SunDevilSource Final Spring Hot-11

Which 11 Arizona State players impressed us most relative to our expectations during the team's spring practice schedule? Here's our take.

1. 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. In the team's Spring Game last Friday, Jones was extremely competent at left tackle, even when matched against the team's best full-time defensive pass rusher, fellow redshirt freshman Ismael Murphy-Richardson. Last fall we would have said Jones is better suited to be a guard 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. His last two scrimmages were both superb.

2. 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 may have had more explosive plays than fellow running backs Demario Richard or De'Chavon Hayes through the spring, and was a load to handle in the screen game. He also has really improved as a max pro blocker and all of this has led to running back remaining an ASU strength despite the move of D.J. Foster to wide receiver.

3. 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 he was 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, making it more repeatable. 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. His Spring Game performance was terrific, with high hanging and awkwardly spinning balls that led to two muffed return attempts. 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 -- this can turn from a mediocre special teams component to one that is solid and perhaps even a strength.

4. Lloyd Carrington -- The Spring Game performance by D.J. Foster is a great example of Carrington's impact on the Sun Devil defense. When Carrington wasn't on the field, Foster was open all over the place and had more big plays and opportunities than any of ASU's receivers. When Carrington was matched with Foster on the boundary side of the field, Foster had one underneath catch and that was it. These two have battled all spring and it's been a very physical confrontation in every practice session, and Carrington has more than held his own. He's dramatically improved since he arrived at ASU as a transfer from Pitt and worked primarily at safety. He's much stronger and more physical, and Carrington runs better than he's probably given credit for. But his technique is what puts him over the top. He is as fundamentally sound as any player on ASU's defense, without question. Recently Todd Graham said Carrington had an excellent spring and is the best cornerback he's coached to this point in his career. Keep in mind, Graham has had current NFL roster cornerbacks Deveron Carr and Robert Nelson -- a first-team all-conference player -- on his ASU teams, and Osahon Irabor, who started more games than any other player on the team over a four year period and was a second-team all-Pac-12 pick as a senior. Carrington is absolutely one of ASU's best overall players and an all-league candidate and someone who has a chance to play at the next level. He's not just a coverage guy, better than Irabor, Carr or Nelson against the run.

5. Quinn Bailey -- He's still probably a year off from being ready to play effectively in the Pac-12 with consistency but Bailey's gotten substantially better in the last six months, certainly more than we expected would be the case, and about as much as anyone on the entire team. 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.

6. George Lea -- Lea really came on in the tail end of his first spring football in Tempe, with an impressive showing in the Saturday scrimmage a week before the Spring Game, and solid practices thereafter. 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 that Saturday performance, 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 has been exploited in this regard by Lea more so than others in the position group over the course of the last week and a half.

7. Renell Wren -- Like Lea, Wren made a big and almost unexpected progression in the second half of spring ball. It was as though a light bulb suddenly came on because he was actually a disappointment in the first half of spring ball. Wren was challenged by position coach Jackie Shipp, who put Corey Smith ahead of Wren on the depth chart for a handful of practices in an effort to spark Wrenn's practice energy. Whatever it was, it worked, as Wrenn diplayed a much better motor and overall practice disposition in the team's final 5-6 practices, and the results were clear. He was playing with better leverage and closing down space on the wide side of the field, using his length better while keeping his feet active, and showed progress with his pad level. Wrenn is one of the best looking specimens on the roster, every bit of 6-foot-5 and 285 pounds and yet lean. As he continues to become more technically savvy he's going to just take off as a prospect as long as he continues to bring it from an activity level standpoint on a consistent basis.

8. Billy 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 has 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 recent scrimmages, 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 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.

9. 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 spring ball. 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. If anything, White is almost too patient in the pocket and has taken some sacks as a result, but that's a way better reality than someone who is flushed too easily. White has a remarkable feel for the pass rush and moves out of harm's way without taking his eyes off downfield, which gives him a great upside as a play extension quarterback for a pocket passer, particularly because he moves well. 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 manipulating linebackers and safeties when he's trying to keep them away from his intended target.

10. 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 looks like 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. With Kweishi Brown battling what he's called a knee meniscus tear, Means has taken almost all the first-team reps in the last couple weeks and handled it well.

11. Ellis Jefferson -- Jefferson competed at a high level to start spring ball and then tapered off, which has been a tendency of his to start fall/spring camp in the past. Nonetheless, he did just enough to make his way on this list due in part to a solid effort in Friday's Spring Game and Tuesday's practice. Jefferson is more in the mold of Jaelen 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 and being better at the line of scrimmage and getting into his release more efficiently, and he's made strides in that area. He's athletically and physically capable of being very good player and needs to become more consistent.

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