Arizona state preparedness / potential grades: Spur / Bandit

ASU has at least eight or nine scholarship players who project to its Bandit and Spur positions, but only one is a proven commodity. That player, Laiu Moeakiola, has had injury problems for the last two years and into preseason camp.

1. Laiu Moeakiola (senior) -- A consummate teammate and warrior, Moeakiola has played injured for most of the last two seasons after separating his right shoulder in the backfield on a tackle attempt against at Colorado on Sept. 13, 2014. Since then, he's never been fully healthy but has continued to play at far less than 100 percent for his teammates. He referenced this in ASU's final summer conditioning workout before the start of preseason camp, saying he would go through it all again, including the two surgeries, for his team. Even this month though, Moeakiola has been on the shelf for most of camp with a hamstring injury. 

Moeakiola may be coming full circle as his career winds to a close. He played field and Bandit safety as a freshman before moving to Spur and is now likely returning to ASU's backline, but in a role that will see him still playing up closer to the line of scrimmage in some coverages. When healthy, he's at his best attacking plays moving forward, especially shedding or avoiding blockers and making tackles in space, or blitzing into the backfield. The shoulder injury has limited his ability to make plays with extended arms, which was always one of his strengths. 

Having to cover athletic wide receivers in the open field has always been the biggest challenge for Moeakiola's game from an athletic standpoint. He manages space well but has to give a wider berth to receivers than is ideal given his range not being that of a coverage safety. In two man coverages that's less of an issue into the boundary. But anything that puts Moeakiola into single high zone looks or forces him into man conflict situations will be a challenge.

At his best, this is an in the box safety who can be extremely disruptive when healthy and properly deployed. He is extremely prepared and knows the scheme like the back of his hand. He has great key read recognition and understands conceptually what opponents are trying to do to ASU to generate mismatches, and communicates as effectively as any player defensively in the Graham era. He's been a glue that has kept the defense together and when he's not been on the field, the Sun Devils have been undone. Preparedness: 3.5 / Potential: 4 

2. Marcus Ball (junior) -- A hybrid safety-linebacker type athlete who prefers to play safety but is athletically best suited to be a Spur, Ball is striving to become a starter in his fourth season in Tempe. He has flashed with some impressive play-making, most notably a terrific interception against Washington that capped a comeback win and seemed to hint at the potential for strong play as a starter. 

With Ball, the key word has always been potential. He looks the part physically and is a very smart and dedicated to his team. He has great intangibles. But he's never been able to stay healthy and on the field, and he's always had to make additional gains from an execution standpoint in order to become a starter. He has good movement skills and flexibility but could benefit from increased physicality making plays coming up, blitzing, and warding off blocks in the alley. 

Just when there'd started to be some continuity with Ball's health he showed up to practice days after Arizona State's Media Day in a walking boot. Within days of that, sophomore Tyler Whiley was getting first-team reps at Spur and doing very well in multiple practices including a scrimmage. Ball's going to have to fight to become a starter for the first time in his career as a junior. Preparedness: 2.5 / Potential: 3.5

3. Tyler Whiley (sophomore) -- After bouncing around between positions, Whiley may have found at home at Spur in the last week or so. He arrived at ASU out of Scottsdale Chaparral High as a highly regarded two-way player who projected to either wide receiver or defensive back. Whiley practiced at both wide receiver and cornerback in his first couple years as a Sun Devil but didn't get much traction at either position. 

As a cornerback, Whiley looked too heavy and not as mobile as necessary to play the position. He'd admitted to a weighing about 20 pounds more than his playing weight at Chaparral when he was playing the same positions. A thicker-bodied guy by nature, it was always going to be difficult for Whiley to not physically mature in a way that made playing cornerback a major challenge. 

But this year Whiley said he cut weight to get to 200-205 pounds and also shed an attitude that was holding him back. When ASU coaches decided to take a look at him as a Spur -- which is sort of a hybrid defensive back-linebacker -- it seemed to click. It's a position that doesn't require quite as much speed or range as cornerback, but needs physicalness. Whiley has responded well to the challenge per ASU coaches, including getting interceptions in several practices in recent days, including one that he took for a touchdown Saturday in a scrimmage. 

We've long believed that Whiley was going to have to transition to Bandit or Spur if he was going to remain on defense and be successful and ASU's decision to move him to Spur may be the thing that lets him reach his full potential as a player. He's going to have continue to develop quite a bit and show greater fluency of the scheme and a harder edge to playing against the run in the alley and as a blitzer. But he can fill the coverage role at Spur and has the ability to demonstrate the full skill-set over time. Preparedness: 2 / Potential: 3

4. James Johnson (junior) -- Throughout camp Johnson has been relegated to the sidelines as he's worn a heavy brace on his right knee. That's an additional limitation for a player who is already facing challenges with regard to his athletic range as a safety, the biggest limiting factor toward his overall prospects for seeing the field with the Sun Devils. 

