prove to be formidable options in 2014. Understandably, the offensive success – and that of the team in general – largely hinges on Kelly’s performance. Kelly improved notably from 2012 to 2013, and a similar step up from his junior to senior campaigns would do wonders for ASU to overcome the potential learning curve faced by its collectively green defense. When Michael Eubank opted to transfer, many feared Mike Bercovici would be next, leaving ASU with nothing but walk-ons and true freshmen as emergency options behind Kelly. To the delight of Sun Devil fans, Bercovici chose to stay and looks forward to a chance to start in 2015, while also serving a vital role as a fourth-year veteran and the primary backup. The quintessential Sun Devil, Bercovici has adapted and grown in the transition from Dennis Erickson to Todd Graham as head coach and, despite his lack of overall game experience, would likely have the team’s confidence if forced into substantial game action. ASU’s 2014 signing class brought a pair of highly talented quarterbacks to Tempe in four-star Manny Wilkins, who took on what ultimately became a legendary leadership stance among his peers during the recruitment process, as well as Coltin Gerhart, an athlete who became a very intriguing prospect as he merged away from switching to defensive back at the college level after an impressive senior season at quarterback. Ideally, both Wilkins and Gerhart will redshirt in 2014 – a notion that, barring injury to Kelly and/or Bercovici, is plausible this fall. Burning Fall Camp Question: How Will Taylor Kelly build on 2013? Kelly should have no distinct shortage of weapons surrounding him in 2014, but he certainly had more established options this time last year when he had stars such as Marion Grice and Chris Coyle as well as a solid reserve in Kevin Ozier, all of whom are now gone from the program. The Sun Devil offense undoubtedly will at least in part rely upon the services of newcomers, creating a need for Kelly to show his senior status and put the rookies in positions to succeed. Kelly has shown many instances of complete mastery of the Sun Devil offense, as evident in his 2013 3,635 passing yards and 139.6 efficiency rate mark that season. Yet, the pressure is certainly on the senior to direct an attack that likely will have to be among the very top scoring offenses in the conference for the Sun Devils to again contend for the league title. Running Back Returners: D.J. Foster (JR), Deantre Lewis (RS-SR), Kyle Middlebrooks (RS-SR) Newcomers: Kalen Ballage (FR), De’Chavon Hayes (JR), Demario Richard (FR) Outlook: Over the course of his first two seasons at ASU, D.J. Foster (pictured) benefitted from the presence of veteran college running backs such as Cameron Marshall and Marion Grice, but as a junior in 2014 he is expected to emerge not only as the leader at the position but one of the team’s most reliable forces at any position. In 2012 and ’13, Foster created an exciting reputation as an all-purpose standout – largely because of the presence of tenured “every down” backs such as Marshall and Grice. This year, however, there is no proven player of such a nature, potentially placing Foster into a more traditional role at running back. Though he has rarely been asked to play the prototypical running back role, Foster has excelled when called into such duty, specifically late last season after Grice was lost due to injury. However, regardless of the position at which Foster is slated it’s unlikely the staff drastically alters its focus on using his versatility as the former Scottsdale Saguaro High School superstar has proven to be one of the nation’s most talented run-catch threats. Over his first two seasons, surprisingly, Foster averaged fewer than 11 touches per game, but in 2014 it is all but a guarantee for that total to double. Behind Foster, a unique series of question marks exists – unique in the sense that the group in question includes newcomers and fifth-year seniors. Deantre Lewis and Kyle Middlebrooks have had more than their fair share of ups and downs in Tempe, as both provided bursts of major momentum in 2010 as true freshmen but – for various reasons – neither has been able to return to that level of contribution since then. Last season, Lewis returned to a regular role at running back but ball control issues shattered the staff’s faith in his reliability. Middlebrooks redshirted in 2013 due to a torn ACL but showed his typical spring prowess, yet again igniting enthusiasm for his dual-threat abilities. Despite flashes of prominence over various points of the past four seasons, it is difficult to concretely rely on Lewis or Middlebrooks to be featured components of the 2014 Sun Devil offense; however, a need surely exists behind Foster so the opportunities certainly are up for grabs. On the other end of the experience pendulum, three highly touted 2014 signees will compete for time in the running back rotation. Each of the three, however, carries a bit of a caveat having