Even though Arizona State has operated under a balanced offensive approach during head coach Todd Graham’s first three seasons at the helm, his top offensive priority is establishing an elite running game. Graham believes the success of his team hinges on an offensive line’s ability to control the line of scrimmage, and this season, he has three senior linemen dedicated to becoming the heart and soul of the Sun Devil offense.
Redshirt senior left guard Christian Westerman, senior center Nick Kelly, and redshirt senior right guard Vi Teofilo form the trio of starters on the interior of the offensive line for ASU. Together, the group has taken it upon themselves to set the tone for the entire offense in terms of attitude and leadership.
“I think the main leadership right now is me, Nick and Vi,” Westerman said. “Being veterans back on this offensive line, we really take energy off each other, each of us are getting better every day and we’re helping these other young guys come in. We’ve got two other guys coming in at tackle and they’re sort of like veterans, they’re coming along and we’re coming along as a group and we’re getting better every day.”
The two “other guys” Westerman referenced are redshirt junior left tackle Evan Goodman, and redshirt senior right tackle Billy McGehee.
While Goodman and McGehee have worked under the tutelage of offensive coordinator Mike Norvell and offensive line coach Chris Thomsen, there’s nothing that can substitute for reps at game speed.
That’s why the three returning starters in the middle of the offensive line have harped on making the most of practice time, and adopting the mentality that ASU must be able to run the ball up the middle to wear down its opponents.
“It is a mentality, I believe that the three returning starters, me, Vi and Christian have that mentality,” Kelly said. “Even the new tackles, Billy McGehee and Evan Goodman they just love playing downhill and love getting physical and just destroying the line of scrimmage.”
Teofilo believes the mentality the offensive line brings to practice each day is something the entire team, both the offensive and defensive units, can feed off of. And with four seniors projected to start, the group is one that the rest of the team has already begun looking up to.
“We all know, we’re the older group, so we all know the whole gameplay starts and ends with us so if we have a bad day, we know the whole team is going to have a bad day but if we have a good day, we know the whole team is going to have a good day,” Teofilo said.
While Westerman, Kelly and Teofilo entered spring practices and fall camp with relationships built through playing together last season, the veterans have helped the rest of the offensive linemen on the roster integrate themselves into the fold. The Sun Devils have a deep unit from a depth standpoint, but Goodman points out that it’s not just talent that will carry this group.
“I feel more of a bond since we’ve run with each other for the last four years,” Goodman said. “Mostly everybody that is here on our line was here the for the first year Graham was here so we’re close on a personal level.”
An Unlikely Advantage
For the better part of three seasons, ASU could count on the legs of quarterback Taylor Kelly to make something happen on offense, either by design, or if a play broke down. Now that Kelly is standing on the sidelines as a support staffer and not on the field as a player, the offensive line has had a full offseason to grow accustomed to redshirt senior Mike Bercovici’s tendencies in the pocket.
Thomsen detailed the differing approaches for Kelly and Bercovici, and how the offensive line has to take into account the notion that Bercovici likely won’t scamper for as many long runs as Kelly did during his tenure under center.
“It’s going to be interesting because in my time here we’ve always had a guy in Taylor (Kelly) who could pull it on the zone read and make you pay for it,” Thomsen said. “Last year, not as much with the injury, but in 2013, we saw some of those pulls with 40-yard runs, so I don’t think you get that with Mike, to be realistic about that. Mike will still have the threat of the zone read where he pulls it and you get four or five yards, or if they don’t play it right get a bigger play, but that’s not going to be as much of a threat.”
Nevertheless, there’s a newfound advantage that ASU has discovered since Bercovici has been taking more snaps with the first team this offseason. When Kelly went down with a foot injury against Colorado last September, the coaching staff saw glimpses of what Bercovici’s improved arm strength could bring to the offense. Now, Thomsen says Bercovici’s quick release will help trigger a faster perimeter passing game, which should keep defenses honest and open up potential lanes for the offensive line to pave.
“Defenses know that, we know that, but also, when you pull the ball and you throw the ball on the perimeter, with Taylor the ball didn’t get there as quick, so those receivers were waiting and the defense has time to collapse,” Thomsen said. “That ball now is on the perimeter quicker so now a guy like D.J. (Foster) and (De’Chavon) Gump (Hayes) have a chance to make big plays.”
“For us, it’s a lot easier to keep our gap integrity,” Teofilo said. “We can set, we’re confident that if my guy rushes up field too far, that Mike will step right up whereas Taylor was more of a sprint-out quarterback so it helps us in pass protection.”
