Douglas and Sulka were instrumental in ASU's offensive success last season and filling those positions will be an unfolding narrative to follow into fall camp and perhaps beyond.
The positive news for ASU is that so far this spring, multiple players have met or exceeded increased expectations and caught the attention of coaches.
“Nothing is really clear, but there’s a lot of possibilities developing,” ASU offensive line coach Chris Thomsen said. “They (the offensive lineman) are communicating hard, they want to, our defense is doing a good job of bombarding them with different looks, (as ASU head) coach (Todd) Graham likes to do, making us better.”
So far this spring, atop of the depth chart for the two offensive tackle positions are senior offensive tackle Billy McGehee at right tackle and junior offensive tackle Evan Goodman at left tackle.
Though Goodman has been sidelined for basically all of spring practice with a lingering hamstring injury, the spot at left tackle appears to be his to lose.
“Right now, since I’m not getting much reps I have to get mental reps and get focused 110 percent or more and watch film and ten times more since I’m not getting reps on the field,” Goodman said.
Goodman, who stands at 6-foot-4, 304 pounds, hasn’t taken a lot of significant snaps for ASU on the offensive line, serving a backup role and playing on special teams last season. But Thomsen said he's more athletically capable than the player he's replacing, Douglas, and just needs to develop greater consistency.
With Goodman still not practicing in team periods, Graham said after practice he has a clear perspective on the top four players that he wants to see action consistently this season.
“I think the lineman right now that you can really bank on and the guys that I think are starters are (senior guard) Vi (Teofilo), (senior center) Nick Kelly and then (senior guard) Christian (Westerman) and the one that surprises you, (junior guard) Stephon (McCray),” Graham said. “I think Stephon, those four guys got to be on the football field in my opinion and we feel really good about the depth.”
One way to have all four of those players on the field together would be to move Westerman to right tackle according to Thomsen. That way, the line would be: Goodman, McCray, Kelly, Teofilo, Westerman.
Westerman is perhaps ASU's most powerful lineman and a good interior run blocker but also versatile enough to play on the edge and hold his own as a pass protector in space. At least ASU thinks so, as it's not something they've fully tested as yet.
“He (Westerman)’s done it a little bit,” Thomsen said. “We were probably going to do a little more [tackle reps] before he got hurt, well he didn’t get hurt, just some cautionary stuff, but probably next week do that with him, let him get back and settled in just in case we need to do that at some point.”
With that move a very viable option to try in the coming practices, so far this spring, taking first-team reps in Goodman’s place at left tackle is redshirt freshman offensive lineman Sam Jones.
Jones worked at guard during his redshirt season last year, but said working at tackle is going really well so far and he’s starting to remember why he missed playing the tackle position so much.
“Sam has probably exceeded my expectations at left tackle,” Thomsen said. “Saying that, he still has some things he needs to continue to work on, but I’d love to have Evan (Goodman) out there but the bright side is Sam is getting a lot of first-team work.”
Jones said he still is working on his pass protection at tackle and getting his kick slide down. During the offseason, Jones worked a lot in the weight room, getting to be 6-foot-5, 300 pounds, and said Shawn Griswold, head coach of sports performance, really helped him develop physically during winter conditioning.
“That was tough,” Jones said. “I’ve never gone through the winter circuit before because we got here in the summer, but made it through Griz’s tour of duty and all that and if you can do that, you can definitely play.”
McGehee, taking reps at first-team right tackle, is also making steady progress with his skill set and his mental abilities on the football field. Graham and ASU offensive coordinator Mike Norvell have each said McGehee is one of the more improved players on the offense.
“It’s just nice to know it’s my final little chance to show off my abilities and help the team get better,” McGehee said. “It has been good to rep with the ones and to truly help my team and be with the team.”
McGehee said even though it’s been different with Douglas and Sulka gone, he learned a lot from Sulka and he got so many reps since he’s arrived at ASU that he is ready to step up and be the guy.
“Right now, I’m just making sure everything I do, I’m staying technical and that I’m able to not get tired and I’m able to push myself and that whatever I do,” McGehee said. “(Senior quarterback Mike) Bercovici knows he can count on me on the right side.”
Another player who is making impression is freshman offensive lineman Steve Miller. Miller is an early enrollee and was quick to stand out in the group of offensive lineman due to his size.At 6-foot-4 and 314 pounds, Miller said his goal is to get down to 300 pounds and he is focusing on losing weight every day in order to stay healthy and be less prone to injury.
“Steve Miller, as soon as he learns what he’s doing, he is just really, really a talented guy,” Graham said. “We got a few guys coming in that we think can help us. We think Zach (Robertson) can help us, but the most important, that offensive line has got to be together.”
Miller still has a long way to go in terms of skills and getting down the offense still only being a freshman, but the ceiling is high.
“It’s an adjustment,” Miller said. “A lot of them (freshmen) get a little bit of time to go through that little transition phase, but it’s good. I’m really glad to be here. It’s different and a little weird because you’re the only true freshman in there.”
Right now, Miller said the biggest thing he’s working on is his kick step. He has had a lingering ankle issue that he suffered a couple weeks ago, but said he’s toughing it out and fighting through the pain as he tries to handle the speed rush of ASU's Devil backers, including redshirt freshman Ismael Murphy-Richardson..
Another big adjustment for Miller from high school to college football is the blitz schemes that Graham formulates and throws at the offense like a flurry of mental punches.
“The first couple weeks I really wasn’t ready for it,” Miller said. “We really worked on it in practice and worked with it in the film room. I’m getting it down now, the defense is amazing. They really work you and get you ready for other situations so later when fall comes around you’ll be ready.”
Thomsen said he has about six or seven players to fill the five starting spots on the line and so far, the players have been making the progress they need.
“If we can get to the point where we have a rotator at guard and a rotator at tackle we’re going to do that because we just got to make ourselves do that,” Thomsen said.
“We need to have some of those guys come in and take some of those reps and that will make us better as a whole and maybe we can do that and we are possibly getting to that.”
Ballage flashes defensive ability
Two days after taking a few reps rushing an imaginary passer in an individual period drill Tuesday, sophomore running back Kalen Ballage got a chance to do it for real Thursday.
It probably won't be the last time.
Ballage, 6-foot-3, 222 pounds, showed impressive explosiveness as a speed rusher that enabled him to get passed offensive tackles before they could get set up, or counter inside effectively when they were too anticipatory of his speed.
Considering how improved he's looked at running back in recent practices, it will be interesting to see how ASU utilizes Ballage moving forward.
"Kalen is probably the most improved player in our program," Graham said. "He learned a lot I think in his first year and he's running the ball...he looks like he has the potential to be an All-American back in the backfield and when he's rushing the passer he's unblockable. Obviously he's primarily a running back for us but we'll use him as needed."