ASU Football: Inexperienced offensive line taking shape

A young and inexperienced group on Arizona State's offensive line has the Sun Devils excited about the unit's potential.

Since his first day on the job, Arizona State head coach Todd Graham has had an unwavering commitment to setting high goals for his program. 

Graham wants the Sun Devils to compete for a Pac-12 Championship, a Rose Bowl trophy, and a National Championship on an annual basis, and entering his fifth season with ASU, those goals haven't changed.

Programs that have achieved the type of success the Sun Devils aspire to typically have two things in common: Great quarterback play, and great play along the offensive and defensive lines.

In 2016, ASU is holding a quarterback competition among three players who have never thrown a pass at the college level, and is replacing four starters along the offensive line. 

With inexperience at crucial positions, the Sun Devils' goals appear far-fetched, but offensive line coach Chris Thomsen said ASU wouldn't be the first team to overcome similar adversity.

“I told them the other day, Clemson replaced four starters last year," Thomsen said. "Their left tackle was the only returner, he got hurt in training camp, so they really replaced five starters. True freshman left tackle. So I mean, let’s go, let’s put the best five out there and let’s go.”

After plugging in a brand new offensive front, the Clemson Tigers challenged Alabama before falling short of the Crimson Tide in the College Football Playoff National Championship game in January. 

Though it's unlikely ASU's new starting quarterback will challenge for a Heisman trophy as the Tigers' Deshaun Watson did last year, Thomsen proved there's a blueprint the Sun Devils can follow.

ASU's offensive line knows it has its work cut out if it hopes to follow in the Tigers' footsteps, but so far, the Sun Devils have attacked offseason workouts and the first week of training camp with determination.

New offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey primarily ran a zone blocking scheme that required agility and speed from his offensive line at Southern Miss last season, and over the offseason, nearly every returning ASU lineman lost weight in an effort to become more athletic.

“We just wanted to be in shape, we just wanted to get in shape and really be consistent in every play," senior left tackle Evan Goodman said. "That was one of the problems last year was being consistent.”

Goodman is the lone returning starter along ASU's offensive line, and drew high praise from ASU strength coach Shawn Griswold for his leadership and work ethic in the weight room. 

Goodman's mission to improve physically rubbed off on fellow linemen like sophomore Quinn Bailey, who has spent most of the fall working with the first team offense at right tackle. 

Bailey has improved dramatically since arriving on campus, and Thomsen said the Gilbert, Arizona native devoted much of his offseason to improving his quickness.

“He’s (Bailey) improved a lot and he got down to about 300 pounds this summer, he was about 318 in the spring and I asked him to lean up and get a little quicker and he’s done that," Thomsen said. "Quinn plays his butt off and he’s going to be, he’s another one that just plays hard and just knows what he’s doing."

With Goodman and Bailey holding down the first team tackle positions during the portions of Monday's practice the media was allowed to view, sophomore Sam Jones and redshirt freshman Zach Robertson took first team reps at the team's offensive guard spots.

Jones is a near lock to start at left guard, and after Monday's practice, he was one of 12 Sun Devils honored by Griswold for his offseason training work as a member of the program's "Dirty Dozen."

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Jones was the only offensive lineman to nab a coveted spot in the "Dirty Dozen," which is an impressive feat considering the type of praise players like Goodman and Robertson have drawn from Thomsen and Griswold.

After blending with both the first and second team units at the start of fall camp, Robertson has spent most of the past few practices with the first team offense at right guard, despite feeling more comfortable as a tackle. 

Robertson said he arrived on campus weighing about 350 pounds last year, and during the season, his weight fluctuated between 330 and 340 pounds. Heading into this season, Robertson said he's down to about 320 pounds, with the ultimate goal of reaching a playing weight at 305 pounds.

Losing weight has proved difficult for the former four-star recruit, but Robertson said the motivation to excel in Lindsey's offense has helped inspire the offensive linemen.

“I think it’s helped us a lot, because a lot of us kind of tend to get carried away," Robertson said of zone blocking. "But us trimming down and losing weight has helped us a lot, we had a long drive today and we were all energized and in shape for it.”

Robertson played tackle in high school and may still prefer lining up on the edge, but he said the transition to guard has helped him become a more versatile offensive lineman.

If Robertson ends up earning the starting job at right guard, ASU will have one of its lengthiest linemen on the interior which should help the line keep its quarterback upright.

“My best attribute right now is in pass pro at guard," Robertson said. "I have long arms and once I get into a defender, it’s hard for them to get away. I try to use my upper body strength and my lower body strength as much as I can.”

Outside of Robertson, another redshirt freshman has earned the attention of the coaching staff. While his tools may still be raw at this point of his career, offensive tackle Steve Miller has the potential to break into the lineup this season.

Miller has bounced from position to position, but lately, he's pushed Bailey at right tackle. Thomsen said once Miller demonstrates more consistency and maturity, he won't hesitate to throw him into the fire because of the type of potential Miller possesses.

"Steve (Miller) is one of those guys, you know, we moved Steve out to tackle, and he’s adjusting to that, which is hard, you’d like to say coach let me settle into one spot, but it’s kind of like the NFL, you’ve got to go where they need you," Thomsen said. "I’ll tell you what, no one plays with more intensity than Steve Miller, holy cow. No one finishes like that guy.”