the ability to play multiple roles within the team. De’Chavon “Gump” Hayes comes to ASU from the junior college level, where he established himself as a darting big play threat both on offense and special teams. Hayes has the potential to be a breakout kick returner – an area in which ASU was greatly deficient last season after several years of high caliber kick returner – while also serving as a qualified pass catcher. Hayes, however is still dealing with eligibility issues which may very well hinder his ability to join the team for the start of fall camp. If Hayes misses much time, it is possible his development might stutter out of the gates and limit his early season role – similar to what was seen out of junior college transfer Damarious Randall on defense early last season, who only had two tackles through the first four games of the year. Demario Richard and Kalen Ballage come to ASU as freshmen with diverse skill sets – ones the coaches plan to utilize from day one. Richard, a four-star rusher with many prototypical features, has the ability to be a regular ballcarrier but also admitted recently on Twitter that the coaches plan to use him in a slot role as well. Ballage, perhaps the most physically gifted member of ASU’s 2014 signing class, might see action in the three-back role and potentially even in pass rushing situations on defense. Uniquely, as talented as ASU’s crop of running backs is on paper, many questions remain regarding how the actual depth chart roles will be filled. Make no mistake, the group can be expected to be highly productive, but time will tell how the flow of production unfolds. Burning Fall Camp Question: Will D.J. Foster be the full-time running back? Quite a few questions exist when it comes to how ASU’s running back depth will unfold, but the first domino to fall is the fashion in which the coaching staff uses Foster. There’s no debating that Foster is one of the nation’s most dynamic all-purpose backs, as evident in his 1,176 all-purpose yards and ten touchdowns last season. However, in the spring Todd Graham emphasized that the Scottsdale native would be ASU’s featured back, a role in need of filling with Marion Grice having moved on to the NFL. If Foster takes on that role as he did for the final three games of the 2013 season, a battle will ensue between a pair of seniors and a trio of newcomers to chip in supplemental carries. However, it still has to be viewed as highly plausible that Foster will continue to play an all-purpose role (perhaps, albeit, with an increased role in the run game), in which case a rusher will need to emerge who will be expected to take on a substantial load of carries. Despite Graham’s spring endorsement, it still stands to reason that Foster is better suited to stay as the Sun Devil’s jack-of-all-trades, which would open the gates to a multi-back competition for carries. Wide Receiver Returners: Jaelen Strong (RS-JR), Gary Chambers (RS-JR), Frederick Gammage (RS-SOPH), Cameron Smith (SO), Ellis Jefferson (RS-FR), Ronald Lewis (RS-FR) Newcomers: Jalen Harvey (FR), Eric Lauderdale (JR), Tyler Whiley (FR) Outlook: Jaelen Strong (pictured) came to ASU with high expectations, but even the strongest praise he received last preseason didn’t predict the incredible year he ended up having in his debut campaign with the Sun Devils. Had it not been for a nagging midseason injury, Strong was on pace to break multiple single season ASU receiving records, but nonetheless he had an outstanding year by becoming only the second 1,000-yard receiver (1,122 yards in 2013) the school has showcased since 2005. Strong’s measurables, athleticism and knack for making complicated catches has him placed among the nation’s most heralded wide receivers this preseason and is a legitimate All-America candidate and top-tier NFL prospect entering his junior season. While Strong is very much a proven commodity, the rest of the wide receivers for Arizona State simply are not. Talented? Yes, of course, but only three other receivers have played a down of FBS football with a grand total of 14 receptions among them. Though few panicked at the graduation of Kevin Ozier and Alonzo Agwuenu and the transfer of Richard Smith, the truth remains that this trio combined for 56 receptions and 638 yards in 2013 and collectively leaves a gap that ASU hopes can see talent outweigh inexperience. Gary Chambers, Frederick Gammage and Cameron Smith return for 2014 as the only Sun Devil receivers beside Strong with game experience, though their collective productivity to date is limited. Chambers, the team’s eldest receiver as a fourth-year member of the program, has seen scarce duty the past two years and has yet to register a reception but saw ample practice time this spring with the first-team offense and was fairly productive during those 15 sessions. Gammage rose last season from walk-on to game day contributor albeit I mostly a reserve role. Like Chambers, Gammage saw extensive practice reps this spring and was solid in