With new defensive coordinator Phil Bennett in the mix at Arizona State, head coach Todd Graham has the freedom to serve as a roaming instructor at the Sun Devils' practices this spring, offering coaching points where he feels his expertise is needed.
For much of the first two practices this spring, Graham has spent skill development periods overseeing the work of ASU's tight ends and offensive line. In previous years, Graham has kept a close eye on his defensive unit --and in particular the Sun Devils' cornerbacks-- but this spring, Graham wants to ensure he's devoting more attention to the offensive side of the ball.
"I've worked with a lot, I've worked with the Devils since I've been here, really just over there working with the offense, I spent about half my time over on the offensive field and the other half on the defensive field," Graham said. "But I like to coach so I'm not just going to walk around, I'm going to coach."
After Thursday's practice, each of ASU's quarterbacks spoke about the exciting opportunity of working with an offense loaded with playmakers at skill positions, from seniors Kalen Ballage and Demario Richard at running back, to sophomore N'Keal Harry and others at wide receiver, and junior Jay Jay Wilson at tight end.
Graham also acknowledged the explosive talent the Sun Devils have at their disposal, but said finding consistency along the offensive line is going to be the key to ASU's ability to have success on that side of the ball.
"That line being coordinated up there and being consistent, I think the key is to settle in with five guys on that line that play together every game and that's the key to being consistent on both sides of the ball up front," Graham said. "So obviously we were young last year, we had about eight different starting lineups, so that's the key for that group. Those guys are all older, I think Sam Jones and Quinn (Bailey) are emerging as leaders up front and I really like their work ethic and there's a lot of competition up front. You're going to be as good as you are up front on both sides of the ball. That's why I've got confidence in our guys."
After each of the first two practices this spring, Graham has commented on how young the Sun Devils were up front last season, but said moving forward, he's excited about the experience certain players gained and the potential of many of ASU's younger options.
On Tuesday and Thursday, ASU featured a line with sophomore Cohl Cabral at left tackle, junior Sam Jones at left guard, senior A.J. McCollum at center, sophomore Steve Miller at right guard and junior Quinn Bailey at right tackle. Graham said he's been impressed by the veteran leadership Jones and Bailey have brought to the unit this spring after both players held down starting spots in 2016.
The other lineman standing out to Graham through the early days of spring ball is Cabral, who played in a reserve role and in ASU's "Sparky" package as a true freshman and is the early favorite to replace departed senior Evan Goodman at left tackle. At 6-foot-5 and 288 pounds, Cabral is one of the most athletic linemen ASU has on its depth chart, and his development figures to play an instrumental role in determining how effective the Sun Devils' offensive line is next season.
"Love Cohl (Cabral)," Graham said. "He's got that drive and toughness and he's got the mentality. I like the mentality of Cohl Cabral and Sam Jones and Quinn Bailey, I like Steve Miller, I like those guys up front and their mentality. And every single guy, I could list every single guy up front and they've got a mentality that's hard edge, tough, hardcore discipline, tough guys."
Graham said after Thursday's session he wants Cabral to become an anchor up front, and the former three-star recruit certainly has as much potential as any of ASU's scholarship linemen to hold down the left tackle job.
For the first time since 2013, ASU has a new offensive line coach as former Louisiana-Monroe assistant Rob Sale replaced departed assistant Chris Thomsen, who left to join Texas Christian's staff. Following a rough season for ASU's offensive line in which it finished with the most sacks allowed in the Pac-12, it's up to Sale to find the five most consistent players along ASU's front and assemble a line that can help the Sun Devils maximize the talent they do possess at the skill positions.
"So the big change, the big difference is just new faces really more in the coaching area but I've been really, really pleased with every area and how they've done, how they've progressed so far," Graham said. "I think on offense, we're a veteran team, our line was very young last year and obviously they've got to develop as well as the running backs as well as the receivers, but I do have a lot of confidence that we've got that talent box checked but that doesn't mean anything because you play against a lot of good talent."