Camp Storyline: Examining depth chart battles

There's a lot to be determined from Arizona State's preseason camp, of course. Many positions remain fluid and competitive entering the start of practices Wednesday. We examine many of the battles here.

Who will start at the offensive tackle positions?

Athletic junior Evan Goodman appears to be the heir apparent to Jamil Douglas at left tackle but he missed essentially all of spring ball due to a hamstring injury. Goodman's absence allowed redshirt freshman Sam Jones to get first-team reps and he excelled and is further along than anyone could have reasonably expected at this point. But if Goodman solidifies his status, the next question becomes whether senior William McGehee is going to be able to hold off Jones at the right tackle spot. That could shape up as a near dead heat if the spring is a good indication. Jones clearly has a higher ceiling given his youth but ASU coaches are going to put the current best five guys on the field. A third possibility can't be ruled out: If Goodman and McGehee both falter, or one does and junior Stephon McCray continues to show improvement, perhaps the Sun Devils consider kicking senior Christian Westerman out to right tackle and bumping McCray into the lineup at guard. That's looking increasingly unlikely but can't be ruled out.

Can Ellis Jefferson beat out Devin Lucien?

Sophomore wide receiver Ellis Jefferson has had a tendency to come out hot to start preseason camp and spring practices and is a good candidate to do so again this year. This is especially true because he's got a built in connection with senior quarterback Mike Bercovici, as one of Bercovici's housemates. Meanwhile, UCLA-transfer Devin Lucien has a lot of experience playing in the Pac-12, but none in the ASU system. If Lucien doesn't come out with a quick start, Jefferson could legitimately compete to become the team's starting boundary side receiver, which is ASU's premier wide receiver position and the place Jaelen Strong became an all-league weapon.

Who will be ASU's second tight end?

We know junior Kody Kohl is going to be on the field a lot. In most formations that call for one tight end or 3-back, Kohl is probably going to be the guy because he's able to play in the all the alignments. But these Sun Devils like to be able to use a lot of two tight end formations and align the players in a lot of different spots on the field. They want to be able to seamlessly vary their looks on the fly out of the same personnel grouping so they can play fast and not have to substitute. That requires a lot of versatility among the players at the position group, and a great understanding of the ASU scheme. Sophomore junior college transfer Raymond Epps showed in the spring he wasn't ready for that yet. Sophomore Grant Martinez has two years experience under his belt now but was rehabbing an injury in the spring. He has to show more well-roundedness as a blocker in-line but could be the guy. Then there's true freshman Jay Jay Wilson, who is probably big enough and certainly athletic enough to do it, but will he be able to learn everything quickly enough? Fellow true freshman Thomas Hudson is immediately the biggest player in the group at about 250 pounds, but is he versatile enough to be flexed out and be used as a move-3-back option? Will he assimilate quickly? There are a lot of unknowns with the group and at least four players will be competing to be the second most used player in the group.

Will anyone penetrate the 1-2 punch of Demario Richard and Kalen Ballage?

Even with ASU moving senior D.J. Foster to wideout, the running back position may be its most potent on the field with the two-headed monster of sophomores Demario Richard and Kalen Ballage, especially after Ballage looked significantly improved in the spring. But Todd Graham has said he's going to look at using Ballage at Devil backer. If that becomes something that divests his time from offense, or if there is an injury, someone else is going to get a lot of opportunity at running back. Maybe that will be junior De'Chavon Hayes, who is coming off a forced redshirt due to academics. He's primarily going to play the two-back slot role as a receiver, it would appear, but not necessarily if Ballage is seeing a lot of action. Then there's freshman Nick Ralston, who looked to carve out a role as a fullback option in spring ball. He's also been good carrying the football on inside runs, and is well rounded from a skill standpoint. Of course, if freshman Jason Lewis enters camp in shape -- he's still not been cleared academically -- he could be the guy who takes Ballage's reps if Ballage is used more on defense. Lewis is even bigger than Ballage, at 235-240 pounds.

How does Devil backer get sorted out and what are broader ramifications?