the process, but will face an uphill battle to remain in the rotation for substantial playing time this fall. Boasting tremendous upside, the speedy Cameron Smith caught eight passes in 2013 as a true freshman but had his first-year contributions stalled due to injury. One of the fastest players on the team, Smith hopes to give ASU a vertical option it had in Rashad Ross in 2012 but generally lacked last season. This time last year, Ellis Jefferson came in as a true freshman and showed in fall camp that he was well on his way to avoiding a redshirt season by way of his combination of size and reliable hands. Alas, a lingering groin injury prevented him from seeing the field in 2013 and forced him to sit out. This spring, the redshirt freshman returned to a high depth chart position and brings a Gerell Robinson type of quality to the offense that would excellently complement the do-it-all nature of Strong, who he backs up on the depth chart. Just as Strong did before him, Eric Lauderdale comes to ASU from the junior college ranks and looks to also contribute immediately. A multi-tool receiver with sensational abilities with ball in his hands, the former four-star prospect will look to capitalize on the attention teams undoubtedly will attribute to slowing down Strong in the passing game, as he brings a more physical and mature presence to this group. Ronald Lewis has been a bit of an enigma as he was largely acclaimed as an all-purpose threat after his high school career in Louisiana but failed to make much of a depth chart climb this year. Lewis was tested at cornerback a bit this spring but is slated to return to offense full-time this fall and also likely will be seen on special teams. Harvey and Whiley come to ASU with four-star credentials and have the tools necessary to ultimately become all-conference caliber starters. If either or both can mitigate the natural learning curve faced by true freshmen, redshirting can be avoided as there currently is no truly guaranteed pecking order with this unit. Burning Fall Camp Question: How will the underclassmen and newcomers perform? The immense inexperience at the FBS level among ASU’s wide receivers undoubtedly will be a focal point of the offense throughout fall camp as alternatives to Jaelen Strong absolutely must emerge. Incredible talent and diverse skill sets exist among the group, but at least one or two viable options need to surface quickly, especially with the caliber of teams ASU faces the first half of the season in league play. Jefferson, Lauderdale and Smith are the most plausible options, though Chambers and Gammage have the experience edge (albeit a limited one) and will get a shot to latch on to the rotation in fall camp. Whiley is a wild card to consider as a high-ceiling true freshman with instant impact potential. Tight End Returners: De’Marieya Nelson (RS-SR), Grant Martinez (RS-FR), Kody Kohl (RS-SOPH) Newcomers: Brendan Landman (FR) Outlook: As unbelievably productive as Marion Grice was and as crucial as First-Team All-Pac-12 offensive tackle Evan Finkenberg was as a four-year starter, perhaps the toughest senior departure to replace from last year will prove to be Chris Coyle, who in two years under Todd Graham went from a rarely targeted reserve to one of the most accomplished tight ends in school history. With Coyle as the headliner last year, junior college transfer De’Marieya Nelson (pictured) was let loose to quite literally become a do-it-all option for the Sun Devils as he was featured as a receiver, running back, was a qualified blocker, an all-conference special teams coverage member and even saw snaps as a pass rusher on defense. Entering his senior season, Nelson now transitions into the role of ASU’s key three-back role in place of Coyle, and the Mackey Award Watch List member will be looked at to elevate from a jack-of-all-trades reserve to a potential all-league tight end. Additionally, it has been mentioned that Nelson might continue to see third-down snaps on defense as a pass rusher as the team scrambles to find a viable replacement for Carl Bradford at Devil backer. Nelson brings a very exciting combination of athletic ability and raw will power, but will have to tighten his focus as dropped passes were an issue last season that he can ill afford to repeat as a potential focal target this season. Similar to a player such as Ellis Jefferson at wide receiver, Grant Martinez is a redshirt freshman with a very intriguing skill set and a fortuitous depth chart opportunity this season. With the departures of Coyle as well as Darwin Rogers, a second tight end is very much in need and Martinez made the most of the extensive playing time he saw this spring. A scrimmage standout on multiple occasions this spring, what Martinez lacks in bulk he makes up for as an athletic mismatch and should be a viable option in the pass game. A physically gifted athlete with great size for the position, Kody Kohl missed spring drills due to injury but has received praise from ASU’s