Arizona State’s offensive line isn’t new to change, it’s just new to having so much of it.
Last season, the Sun Devils replaced both of their starting tackles -- Jamil Douglas and Tyler Sulka -- with then-junior tackle Evan Goodman and then-senior Billy McGehee.
Initially, expectations were still high for an ASU team that brought back most of its offensive and defensive starters, but inserting two new offensive tackles proved to be a issue right out of the gates in ASU’s season opener against Texas A&M.
At the AdvoCare Texas Kickoff, both Goodman and McGehee were exposed and struggled against one of the top duo pass rushers in the country, Aggies’ Myles Garrett and Daeshon Hall.
With his offensive line giving up nine sacks and five quarterback hurries, former ASU quarterback Mike Bercovici was constantly under pressure and struggled in a 38-17 loss that was the start of ASU’s 6-7 2015 season.
And while the questions about ASU’s offensive line lingered throughout 2015, there’s even more uncertainty as the start of the 2016 season inches closer.
The Sun Devils lost four offensive line starters to graduation and now ASU head coach Todd Graham and position coach Chris Thomsen must replace starting guard Vi Teofilo, guard Christian Westerman, tackle Billy McGehee, and center Nick Kelly.
Goodman remains the lone offensive line starter from the 2015 season.
The players getting looks alongside him with the first team are sophomore Sam Jones, junior Tyler McClure, senior Stephon McCray and sophomore Quinn Bailey with redshirt freshman Zach Robertson getting in the mix as well.
“We have a lot of work to do,” Graham said. “There’s a lot of experience that you just can’t all of a sudden have. But, I like the athleticism and I think those guys are developing well.”
In addition to losing four offensive linemen, ASU also has to figure out who its new quarterback will be out of sophomore Manny Wilkins, redshirt freshmen Brady White or Bryce Perkins or true freshman Dillon Sterling-Cole, who isn't yet on campus.
With four new starters on the offensive front and a new young quarterback taking over the team, the key for ASU is to identify how the offense will most effectively deal with its youth and inexperience.
Having to deal with a young quarterback in and of itself is already a challenge for a new offensive coordinator and with the added element of replacing four offensive starters, it’s uncertain how the offense will come together.
However, with new ASU offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey’s “Air Raid” background, the Sun Devils will likely rely more on quick passes in an effort to take pressure off its inexperienced quarterback and offensive line. Quarterbacks will often have less to process on a given play and get the ball out of their hand more rapidly on slants and swing passes. Offensive linemen won't have to sustain blocks as long.
Under Lindsey’s influence, this strategic approach was on display in ASU’s 43-42 Cactus Bowl loss to West Virginia last December. After yielded 39 sacks in the team's first 12 games, Bercovici wasn't sacked once by the Mountaineers. In an off-season conversation with reporters last month, Graham expressed regret at not utilizing more quick game throughout the season in an effort to lessen the offense's weaknesses and play to Bercovici's strengths.
“The key was, we didn't take a sack and we didn't turn the ball over in the bowl game,” Lindsey said in late February. “That was huge. He (Bercovici) knew where to go with the ball, he was smart. You're going to get sacked some, of course. But we don't want a bunch of them and we don't want negative plays."
Additionally, the time spent in between plays has hastened, in part due to wide receivers no longer having to run across the formation based on spotting of the football, as was done in the past. They now stay on the same side, regardless of whether it's on the boundary or field (wide) side.
Jones said the offensive line has been enjoying the no huddle style of offense Lindsey has brought to Tempe and while it is an adjustment period for the group, the players are picking things up quickly.
“That (running a faster offense) was kind of the goal of the prior offense that we had and I think this offense (under Lindsey) kind of streamlines it and makes it actually easier for everybody to get set and get moving,” Jones said. “Obviously there is a lot of overlap so it isn’t a lot of learning period or anything.”
Along with Lindsey, ASU offensive line coach Chris Thomsen signaled out negative plays and turnovers as two key components for the season.
“The biggest disappointment (last season), we just didn't protect the ball like we had in the past,” Thomsen said. “There were times when we didn't do right up front that caused a turnover, or whatever. You don't put that just on the ball handlers, some of that was snaps. One of the biggest turnovers of the year was on the goal line against USC.”
