During a tumultuous 2016 campaign, a porous offensive line hampered by injuries and inexperience hindered Arizona State's ability to protect its quarterbacks, giving opposing pass rushers plenty of opportunities to tee off on the Sun Devils' signal-callers.
Though ASU started over a half dozen combinations along the offensive line, regardless of which players the program lined up along its front, the Sun Devils were unable to handle speed off the edge at the tackle positions.
And unfortunately for ASU, 2016 was a season in which the Pac-12 featured plenty of speedy pass rushers, as most of the conference's top sack leaders had a hand in forcing the Sun Devils into giving up a conference-worst 41 sacks.
This spring, ASU is intent on patching up a porous front that allowed pass rushers to seep through with ease, and its mission starts at the left tackle position, where the Sun Devils will have a new starter.
Following the graduation of multi-year starter Evan Goodman, sophomore Cohl Cabral has worked his way onto the first-team offense this spring, and he's tasked with protecting a quarterback's blind side that had pass-rushers looking wide-eyed throughout the entirety of last season.
Though Cabral doesn't have a single collegiate start under his belt, he's the odds-on favorite to be the lineman ASU tasks with handling one of the most physically demanding positions in football, especially in a Pac-12 Conference that's traditionally loaded with top edge rushers.
So how is a player fewer than two full years removed from high school preparing for the opportunity? Cabral said the matchups he's facing in ASU's practices this spring are more than enough to brace him for the rest of the Pac-12, as he called seniors Koron Crump and D.J. Calhoun "freaks" and highlighted the challenge of working against Second-Team All-Pac-12 end Joseph Wicker.
“Even coach (Rob) Sale said it, if you can win reps against JoJo (Wicker), you’re going to beat everybody in the Pac-12," Cabral said. "Him, A.J. (Latu), Doug (Subtyl), those are all guys that coming off the ball, are going to put you in the right spot against somebody else. If you’re being able to get back against those guys and how well they convert from speed to power and being able to sit on that, you’re going to be able to convert on anybody. So even if you’re not winning a rep, you know you’re still in a good spot against someone else so taking that away is a big spot that we get to work with every day.”
Are the looks ASU providing in practice really enough for Cabral to assimilate to one of the most challenging jobs in football? It's difficult to say now, but with five of the top six sack leaders in the Pac-12 heading for the NFL this spring, Crump is --at least statistically-- the best returning pass rusher the conference has to offer.
After posting 9.0 sacks last season, Crump is the only returning player in the Pac-12 who posted at least 7.0 sacks a season ago, while Wicker has the potential to blossom into one of the Pac-12's top overall defensive linemen as a junior. Together, the duo has challenged Cabral, but ASU head coach Todd Graham said the former three-star recruit has been one of the Sun Devils' most impressive performers this spring.
“Probably the guy that’s sticking out more than anybody this spring is Cohl Cabral," Graham said. "I love Cohl. He’s got that drive, that toughness and then he’s got that mental maturity.”
Cabral isn't the only sophomore hoping to crack ASU's starting lineup along the offensive line this spring, and he's not the only one standing out to Graham either. At 6-foot-4 and 326 pounds, Steve Miller has earned the right to work with the first-team, and is holding down the fort for the Sun Devils at right guard. Like Cabral, Miller is attempting to replace a graduated senior, as he's taken over for Stephon McCray.
“Steve (Miller) got to play in some games last year, he got in some valuable experience and he’s been one of the bright spots," Graham said. "He’s very, very athletic, a guy that’s very big, very explosive for his size. He’s a big dude that can flat move and run, he’s had a solid spring and got to continue getting better every day.”
Though both Cabral and Miller were used in reserve roles last season, each player earned critical playing time, especially toward the end of the season when the Sun Devils were ravaged by injuries. As super utility linemen, Cabral and Miller cross-trained at various positions, with Cabral learning how to play center and tackle, while Miller worked at guard and tackle.
Entering the spring, though, each player feels as if they've found a home on ASU's offensive line. While Cabral said he's getting accustomed to having to react faster to opposing pass rushers on the perimeter, Miller said he's able to use his larger frame to his advantage on the inside, a role he's grown fond of.
“Tackle, I used to like tackle, but I like the physicality of it (guard), it’s really close, it’s up close so you’re not really, there’s not a lot of people that are really going to run around you, try and run around you," Miller said. "You get a lot of big-bodied people and I’m a big-bodied person, so banging is what I mess with, it’s cool.”
Though each player is dedicating his focus to a specific position this spring, Cabral and Miller's large, athletic frames give ASU the flexibility to tinker with the dynamic of its offensive line should it hit any roadblocks. First-year position coach Rob Sale said he likes Cabral as a tackle because he's willing to work hard at his craft and he's in control of the intangibles that help separate linemen from one another.
"If we had to play tomorrow, Cohl Cabral, who doesn’t have many snaps under his belt, but I would take five more Cohl Cabrals because he’s a good athlete, he’s tough and it’s important to him," Sale said. "He has those intangibles that he controls every day when he wakes up. That’s what I like, just the way he’s wired and I’d like to have more of him.”
