Sights and sounds from Arizona State's first spring practice

Arizona State's five new assistant coaches had their first opportunity to work with the Sun Devils' players in a practice setting as the program's spring practice slate began Tuesday.

-- Arizona State coach Todd Graham has made some pretty obvious changes to spring practices, even including how he arrives and leaves practices. Graham always used to ride to and from practice on a neighborhood electric vehicle driven by Senior Associate AD for Football Tim Cassidy. Yesterday he arrived on foot and then jogged the half-mile back from the Kajikawa Practice Facility to the Carson Center, which is where post-practice interviews are conducted. More importantly, the practices themselves have been cut from 22 five minute periods to 11 periods of various length. Per Graham, part of the reason is player perception. "Some of that is blending a bit with [other coaches]. Coach Slocum helps me a lot with practice plays and things like that. It's one of those things we have changed up to have a change....We just thought that, if you look up at the board and have 22 periods as opposed to 11, it sounds better (with 11), same time though."

-- This year the Sun Devils have five of the full-fledged coaches working on defense and only four on offense. Newcomer Michael Slater is coaching the defensive line with returners Keith Patterson (inside linebackers), Shawn Slocum (Devil backers, now known as the Buck linebacker) and T.J. Rushing (secondary) still coaching the same positions. But now there's also new defensive coordinator Phil Bennett, who on Tuesday coached defensive backs with Rushing. That's where Bennett has spent a lot of time in his career, and also where Graham has as well. In the past, Graham often worked with cornerbacks in skill work on technique, but that wasn't the case in the first spring practice. With five defensive coaches, Graham spent more time on offense, including monitoring the tight end position, which is being partly coached by new graduate assistant Brandon Blackmon. A former defensive back, it doesn't appear that Blackmon has a background coaching tight ends. 

-- ASU's defense has given up more big plays than any of the 127 other Division I football teams nationally over the last two years. Being able to stop that begins with proper technique, and more specifically, knowing how to backpedal and transition out of it. Bennett spent a lot of a long 20-plus minute skill period simply putting his defensive backs through one pedal after another, concluding with an opening of the hips in order to run with receivers once their route has been declared. This was something cornerbacks and safeties all did together, as Bennett's defenses at Baylor played a lot of man coverage so safeties needed to have interchangeable skill sets. 

-- Senior Grant Martinez is no longer on the roster but is still out there at practice as a student coach. It's a role similar to what we saw from defensive end Chans Cox after he retired following an Achilles' Heel tear. Martinez has been bothered by a screw in his foot that was put in place following surgery for a broken bone several years ago and never really allowed him to fully recover. With the tight end position not having a full fledged assistant, the group blended with offensive linemen on blocking drills Tuesday, and is getting somewhat of an all hands on deck approach that includes Blackmon, Martinez, and even Graham himself. 

-- Offensive linemen often have to simulate the defensive player in skill segments of practice so that the players get a quality look at what they'll see across from them in a rep. For new offensive line coach Rob Sale, simply being in the right position -- let's say, a lineman who is representing a three-technique defensive tackle -- is so basic that there's no excuse for not understanding and executing it in rote fashion. He wants his players to be well beyond that mentally so they see the connectivity of everything that goes into being a full functioning player. "There's a thought process behind everything," Sale told his players. "I'm trying to help you be successful. I can get anybody to line up right."

-- In breakout sessions, only two players worked at the Devil (Buck) position with Slocum, and both are seniors: Koron Crump and Alani Latu. ASU had highly anticipated newcomer Doug Subtyl working at defensive end, where he lined up with the second-team behind junior Joseph Wicker. Crump, looking noticeably more muscular at a listed 222 pounds, and Latu, 252 pounds, will be joined in the fall by at least two freshmen, Tyler Johnson and Kyle Soelle, both locals. Subtyl could also potentially work at the position in subsequent practices. 

-- New defensive line coach Michael Slater is the third position coach in three years ASU players have had as a unit. In 2015, Jackie Shipp was known for his simmering intensity and drill sergeant approach. There was a dramatic contrast from Shipp to Joe Seumalo, who was one of the more relaxed coaches we've seen in Tempe in recent years. Seumalo had clear preferences with how he wanted certain things done, but conveyed it in a very gentle way. On the scale between Shipp and Seumalo, Slater is clearly closer to -- but not all the way -- the Shipp approach. Slater made clear he's going to not permit lackadaisical technique, something Shipp was an eagle-eye about -- and demonstrated very good articulation of what he wanted on day one.  "We're not grabbing on the booty," Slater told Subtyl after one rep in which he didn't properly engage the stand-in offensive linemen. "We're wrapping up, grabbing cloth, being high." On another occasion, Subtyl popped up and didn't extend his arms properly on a pass rush. "You don't short arm (punch) in a fist fight," Slater said. 

--New wide receivers coach Rob Likens is the also the third different position coach in three years for that group. Likens has a tough act to follow as former wide receivers coach and new Nevada head coach Jay Norvell was as detail-oriented as any position coach at ASU under Graham, and played a significant role in the development of players like sophomore N'Keal Harry and junior Jalen Harvey. On Tuesday, Likens spent much of his time in individual drills with wide receivers focusing on footwork and body positioning during their routes. ASU's receivers worked on short and intermediate routes for most of the individual segment Tuesday and Likens was demanding precise footwork, especially on slants and out routes so that defensive backs would have a more challenging time determining which way a receiver would ultimately stem his route. Likens was vocal with his frustration when Harry didn't finish a drill the way Likens expected receivers to, but was also vocal in his praise when a coaching point clicked in for sophomore Terrell Chatman, who made a difficult grab on a slant route that required him to shoot his hands above his head quickly to corral a pass. Like Norvell, Likens showcased an intense, hands-on approach while demonstrating techniques before and during his drills, which is a style ASU's receivers appeared very receptive to. 

-- Graham has shown no lack of willingness to move players from offense to defense when tinkering, and that remained the case out of the gate this year. With the Sun Devils thin on proven players in the secondary, and also dealing with some injuries (safety Armand Perry is out following surgery while fellow starters Kareem Orr and Marcus Ball were limited Tuesday in green jerseys), redshirt freshmen wide receivers Jeremy Smith and Frank Darby worked at safety and Spur, respectively.  For now, it's experimental, but Darby in particular looked like he could handle the transition well. "We'll make quick decisions on that and see where they're at," Graham said. 

-- If the Sun Devils don't perform up to expectations, it won't be a talent issue according to their head coach. "I think one of the most important things I do is select players. I think what I seen today out there, I like the players we've selected. We do have speed and explosiveness...everybody is a year older and more experienced. We have more of a veteran team this year."


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