Tim Nelson/SunDevilSource.com

Position switches failing to pay dividends for ASU stars, depth options alike

Whether it be some of Arizona State's best athletes like Tim White or Kalen Ballage, or some of the Sun Devils' underperforming reserves, experimenting at different positions has yielded unsuccessful results for Todd Graham's players.

In a season defined by injuries, perhaps it was fitting that Arizona State freshman Kyle Williams enjoyed his most extensive playing time of the year in the Sun Devils' 54-35 loss to the Oregon Ducks on Saturday.

After all, sophomore field safety Armand Perry was held out of the game due to a turf toe injury, sophomore cornerback Kareem Orr was on the sidelines thanks to a knee injury, and other defensive backs like junior Marcus Ball and junior J'Marcus Rhodes were forced to play positions they had only learned recently.

Even though a freshman like Williams may not have known the ins and outs of ASU's playbook, the Sun Devils were out of options, and Williams was pressed into action.

The irony of Williams' outing? After spending the first eight weeks of the season practicing as a safety, Williams returned to the slot receiver role he learned during fall camp back in August to aid the Sun Devils' cause against the Ducks.

With senior wide receiver Tim White limited strictly to special teams roles against the Ducks, Williams traded in his defensive game plan for an offensive play sheet and nabbed three catches for 21 yards in ASU's loss.

Switching from offense to defense and then back to offense isn't an ideal strategy for augmenting a player's development, but when Williams entered the game against the Ducks on Saturday as a receiver, he joined a growing list of players head coach Todd Graham has attempted to pluck from his team's offensive ranks to fix a deteriorating defense.

The pattern goes something like this: Demonstrate valuable athleticism as an offensive player, receive a call to the defense in an effort to stabilize a team weakness, and then return to the offensive side of the ball having missed out on valuable practice repetitions.

The player Williams subbed in for, Tim White, knows the pattern all too well, as White auditioned at cornerback during spring practices this season. 

"We had always planned on looking at him (White) there," Graham said back in March. "That's something we talked about before the spring."

Junior running back Kalen Ballage? He too understands what it's like to switch positions. Last season, with ASU lacking a true Devil backer, Ballage tried out his pass-rushing capabilities before offensive duties came calling again.

Ballage followed in the footsteps of tight end De'Marieya Nelson, a 6-foot-3, 230-pound athlete who never quite fit into ASU's offensive scheme but did end up taking in-game reps at Devil backer during his career.

The list goes on for unproductive offense to defense experiments under Graham, and includes former players like running back turned defensive back Deantre Lewis and wide receiver turned cornerback Ronald Lewis. Soon enough, the list could include a third Lewis, as redshirt freshman running back Jason Lewis recently transitioned to the linebacking corps at ASU practices. 

A 6-foot-3, 235-pound athlete ranked as a four-star recruit out of high school, Lewis has yet to earn a snap on the offensive side of the ball in his career, but he does possess enticing physical tools. So enticing, in fact, that with ASU's linebacker depth thinned out due to injuries to Christian Sam and Salamo Fiso, Graham couldn't help himself and tabbed Lewis as the program's next project.

While Williams and Lewis are still early in their careers and have the requisite athleticism to make an impact at any number of positions, ASU's coaching staff might want to think twice about asking its best athletes to play out of place. 

In the program's fifth season under Graham, no fewer than 18 players have flipped from offense to defense or vice versa, and only one player became a starter post-transition. That outlier? Senior cornerback De'Chavon Hayes.

Recruiting failings have been no more pronounced than in the ASU secondary, which is the primary reason for Hayes' ascendence to the starting role. But even that can't really be considered a successful move for the team considering the Sun Devils' historically bad pass defense, which is on pace to yield more yardage than any Division I team in history. 

In many cases like those of White, Ballage and sophomore wide receiver Jalen Harvey, who enjoyed a stint as a Spur linebacker in 2014 bowl practices, ASU's coaches determined relatively quickly a player's original position was that player's best position.

But then there's the cases of players like sophomore wide receiver turned defensive back Tyler Whiley, senior wide receiver turned defensive back Eric Lauderdale or sophomore defensive lineman turned offensive guard Connor Humphreys, all of whom appear to be stuck in positional purgatory, unable to progress to the point of earning meaningful playing time. 

There's the story of failed offensive tackle Corey Smith, who has spent his junior season toiling among the ranks of ASU's defensive linemen.

There's the path of quarterback turned linebacker turned emergency quarterback Coltin Gerhart, who entered ASU as a two-sport athlete and is now resigned to running ASU's scout team offense.

And now, there could be the saga of Williams or Lewis, a pair of ASU's most impressive athletes the Sun Devils certainly need contributions from, but can't figure out where they want those contributions to take place. 

The rationale behind the position changes for both players is perfectly reasonable, but it's the track record Graham's players have with switching positions that is noteworthy. 

In Williams' case, ASU already liked transfers Ryan Newsome and John Humphrey Jr. as potential slot receiving options in 2017, and it was unlikely a former high school quarterback would be able to contribute immediately on offense. Furthermore, if Williams could have used 2016 as a redshirt season and learned the intricacies of ASU's ever-demanding field safety position, the Sun Devils may have been able to pencil a rangy athlete with a world of potential into a position it hasn't been able to fill properly since former All-Pac-12 safety Damarious Randall became a first round draft pick.

In Lewis' case, the redshirt freshman was fourth on the Sun Devils' running back depth chart, and with Ballage, junior running back Demario Richard and former linebacker turned running back Nick Ralston all coming back next year, it's unlikely Lewis could vault himself into a position for extended playing time at the position prior to 2018. Furthermore, with the Sun Devils' linebacker depth deteriorating and Lewis possessing a frame well-suited for the position, ASU has an opportunity to get another highly touted athlete on the field sooner rather than later.

While the intent behind the position changes is sound, the actual reality of these changes has so often been flawed.

Sure, ASU can point to players like Ralston and sophomore tight end JayJay Wilson, who both practiced at linebacker before finding a home on offense as successful examples of players who switched positions, but how do the Sun Devils define success? 

Too often, Graham and ASU's coaching staff have attempted to overcome recruiting failures by asking their most talented athletes like Ballage and White, and now Lewis and Williams, to shift positions because of a dire team need. 

On some occasions, ASU's coaches have used position changes as a way to try and coax production out of underperforming athletes like Whiley and Lauderdale, but even then, the decisions have rarely paid dividends. 

Ultimately, ASU's aggressive approach to finding players the best opportunities to succeed is not uncommon in the college ranks. However, the Sun Devils track record of asking players to switch positions has rarely yielded success, and at this point, it's uncertain whether these changes are even creating better opportunities.

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