(Photo: Brett Deckert/WCSN)
Arizona State’s football team wrapped up their fourth day of practice in Payson on Thursday, finishing their penultimate Camp Tontozona workout before Saturday’s annual final-practice scrimmage.
Head coach Todd Graham and his staff have done plenty of tinkering during their trip to Payson, and a few standouts have emerged on both sides of the ball.
With that in mind, let’s take a look back at some of the key developments from this week’s set of “Camp T” practice.
QB Battle Still Tight
Junior returning starter Manny Wilkins has taken almost all of the first team snaps this week, as he continues to build his case to remain ASU’s No. 1 quarterback this season. On Thursday, Wilkins’ best moments came in “goal-to-go” situations inside the opponents 10-yard line, most notably when he fired a pinpoint touchdown pass to sophomore receiver N’Keal Harry in the corner of the end zone.
Wilkin’s chief competition, transfer sophomore Blake Barnett, had the day’s longest pass, as he connected with sophomore receiver Kyle Williams in a two-minute drill; Williams took the intermediate toss while cutting toward the sideline, then turned up field, blowing by the secondary for a long catch-and-run score. However, Barnett, who ran with the first-team during two-minute drills on Wednesday, was relegated to backup duty again Thursday, as has been the case for most of this preseason.
Experimentation on the Offensive Line
The last several days of practice have seen a number of different offensive line combinations for the Sun Devils. While returning starters Quinn Bailey and Sam Jones continue to feature in the trenches, the likes of sophomores Zach Robertson and Cade Cote, as well as senior Corey Smith have seen action with the first team this week. Traditional left tackle Cohl Cabral also was moved to center for parts of practice.
While the final product is yet to be confirmed, Graham has little concern about his group of big-men along the line scrimmage.
“I like the offensive line; we got a lot of competition going on there,” Graham said after Thursday’s practice. “I counted today, I think there are 10 guys that we feel really good about, so that’s another area we have had zero depth in (the past), that we have got more depth in.”
Humphrey Keeps Playing Both Ways
An unexpected headline out of this week’s preseason slate has been the transition of transfer sophomore wide receiver John Humphrey to a two-way player. The former Oklahoma Sooner had taken reps at cornerback earlier this week, and continued the trend Thursday by not only going through some drills with the secondary, but also switching into a white jersey for 11-on-11 scrimmaging, the color top worn by defensive players.
While the defensive coaching staff continued to tinker with Humphrey’s technique in coverage, the League City, Texas native used his speed to catch up to receiver Trent Gilbert in the end zone during one of the scrimmage downs, knocking the ball out of the sophomore’s hands to prevent a touchdown.
Benjamin to Play
When asked whether true freshman running back Eno Benjamin would see playing time this season, Graham didn’t think twice before answering.
“No doubt. I don’t see him redshirting.”
The four-star Wylie, Texas recruit was a redshirt candidate entering this season, thanks to a logjam of talented veteran rushers ahead of him on the depth chart. However, an injury to sophomore Nick Ralston has opened up opportunities for both Benjamin and fellow true freshman Trelon Smith to see plenty of carries in camp, opportunities each player has taken advantage of.
“It’s going to be some different stuff, we are going to play a lot with two (running) backs,” Graham said. “At least that’s what I want, to put our best guys on the field. We’ve got a very deep group there and those guys are very versatile, they’ve got a lot of different skill sets.
“There is no doubt in my mind Eno (Benjamin) will play.”
Latu Injury Tests Front Seven Depth
Senior linebacker Alani Latu had been one of the most disruptive forces in the ASU front seven early in camp. This week, the fifth-year-veteran was bumped up from backup Devilbacker to taking first team snaps along the defensive line.
On Thursday however, Latu left practice after injuring his right arm defending a run play. While 300-pound freshman Shannon Forman stepped in for the injured Latu for the remainder of practice, the temporary loss of the versatile Rancho Cucamonga, California native called into question the Sun Devils’ front seven depth for the first time this fall.
Last year, a season ending-injury to junior linebacker Christian Sam on opening night hampered ASU’s abilities in the linebacker department. Sam is returning this year alongside 2016 standouts DJ Calhoun and Koron Crump; beyond their three starters however, there is little experience among the rest of the group.
Graham admitted the need to continue developing replacements at the position, but also pointed out his belief in current second-teamers Deion Guignard, Khaylan Thomas, and Abraham Thompson.
“We’ve got solid depth,” Graham said. “The difference is what is the drop-off between one (the starters) and two (the backups). That’s where you’ve got to look at all those positions. Even on the D-line we’ve got to get some guys healthy and get some guys back out there, because you get all excited about the young guys, but it’s hard to play on the line; that’s not for young boys, that’s for full grown men.”