Getting Rest, Giving Tests
By the end of the 2014 season, the ASU offensive line was clearly banged up. Kelly had battled through multiple lingering injuries while Teofilo suffered an ACL tear that forced him to miss the entire spring practice schedule.
With an outstanding crop of young linemen arriving on campus over the past two years, it is likely the Sun Devils won’t face the same kind of depth issues that prevented many players from receiving adequate rest and recovery time.
During camp, Graham and Thomsen have referenced anywhere from eight to 11 linemen who have impressed on a daily basis and could see action this year. The depth is promising, and it has allowed starters like Teofilo to heal up and prepare for the upcoming grind.
“We’ve just tried, anytime a guy is coming off a serious knee injury, two-a-days you only practice him one time a day,” Thomsen said of the team’s approach to Teofilo’s readjustment this fall. “Normally if you get 85 reps, you’ll go 55, but now, today (Friday) there was no restraint, the only thing we kept him out of was inside run because there’s people falling around but really no limits now let’s go, it’s two weeks away, let’s go.”
Teofilo appreciates the rest, as he believes that coupled with intense work with strength and conditioning coach Shawn Griswold has helped mold him into an even stronger player.
“I feel strong, I feel stronger than I did before the injury,” Teofilo said. “I know it doesn’t make a lot of sense, but Coach Gris (Griswold) did a great job getting me right over the summer.”
Thomsen said Teofilo isn’t quite as strong when he has to drive to his left off of his healing knee, but he believes the player with the most career starts of any Sun Devil lineman will be able to navigate through the adjustment period.
Kelly feels like the extra rest the unit has received during camp has not only helped the first unit, but also benefitted the second and third team players who have seen more action against quality competition.
“We’re good, we’re rotating guys to make sure that we’re all getting enough practice needed,” Kelly said. “We’re making sure that we're not killing our legs, and we’re making sure that we’re staying off the ground and not getting anybody rolled up on the offensive line.”
With extra opportunities to evaluate ASU’s young talent, Graham and Thomsen have taken note of a few of the standout players. Though Graham expressed some concerns on Saturday morning about replacing graduated starter Tyler Sulka at right tackle, Thomsen said McGehee’s body type could allow the Sun Devils to do more in the running game.
“Billy (McGehee) has had a really good spring, a really good camp, he was part of it at Camp (Tontozona) where we ran the ball really well,” Thomsen said. “He’s just such a bigger, more physical player. That’ll be a big difference in down blocking and working at the backside of zones, and creating that space backside where Tyler who was 290 pounds, it was a little bit different whereas Billy is right at 315. That’s about 25 more pounds and he’s a stronger guy, he’s a “Dirty Dozen” (strength and conditioning honor) guy so I’m excited about that and then Evan’s a bigger guy than Jamil was.”
After the starting five, Thomsen has penciled in redshirt junior Stephon McCray and redshirt freshman Sam Jones as his top two reserves. McCray serves as the first backup at each of the three interior spots, while Jones can play nearly every position along the line and would be the first tackle in the rotation.
“Sam Jones is doing well, he needs to get in there and play, he’s not as comfortable on the right but he’ll get in there and give some guys a breather,” Thomsen said. “He may work his way into the lineup before it’s over. Stephon (McCray) has got to get in there and help Vi out a little bit.”
After Jones and McCray, there’s a logjam of players competing for spots, which will likely sort itself out over the course of the next calendar year. In an ideal world for Graham, he would prefer to use a redshirt on freshmen Zach Robertson and Steve Miller, while redshirt freshmen Quinn Bailey and Connor Humphreys are still developing some of the raw talent they arrived to campus with a little more than a year ago.
“Zach Robertson is coming on, I feel really good with some depth, he’s probably further along as far as the freshmen,” Graham said. “Steve’s (Miller) would be the next guy, he’s going to be a great player. Connor Humphreys, you take Conor and you take Stephon McCray and we’re solid with five guys inside. I think Quinn (Bailey) is coming along getting better too.”
“The band, the students, dictate the atmosphere in the stadium," Graham said. "We’ve worked very hard to built that, that’s why we’re 12-1 in the regular season in our stadium. Pretty good, I think it’s one of the toughest places to play. Today was about saying thank you."
Junior spur linebacker Viliami Moeakiola spent Saturday’s practice at “Muscle Beach” and Graham said if there was a game today, Moeakiola would have been unavailable.