Mixed bag Spring Game, but Graham pleased

Arizona State's spring showcase was just average but its head coach Todd Graham is very bullish on the potential of his team moving forward.

Despite all the missed opportunities and miscues, promise and potential shined through for ASU head coach Todd Graham during ASU's Spring Game Friday night.

On a night that saw ASU play about a half of football, dropped balls, pass rushing, the offensive line, and muffed punts were the storylines of the night.

“We had a great spring,” Graham said. “This team is something special. We got a lot of work to do as you can see, but I really liked it. I liked to see how it went back and forth. Lots of potential. Lots of explosive potential.”

Graham said the main goals for the scrimmage were to come out healthy, see speed, physicality and finish on plays, even as they were only able to use about 70 yards of field due to Sun Devil Stadium construction.

“There was a lot of positive plays,” Graham said. “It’s kind of weird going in one direction, kids are a little confused. I was confused some but I acted like I know what I’m doing. It was a little interesting, but it’s awesome to come under the lights, see the construction.”

Graham said he really wanted to push players and liked to see the competition on both sides of the ball throughout the night. The overall challenge Graham alluded to is changing the mentality of players to want to strive for more than 10-win seasons.

“The hardest thing to deal with is success and our guys are really used to winning 10 games, we got to get out of that because we’re trying to win 15 and I got to tell you that we work with a huge sense of urgency to improve every day so I really felt like we improved every week defensively because of that,” Graham said.

Defense continues to improve

ASU defensive coordinator Keith Patterson said he has seen major potential and progress from his defensive players and it has been a good spring thus far.

In the linebacker group in particular, Patterson said he has five players that he can put on the field without seeing a drop off. It has led to a constantly changing depth chart and a lot of competition.

“They all bring something different to the table and I think they’re all so much farter along than they were a year ago with details and things we are trying to accomplish offensively, 10 times better coming out of this spring than last spring,” Patterson said.

Along with the linebackers, the defensive line shined through during the Spring Game, especially redshirt freshman defensive lineman Renell Wren and freshman defensive lineman George Lea.

“George Lea is a physical tough, explosive, strong, really, really came on the last two weeks,” Patterson said. “Very excited for what we saw with him.”

Graham started off his interview after the Spring Game by praising Lea for his play during the scrimmage.

“I’ll tell you one young man I’m really excited about is George Lea,” Graham said. “Wow. He’s a high school senior right now…really pleased.”

Lea, an early-enrollee, had his two best practices back to back in the last week and has really started to turn it on as an interior pressure player.

On the outside, Wren has a ways to grow to become a consistent standout player, but like Lea, has turned it on. Now he just needs to be more consistent with his motor. Wren came to ASU last year at 270 pounds and now weighs 285 pounds.

“Renell Wren, big physical presence and still got to learn how to play the game at a very high level,” Patterson said.

Wren said he talked to coach Graham and was told he wouldn’t be surprised if Wren started this coming fall and if he doesn’t, that’s on him not putting in the work.

During the Spring Game, Wren had an impressive rep, beating redshirt freshman Quinn Bailey for a sack on redshirt freshman quarterback Manny Wilkins.

Foster against Carrington matchup

The battle between senior cornerback Lloyd Carrington and senior wide receiver D.J. Foster during practices continued during the Spring Game Friday night, but only sporadically.

In the few instances Foster was matched up against Carrington -- ASU's first-team cornerbacks didn't see to be on the field very much -- Carrington mostly had his way with Foster. One rep Carrington pinned Foster to the sideline and didn't let him even have a shot on starting senior quarterback Mike Bercovici’s throw.

When Foster did make a big play, it was against the second-team cornerbacks, especially sophomore wide receiver Ronald Lewis. Foster made a few big play receptions, they all just seemed to come against backup cornerbacks, a sign of Carrington's competency.

“Lloyd is the best corner I’ve worked with in my career because he is the smartest, he has the best character, he is the most improved players in the spring and he’s a returning starter and that tells you a lot about him,” Graham said.

Carrington and Foster have been going at it since Day 1 of the spring and having Foster get matched up against such a seasoned veteran as Carrington is only going to help improve both of their skills.

“D.J. is special,” Graham said. “D.J. is a guy who obviously we want to give the ball to and we didn’t show it all tonight, but he’s definitely a guy we will move around and do some special things with.”

Offensive line stands out

As far as the standout of the spring game, that title belonged to senior center Nick Kelly. Kelly had a fantastic showing, making three impressive lead interior blocks on three inside run plays for touchdowns near the goal line.

“I would say I’ve learned a lot about the mental side of football, read defenses, understand what of coverage, what type of movement they will do before the snap of the ball,” Kelly said regarding his progression at ASU.

Kelly has been a solid player all spring, blocking players like he owns the entire field. Kelly has grown as a veteran in the offensive line group and is continuing to impress.