Johnson is a tremendous teammate and person: hard working, dedicated, a student of the game and befitting of the term student-athlete. Those are the reasons he wore a Tillman jersey in practices for much of his sophomore year even though he's been a reserve player in the secondary for the Sun Devils. In fact, he's the only non-starter who has been given the honor during the Todd Graham era at ASU. 

Scheme fluency is a strength of Johnson. He sees the game through the eyes of a potential future coach, and that's an essential quality because he's limited from a coverage standpoint. As a result he has to make key reads quicker and be more mentally reactive to what's happening on the field in order to have the range to get where he needs to be. Johnson isn't one of the strongest or most physically imposing of safeties but he's extremely tough-minded and willing to use his complete capability to make plays. 

Playing in tighter quarters is the best way for Johnson to be successful. A lot of the issues are that he's not a good fit for the ASU style of play. In a more conservative defense he'd be able to play for effectively. He's a Spur first, a Bandit second, and particularly when ASU's utilizing more conservative zone coverages. That's not something the Sun Devils do a lot of, and so it's a contrast that's difficult to reconcile in a way that will likely lead to a lot of playing opportunity; especially when he's operating at far less than 100 percent, as it appears right now due to the knee injury. If he's put into a lot of man coverage situations or defensive looks in which he has to cover in wide swaths of open space, Johnson is going to be challenged. Preparedness: 2 / Potential: 3

5. Das Tautalatasi (sophomore) -- In the spring it looked as though Tautalatasi might emerge as a candidate to play at Spur because he has some style similarity to senior Laiu Moeakiola and he took a lot of second-team reps at the position. For a majority of camp though Tautalatasi has been in a green non-contact jersey and not a participant during portions of practice observed by reporters. 

A Bandit/Spur type player, Tautalatasi is hard-charging and physical making plays in run support and that's his strength. He can get a bit uncontrolled at times when attacking and not break down properly to make tackles, but he relishes opportunities to bring his shoulders down and make an impact through force. In that regard he's a bit like former ASU safety Jordan Simone. 

Even though he initially practiced at field safety upon arriving in Tempe out of football-famous De La Salle High in Concord, California, Tautalatasi is better suited to play into the boundary or tighter to the line of scrimmage as an in the box type safety. He's not in his best element when asked to check wide receivers in man coverage situations, but could play as a Cover 2 safety in more conservative schemes that are less athletically demand of its players at the position. 

As a Spur at ASU, which is much like a strong safety in the 4-2-5/3-3-5 looks, Tautalatasi appears reasonably well suited because of how he is willing to take on blocks and work to hold ground and destabilize run plays working to the wide side of the field. If he becomes consumed with being a student of the game, it's a role he could ultimately do reasonably well at. Preparedness 1.5 / Potential: 3

6. Chad Adams (junior) -- To this point in his ASU career we haven't seen Adams play nearly to his potential. He's undersized but in a non-football setting has pretty good movement skills and a willingness to make tackles with physicality. He's probably one of the faster players on the defense in a race. ASU coach Todd Graham has complimented Adams in the past for his athletic mobility. 

But these things haven't really translated to the football field in the last couple years, and for an undersized player, that's a major hurdle. Adams has tended to be slower-reacting to plays than average, and not quickly enough processed information on the fly. He's looked hesitant and as a result not been able to get to spots on the field where he would be able to make plays in an aggressive fashion. 

The biggest key for Adams moving forward is to continue to improve as a student of the game. It's primarily being able to absorb and process information and what it means in the broader context of ASU's scheme, and then turning that into action on the field without having to think about it. We just haven't seen much of that as yet but he's now progressing through his career and experience could be an asset. It's the film work that's going to allow Adams to play more reliable. Preparedness: 1.5 / Potential: 2.5

Incomplete Grades: Deion GuignardColtin Gerhart -- To start camp Gerhart was in green and we've seen almost none of him in any 11-on-11 or 7-on-7 situation at Spur, the position he's currently working at. There isn't enough for an evaluation. Guignard moved between a WLL and Spur role but as a new player, we've seen far too little of him to have enough to put a grade on his preparedness or potential at this time. Both players could potentially be backup options at Spur. Guignard could also redshirt. 

Preparedness/Potential Grade Key

5: All-American level performer

4: First/second team all-league level performer

3: Mid-level Pac-12 performer

2: Fringe Pac-12 performer

1: Non-Pac-12 level performer

Editor's note: Players are ranked in terms of overall current preparedness and not based on potential.

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