Sale said Miller shares many of the same characteristics and traits as Cabral, and perhaps that's why they're the two underclassmen along ASU's offensive line receiving the longest look from the coaching staff this spring. While there's other young linemen with high ceilings and athletic potential, Sale said he likes players in the mold of Cabral and Miller who continue to demonstrate they're willing to take and apply his coaching points.
“He’s (Miller) a lot like Cohl Cabral, he’s a big twitchy guy and it’s important to him, you can coach him hard and he doesn’t get sensitive or anything like that, which I like," Sale said. "He’s going to be a good player for us, no doubt.”
The future up front
Aside from building its offensive line for the present, ASU wants to ensure its future is in good hands, and the chance to slip athletically-gifted linemen like Cabral and Miller into the starting lineup early in their careers is a golden opportunity for the Sun Devils.
Until Washington's Trey Adams earned First-Team All-Conference honors in 2016, no underclassman lineman had appeared on the Pac-12's All-Conference teams since 2013. In a conference in which line play is traditionally dominated by experienced veterans, placing capable players on the field early in their careers gives the Sun Devils the best chance to maximize the potential of linemen like Cabral and Miller.
Miller admitted that as a redshirt freshman, he struggled with consistency and physicality because concepts and movements didn't come as easily to him. Now, playing alongside junior right tackle Quinn Bailey, Miller said he's noticed that the work he's putting in during film study and the foundational knowledge he can call upon from earning playing time last season is beginning to spark improvements.
“As far as the consistency stuff that I had issues with last year, it’s there, it’s coming through, everything is starting to click and make sense and all of that stuff that they talk about takes a little bit of time for you to understand what’s going on and get consistent with what you’re doing and it’s all coming to fruition," Miller said.
During Cabral's true freshman season in 2016, the Southern California native earned most of his playing time as an extra blocker in ASU's "Sparky" package, which simplified the types of assignments he was responsible for executing and the number of calls he needed to know.
As a sophomore, though, Cabral is learning a wide array of new techniques and tools, and said the adjustment to new offensive coordinator Billy Napier's playbook has opened his eyes to the details required to play the position effectively.
“More being aware of rotation, safety rotations, being able to pick up on that guy is sitting there, he’s off the hash, we need to be alert for something coming afterwards so that would be our biggest change up front, like call-wise," Cabral said. "Making sure we’re making the right rotation off of what we’re seeing from the defense and putting ourselves in the right spot.”
Miller said to prepare himself for the chance to play early in his career, he's studying film of former Alabama linemen like Chance Warmack and Ryan Kelly, as well as former ASU offensive lineman Jamil Douglas.
The Gilbert, Arizona native and former three-star recruit said that he and his fellow linemen learned what it takes to be successful from Sun Devils' alumni like Douglas, Christian Westerman and Vi Teofilo, but that the onus is now on the current players to reach the bar set by that group earlier in their careers and raise it down the road.
“I saw the line a couple of years ago, they were pretty good, they were a talented offense and as a player getting recruited around that time, those are the things that you kind of look for, you look at it and you’re like, okay, I remember what they were doing," Miller said. "I want to be where they’re at before they were there.”
From a physical standpoint, ASU is beginning to develop more players with NFL-type frames who have the athleticism and quick-twitch abilities to become more complete linemen.
However, even though the Sun Devils will likely have Cabral, Miller and other young talents on the field at some point this season, the Pac-12's best linemen don't mature overnight. Nevertheless, Graham is satisfied with the direction the line is trending, and he wants the group to be more athletic in years to come.
“I think we’ve done a good job of recruiting and obviously we want the length, but I like the physicality of this bunch," Graham said. "I like their demeanor. We’ve got some hard-nosed, tough guys and I really like that about them. And yes, we want our guys to be athletic. We don’t want a bunch of excess weight on them, so our guys are fairly lean. I guess if you can be lean at 300, 310, we don’t really want them any more than that. We want lean muscle mass and so I think that group has developed, but we have to continue to develop.”
Cabral said one of the sticking points for this year's crop of linemen is ensuring that they're not starting and ending their day with each other on the practice field. ASU's first-team left tackle said that unlike last year, the Sun Devils' linemen are making it a point to hang out together more off the field, and said there's rarely a time when he's not surrounded by at least two to three teammates from his position group.
Miller built on Cabral's assessment and said the reason ASU's linemen are committed to developing stronger relationships is because they want to establish a culture that hasn't necessarily permeated through the line in recent seasons. As Miller put it, when he arrived at ASU, he saw the linemen in starting roles and was determined to develop faster than they did. Now, Miller said he wants the linemen that ASU recruits in years to come to look at him and his teammates and feel compelled to chase even greater pursuits.
“We know we’ve got a lot of sophomores, juniors, people who are going to be here for the next couple of years so that we can just continue to roll and cause a culture," Miller said. "Have a culture of strong, tough guys that just continue to get better and better. We want the line, five years from now, they’re like, Steve Miller was pretty good but we want the new guys that are here to be better than we were. We’re just trying to create a winning culture and we haven’t had it the last couple of years.”