coaches for his talent and work ethic and will battle for time this fall as one of the more talented line of scrimmage blockers on the squad. Though he wasn’t a hotly pursued recruit last year, the coaches rave about Brendan Landman’s size and skill set. Primarily a lineman at the high school level, the 6-foot-5 Landman brings an intriguing frame to a position in need. Landman’s size and a lack of depth at the position could very well earn immediate playing time in a reserve role as a true freshman. As mentioned, it is also possible that true freshman Kalen Ballage – a running back by nature— sees action in the three-back role, using his impressive combination of size, strength and versatility. Burning Fall Camp Question: Will De’Marieya Nelson be able to fill the shoes of Chris Coyle? After two years of oblivion, Coyle, under Graham, used his final two seasons at ASU to place himself in the Sun Devil record books among the likes of Todd Heap and Zach Miller as the most accomplished tight ends in program history. Coyle’s 29 receptions from last season should be duplicated – if not exceeded – by Nelson this year; however Coyle’s reliability and toughness combined with his productivity is what elevated him to an all-conference level. If Nelson can minimize dropped passes and utilize his athleticism that surely is greater than that of Coyle, the Sun Devils could yet again have one of the Pac-12’s most heralded tight ends. Offensive Line Returners: Jamil Douglas (RS-SR), Vi Teofilo (RS-JR), Tyler Sulka (RS-SR), Christian Westerman (RS-JR), Nick Kelly (JR), Evan Goodman (RS-SOPH), Stephon McCray (RS-SOPH), William McGehee (RS-JR), Devin Goodman (RS-JR), Jack Powers (RS-FR) Newcomers: Quinn Bailey (FR), Sam Jones (FR) Outlook: Despite the loss of a four-year starter and First-Team All-Pac-12 left tackle in Evan Finkenberg and a two-year starter at center in Kody Koebensky, many around the program are as excited for the athletic potential of the 2014 offensive line as has been the case in several years. ASU hopes to counter the aforementioned losses by the addition of former five-star prospect Christian Westerman, now eligible for regular season duty after sitting out a year following his transfer to Tempe from Auburn. Additionally, the coaches value the athletic advantage new starter Nick Kelly provides over Koebensky, helping top off what presumes to be a physical yet versatile front five. In all, a great deal of hype has quietly started to surround the offensive line this year with the primary concern being cohesiveness and continuity in initiating the two new starters. In addition to new projected starters in Westerman and Kelly, all-conference veteran Jamil Douglas (pictured) takes on a new role as he shifts from left guard to left tackle to help replace Finkenberg. A Second-Team All-Pac-12 member at guard last year, Douglas has become a true team leader and will be counted on to be a driving force for ASU’s offense this fall and quickly adapt to his new responsibilities. On the right side, Vi Teofilo and Tyler Sulka return at guard and tackle, respectively, after a full season as starters in 2013. Steady though not yet at the all-conference level, Teofilo and Sulka will be expected to use a full year as first-teamers to help continue to fortify the blocking power of the Sun Devil line. Behind the starters, sophomores Evan Goodman and Stephon McCray have high ceilings and are more than likely will be in the conversation to start in 2015. Goodman is the team’s primary reserve at offensive tackle while McCray can play just about any interior line position. Tackles William McGehee and Jack Powers and guard Devin Goodman round out the depth chart at offensive line, but barring injuries will be hard pressed for playing time. Though ASU only secured two scholarship linemen for the 2014 class, the staff is excited about both additions as Sam Jones is heralded as being physically prepared to play immediately while ASU’s strength and conditioning staff raves about the physical prowess of local product Quinn Bailey. Burning Fall Camp Question: Will Jamil Douglas transition smoothly to left tackle? A move made more out of necessity than preference, Douglas has the ability to play tackle but his entire college career to date has been spent at guard. There is absolutely no doubting Douglas’ physical prowess, intelligence or leadership, so if anyone can make the transition a smooth one, it is likely him. However, Sun Devil fans have seen in the past with guards such as Shawn Lauvao being moved to tackle out of necessity during the coaching reign of Dennis Erickson when first-rate offensive tackles were few and far between, so this type of move might be met with some measure of concern. Douglas has worked his way to the potential of a First-Team All-Pac-12 season in 2014 if he can avoid any issues switching from guard to tackle, and the offense’s fluidity also will benefit from a seamless shift by Douglas.
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