Graham pleased with team's progress this spring

After a spring full of new faces and new schemes, Arizona State head coach Todd Graham said the team was "really productive" and the defense stood out in the Spring Game.

Spring ball at Arizona State came to a close Saturday afternoon with ASU’s annual Spring Game at Sun Devil Stadium.

With 4,624 in attendance on hand to watch the hour and a half practice that was part drills and part scrimmage with limited contact, the Sun Devils now head into the offseason after undergoing a spring with five new assistant coaches, new schemes on both sides of the ball, a quarterback battle and a key focus on defensive improvement.

“I think we had a great spring,” ASU head coach Todd Graham said after the Spring Game. “It was really, really productive. I thought as a staff, our staff did a great job and I’m really pleased right now.”

The Spring Game ended with the maroon team — comprised of first team players and rotating players with the 1's — winning 60-3 over the white team.

ASU quarterbacks Manny Wilkins and Blake Barnett were both splitting reps as quarterbacks for the maroon team. ASU sophomore Dillon Sterling-Cole was the sole quarterback for the white team.

Both Wilkins and Barnett led touchdown drives during ASU’s scrimmage segments that had the Sun Devils starting at their 25-yard line.

“I thought both of them did a job of managing the ball and taking care of getting everyone lined up," Graham said. "Obviously we were pretty basic in what we were doing, but I thought it was good. It was a good day.” 

Barnett had arguably the most impressive touchdown throw of the afternoon — a 37-yard touchdown pass to redshirt sophomore wide receiver John Humphrey Jr. Humphrey had four touchdown catches on the afternoon.

“The biggest thing is just keep developing our hardcore discipline and our identity,” Graham said. “Keep working hard, putting in the time. It’s all about the unit. It’s all about the team. I like this team though. It ain’t about the talent, it’s about the team. These guys have been very disciplined this spring, I think we’ve gotten better, need to have a good summer program and we have a lot of work to do.”

It has been reiterated this spring that the quarterback battle wouldn’t be sorted out in the spring, rather it would carry into the fall. The Spring Game was no different. Both Wilkins and Barnett split reps with the first team and both showed their ability to drive down the field. 

New ASU offensive coordinator Billy Napier said for Bennett or Wilkins to earn the starting job, they will have to see who develops the most chemistry with their teammates. 

"It's the kind of year where there is a lot of voluntary work, so a guy that can rally the troops and get the guys together and do extra things is very important,” Napier said. “We've got some meetings, we've got some individual on the field without a ball, we've got some player led practices. That'll be a big part of what we're trying to accomplish. Just seeing them put themselves in position to try to win over the team is a big part of what we're trying to accomplish."

In addition to the quarterback battle, the Sun Devils still have a lot of moving parts on offensive and defensive side of the ball, with personnel even fluctuating throughout the Spring Game.

On offense, at the center position, senior offensive linemen Tyler McClure and A.J. McCollum were switching off reps on the first team. On defense, the nose tackle was fluid with sophomore George Lea and junior Jordan Hoyt getting reps in.

“I think George Lea has made progress and I think Jordan Hoyt has made progress,” new ASU defensive coordinator Phil Bennett said. “I tell him, Jordan is a lot like me. He’s an ugly player. You look at him and all of a sudden you see the stats, one scrimmage he had five tackles, two for loss and really did a nice job. He’s giving us something there (freshman defensive lineman) D.J. Davidson, if we can get his weight under control, is a guy we are going to be proud we have.”

Defensive unit stands out

Despite the spring spotlight being on mostly Wilkins and Barnett fighting for the starting role this fall, Graham said the maroon defensive unit impressed him the most during the Spring Game.

ASU defensive lineman Joseph Wicker had an impressive sack toward the end of the game and there was many 1-on-1 defensive plays made down the field by the defensive backs.

“I think our most improved unit has been our back end,” Graham said. “Obviously today, we had our 1’s going against our 2’s and that was tough for them, but we’ve improved every single day on defense. I mean the good thing is that we’re very similar, it wasn’t a very big wholesale change for our players because philosophically I learned from coach (Bennett) about 30 years ago. He’s been unbelievable, the defense has been impressive all spring long. We have to continue to develop depth and continue to get better, but I’ve been very, very pleased. I’m not surprised, I knew exactly what I was getting with Coach Bennett and our think our staff has done a good job.”

Last season, ASU gave up 357.4 yards on defense, last in Division I. The next closest was Pitt, who notched 333.2 yards per game.

“I remember my first year at Baylor we evolved,” Bennett said. “We started out new and I didn’t have great players, but man they started playing with confidence and they knew and when you make an offense really work for things you can do a lot of things in that back end.

“We are a work in progress but we will get there. The last 10 days, our last 10 practices I thought we started developing a personality.”

Bennett said the defense only ran base during the Spring Game and only brought the pressure when a fan got to call one play during the scrimmage. Bennett said overall he liked how well the defense was able to communicate.

“I thought we got better in knowledge and what we wanted to do,” Bennett said. “I’m huge on chemistry. I want to develop a chemistry, a communication, a toughness, physical and being a defense that anything you get, you earn it.”

Players have also took a liking to Bennett.

“He brings 40 years of experience and just an attitude to be great,” Wicker said. “Making everything fun and being serious but making sure we know it’s a game and we have to come out here and have fun.”

Bennett said players who impressed him this spring were senior linebacker Alani Latu, senior safety Chad Adams and senior corner Kareem Orr. Orr in particular had a rough spring.

“He’s fighting this injury with his thigh and he didn’t miss a practice, not one,” Bennett said. “We tried to protect him, but he didn't miss a practice and that was encouraging. Our big scrimmages, we really did some good things protecting the deep balls and making them earn everything they got.”

ASU senior defensive lineman Tashon Smallwood said the adjustment to Bennett’s new scheme was “fun” in the spring, but it took some time for the players to adjust to the new system.

“Everybody has got to get acclimated, but we made tremendous progress,” Smallwood said. “I’m excited about it.

“Honestly it was a little bit rough for me at first. Anything new is going to be rough and I can tell you I am hard on myself as it is and it was kind of tough for me, but it’s one day at a time, one step at a time and just understanding and telling myself that it’s new, but telling myself I’m not going to get it with the snap of my fingers. I’m going to have to work at it.”

ASU senior linebacker D.J. Calhoun said he saw a lot of change in the defense from last year to this spring. He said the players and coaches have been exuding more confidence.

Especially getting junior linebacker Christian Sam back from his season-ending injury that he suffered in ASU’s season opener last year against NAU, Calhoun said he’s excited for the season.

“I was missing him last year on the field,” Calhoun said. “When he got injured he was kind of devastated. That’s my boy right there and we know each other and on the field we can talk to each other on the field, like ‘I got your back on this. I got your back on that.’ It means a lot.”

It was Calhoun’s last spring game in his ASU career.

“Man, I could say that I’m happy, but I’m going to miss this,” Calhoun said. “Crazy to end just like this. Came here when I was 17, doing five springs. But overall, I’m just excited for this team. I think ur defense, everything is going to change. Our offense is going to improve too so it’s going to be great.”

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