Jones, McCray expected back for Friday

Arizona State's injury issues have been one of the Sun Devils' greatest challenges this season as injuries have limited the team's ability to practice and find consistency with its lineups.

Pick an adage or a phrase that relates to practice.

Maybe you'll select, "Practice makes perfect." 

Or you could choose, "You play how you practice."

Might you like, "Practice makes the master."

Now that you have your phrase in mind, forget it. That's what Arizona State has had to do this season.

In football more than any other team sport, practice comes first. With just one game per week, programs build game plans and prepare specifically for their opponents on a daily basis, all in hopes of culminating each week with a victory.

This season however, ASU has been forced to change its approach to practice. With more than one-third of the team's 85 scholarship players missing at least one game this season due to injury, the Sun Devils have been limited in practices throughout the season.

"That's really what hurts you, not practicing is what absolutely kills you," ASU head coach Todd Graham said. "Because then you get in the games and well, golly, we could have executed that or we could have executed this, you cannot play this game efficiently and not practice, and not practice hard, and practice fast. So that makes it difficult. But there's not a team that doesn't have challenges like that, some more than others."

So often, a quarterback becomes the face of a program, and it's only fitting that in a season marred by injuries, sophomore starter Manny Wilkins is the Sun Devils' signal-caller.

After suffering a sprained ankle against USC on Oct. 1, Wilkins has yet to practice in full for an entire week, as ankle, shoulder and toe injuries have limited Wilkins' effectiveness during the latter half of the season. 

"He (Wilkins) did this week, but we obviously didn't have contact, either," Graham said. "He has not had contact practice at all as far as anything for awhile and most of those weeks, he only practiced, kind of walked through a little bit on Thursdays most of the weeks. So that's hard to do, but on the same hand, that's part of football."

Wilkins wasn't officially named ASU's starter for the 2016 until the days leading up to the Sun Devils' season-opener against Northern Arizona, which means in his first season under center, Wilkins had the opportunity to practice in full with the first team offense for less than six weeks. 

Even though Wilkins didn't practice much, ASU still decided to start Wilkins when he was less than 100 percent against Colorado and Washington State, which meant the offense the Sun Devils trotted onto the field during games had a very limited opportunity to prepare as a unit during the week.

Wilkins isn't the only ASU starter who has been limited in practice and played through injuries during games. Junior running back Demario Richard, senior wide receiver Tim White and sophomore safety Armand Perry are three of the Sun Devils' most important players, and all three have been banged up at various points during the regular season.

With so many players limited in practice due to injury, Graham and his coaching staff could have held certain players out of games in favor of allowing backups who practiced in their place to start, but ASU has struggled to find the right balance.

On Wednesday, Graham said the last time he felt the Sun Devils were close to full health was the final week of September, when ASU was 4-0 and preparing to take on USC on the road. Even then, though, players like junior wide receiver Cameron Smith were limited, and junior linebacker Christian Sam was unavailable.

"Cam's (Smith) been hurt all year, he really has, he hasn't been healthy all year," Graham said. "Christian (Sam) got hurt week one, but that was just one or two, having everybody you'd have to go back to week one NAU. But as far as having multiple, when you go out there and there's been multiple, it's been ever since USC. The second quarter, last two minutes of the USC game was not good."

One of the main position groups ravaged by injury this season is ASU's young offensive line, which has lost sophomore left guard Sam Jones, senior right guard Stephon McCray and redshirt freshman right tackle Zach Robertson to injuries at various points during the season. Neither Jones or McCray was available for the Sun Devils last Saturday against Washington, while Robertson suffered an ankle injury against the Huskies that left him on crutches and in a walking boot at practice this week. 

Jones was injured on the final play of ASU's 40-16 loss against Colorado, while McCray was injured on the first play of the Sun Devils' 54-35 loss against Oregon. On Wednesday, Graham said he hoped to have both of his offensive guards back this week for the team's regular season finale against Arizona, but that he would know more about their availability later in the day.

"Expect Sam Jones to be back, he's practiced I think the last couple of days," Graham said. "Stephon (McCray) we're expecting him to be back. Now again, I don't know how they practiced today, I'll know more, but we're expecting the two of those offensive linemen to be back. Zach (Robertson) won't be back."

In total, 19 scholarship players did not dress for the Sun Devils in their 44-18 loss against Washington, and others like Robertson, senior cornerback De'Chavon Hayes and wide receiver Frederick Gammage went down during the game with injuries. While Graham is hopeful Hayes and Gammage will be able to go on Friday for ASU, the Sun Devils' practice plans were once again altered as a short week coupled with all of the team's lingering injuries kept the team out of pads for Wednesday's session. 

"Gump (Hayes) I expect, Gammage is questionable," Graham said. "Cam is out, all the guys that you know are out like Christian Sam, Armand is, we expect him to play, but he's been dealing with the same thing for awhile, Marcus Ball expect him to play."


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