Even with a schedule that included two top-caliber opponents in the first four weeks of the season, Arizona State firmly expected to be in great shape entering the month of October. So after a lackluster first month of play, it’s feasible the Sun Devils’ in-game struggles would carry over into practice and affect the overall mood and mentality of the team.
But on Tuesday, that was far from the case as a jovial and upbeat ASU squad eased up on feeling the pressure to meet expectations, and instead focused on having fun.
In fact, head coach Todd Graham exited the field to a round of applause from the Sun Devils upon making some of his shortest post-practice remarks of the season to his team. Graham needed no more than 30 seconds to explain his satisfaction, and let ASU know the effort he saw today is the barometer moving forward.
“The big applause was the best practice we had all year, and I didn’t say much,” Graham said. “There’s not much to say. We’ve got to get it done, and it’s a mindset. We know that where we’re at has everything to do with us and nobody else.”
The Sun Devils were noticeably looser during the team stretching and individual periods reporters were allowed to view on Tuesday morning, and that attitude transitioned into the offensive tempo period.
Offensive coordinator Mike Norvell was as animated as media have seen in recent weeks, encouraging his offense to play as fast as possible while putting a premium on ball security, something ASU has struggled with in recent weeks.
The newfound energy from the coaching staff was infectious, as senior wide receiver D.J. Foster said the team fed off the coaches’ positive demeanor.
“We had a lot of guys having fun and competing, I saw a lot of guys hitting, I saw a lot of coaches screaming and I haven’t heard them scream in a while, it was awesome, in a positive way, and it was awesome seeing the energy of our whole team including the coaching staff,” Foster said.
Starting off 2-2 as opposed to 4-0 can alter a team’s perspective and outlook, but the Sun Devils haven’t changed their expectations. Instead, they’ve maintained their mindset and on Tuesday, they revitalized practice by reminding themselves they’re fortunate to be able to compete on a daily basis.
Sophomore running back Kalen Ballage learned the hard way what it’s like for football to be taken away, as he missed the first three weeks of the season with mononucleosis. Ballage said the opportunity to join his teammates on the field once again is something he values even more after his illness, and he’s motivated to have fun and enjoy being back with his teammates again.
“It just motivated me to go so much harder,” Ballage said of sitting out three weeks. “Sometimes you take it for granted, like going out for kickoff, cause I just ran off the field, but that definitely was different for me when I came back. I wanted to do everything I possibly could because sometimes you kind of take it for granted.”
All the talk of staying upbeat and having fun doesn’t mean the Sun Devils are settling for modified expectations. Instead, it’s a strategy Foster said worked in recent years after early season losses to Stanford and UCLA that appeared at the time as if they would become major setbacks.
“A lot of the guys who were here for those games, we know what it’s like and what it takes to come out here and clear your mind and continue to have a new focus and a new energy and a lot of the young guys are feeding off us and understand it’s a long, long season,” Foster said. Especially in the Pac-12, especially in the South, a lot of stuff can happen, you’re never out of it.”
Even after Saturday’s 42-14 setback against USC, Graham maintained the rhetoric he’s used all season in calling this year’s team the best he’s coached at ASU. For a man who led the Sun Devils to back-to-back 10-win seasons, the words of encouragement seemed insincere at best, but on Tuesday, he admitted he has no problem ramping up expectations because that’s how ASU has kept its focus and achieved at a high level in the past.
Personnel on the Move
In the second half of Saturday’s contest against USC, ASU lost redshirt senior cornerback Lloyd Carrington to what appeared to be a lower body injury.
Carrington began Tuesday’s practice in the team’s stretching lines, but shortly after, he spoke with Graham and walked gingerly toward muscle beach for the remainder of the practice portion reporters were allowed to view.
Carrington’s injury forced backup redshirt senior cornerback Solomon Means into duty with the first team defense, and left the cupboard barren in the defensive backfield.
ASU has already lost sophomore field safety Armand Perry to an ankle injury, and switched true freshman Kareem Orr from cornerback to safety to fill the void left by Perry. That leaves ASU with only a handful of healthy scholarship players in the secondary, and as a result, the Sun Devils’ coaching staff got creative.
On Sunday night, the staff asked redshirt junior running back De’Chavon Hayes to practice at cornerback this week, and the versatile Hayes accepted the task willingly.
“Sunday night, they called me and said they’d love for you to play both ways for us,” Hayes said. “'We’d love for you to still play 18 to 20 plays on offense, and get some plays on defense as well.'”