To acceleration the offense's acclimation process, Graham's kept things pretty straightforward on defense. There's been very few blitz periods through five practices, but on Wednesday they did do more pressure-oriented looks and the result, predictably, was more turnovers.
“The offense needs a little bit of that,” Graham said. “The other thing is we have a young offensive line so we know we can do all that, but we want to really lay down a good foundation fundamentally, help that secondary out as far as be simple, help the offensive line out by being simple.”
Benefitting from this simplicity and learning environment in spring ball is Robertson.
Robertson got left guard reps with the first team during the team period media were able to view on Wednesday and Robertson said he clearly sees an improvement in his game as well as his teammates from last fall to spring.
“He (Thomsen) talks about being versatile and all that stuff so playing guard and tackle is something that I know is going to happen so I know I’m open to everything and I just got to adjust as fast as I can,” Robertson said.
Physicality has been a huge emphasis for the offensive line group this spring as well and Robertson said he’s been “shining” in the drills so far. Robertson arrived at ASU last summer in the neighborhood of 350 pounds and said from the end of last season to now, he lost 15 pounds and weights 325. His goal is to weigh 315 by the start of the season.
“For me it (spring ball) is about finishing plays and finishing blocks and making sure I finish and dominate the position and I finish people off and sprint off the field as hard as I can to get in shape,” Robertson said.
Helping Robertson continue to excel is Goodman. Robertson currently acts as Goodman’s backup at left tackle and with Goodman being the only returning starter, he views himself as a leader in the group.
Goodman said despite the turnover on the starting offensive line, he doesn’t see much change in terms of actual players in the group.
“Doesn’t really feel that much different,” Goodman said. “Sam Jones played some last year and Stephon McCray been here since I’ve been here so it doesn’t really feel much different. Tyler McClure been here for about three years so he’s fairly veteran.”
Graham praised McClure, a walk-on and local product out of nearby Chandler High School on Wednesday, but also said the team has McCray working more with the first team at center and he likes the bigger lineup of Goodman, Jones, McCray, Robertson and Bailey across the line.
"We're probably bigger than we've been in some spots, especially with the younger guys,” Thomsen said. “Are we stronger? You're not going to find stronger than Christian and Vi. Those are two of the strongest guys I've coached and have ever coached. As great as Vi, the things he's done for us over three years, Stephon is a guy who is a lot longer at that position. So every guy is different, every year is a bit different. Zach Robertson is one of the bigger, longer guys we've had here. You want to get those types of guys to develop. Quinn Bailey is long, Sam Jones is the same height and similar dimension to Christian. He's not as strong yet, but that will come along in time."
In addition to the returners, a couple newcomers in the mix on the offensive line are junior college transfer Tyson Rising from Ventura College in Ventura, California, and junior college transfer A.J. McCollum from City College of San Francisco.
Rising, 6-foot-5, 275 pounds, is the No. 7 offensive tackle prospect in Scout100 and the No. 68 junior college player overall. McCollum is the No. 96 recruit in the JUCO Scout 100, the 6-foot-2, 285-pound McCollum was the starting center for a 12-1 CCSF team that won a state championship back in February.
Rising is an early enrollee and is at ASU for spring ball. McCollum will join the Sun Devils in the fall.
Other options ASU has on the offensive line are 6-foot-4, 281-pound freshman Cade Cote, 6-foot-3, 290-pound sophomore Connor Humphreys, and 6-foot-5, 310-pound redshirt freshman Steve Miller. All three have been working with the second team.
-- Graham told reporters after Wednesday’s practice that redshirt junior linebacker Chans Cox might have suffered a season threatening injury (Achilles).
-- Redshirt sophomore defensive lineman Emanuel Dayries, junior linebacker Christian Sam, senior linebacker Laiu Moeakiola and freshman offensive lineman Marshal Nate were all in green non-contact jerseys and working on Muscle Beach.
-- New additions in green are sophomore linebacker Khaylan Thomas who was using a crutch and a brace on his left knee, sophomore defensive back Dasmond Tautalatasi, redshirt senior defensive lineman Edmond Boating, senior tight end Kody Kohl, and redshirt freshman tight end J.D. Alexander.