Three-way battle at center

Throughout much of the spring and at the start of fall camp, junior walk-on Tyler McClure took the majority of the first team reps at center. 

Over the past few practices, though, the Sun Devils have shuffled the offensive line and moved senior Stephon McCray from right guard to center to allow McCray and Robertson the opportunity to work with the first team.

After Monday's practice, Thomsen said he feels as if he has the right combination of players on the offensive line, but that a number of players including McClure and Miller are pushing for playing time.

Another player Thomsen and Graham have singled out lately is freshman Cohl Cabral, who worked with the second team offense during an 11-on-air tempo period. 

At 6-foot-5 and 285 pounds, Cabral is one of the most physically imposing freshmen on the Sun Devils' roster. While Cabral wasn't sure if he would compete for playing time during his first season at ASU, he's attempting to make the most of the opportunity afforded to him.

“I was told through recruiting (about playing as a freshman), but that’s what every recruit wants to hear," Cabral said. "So I was like, you know what, I’m just going to make it happen and if it happens it happens, and if it doesn’t, it doesn’t, but I’ll get an extra year for it. I was more than happy when they said you’ll be thrown into the mix, I was like, sweet, I’ll make the most of it.”

During an individual period on Monday morning, 12 offensive linemen worked on a footwork drill with Thomsen, while Cabral spent time off to the side of the drill with last year's starting center and new assistant coach Nick Kelly focusing on the footwork needed to play center.

The time Cabral spent one-on-one with Kelly is the type of interaction media rarely sees during practice, and suggests the Sun Devils are seriously considering using Cabral at center.

Physically, Cabral might have what it takes to contend for playing time in year one, but center is a position requiring intense mental preparation. Graham said the addition of Kelly to the staff will help all his offensive linemen, but specifically aid in the development of young centers like Cabral.

“Nick (Kelly) gives a different perspective because he’s played the position," Graham said. "Center is a lot like, as far as the communication and things like that, it’s much like the quarterback of the offensive line, so he has a great experience of being down in there. A very smart, a very bright guy and a guy that’s very well respected among our players so he brings a lot to the table.”

The competition for the starting role is a three-way battle at the moment, but Thomsen and Graham both mentioned the Sun Devils hope to have junior college transfer A.J. McCollum back at practice by the end of the week. Thomsen said McCollum has been hampered by a hamstring issue, but should be available soon.

Leading by example

With Goodman representing the lone returning starter on ASU's offensive line, the Sun Devils appear short on vocal leadership up front.

While other coaches may take issue with that and look for players to step up, the lack of vocal players doesn't bother Thomsen. In fact, Thomsen said he prefers when players lead themselves, because he doesn't want a player taking on a role they weren't necessarily meant to play.

"I'm not a big believer with vocal stuff because I think talk is just so cheap," Thomsen said. "Now, if you’re Ray Lewis and you’re gifted like that, and you can play at a super high level and be a guy that leads with great vocal energy too, a Jake Plummer, those kind of guys that can really ignite people, those are special players. Most of our guys right now just need to focus on what they’re doing.”

Though Thomsen doesn't prioritize vocal leadership, Goodman said he's enjoyed his seniority status and the chance to help guide some of his fellow linemen. 

While serving as a vocal leader may not come naturally to Goodman, he's watched the way offensive linemen at ASU have conducted themselves in the past and has learned from their experiences.

“I knew I had to wait my time," Goodman said. "We had other guys who really had that role so if they’d need me, I would do it, but now, I’m the main person that does it this year."

Goodman was vocal during an early portion of Monday's practice as ASU re-introduced the Oklahoma (W) tackling drill. ASU's offensive line struggled early in camp to compete with the physicality and speed of the Sun Devils' defensive front, but the offensive line more than held its own during Monday's drill.

Thomsen said his unit has no choice but to strap up and prepare for competition, because ASU's defensive line is armed with some of the team's most talented players.

"From JoJo (Wicker) to Ami (Latu) to Tashon (Smallwood), and the rest of those guys, there’s a lot of them I could name, but they’re bringing it," Thomsen said. "You're either going to take a whipping or you’re going to step up."

Thomsen cited the battles between Jones and Smallwood as some of the most intense during camp, as Smallwood's improvement has forced Jones to become a more technically sound blocker. 

ASU's offensive line struggled in practice sessions open to the media at Camp Tontozona, but players weren't suited up in full pads during those practices. Now that the offensive line has an even playing field, Thomsen said the group has a better chance of slowing ASU's defense down, and it's only going to make both units better.

“It’s a tremendous deal to go against those guys," Thomsen said. "Those guys are relentless, they don’t know the other gear. There’s another gear, but they don’t know what is, and that’s just making us better.”

News and Notes

  • Graham began his post-practice availability by expressing his condolences to the University of Arizona, head coach Rich Rodriguez and the Wildcats team after the passing of lineman Zach Hemmila
  • Junior Christian Sam was not wearing a green non-contact jersey today, but cornerback Maurice Chandler, linemen Tyson RisingMarshal Nathe and McCollum were all still in green.
  • Tim White took first team reps as a punter returner, and Texas transfer and wide receiver Ryan Newsome also took reps as a returner.
  • Manny Wilkins and Brady White worked with the first and second team offenses during the portion of practice opened to the media. The media did not see Bryce Perkins take reps with the first or second team.
  • Graham said wide receiver Cam Smith is still working to become 100 percent healthy. 

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