Arizona State has completed two-thirds of its spring practice schedule and there are many players on its roster who have improved and impressed us quite a bit relative to our expectations entering the period. Here's a look at those who have stood out most in that regard.
1. William McGehee -- The complete arc of McGehee's development over the last several years is remarkable and the big story here, but there's no way we'd have him atop this list if he wasn't in recent weeks substantially building upon those already realized gains. Going into this off-season, right tackle was a big question mark for Arizona State after the loss of multi-year starter Tyler Sulka. McGehee was well reviewed by us during ASU's bowl practices and he's continued to progress in a clear way. At 6-foot-6 and 300-plus pounds, he's always been a decent enough athlete to have potential to play effectively at this level successfully, but now he's adding a level of skill refinement and toughness that hasn't been previously observed. In Saturday's scrimmage, McGehee put several stinging shots on defenders when down blocking that not only displaced them, but visibly jolted them backwards and sent audible reverberations through the practice facility. That's difficult for a tall tackle from a leverage and strength access standpoint. In his pass pro, McGehee is showing better coordination of movement and a smoother release of his feet along with better timing with his hands. He can still sometimes be beaten by power displacement of his arms by violent outside attacks and is susceptible to speed counters across his body, but McGehee has potential to be a solid starter.
2. Carlos Mendoza -- Few players on the ASU roster deserve respect and recognition more than Mendoza, a young man who does whatever is asked of him with a consistently reliable effort on the practice field, and has continued to bounce back up on his feet time and again after being knocked down by injury in his college career. Every time he's demonstrated enough competency and determination to be on the verge of earning a big role at linebacker, Mendoza has been derailed by yet another in a laundry list of injuries that has included shoulders, a knee and an ankle. So when Mendoza went down Saturday late in ASU's scrimmage after playing effectively with the first-team at WILL, it was an obvious 'not again' type moment, but this time it was just a cramp. That was Mendoza's first crack at WILL this spring after spending time with the second-team at both Spur and SAM. Versatility and fundamental soundness are Mendoza's calling cards. He's not going to wow anyone with feats of athleticism, but is no slouch in that regard, and if others with perhaps more potential aren't dogged enough in their pursuit of playing time, Mendoza is someone who could jump up and snatch it from them...as long as he can stay healthy.
3. Kalen Ballage -- Set back in his first fall camp with a back injury last August, Ballage ultimately showed during his freshman campaign that he's got plenty of athletic potential to validate the lofty praise he received as a recruit. In the open field, Ballage is an elusive blur, remarkable considering he's a big and angular running back, at 6-foot-3 and 227 pounds. There's never been a doubt about what he's capable of when he has the ball in space, but ASU rightly challenged Ballage in the off-season to become a more physical and proficient inside runner. He's responded to that impressively this spring, even more so than we expected given it's been just a few short months since last season ended. Ballage is less inclined now to spill the ball outside when it's not called for, and is playing with improved physicality. His challenges are and will remain becoming more flexible and less upright a runner, but with an added 15 pounds of strength he's now sustaining through contact better and getting extra yards on plays that last season saw him stopped. That gives him a better chance to access open field and take advantage of his breathtaking -- for fans and defensive backs alike -- open field potency. Ballage had a max pro block Saturday that probably has the challenger's ears still ringing, and has been very difficult to manage catching the ball out of the backfield on screens. He's also had more than a few big plays as a kickoff returner over the last several weeks.
4. James Johnson -- There's no better indication of Johnson's overall competency as a student-athlete than the honor he was given for the first time Saturday when he became the youngest ASU player to ever wear the Tillman practice jersey, joining fellow secondary members Jordan Simone and Lloyd Carrington as the only members of the team's defense in the camouflage No. 42. Still just a sophomore, Johnson is a rare student of the game. His play anticipation both pre and post snap is great and borderline excellent, a distinction we bestow on very few players. Very few times as a percentage of his overall reps -- though it happened once Saturday -- is Johnson caught in the wrong place due to guessing and when it happens, it stands out in a way that is different from other players because of how rare it is. Often, he's moving to make a play before others on the field or observing from the sidelines know what's about to come, and that enables him to get to spots on the field to make plays in a way that isn't to be expected because he's just an average athlete among BCS level safeties. Even though Johnson doesn't have the range or takeaway components to match the all-league caliber player he's replacing, Damarious Randall, he is perhaps more reliable overall and certainly a better run supporter and tackler. There's a lot of value in those things and especially Johnson's overall reliability.
5. Sam Jones -- Though he's never played a college game, there should be no doubt at this point that Jones is not only an offensive lineman with good potential, but one who is already good, period. The way in which Jones has handled working with the first-team at left tackle as projected starter Evan Goodman has nursed a hamstring strain throughout spring ball is one of the more noteworthy individual storylines of ASU's spring training. Redshirt freshmen linemen are not supposed to be this steady or versatile and to be sure, in ASU's recent history, they have not been. Last fall we would have said Jones is better suited to be a tackle because of his combination of aggressive disposition and impressive pad level as a run blocker as he practiced at depth at left guard. But now he's handling speed on the edge at tackle with remarkable poise and savvy and plays within himself in a way that screams veteran, his lack of any experience at this level completely unidentifiable in a practice setting. At this point we are projecting the 6-foot-5, 297 pound Jones as a player who has all-league potential. He's too good right now to not be able to accomplish such an honor before his career is finished. Saturday's scrimmage was the single best effort we've seen from Jones since he arrived in Tempe.