Hayes hasn’t played cornerback yet at ASU, and played the role sparingly at Lackawanna College. The 5-foot-11, 190-pound Hayes does have extended experience at the position, though, as he said after practice Tuesday he was committed to play defensive back at Clemson out of high school.
“Defensive back, you’ve just got that swagger,” Hayes said. “It’s like you’re free back there, everything’s on you, it’s up to you to make plays, it’s your responsibility. You’ve got that swagger, you’re a ball hawk, you can be aggressive so that’s what I like about that.”
Graham said the decision to ask Hayes to play defense was made as a precautionary measure after Carrington’s injury. According to Graham, without Carrington and Orr playing corner, ASU was down to three bodies at cornerback and needed to find a short-term solution.Though it appears Graham would prefer to keep his regular defensive backs on the field against UCLA on Saturday, he did say Hayes could be pressed into action when ASU uses its nickel package against the Bruins, a team that loves to align with four and sometimes five wide receivers.
“I think Lloyd (Carrington) should be okay but I do think that he’ll (Hayes) still have his package on offense and we kind of shared him today,” Graham said. “Maybe playing nickel a little bit. Really, really athletic, sometimes when you have a necessity you find something that might work out really helping you. I think he can really cover.”
Hayes appeared enthusiastic about the opportunity, and after practice he was candid about taking full responsibility for his fumbled kick return prior to halftime on Saturday night.
Hayes said he was so upset by his mistake he didn’t even want to talk to his teammates about it, but he feels as though helping the team by taking some reps on defense can help atone for the miscue.
Additionally, Hayes said playing defensive back gives him an extra chance to showcase his versatility, which could make him a more appealing prospect for NFL scouts.
“I feel like I’ve got one more year left, so NFL scouts are check me out and see I can go both ways so it definitely upped my stock as well, and just like college, I’m athletic, I’m versatile and can play everything on the field,” Hayes said.
Hayes wasn’t the only player switching from offense to defense at Tuesday’s practice, as redshirt freshman wide receiver Tyler Whiley found himself back in the secondary.
Whiley has flip-flopped back and forth between offense and defense so far in his ASU career, and couldn’t break into the rotation of the top six receivers after spending the offseason and fall camp with the unit.
At 6-feet and 210 pounds, Whiley could mold into a safety down the line, and he came to the coaching staff on his own with the idea of making a return to defense.
“Tyler (Whiley) approached me and wanted to do it,” Graham said. “It’s kind of where I’ve wanted him to play all along and I think it’s maybe a place where he’ll stay, make a home, and he did some good things today. You can’t move over in a week and learn how to play a position, we’re doing that for emergency reasons more than anything and it’s due to some injuries and stuff moving forward.”
Hayes’ opportunity is likely a day-by-day approach, while Whiley’s position change could be a long-term commitment to the position. In both cases, ASU’s health issues have forced the coaches to explore their options, and both players struck Graham as having the mindset to make an impact.
Tuesday’s practice offered other indications of emerging personnel, specifically at the running back position where the media had a chance to see freshman Jason Lewis take repetitions during the team tempo period with the second team offensive unit.
With Hayes and Ballage both injured for the New Mexico week, ASU elected not to burn Lewis’s redshirt and instead shifted Foster to his old position to provide depth behind sophomore running back Demario Richard.
On Tuesday, it appeared ASU is still considering Lewis as a potential option, as he garnered second-team reps that have typically belonged to sophomore running back Jacom Brimhall (Richard and Ballage rotate with the first team).
Lewis caught our attention with a punishing run between the tackles in which he bulldozed over redshirt sophomore Spur linebacker James Johnson, and ran free before the play was called dead.
“That’s definitely my style of running, physical, between the tackles if you have to and I like to lower my shoulder so that’s definitely my style of running,” Lewis said.
Lewis is a specimen, and at 6-foot-3 and 240 pounds, he stands out physically among a running back crew that includes the noticeably sculpted Ballage.
After starting fall camp late due to academic clearance issues, Lewis said he now has a full grasp of ASU’s playbook and thinks he has the physical tools to be able to contribute immediately.
“I think I’m ready, I don’t really think it’s too much for me,” Lewis said. “Especially because I’ve got fresh legs and everything so I definitely feel like I’m ready. There’s no doubt in my mind.”
The coaching staff hasn’t tipped its hand one way or another regarding using Lewis this season, but if the situation calls for it, he looks like he could give ASU another offensive option in a talented backfield.
“Just go with the flow, if they (ASU’s coaches) feel I’m ready, then they’ll play me, it’s all up to them,” Lewis said. “We’re just taking it day by day.”