With guaranteed turnover at every position within a four-year timeframe, college football is similar to a relay race.
One player taps in as the next player taps out, signifying a changing of the guard that brings about uncertainty, potential and hope.
After back-to-back sub .500 seasons, Arizona State is hoping the players that tap into the starting lineup in 2017 are capable of making the Sun Devils more of a factor against Pac-12 South competition that has increasingly pulled away from the program over the last two years.
After racing out to a strong start in the Todd Graham era, the Sun Devils have slowed up over the past two seasons, as players responsible for handling the baton at quarterback, along the offensive line and in the secondary have failed to produce the same results as their predecessors.
This season, the Sun Devils are hoping the next crop of players to join the race are capable of making more of an impact and closing the gap between ASU and the conference elites.
This spring, ASU will have an opportunity to send its roster out for a few warmup laps with the hopes of determining the best possible lineup moving forward.
In preparation for ASU's spring practices, SunDevilSource has compiled our list of the 10 key players to watch in March and April, as these players have the potential to make or break the Sun Devils' 2017 season. This list is composed of players who are new to the program, coming back from injuries, taking on larger roles or vying for more playing time, and their ability to tap in successfully will determine how ASU fares in its next race.
Players to Watch
Blake Barnett: If ASU is going to take a step forward in 2017, the Sun Devils can start with improved quarterback play. Last season, injuries to Manny Wilkins, Brady White and Bryce Perkins thwarted the Sun Devils' offensive capabilities as ASU struggled through its worst offensive season in Todd Graham's tenure. While Wilkins, White, Perkins and sophomore Dillon Sterling-Cole all plan to compete for the Sun Devils' starting job in 2017, the offense could be at its best if Barnett seizes the starting job in convincing fashion. A former five-star prospect and Elite 11 MVP, Barnett has impressive tools, a quick release and enough mobility to help the Sun Devils open their playbook under new offensive coordinator Billy Napier. If Barnett clearly proves himself as the team's top option during spring practices and fall camp, the Sun Devils should be able to make marked offensive improvements considering he's surrounded with proven weapons like seniors Demario Richard and Kalen Ballage in the backfield and sophomore N'Keal Harry at wide receiver. Barnett likely has the highest ceiling of any quarterback on ASU's depth chart, and if he becomes comfortable this spring, the offense will be in a much more stable position heading into fall camp.
Ryan Newsome: A slightly built slot receiver, Newsome transferred into the program after the 2015 season and sat out the 2016 campaign due to NCAA transfer requirements. A former four-star recruit, Newsome initially signed with Texas out of high school before leaving the Longhorns' program and arriving in Tempe. The Aledo, Texas native boasted a long list of high-profile offers in high school that included Alabama, Florida State and Clemson, and has the potential to become one of the most dynamic offensive weapons on ASU's team. During his season on the sidelines, Newsome won the Sun Devils' Scout Team Offensive Player of the Year Award, and now, could be the front-runner to replace Tim White as ASU's starting slot receiver. This spring will mark Newsome's first opportunity to work with ASU's first-team offense, and how he performs could give a strong indication of how the Sun Devils plan to use him this fall.
Doug Subtyl: SunDevilSource's highest-rated prospect in ASU's 2016 and 2017 signing classes, Subtyl possesses rare pass-rushing skills that could make him the odds-on favorite to start at Devil backer from the outset of the season. After failing to qualify academically in 2016, Subtyl took the year off from football and signed with the Sun Devils again as a 2017 mid-year enrollee. A junior college transfer with two seasons of eligibility remaining, Subtyl has elite quick-twitch speed off the edge, outstanding flexibility, and a strong motor that gives him a higher ceiling than just about every player on ASU's roster. However, this spring is critical in Subtyl's development because it will be his first opportunity to step back on the football field in over a year, and it will give him a taste of how he fits into ASU's defensive scheme. Whether the Sun Devils elect to use Subtyl as a Devil backer or defensive end remains to be seen, but regardless, he'll need to embrace ASU's strength and conditioning program and use the spring practice slate to assimilate to the speed of the game at the FBS level if he wants to channel all of his raw ability and become an immediate impact contributor.
