For Ryan Newsome, the phrase "Ball is life," isn't just a metaphor, it's a reality.
Newsome grew up playing baseball before becoming one of the most highly sought-after football high school recruits in the state of Texas. After a stellar prep career in which he tied the national record with seven punt return touchdowns in a season, Newsome enrolled at Texas, choosing to continue his athletic pursuits with the Longhorns.
From an early age, sports have always played a defining role in Newsome's life. But after Newsome's freshman season in Austin, "Ball is life," turned into "Ball...and chain...is life."
After taking a redshirt year, Newsome announced his decision to transfer, opting to enroll at Arizona State, where he would have to sit out a full season before becoming eligible to take the field again.
Unable to help an ASU offense desperate for a spark plug, Newsome's season on the sidelines weighed on the Aledo, Texas, product. This March, though, Newsome will finally be freed from the ball and chain tethering him to the sidelines, finally earning the opportunity to work his way up the Sun Devils' depth chart.
“It’s like a weight lifted off my shoulders to be honest with you," Newsome said. "I think I’m a year and a half removed from playing football and it was pretty tough, honestly, man. Just throughout the season, not being able to play on Saturdays but I made it through. I feel like I’ve been locked in cell block 32 for awhile now, but I’m excited to be back out there.”
Though the meeting rooms and practice field Newsome grew accustomed to during his life in "cell block 32," won't change this spring, Newsome's quality of life certainly will.
For the first time in nearly two years, Newsome will step onto the practice field with a real opportunity to compete for a starting role, and he'll do so alongside another transfer with similar aspirations.
A few months before Newsome announced his decision to transfer to ASU, former Oklahoma wide receiver John Humphrey Jr. elected to leave the Sooners' program and bolt to the desert for a change of scenery.
Though Humphrey and Newsome played at rival Big 12 universities, both players developed relationships at their respective schools with former ASU wide receivers' coach Jay Norvell. Norvell recruited Humphrey to Oklahoma, and after leaving for Texas in January of 2015, became Newsome's position coach during his freshman season with the Longhorns.
When Norvell was hired to join ASU's staff prior to the 2016 campaign, Newsome and Humphrey vowed to follow him to Tempe, setting the stage for the next chapter of their college careers.
While Norvell has since departed and accepted the head coaching job at Nevada, Newsome and Humphrey are now eligible to suit up on game days, a moment Humphrey said he can't wait to take advantage of.
“I just want to thank God for keeping me patient and stuff like that, but this is a great feeling, the time is here, I just can’t wait to get to work," Humphrey said.
Preparing for the spotlight
While Newsome and Humphrey were forced to watch the 2016 version of the Sun Devils compete without their services, the pair played a significant role in preparing ASU's defense for action each week.
The wide receivers developed a reputation as playmakers on ASU's scout offense, earning praise throughout the regular season from head coach Todd Graham and various assistant coaches.
Though Newsome said it was challenging to devote so much time and effort to practicing knowing he wouldn't have the opportunity to play on Saturdays, he felt it was important to demonstrate a selfless, team-first attitude and owed it to his teammates to give them the best look possible on a weekly basis.
“I’ve always kind of just had that unselfish factor about myself," Newsome said. "I knew how important it was to contribute to myself, the team, do everything it takes to become a better player. Although I couldn’t play on Saturdays, just make the team better overall. Giving the defense a great look, coach Graham and coach Patterson, they wanted me to do whatever I could to make the team better, they wanted me to do this, this and this, and I did it everyday. I worked hard, not for myself, but for the team.”
At ASU's postseason banquet, Newsome was honored as the Sun Devils' Scout Team Offensive Player of the Year, an award he hopes serves as a symbol for the time he dedicated to putting the team before himself.
Word of the duo's scout team accomplishments reached new ASU wide receivers' coach Rob Likens this offseason, who has watched transfers eventually develop into key contributors after spending a season on the sidelines.
Likens said he understands and appreciates the praise Newsome and Humphrey have received for their attitude and character, and compared it to the way former Cal wide receiver Trevor Davis put the Bears' coaching staff on notice when he spent a season on the scout team after transferring from Hawaii.