“Today I was a little up and down,” Kelly said. “We scored a lot, we ran the ball well, but overall this whole spring has been really good. We have been running the ball, smash mouth football I love it and we are just coming together as a group.”

Graham has called Kelly the best center in the country on multiple occasions, but Kelly said he doesn’t want to hear it.

“It’s high praise but I don’t like thinking about it,” Kelly said. “I just bring it every day and making sure at least he thinks I’m the best center in the country. I still have to work to be the best center of the country.”

Redshirt freshman Sam Jones continued to take the majority of his reps with the first-team due to junior offensive tackle Evan Goodman just starting to come back and practice in team periods after his hamstring injury. Jones stands at 6-foot-5, 294 pounds and has the versatility to play guard, where he worked last year in practices, or tackle, where he has opened eyes in the last month.

“I feel like I’ve gotten a lot better as a football player,” Jones said. “At tackle I feel like I’ve made a lot of strides. I took all my reps last year at guard, felt better there last year, but (offensive line) coach (Chris) Thomsen is the best and has got me going at tackle now.”

On the right side, senior offensive tackle Billy McGehee has the job of replacing former ASU start Tyler Sulka and so far, has made strides and could end up potentially being as good if not better than Sulka this upcoming season.

“The fact that our o-line has been able to accomplish so much and just that we’re able to work together, and our running backs, they’re phenomenal,” McGehee said. “We got (redshirt junior running back) (De'Chavon) Gump (Hayes) coming in and he’s just been blowing it out of the water. Even (freshman running back) Nick (Ralston), the new kid from Texas, he’s just been coming out and hitting.”

Speed, but miscues in the backfield

In a loaded backfield filled with Hayes, sophomore running back Demario Richard, sophomore running back Kalen Ballage and true freshman Nick Ralston, the potential is there, just not there quite all the way there yet.

Hayes in particular had his ups and downs during the Spring Game Friday, dropping a long bomb throw by Bercovici that was a touchdown waiting to happen.

“He (Hayes) had one right off and he dropped it, just got to reach out and catch it with your hands,” Graham said. “He showed some explosiveness today as well.”

Along with Hayes, Richard had a couple drops, but overall, the speed and explosive promise from the backfield was evident.

Ballage took reps as a running back and had a couple touchdown runs and also took reps as a situational edge rusher on defense.

Hayes said he feels stronger and faster compared to last year, now weighing about 188 pounds, but he still has improvements to be made.

“It’s mostly watching film and trying not to forget,” Hayes said. “Sometimes you have a sense of you get in the film room and know what to do and then practice starts in tempo and it all goes out the window.

“We (the backfield) got weapons. We can’t double-coverage nobody. You don’t know who will get the ball. Me, Kalen and D-Rich we call ourselves the triple-threat, the 'Elite Three' so I definitely feel like we’re going to do some great things this year.”

Special team blunders

As far as special teams, ASU didn’t want to tip its hand now that it's made some changes under new coordinator Shawn Slocum, but it still practiced punts with junior punter Matt Haack and got reps for the punt return players.

“You noticed tonight we didn’t do much on special teams,” Graham said. “We did that for a reason because obviously I don’t want to broadcast everything that we’re doing and so the next two practices will be very, very focused on special teams and obviously on Sunday introduce Texas A&M.”

The troubles that emerged from special teams stemmed from the punt returners: Foster, Hayes and sophomore running back Jacom Brimhall.

All three punt return players had muffed punts or kick offs.

Giving credit to Haack, the majority of his punts were booming wobbly kicks downfield, so catching them wasn’t the easiest thing for the return players, but muffing a punt on the 5-yard line isn’t tolerable, especially with Slocum at the helm.

Notes

  • Redshirt freshman Ismael Murphy-Richardson Devil backer practiced with the first-team over sophomore Devil backer A.J. Latu during the Spring Game. 'IMR' was all over the field (like always) on Friday, getting in the backfield for TFLs. If he can cut down on missed assignments he'll have a chance to earn enough trust from coaches to become a starter.

  • Junior offensive tackle Evan Goodman mixed in with the first-team during the scrimmage, but spent most of his reps with the second team at left tackle. Goodman has been limited all spring with a hamstring strain

  • Sophomore safety James Johnson continues to improve and progress playing that “adjustor” role as Graham termed it on Thursday in nickel situations. Johnson made some great plays in space and his ability to know his assignment was impressive on many levels.

  • Bercovici had somewhat of tough day, with some of it hard luck. He threw an interception on the first skeleton (no offensive line or defensive line) to senior safety Jordan Simone. Moving into the scrimmage, the ball was thrown late on multiple occasions and a number of his throws down the field had little margin for error in that they didn't have enough air under the ball to let receivers run under them.

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