John Humphrey Jr.: Another transfer receiver to watch during ASU's spring practice slate, Humphrey joined the program last offseason after following former ASU wide receivers' coach Jay Norvell from Oklahoma. Like Newsome, Humphrey sat out during the 2016 season and earned rave reviews for his performance on the Sun Devils' scout offense, and this spring, he'll have the opportunity to jump into an intense battle for playing time as an outside receiver. With Harry locking up one starting spot, Humphrey will battle with returners Cameron Smith and Jalen Harvey, who both have starting experience, for playing time on the opposite side of the field. A former three-star recruit in high school, Humphrey also boasted an impressive offer list and turned down reported opportunities at Clemson, Notre Dame and Nebraska to sign with the Sooners. After earning Oklahoma's Scout Team Offensive Player of the Year Award in 2015, Humphrey transferred to ASU and will have his first opportunity to factor into the receiver competition this spring. With Smith and Harvey both have more experience than Humphrey, he has reportedly been clocked at a laser timed 4.34 seconds in the 40-yard dash and could be ASU's fastest option on the perimeter.
Christian Sam: After spraining his ankle in the first half of ASU's season-opening victory over Northern Arizona, Sam never returned to action in 2016, spending the rest of the season on the sidelines re-habilitating an injury that often takes far less time to heal. Sam is one of the Sun Devils' top pro prospects and a linebacker with the versatility to play Sam, Will and Spur, and his return could play a significant role in ASU's ability to rebound from a dismal defensive season. The Sun Devils aren't just hoping Sam returns at full strength, they'll need him to do so considering the team has less depth at inside linebacker than it does at virtually any other position group. This spring, Sam's ability to move laterally and plant his feet in the ground to change direction will be monitored closely, because if he has any hesitation returning from an injury that wiped out his 2016 season, it's unlikely he'll be able to regain the confidence needed to return as an every-down player for ASU. With multi-year starter Salamo Fiso departed from the program, ASU is counting on Sam to pick up the slack at linebacker, making his healthy return this spring a key storyline to follow.
Kalen Ballage: An imposing physical specimen, Ballage has the body type of a versatile pass-rusher or inside linebacker, but has made his home at running back for the Sun Devils. Though he's seemingly faster and better in the open field than Richard, Ballage has never overtaken Richard as the Sun Devils' primary back, instead serving as a complimentary piece within the Sun Devils' offense. During his career, Ballage has shown flashes of brilliance -- especially during an NCAA record-tying eight touchdown performance against Texas Tech in 2016 -- but he's struggled with consistency because he hasn't been a natural fit in ASU's offensive schemes. While Richard is better suited to run the inside zone plays tailored for a spread offense, Ballage is more of a pro-style back capable of excelling on power running plays and sweeps. After the 2016 season, Ballage considered declaring for the NFL Draft, but conversations with former offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey about his role in the Sun Devils' offense in 2017 helped convince him to return. Now, with Napier calling the shots, Ballage will have another opportunity to showcase his skill set this spring and perhaps convince ASU's coaching staff to make him a more integral part of the Sun Devils' offensive attack.
Cohl Cabral: After the Sun Devils failed to add an offensive tackle in their 2017 recruiting class, the success of ASU's offensive line could hinge on whether Cabral, a sophomore, is ready to take over for departed multi-year starter Evan Goodman at left tackle. When Cabral initially arrived on campus, the Sun Devils worked him at center. Eventually, though, ASU began training Cabral at tackle, and he backed up Goodman for the entirety of the 2016 season. Cabral earned playing time as a true freshman on ASU's field goal unit and as a key member of ASU's Sparky package, but the program may have been best served preserving his eligibility instead of using him in a handful of specific situations. Regardless, Cabral could be the most important lineman to monitor this spring because he's one of only a handful of players on the roster with the size, strength and speed to man the starting left tackle job. At 6-foot-5 and 286 pounds, Cabral is one of the most projectable lineman on the team and probably has the versatility to play any of the positions along the line, but with ASU's clear demonstrated need for tackles, the Sun Devils may start off the spring attempting to plug Cabral in at one of the most critical positions on offense.
