Arizona State football is back.
Monday marked the first of 15 spring practices for the Sun Devils and after the session, ASU head coach Todd Graham said he was pleased with his team’s attitude and mentality headed into the spring. It's the first and most essential quality the Sun Devils will need to have to turn the page from a disappointing 6-7 2015 season.
“I like our guys’ approach and it was very smooth today,” Graham said. “Everybody knew what they were doing, where they were going, and it was nice to be there. I think (offensive coordinator Chip) Lindsey and (defensive coordinator Keith) Patterson did a great job with the new guys getting them to understand how we do things, but I just felt like everything fit today so I thought it was a very good first practice.”
And despite ASU hiring four new coaches since they last practiced -- wide receivers coach Jay Norvell, defensive backs coach T.J. Rushing, defensive line coach Joe Seumalo, and running backs coach John Simon -- the handful of new faces on the teaching front didn’t seem to be a problem.
“I like the energy,” Graham said. “I’m approaching it almost like there’s a newness. When there’s newness it creates an energy, a synergy. Especially when the new people are the guys like Jay Norvell, coach Seumalo, TJ Rushing, coach Simon, and coach Lindsey obviously, but I don’t feel like he’s new because he been with us for the bowl game.”
Graham said he was impressed with the positive energy and passion from Norvell and Simon in particular on offense and thinks on the defensive side Seumalo has done a good job getting the players to respond to him and respect him thus far.
“I’ll tell you this, we’ve laid a great foundation and I feel like we’ve taken a step forward because we’ve gotten better in a lot of areas because of the guys we got teaching,” Graham said.
In addition to the five new coaches for the 2016-17 season -- six including a position group change for tight ends coach DelVaughn Alexander who was formerly ASU’s wide receivers coach for the past four years -- there were seven early enrollees taking part in Monday’s session.
Junior college defensive lineman transfer Koron Crump, junior college defensive back transfer Maurice Chandler, junior college defensive back transfer J'Marcus Rhodes, junior college offensive lineman transfer Tyson Rising, junior college defensive end transfer Christian Hill, freshman offensive lineman Marshal Nathe and freshman tight end Jared Bubak all were participating in some capacity, but Chandler was the only newcomer to take reps with the first team in the defensive install the media was allowed to watch.
With the newcomers still learning the ropes, Graham acknowledged the play of some of the veterans on defense who were taking a leadership role and performing well.
“I was very, very impressed with (sophomore defensive back) Kareem Orr today,” Graham said. “Very, very impressed with the veterans. (Redshirt sophomore defensive back) Armand Perry, (senior De’Chavon) “Gump” (Hayes) looked really good at corner obviously he’s very fast and can help us there.”
As the veterans, newcomers, and coaches become more and more assimilated with each other, Graham said the goal of the spring is the “re-establish and establish” ASU’s identity as a team.
“The biggest thing we want to come out of spring is establish who we are, our identity, and make sure everybody coming in that’s new understands that moving forward and how we go about operating,” Graham said. “Because if there’s a definitive plan to be successful, the team that is going to win the Pac-12 is going to be the most disciplined, the physically toughest, the one that can control the line of scrimmage, and obviously is going to be the one who is most efficient.”
Losing former starting ASU quarterback Mike Bercovici to graduation, ASU will have the challenge of finding his replacement this spring and into the coming fall.
Sophomore Manny Wilkins and redshirt freshmen Brady White and Bryce Perkins are all vying for the spot this spring – with freshman Dillon Sterling-Cole coming to ASU in the fall for his chance to earn the starting role.
On Monday, Lindsey said Wilkins, White, and Perkins all got the same number of reps and switched off working with the first team offense.
“We just rotate the guys and each time we go to a team period the next guy goes and they just move in order and to be honest with you, once we set it they just move themselves,” Lindsey said.
Wilkins said he believes each of the quarterbacks, including himself, are even at this point and every person has an equal opportunity to claim the starting role.
As for learning the offense under Lindsey, Wilkins says it’s essentially the same as how he learned it under former ASU offensive coordinator Mike Norvell.
“Everything is going really the same,” Wilkins said. “The offense is the same it’s just different people, different coaches. It’s high-energy, guys are flying around. We’re really trying to elevate our game to the next level and I think that’s your goal every spring is to prove that you can go out there and execute your offense and move the football down the field.”
White says he feels “very comfortable” with Lindsey heading the offense and Perkins said being able to work with Lindsey during the bowl practices “helped tremendously” from a communication and relationship-building standpoint.
“I think he (Lindsey) a great teacher,” White said. “He gets players to respond to him very well on the field and off the field as well. A lot of people look up to him and respect him.”
With the quarterback battle poised to continue into the fall, and maybe all the way up to the first game of the season, Perkins said the main thing for him is to take it one day at a time.
“Never get too hot, never get too low,” Perkins said. “Kind of stay medium. The mistakes you erase them and go to the next play. Next play mentality. That’s what coaches teach us.”
Lindsey said the two biggest things that will determine who comes out on top is ball security and leadership.
“Who takes the leadership role with the offense,” Lindsey said. “Who gets them lined up faster, gets the ball snapped, who can obviously take care of the ball is the No. 1 thing. Who our team responds to, that’s going to be something that is going to take some time I think. I don’t think it’s something that is going to show up on Day 1 in helmets, but I thought all three did a good job today.
“We got three great kids. They are all competing and they are all excited with their opportunity and it’s going to be awhile, but it’s going to be fun to watch it play out.”
Fourth year junior Corey Smith was working at offensive tackle for the first time today as opposed to the defensive line, where he's worked since he arrived at ASU. Graham said Smith will switch between offense and defense as ASU looks to find his best position to help the team.
Junior linebacker Christian Sam had hip surgery after the season ended and was in a green non-contact jersey and appeared to be moving relatively well, but was held out of the defensive install.
Senior linebacker Laiu Moeakiola had shoulder surgery in the off-season and didn’t participate in defensive install. Junior Marcus Ball took his place at first-team Spur during the install and redshirt freshman Malik Lawal moved to Spur from the inside linebacker position he was at last season to work with the second-team.
Nathe was in a green non-contact jersey as he recovers from his ACL surgery.
Newcomer Maurice Chandler was with the first-team at cornerback during the defensive install period. He was the only newcomer who worked with the first-team on either side of the football.
Senior De'Chavon Hayes was with the first-team at the other cornerback position. He worked ahead of newcomer J'Marcus Rhodes and the other second-team corner was Tyler Whiley. Graham said after practice that Hayes would be working as both a running back and a cornerback this spring.
Junior wide receiver Cameron Smith was back practicing at full speed after getting knee surgery last spring and was forced to sit out the entire 2015-16 season. Lindsey said Smith “looked really good on the field today” and “worked really hard in rehab to get back.”
Redshirt freshman Dillon Faamatau practiced at defensive tackle Monday and will alternate between defense and offensive guard as ASU looks to identify his best position moving forward, Graham said.