Hot 11: Improved Sun Devil Spring standouts

Which 11 Arizona State players have made the biggest impressions on us relative to our expectation through the first week of spring football? This is a look at the Sun Devils who have made great strides since last year or shown up on the roster ready to compete at a high level.

1. Solomon Means -- It would have been easy for Means to have settled for being a back up to two returning senior starters as he enters his senior season but he clearly doesn't think like that. Though he always had a physical disposition and was willing to mix it up at the line of scrimmage, Means did so from a physical disadvantage due to being lighter than ideal. He said he gained 12 pounds in the off-season and has some additional punch when battling receivers in press or bump coverage techniques. As importantly, he may be able to be more stout against the run. This was a big impediment to success for Means in previous years as he tended to be washed off the line of scrimmage too easily on runs or screens to the wide side of the field. He hasn't given up many plays in the first week of spring ball from a coverage standpoint.

2. Brady White -- Certainly we expected White would look good out of the gate at ASU because we've seen a lot of him in person and on film in the last year and have been enormously impressed by his skill upside and approach to the game, but White has surpassed what we even though possible for his first week. His poise has been remarkable, as White has never looked flustered or out of sorts, which flies in the face of what you would typically expect for any freshman quarterback and especially someone joining a high level college program for spring football. Not only does White already seem to have a good grasp of the offense, he's doing things that even veteran quarterbacks don't do, such as the way he looked away from his intended target on a quick slant in order to manipulate an inside linebacker immediately at the snap yesterday. White is ripping through progressions with his eyes, hitting third options regularly and appears abnormally comfortable.

3. Marcus Ball -- There's never been a doubt about Ball's athletic upside, as he's one of the best looking players on the ASU roster from a size, mobility and flexibility standpoint. But Ball hasn't been able to practice as much as he's been on the shelf in his first two years in Tempe due to an injury and later, an undisclosed medical issue. Those things have contributed to a lack of much needed reps and continuity for Ball, who has made too many assignment and alignment errors as a percentage of his reps in game and scrimmage settings in the last year. This week he's been very impressive at times, especially playing against the run with physicality and reacting to quick throws in his area. He's had a few key read breakdowns from coverage standpoint, not covering a route that he's assigned too, including a big one on Saturday that coaches let him know about. If he can reduce those issues and continue to earn trust, his ample talent will take over.

4. Edmond Boateng -- Last year Boateng was asked to play Devil and end in his first year with the program and he never really settled in completely. Part of that was a lack of discipline with his eyes, as Boateng tended to want to watch the quarterback more than key the ball and read the backfield, and would sometimes freelance in a way that led to critical breakdowns. Moving forward, those things aren't going to be tolerated by coaches who know that Boateng is far too smart and capable to be making such mistakes. Some of his stubborn bad habits are starting to bleed away now, and an impressive winter conditioning program coupled with continued refinement from a skill standpoint has really allowed Boateng to flourish to start spring ball. He's got a pretty explosive get off for 270ish pounds, and is using his hands much more effectively as a pass rusher. Todd Graham said he hasn't noticed the absence of Marcus Hardison as much as he expected.

5. Eric Lauderdale -- Last year was a huge transition for the high profile junior college wideout transfer, as he was completely unaccustomed to having to play against high level cornerbacks employing physical techniques at the line of scrimmage. Not only was the mental adjustment challenging but Lauderdale found himself unable to seamlessly get into his routes against press and bump coverage due to a lack of enough strength, physical disposition, and skill. After a redshirt year, Lauderdale looks much more comfortable on the field now, and while the same challenges exist, he's made noticeable improvement and is starting to flash the athleticism that made him such a high profile prospect to begin with. When he's at the 2-receiver position and able to align off the line of scrimmage and get a release more easily, he's especially improved. If he's able to make as much progress from the spring to August as he did in the last few months he's on a good track.