Junior Edmond Boateng looked like the Sun Devils' best edge pass rusher in the spring, so in that sense it's logical that he would be moved to Devil backer to start spring ball. But that decision still is mildly surprising because of the resulting movement along the rest of the defensive front. ASU defensive line coach Jackie Shipp told us in the spring he prefers senior Demetrius Cherry at tackle, but given that the Sun Devils don't have another proven end, when Boateng shifts to Devil it may necessitate Cherry going to end. If redshirt freshman Renell Wren continues to develop quickly, perhaps that can be avoided. Alternatively, and perhaps more likely, we could see redshirt freshman Ismael Murphy-Richardson show increased assignment soundness in a way that leads to Boateng moving back end and Cherry to tackle. Murphy-Richardson has the highest ceiling of the returning Devil backers but has been hit or miss. It's possible even they just decide to live with him learning on the job if he's making enough plays to warrant it. Then there's Ballage. If ASU coaches like what they see from him it could not only shake up the defensive front, but change the dynamic in the offensive backfield.

Does anyone separate at SAM/WILL?

Spring ball was a rotating carousel at the two inside linebacker positions for ASU, as coaches looked to spark the competition. Coaches like the talent at the position but parity is a potential concern. Odds are pretty good junior Salamo Fiso and senior Antonio Longino end up reprising their roles as starters from last year, when they were among the leading tacklers on the team. But position coach and co-coordinator Keith Patterson wants to see more of a sense of urgency from both players and so on ASU's official depth chart it's listed as -OR- at SAM with Fiso and sophomore Christian Sam, and -OR- at WILL with Longino and sophomore D.J. Calhoun. Sam may have the highest ceiling of all the linebackers from a size and athleticism standpoint. He's got the feet of a defensive back, but has to play with better leverage and toughness. Calhoun is a dynamic blitzer and attack player who can get overzealous at times. Don't rule out either, or junior Carlos Mendoza, a guy who is assignment sound and smart but has had injury problems.

Can Solomon Means push past Kweishi Brown?

In the spring we saw Brown struggle with a meniscus issue in his knee and that enabled fellow senior Means to get all the reps with the top group. A physically improved Means -- he gained upwards of 10 pounds in the winter strength and conditioning program -- could help to mitigate his non-strengths to some degree and push Brown for the top spot on the depth chart, especially if Brown has any lingering issues with the knee. This competition is far from resolved.

Who will replace Damarious Randall at field-side safety?

Even though he's never even practiced at safety at this level previously, sophomore Armand Perry is sharing the top spot on ASU's depth chart with sophomore James Johnson -- a player who wore the Pat Tillman jersey in the spring -- entering preseason. That should make clear what the ASU coaches think of Perry's potential. Johnson is very assignment sound and reliable for a young player and is sound against the run. He's not as much of a coverage weapon as Perry may be from a speed and quickness standpoint, though. If Perry can be similarly sound, he may be able to unseat Johnson, but that's going to be really hard. Johnson has been practicing at the position for two years and is like a veteran, one of the most workmanlike and mature players on the roster. Whomever wins the job is going to be heavily scrutinized as he'll be replacing a first-team NFL Draft pick and someone who was about as athletically dynamic as it gets at the position. Randall's ability to cover ground and be like another cornerback on the field enabled ASU a lot of options with its defensive play calling. Will it still have that same degree of flexibility?

Who will return punts and kicks this season?

In a perfect world for the Sun Devils, De'Chavon Hayes becomes more reliable with his decision making and catching of the football and secures the punt and kickoff return duties. Athletically, there's little doubt he's the best fit for the punt return job unless perhaps junior college addition Tim White is a comparable type weapon. But Hayes wasn't as sound or reliable as sophomore walk-on Jacom Brimhall in the spring. ASU would probably like to avoid having to play senior D.J. Foster in the role. On kickoffs, sophomore Kalen Ballage may have looked like the best option in spring ball with his terrific blend of size and open field speed. The Sun Devils are trying to be more potent on special teams, but that's hard to do unless they have the returners who allow it. We'll see if they do. Then we'll see if they're able to capitalize on it.


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