With the return of a pair of Second Team All-Pac-12 pass rushers, senior Koron Crump and junior Joseph Wicker, plus the addition of junior college transfer Doug Subtyl, Arizona State expects to generate plenty of pressure and impact quarterbacks with more frequency in 2017.
But before the season starts, the Sun Devils' pass rushers have to work on getting past their own offensive line, and so far this spring, ASU's defensive front has had trouble doing so.
"For the last two days, they've (ASU's offensive line) won pass rush," Graham said. "So pass rush is really a defensive drill, the defense should win most of the time because you're just teeing off, you know it's pass and the offense, so they lost the first three days and then they won the last two, or lost the first two and then won the last two days which in pads has been pretty impressive."
For a group that finished last in the Pac-12 in sacks allowed in 2016 and engineered a rushing attack that averaged 131.5 yards per game, the third worst mark in the conference, improvement is imperative if the Sun Devils hope to take a step forward on offense in 2017.
So far this spring, though, Graham believes the unit has made strides, largely as a result of having more experienced players back at key positions on the line.
"We've really got better at the tackle position, the edge positions and that's really where I think we need the most improvement," Graham said. "The big thing is I think we've just got guys that are all more experienced that don't look near as stressed."
Through the first four practices of the spring, ASU has used the same starting offensive line in 11-on-air practice periods open to the media, with sophomore Cohl Cabral playing left tackle, junior Sam Jones returning at left guard, senior A.J. McCollum handling the center position, sophomore Steve Miller sliding in at right guard, and junior Quinn Bailey manning the right tackle spot.
Graham said after Monday's practice that ASU was forced to use eight or nine different starting combinations along the offensive line in 2016 as a result of injuries, but that the adversity the Sun Devils faced allowed the program to give younger linemen valuable opportunities and experience.
Now, with the vast majority of players from ASU's two-deep along the offensive line returning this spring, Graham is excited about the potential of the unit in new offensive coordinator Billy Napier's scheme.
"Everybody is a year older and there's a lot of guys with a lot of experience," Graham said. "There's a lot of guys that have played up there with eight or nine different lineups last year. I think Sam (Jones) and Quinn (Bailey) are the anchors up there, I think Steve Miller is a guy, just athletically and physically, we're big, long, physical. A.J. (McCollum), the center is a returning starter. Probably the guy that's sticking out the first of spring more than anybody is Cohl Cabral."
Aside from lauding his first-team unit, Graham also pointed out the competition along the offensive line this spring and cited the play of all five players on ASU's second-team line.
"With Alex Losoya, with Connor (Humphreys), with Tyler McClure, Cade Cote is limited right now but he's a tough guy that factors in, we've got quite a few," Graham said. "Mason Walter is a guy that has really, really improved at tackle, Tyson Rising, so that group has really, they've been real solid, we're probably deeper than we've ever been, but the key is getting that five. So I think Sam (Jones) and Quinn (Bailey) are the anchors up there and I think Steve (Miller), Cohl (Cabral), those are guys that have stuck out to me up front."
Rising and Walter are playing left and right tackle, respectively, this spring, while Humphreys, McClure and Losoya have manned the interior spots on the second-team offensive line for most of ASU's spring practice sessions.
Strong play from ASU's offensive line is critical for an offense loaded with playmakers who have impressed Graham with their explosiveness this spring.
The Sun Devils return their top three running backs from a season ago, and bring back sophomore wide receiver N'Keal Harry and junior tight end Jay Jay Wilson while adding the services of transfer receivers John Humphrey Jr. and Ryan Newsome.
Behind an improved offensive front that has handled ASU's pass rushers during the first two padded practices this spring, the Sun Devils have ripped off a number of explosive plays that has Graham excited about the potential of the unit.
"The big thing is explosive plays and we are, the one bright spot offensively is John John (Humphrey) and Ryan (Newsome) and Jay Jay (Wilson) and obviously Kalen Ballage and I tell you, Demario (Richard) has had a really solid, I think he's leaning up," Graham said. "We want him (Richard) to be faster, and Nick Ralston had a huge big play today so we got all three running backs and three to four, Jalen Harvey has really stuck out to me as being very explosive, looks faster. So very explosive offensively."
News and notes
- Sophomore quarterback Bryce Perkins, sophomore offensive lineman Cade Cote, senior defensive back Marcus Ball and junior cornerback Kareem Orr were the four players wearing green non-contact jerseys at ASU's Monday practice.
- ASU played five walk-ons in its two-deep on defense Monday, including safety Owen Rogers who Graham called a standout from the early portion of the spring.
- Graham said redshirt freshman Jeremy Smith has had four interceptions this spring as a safety, and will continue to work on the defensive side of the ball for the foreseeable future. Smith was recruited as a wide receiver and had no experience playing defense prior to this spring.