6. Steve Miller -- Even though Miller got hurt early in Thursday's session, which was ASU's first padded practice, he did enough in our eyes to be solidly positioned on this list. We had pretty high expectations for Miller considering we pegged him as ASU's most underrated offensive prospect in the class, but he's easily already surpassed where we thought he'd be at the outset of his college career. Few and far between are the freshmen offensive linemen who look this good this quickly. Miller, at 6-foot-4 and 319 pounds, is already one of the best looking players in the group in terms of his stature, and he's seen action at both guard and tackle already and shown promise at both positions. We think his higher upside is as a guard considering the size and heft that Miller will bring to the position, but his footwork and overall awareness level has been high. He's not looking nearly as out of sorts as would be expected.

7. Ellis Jefferson -- Jefferson's competing at a high level to start spring ball in an effort to try to offset to some degree the enormous loss of Jaelen Strong at the wideout position group. Jefferson is more in the mold of Strong than any of the other receivers, though certainly not nearly as capable at this early stage of his career. He has good hands and can slow the game down at the ball's arrival, and make plays on it at the high point, all things that Strong demonstrated at an elite level. The challenge for Jefferson is sustaining his output to start spring or fall practice more than just the first week or two. He's had a great start in the past and only to trail off, so in that regard, his performance this week hasn't been as big of a surprise as others on the list. But Jefferson, like Lauderdale, needed to improve at the line of scrimmage and getting into his release more efficiently, and he's made strides in that area.

8. Nick Ralston -- We fully expected Ralston would start out at linebacker when joining the ASU program this spring because that's where Todd Graham said he'd be. But for a week at least it looks as though the decision to play Ralston at running back was a good one because he has an early path to playing time at the position. At linebacker, Ralston would have almost certainly been headed for a redshirt season as a third team player unless he was absolutely needed on special teams. but at running back there's potential to carve out a role. Ralston has good size, at 220-plus pounds, and runs with great pad level and forward lean. He uses that and quick lateral footwork and impressive vision to find holes on the inside. From a versatility standpoint, Ralston can be a lead blocker, a pass catcher from the backfield, a short yardage/goal line or change of pace back. His speed is limiting, but there's still an opportunity to be had.

9. A.J. Latu -- It was a tough thing for Latu but following the suspension of Davon Durant he was asked to move back to Devil backer on the first day spring practice after spending the last several months gaining size and strength in anticipation of playing field side end. Despite that challenge, Latu has responded extremely well. He's displayed a very strong motor, played with aggressiveness and done everything asked of him. He's not the type of quick twitch athlete who is ideally suited for the position, especially at his current weight, but Latu has been stout when attacking and is a physical challenge for offensive tackles in space as a bull rusher. Against the run is really where he's been able to have some impact due to how well he moves for his size coupled with a solid approach.

10. Quinn Bailey -- Last fall Bailey really looked rough from a skills standpoint despite having an impressive frame with which to work at 6-foot-5 or taller and 300-plus pounds. His top and lower halves weren't in sync often and all of his movements were very mechanical, especially on his pass pro technique. Though he still has a lot of work ahead of him, Bailey is starting to look more like a college offensive tackle due to the work he's put in. He's still not as coordinated or fluid as he'll need to eventually be to play effectively at this level but he's trending in the right direction as a developmental tackle prospect. He needs a lot of repetitions still but we're more comfortable at this stage saying he has a chance to play effectively at this level down the road. Handling speed rushes with a quick set will be something to watch moving forward.

11. Tramel Topps -- A new walk-on addition, Topps has not only been the most impressive non-scholarship newcomer to the team this spring, but has been good enough that it can't be ruled out he won't compete for a spot on the two-deep as the year unfolds. Topps is well put together at 6-foot-3 and 300ish pounds, and has a lot of positive attributes to work with. He moves well and has good strength. The junior college transfer out of Arizona Western should have been earned a number of scholarships at the lower Division I level at a minimum and we think he probably could have played immediately at some BCS school. As a walk-on at ASU he's a steal and worth mentioning.

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