Offense puts big play capability on display

If this spring is any indication, Arizona State may be capable of being improved from an explosiveness standpoint on offense. Saturday it showed off another series of big plays, something that has become a trend in the last several weeks.

Todd Graham foreshadowed his offense's impressive showing in Arizona State's scrimmage earlier in the week when he said he and offensive coordinator Mike Norvell were seeing an improved big play capability over last season.

"I liked the fact we didn't turn the ball over and put the ball in jeopardy," Graham said. "I liked the explosive plays we hit. I liked the one with (sophomore wide receiver) Ellis Jefferson. He had a big long one, (sophomore running back) Demario Richard had a big long one, (sophomore running back) Kalen (Ballage) had a big long one and [junior running back De'Chavon Hayes] hit a big long one."

All told, the Sun Devils erupted for 68 points on the day, according to Graham, and it could have been more had they not bogged down inside the 10 yard line on four offensive trips in the red zone.

Even though that was the case, there were signs of improvement from a personnel standpoint in the run game that could contributed to a better capability in that regard. Ballage, who is now up to 6-foot-3 and 227 pounds, dropped his pads and moved sophomore linebacker D.J. Calhoun backwards into the end zone on one run, and there were other similar examples.

"Kalen was powerful today," Graham said. "He ran over the linebackers on one, drug 'em 10 yards, another play he drug 'em 20 yards. We've got the ball backed on the minus two running inside zone. Of the No. 1 things we're trying to improve offensively is our ability to run the ball downhill and inside, so that was encouraging today."

As importantly, ASU showed itself as capable in the passing game with its receivers. Despite losing Jaelen Strong early to the NFL and leading returning receiver Cameron Smith for the season due to knee surgery, Sun Devil quarterbacks completed a lot of passes and in particular explosive receptions of 15 or more yards.

Jefferson led the way, with four touchdown catches on the day, including some that were well covered but just perfect throws from senior quarterback Mike Bercovici and redshirt freshman reserve Manny Wilkins.

"With Jaelen Strong leaving there was a lot of doubt in the wide receiver corps," Jefferson said. "I would say we knew we needed to step up. We have (senior) D.J. (Foster) not going to the NFL, we're happy about that. We moved him from running back to the wide receiver spot. I was happy about that. He just made it more hard for teams to guard us. I'm excited for the Fall, we look really good."

Foster and Jefferson are competing at ASU's flagship boundary receiver spots, though each can play other positions in the group. They're also housemates, along with Bercovici, a fact which isn't lost on them and likely contributes the chemistry they've displayed though the first two weeks of spring football.

"We're playing the same position right now, so he's helping me a lot," Foster said. "For me being at a new position, even though I'm older, we feed off each other's energy. We talk, we're always communicating. Same with Mike, having your roommate as a quarterback helps a lot. At the end of the day when I go home, we can talk about what we did at practice and just develop the game a little more."

Across the board, players an coaches have universally said this team is more focused and determined with its habits than any of Graham's three previous ASU teams, and as a fourth-year player, Foster is someone who would know.

"It's different this year. A lot of guys are so much more mature," Foster said. "There's not as many trying to get guys to go here, get them to give energy. A lot of them are bringing energy themselves and I think that's what we need, that's what's great about this team, guys wanting to compete so it's good stuff."

Program distinctions on display

A few hundred fans who turned out to watch the scrimmage Saturday saw three players wearing camouflage Pat Tillman practice jerseys and more than a half dozen players in flame helmets, which were different than the white helmets worn by the rest of the team.

Along with senior safety Jordan Simone and senior cornerback Lloyd Carrington, Bercovici became the first-ever Sun Devil on offense to wear the Tillman jersey, which Graham said is the highest practice honor that can be awarded.

"The most prestigious thing is to wear that PT-42 (jersey) because that speaks about a different level," Graham said. "You have to get it done [in football and] in the classroom. Everybody that's had that jersey (previously) has lost it because of the classroom. Our standards are pretty high, and those guys have been great examples."

Flame helmets in practice are new this year, and awarded for excellence with regard to practice habits. In addition to Bercovici, Simone and Carrington, the helmets were worn by Richard, Ballage, Jefferson, sophomore walk-on running back Jacom Brimhall, junior tight end Kody Kohl, senior center Nick Kelly, sophomore defensive tackle Tashon Smallwood, sophomore Devil backer A.J. Latu, and sophomore safety James Johnson.


  • Senior defensive tackle Demetrius Cherry was not in attendance due to what Graham termed a personal absence. Cherry is expected back for Tuesday's practice. In Cherry's place, redshirt freshman Connor Humphreys received first-team reps for the first time in a scrimmage setting as a Sun Devil. Humphreys had one sack on the day.

  • Junior tackle Evan Goodman (hamstring) and senior guard Christian Westerman did not scrimmage, joining senior guard Vi Teofilo, who is out for the spring due to ACL surgery. ASU moved sophomore Jack Powers from tackle to guard for the first time.

  • Senior wide receiver Freddie Gammage (hamstring) did not participate. Junior Eric Lauderdale earned first-team reps at the 2-receiver position.

  • Brimhall received first-team reps with the punt return unit and Graham said he believes the walk-on running back could earn playing time in some capacity this year.

  • Ballage had a long kickoff return that might have resulted in a touchdown. The scrimmage wasn't full tackling so it is difficult to know how long some of the plays would have gone. It was one of several big returns for ASU on the day on special teams, which is a dual-edged sword. Graham said new special teams coordinator Shawn Slocum is still in the early stages of getting the coverage units re-build to his liking.

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