Smith in contention at defensive tackle

The surgery Corey Smith had to remove bone spurs in his hip last year has allowed him to become a contender for playing time this season for Arizona State.

One of the most improbable moments of the first week of Arizona State's preseason camp happened even before practice started Saturday.

Third-year sophomore defensive tackle Corey Smith walked out to defensive walk-through that always kicks off practice just as he's done a hundred times previously in his Sun Devil career.

Only this time, Smith wasn't watching. For the first time ever he stepped into position as the first-team nose tackle.

The significance of the event wasn't lost on ASU head coach Todd Graham. Smith missed last season following surgery to remove bone spurs from his hip.

To see what he's gone through, to see two years of injury with that hip, to see him coming off that football like that, being physical the way he is," Graham said. "Obviously he's still got a lot to learn. But to see him, we've looked the last few days, he's moved all the way up to the starting rotation. Really happy for him."

A 6-foot-6, 290-pounder out of New Orleans, size has never been an issue for Smith. But in his first two years in Tempe, Smith could never really show what he could do on the field because he lacked the hip flexion to bend into a proper 3-point stance. It prevented him from uncoiling with power; stopped him from playing with the necessary pad level win the leverage battle inside.

That problem hasn't been completely resolved, as Smith will have to fully address what became a strength deficiency in the joint and surrounding muscles over the course of several years. But his progress since even the spring is clearly evident. Saturday, Smith had the best set-up posture and lowest pad level getting off the snap of the ball that he's ever showed in Tempe.

"I'm really proud of Corey because he's faced an awful lot of adversity," Graham said. "Man, you look out there on that d-line, there's a whole lot of 6-foot-6, 300-plus pounders that can run and that are really, really physical. So we like that.

Corey, what a great story that is right there. I mean, to go through two years. He's been here two years waiting for this opportunity. Am I surprised? Totally. Because you just don't know. You have no idea how he's going to respond and all that. I think the trainers and strength staff did a remarkable job with him as well because his flexibility, how he rehabbed that was pretty phenomenal. He's physical now, very physical."

Graham bullish on ASU potential

Unsurprisingly, Graham continued to lob praise at his 2015 team during the program's Media Day Saturday. He's repeatedly and without equivocation expressed the opinion that this is the best and most talented team he's coached in his career.

"This is a really, really special group of young men," Graham said in his opening remarks. "Our values that we tried to instill of character, smart, discipline, tough. This has been the most disciplined team, most physical team, fastest team that we've had. It's been an awesome few days of camp so far. Lots of positive things.

"Very highly competitive. (Defensive line) coach (Jackie) Shipp is not a guy to pass down a lot of compliments. After practice today, he walked over to me and he said, 'Coach, that was the most impressive speed, physicality, and finished practice we've had since we've been here.' So that's something we're excited about."

Notes

  • Junior Spur Laiu Moeakiola was in a green non-contact jersey and mostly observing practice Saturday with a minor foot issue.

  • Freshman 3-back/Devil backer Jay Jay Wilson was wearing a green jersey and conditioning as he recovers from a foot injury. Wilson watched the defensive install period for the first time Saturday.

  • After wearing a green non-contact jersey and watching from the sidelines much of Friday's session, senior safety Jordan Simone not only was back on the field Saturday in a Pat Tillman 'PT42' practice jersey, but performing at a high level. Simone picked off senior quarterback Mike Bercovici on the first play of 11-on-11 and returned it for a touchdown.

  • Senior WILL linebacker Antonio Longino wore a PT42 jersey for the first time in his career Saturday. He's one of five defenders to do so in camp for the Sun Devils, more than any other team since Graham instituted the practice. Moeakiola, Simone, senior cornerback Lloyd Carrington and sophomore safety James Johnson all typically wear the Tillman jersey.

    "Well, we got a special group," Graham said of the five Tillman jersey wearers. "I tell you, Antonio, I told him today that he looks completely different. He's pretty good. He has had an unbelievable camp."

  • The two remaining recruits who are expected to join the program this year but haven't yet, junior defensive tackle Deonte Reynolds and freshman offensive back Jason Lewis, still are not academically cleared and were not in attendance Saturday.

  • Sophomore D.J. Calhoun shifted to Spur due to Moeakiola being sidelined in 11-on-11 action, which elevated true freshman Khaylan Thomas to second-team at WILL, behind Longino.

  • True freshman Joseph Wicker worked with the second-team at 3-technique tackle Saturday behind sophomore Tashon Smallwood.


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