6. Manny Wilkins -- A week ago Wilkins put together the best back-to-back practices of his short college career that included a Saturday scrimmage in which his patient decision making was demonstrated to be leaps and bounds better than at any point last year. Wilkins told us recently the game has started to slow down for him. Not only do we agree with that self-assessment from Wilkins, but it's the singular most important thing for him to be able to start better accessing his significant upside as a quarterback. This is a quarterback with very good combination of ball velocity and accuracy. There are a number of throws on the field that he makes with better feel than senior starter Mike Bercovici, a quarterback who no doubt has a plus arm as a BCS level quarterback. A great athlete for a quarterback, Wilkins has near-elite initial quickness and short space acceleration that makes him extremely potent as a read option quarterback or scrambler. It may sound counter-intuitive but one of the best things Wilkins has done this spring is force himself to take sacks or near-sacks while staying in the pocket or a moved pocket while keeping his eyes downfield. When Wilkins can feel the rush without lowering his eyes, and rip through progressions more quickly, his prospects as a quarterback will soar. He's made clear strides in this regard during the spring and it bodes well for his future. Like all quarterbacks with very good physical tools, the big challenges are thinking the game at a high level and spatial recognition and processing power.
7. Matt Haack -- Nobody has benefited more with the addition of recently hired special teams coordinator Shawn Slocum than Haack, a player we admit to questioning from a talent standpoint as a BCS-level punter both before he signed with ASU and later, as a relatively unreliable option early in his career. Now that he's entering his junior season, though, and with the help of Slocum, Haack is starting to look like he's got a very real chance to be at least an above average player at the position. After re-working his footwork earlier in his career, Haack has continued to fine tune that and now has tweaked his drop of the ball. That's the area that tends to lead to the most inefficiency with punters. Haack's flexibility and range of motion with his leg is quite noticeably improved from when he was a high school recruit, and he's getting his base leg under him better, which is creating more power and better hang time, leading to fewer return opportunities. Recently Haack has started to get better backspin on the ball in shorter yardage situations, though the balls haven't reliably been backing up just yet. If he can get that down, plus flip the field more consistently with bigger open field punts -- something he demonstrated recently with a very rare eight straight good punts in a practice last week -- this can turn from a mediocre special teams component to one that is solid and perhaps even a strength.
8. George Lea -- Saturday was a real breakthrough for Lea and by far his best showing out of the 10 practices he's had to this point in his young college career. One of a handful of mid-year transfers, Lea hadn't jumped out as much as the other spring high school additions (Brady White, Steve Miller, Nick Ralston) prior to Saturday, but he made clear he's deserving of mention along with those players. The fact that it happened in a scrimmage setting is even more impressive than if he happened in a more normal practice setting, because there are additional challenges from a pace and endurance standpoint that have to be met. Lea plays with good pad level, gets low and attacks a gap in a way that ensures he's going to always have to be accounted for, and ASU's second team offense was exploited a few times in this regard Saturday. Lea had several tackles for loss and was in the backfield about as much as an interior defensive tackle with the second group.
9. Quinn Bailey -- He's still probably a year off from being ready to play in the Pac-12 but Bailey's gotten substantially better in the last six months, certainly more than we expected would be the case. It's a sign of what's possible for the future, certainly. In the fall of his freshman year there were a lot of moments Bailey would probably like to forget, but he's been a lunch pail guy in terms of his effort and it's starting to pay dividends. His pass pro was clunky, heavy footed and disjointed when he got to ASU, but would not be described as such now. It's not as consistently smooth as he'd like it to be, but there are occasional reps that induce a raise of an eyebrow or a subtle nod of the head. Bailey is clearly getting better, and at a pace that is commendable. At 6-foot-5 and 315 pounds, he's a big-framed guy who is pretty lean for his size and has enough foot mobility that in time he could develop into a good and reliable player.
10. Mike Bercovici -- Two-thirds of the way through spring football practice Bercovici has not only thrown fewer interceptions than he probably ever has over a 10-practice stretch, but dramatically fewer as a percentage. One of Bercovici's challenges has always been to avoid a tendency to want to force balls into coverage windows that are too tight and potential takeaway opportunities. He still will do this sometimes but he places these balls better now, and is much more inclined to take what the defense is giving him and hit check downs. Bercovici's offensive command is excellent and he cycles through progressions in rapid fire succession now, always quickly recognizing what the defense is doing and what's likely to be available to him as a result. There also seems to be some measure of improvement with his processing of read option decisions, and athletically Bercovici's dramatic evolution in terms of his mobility is something he's now better maximizing. On speed outs, Bercovici stresses defenses with how quickly and dramatically he can space the field laterally, presenting stress-inducing challenges to zone defenders that are very difficult to navigate in the time available to do so. To take his game to an even higher level, Bercovici would be best served to put more air under the ball consistently on vertical attacks. Sometimes he doesn't allow for enough margin for error or players to run through balls.
11. Luke Williams -- We're probably as guilty as anyone at writing off Williams going into 2015 as a roster filler among scholarship players but he's showing this spring he certainly doesn't view himself in that light. With Laiu Moeakiola sitting out while rehabbing his shoulder, Williams has gotten some opportunities to work with the second team at Spur behind Marcus Ball, and held his own. At 6-foot-1 and 202 pounds, Williams has enough change of direction and acceleration to play the position, and is competing with enough toughness to suggest that he's perhaps capable of handling the physical demands of the position. Probably the best attribute Williams has is his play recognition and overall instincts, which serve him well anticipating the snap as a blitzer and having a good feel for what's coming on any given play. Being a senior isn't an advantage for a depth guy because coaches often will want to develop younger players in reserve roles, but Williams at a minimum has shown that he should be given consideration for second-team status moving forward.