While four true freshmen played for Arizona State Saturday night against Northern Arizona, only one made an immediate impact in his first collegiate game.
Winning the starting job over junior wide receiver Ellis Jefferson, ASU freshman wide receiver N'Keal Harry became just the ninth overall player --and fourth on offense -- in ASU history to start a season opener as a true freshman.
“Really good,” ASU head coach Todd Graham said regarding Harry's performance. “Especially good considering he barely knows what he’s doing because he’s learning. I look at the explosiveness and his mental maturity, he’s staying grounded staying humble.”
Starting at the ‘X’ position, the 6-foot-4, 220-pound player was the second ASU freshman to score a touchdown in his debut. The first was former ASU player D.J. Foster.
“I was really proud of myself (for starting) because that was something I was working for the whole summer and especially getting that within the last two weeks it was really good to me,” Harry said.
Harry scored the first touchdown of his career off a 34-yard touchdown rush in the fourth quarter with 10:51 remaining in the game to give the Sun Devils a comfortable 26-6 advantage. He was the second-leading receiver on the team with four receptions for 31 yards.
“It was crazy,” Harry said. “Seeing the whole wave of fans and everything, it was really an unforgettable moment, but at the end of the day I got to keep my focus and make sure I stay on track.”
Hailing out of Chandler High as the highest-rated high school signee in ASU’s 2016 class, Harry said the nerves kicked in at first, but once the game got going, it felt like a typical game.
Harry said ASU wide receivers coach Jay Norvell was focused on making sure Harry knew his assignments and exactly where to line up.
In addition to Harry, three other freshmen played in their first collegiate game: cornerback Robbie Robinson, defensive back Kyle Williams, and long snapper Cohl Cabral. And on Tuesday, Graham said another true freshman could see playing time this season.
“Robbie Robinson is a guy that has exceeded my expectations at this point,” Graham said. “I think (defensive back) Chase Lucus is a guy that is going to play before the season is out. He’s getting better every day. A guy that can help us.”
Playing as the first-team nickel, Robinson only played six snaps on Saturday night and recorded one tackle. However, moving forward, Robinson looks to be a key piece in the Sun Devils defensive game plan with Texas Tech’s Air Raid offense coming to Tempe on Saturday.
“Nickel is the hardest position on the defensive back group just because the receiver always has a two-way go you’re checking way more fast and craftier receivers on the inside and you have to be real sharp with your technique” Robinson said. “Patient, real technical because you don’t have the sideline help and I mean you have the benefit of a safety over the top or a lot of commotion over the middle but I mean you always have the two-way go and that’s always hard to check.”
At 5-foot-8, 172-pounds, Robinson is one of the quickest players on the teams, but long-term, his biggest limiting factor is his height. Robinson said he did play nickel in high school and has speed to close down in the short field and make plays, but will just need more time and reps to fully be immersed in ASU’s defensive philosophy.
“Loved the atmosphere, loved the game speed,” Robinson said. “Just playing college football it was a fun time playing with my brothers. We went through a long physical camp and was good to come out and play and hit somebody else for the first time.”
Joining Robinson as the other true freshmen to play on defense was Williams.
“Kyle Williams is going to play,” Graham said. “Four years from now I’ll wish I redshirted every one of those guys (Robinson, Lucas, Williams), but I really think they’ll end up playing in conference.”
The 5-foot-10, 178-pound player came to ASU as a wide receiver out of Murrieta HS (Calif.), but in the two weeks prior to ASU’s game against NAU, Williams started to practice with the defense.
“It was like [Graham said] ‘I want to try you at defensive back’ and I was like, ‘Well it won’t hurt to try,’ so it is just a work in progress,” Williams said.
Williams said he played defense “a tad bit” in high school, but he did say he was recruited as an athlete so he “expected it” coming into the season.
The Sun Devils' secondary is one of the question marks on the team and Graham is known for moving players from offense to defense when he senses a potential weak spot in a position group.
This was the case with former ASU player De’Marieya Nelson who was a primarily a tight end, but also played Devil backer in 2014. Junior running back Kalen Ballage also got looks at playing Devil backer last season and senior cornerback De’Chavon Hayes came into ASU as a running back before Graham moved him over to play predominantly on defense this year.
On Saturday, Williams played on kickoffs and was on the field at field safety with the second team defense.
“It was definitely exciting to be out there and be at war with your brothers and just the first time on a college field and it’s weird playing with grown men and you are 17, so it’s just a really humbling experience,” Williams said.
Cabral's redshirt was burned on Saturday as well, as he took over long snapping duties for injured snapper Mitchell Fraboni during field goals and PATs. Walk-on long snapper Riley John handled long snapping during punts.