"I’ve had several guys in my past, Trevor Davis that got drafted from Cal was just like that when he transferred over to us from Hawaii," Likens said. "You heard all of this excitement going on over at scout team and you look over and he’s making all of these plays and enjoying it and I heard it was exactly the same kind of deal with those two kids. It speaks a lot about their character.”
The chance to shine
After a 5-7 season in which ASU missed a bowl game for the first time in the Graham era, the Sun Devils are hoping a slew of changes and an increased level of competition will lead to an offensive revival in 2017.
After former offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey departed for Auburn to accept the same position on Gus Malzahn's staff in January, ASU hired former Alabama wide receivers' coach Billy Napier to run the Sun Devils' offense this season.
During his time with the Crimson Tide, Napier actively recruited Newsome, a four-star prospect who scored 25 touchdowns during his senior season and helped lead Aledo High to its second straight Texas state championship.
“He recruited me at Alabama, he offered me, came out to high school in Aledo, offered me there, I was one of two slots in the nation, it was me and Christian Kirk, so it was just an honor for him to come by," Newsome said. "Developed a pretty good relationship with him and he realized I wasn’t coming to Bama either, so after about two months, it discontinued, but it was just a blessing to have an offer from them.”
At 5-foot-9 and 180 pounds, Newsome projects as a slot receiver and will likely battle with fellow sophomore Kyle Williams for the right to replace departed senior Tim White in ASU's starting lineup.
Last season, White caught 56 passes and led the Sun Devils with 713 receiving yards while also serving as the the team's punt returner, averaging 12.7 yards per return.
At 5-foot-11 and 170 pounds, Humphrey projects as an outside receiver, but said he's comfortable playing in the slot as well.
With sophomore N'Keal Harry holding down one outside receiver position, Humphrey will likely compete with senior Cameron Smith and junior Jalen Harvey for the team's other starting role. Last season, Smith and Harvey shared time at the position, with Harvey earning the majority of the reps and snagging 21 receptions for 330 yards compared to the 12 catches for 192 yards Smith hauled in.
A former three-star recruit out of Clear Falls High in League City, Texas, Humphrey reported offers from Arkansas, Baylor, Cal, Clemson, Ole Miss, Notre Dame and Nebraska before committing to Oklahoma.
Like Smith, one of Humphrey's best assets is his speed, as he said he's recorded three 40-yard dash times of 4.26, with the most recent time coming nearly two years ago.
“I ran that spring of 2015 at University of Oklahoma, that was right before I came here," Humphrey said. "I ran it three times, 4.26.”
Though Humphrey doesn't possess the same pre-existing relationship Newsome had with Napier, the sophomore wideout is excited about his addition to ASU's staff, and said he's looking forward to having the opportunity to work with Napier this spring.
“First off, I love coach Napier, I love that he, I like the addition of him to the Sun Devil family and I’m just ready to work with him, ready to learn from him and see how the way he does things," Humphrey said. "I just can’t wait to work, I’m lost for words. I’ve been sitting out all year, now the time is here, '17 season, be on the lookout.”
Though Newsome and Humphrey still haven't seen a live game rep for the Sun Devils yet, the anticipation surrounding their debuts is building.
Active on social media, the duo wants to generate excitement surrounding the program and give ASU's fans the opportunity to look forward to brighter days after back-to-back sub .500 seasons.
“I’m looking forward to bringing a different attitude, a different vibe to this team," Humphrey said. "More confidence, more swagger to ourselves, I just, it’s so much, I can’t wait to play. I can’t wait to celebrate, to show the world what’s up.”
While not all players are comfortable with the spotlight that comes with the territory of playing football in the Pac-12, Newsome has embraced his role as an ambassador for the program with the fanbase and with ASU's recruits.
"I like to market myself and I also like to be able to cater to the fans," Newsome said. "They buy tickets to come see us play, I just feel like I’m doing my due diligence, giving back to them any way I can without people actually being here. Giving them something to look forward to, just trying to sell the program as much as I can and just to have somebody to be excited about heading into the season.”
Whether or not Newsome can build off of the hype he's generated off the field and live up to his potential at ASU remains to be seen, but for now, he's finally free to give it a shot, and that's what matters most to him.