Maurice Chandler: After ASU allowed more passing yards per game than any other team in the country for the second consecutive season, all eyes will be on the secondary this spring and how it adapts to new defensive coordinator Phil Bennett's scheme. With junior cornerback Kareem Orr likely holding down one of the Sun Devils' starting cornerback spots, ASU's ability to stop the pass and make the marked improvements it needs to in order to compete defensively could hinge on whether Chandler is capable of handling the other starting cornerback job. A key member of the No. 1 junior college recruiting class in the country in 2016, Chandler spent most of last spring battling injuries, which stunted his development and slowed his assimilation to the FBS level. Chandler's injury issues continued into fall camp and the early portion of ASU's schedule, and as a result, by the time he was ready to take the field, Chandler was often overwhelmed in coverage. Still, Chandler did demonstrate flashes of competency and has the change of direction skills needed to be an effective corner in the Pac-12. If Chandler can stay healthy during the spring practice slate, he could become the favorite to start opposite Orr. Chandler has the potential to be one of ASU's most improved players in 2017, and a breakout season from the junior college transfer could play a pivotal role in the Sun Devils' ability to turn around their secondary.
Koron Crump: ASU's best defender and perhaps its best overall player in 2016, Crump provided a dynamic edge-rushing presence that helped him become one of the most feared pass-rushers in the Pac-12. However, with a slight frame that was unable to hold up against the run versus some opponents, ASU wasn't able to use Crump on an every-down basis as a Devil backer irrespective of opponent, and instead relied on far less dynamic options at the position in run-first situations. Crump may not put on the weight necessary to become the Sun Devils' every-down Devil backer this offseason, but he might not need to. With the addition of Subtyl, ASU could have two of the top pass-rushers in the league at its disposal, and the Sun Devils could find more creative ways to put both players on the field together. If Subtyl pans out and lives up to his potential as a prospect, ASU's coaching staff will need to make the most of its opportunities this spring and figure out the best possible positions it can put Subtyl and Crump in to be successful. Keeping both players on the field on an every down basis in 2017 could become a huge advantage for ASU, but to do that, Crump will likely need to transition to the linebacker level. Late last season, Crump stepped in and played Will and did so reasonably well, and the Sun Devils could wind up relying on the Second Team All-Pac-12 performer to man that position again this season. Exploring various ways to deploy Crump is assuredly going to be a key focus of ASU's this spring, and his ability to transition back and forth between positions will help determine how effective the Sun Devils' defense can be up front.
Chase Lucas: A four-star defensive back recruit out of Chandler High, Lucas signed with ASU in 2016 and nearly broke into the secondary rotation as a true freshman. However, the Sun Devils elected to redshirt him and allow Lucas to add to his frame over the course of his first season in the program, and now, Lucas appears poised to take on an important role in the secondary. Lucas has the positional flexibility to line up at both cornerback and field safety, which gives ASU a variety of options to look at this spring. If the Sun Devils feel Lucas is able to handle the challenging coverage assignments at safety on a regular basis, ASU may look at moving incumbent starter, junior Armand Perry, over to Bandit safety or even Spur, where Perry is probably better suited to play. However, if the Sun Devils feel Chandler, sophomore Robbie Robinson or the program's new signees, four-star recruit Alex Perry and two-star prospect Langston Frederick, aren't able to handle the cornerback position opposite Orr, Lucas could find himself in a battle for a starting job at corner. Lucas has the speed and athleticism to play in the man coverage schemes ASU requires out of its cornerbacks and field safeties, and if he puts together a strong spring, the Sun Devils could look at making the redshirt freshman a full-time starter early on in the year.