(Photo: Gabrielle Mercer/WCSN)
It took 13 drives and a highlight reel effort from Kalen Ballage, but Arizona State’s offense finally kicked into gear in its first true test of the preseason, Saturday’s annual “final practice” scrimmage to conclude Camp Tontozona.
In front of 3,042 Sun Devil fans, head coach Todd Graham’s team was put on full public display in a scrimmage setting for the first time since April’s Spring Game.
“To come out and see all the fan support like this is incredible,” Graham said. “What an incredible opportunity to be a part of something like this. In the country there is not a better situation, especially right now, this day and age; maybe the best week I’ve ever had being around a team that is really developing.”
Taking center stage all afternoon were the two quarterbacks battling at the top of the depth chart. Junior Manny Wilkins ran with the first team offense on all but one of the unit’s seven drives during the scrimmage. It was not until his last drive though that any Sun Devil crossed the goal line.
Despite starting the possession with good field position, Wilkins and company had again been stifled by their defensive counterparts, facing a fourth down on the edge of field goal range. After a timeout, the offense trotted back onto the field to go for the first down conversion; Wilkins, who suffered from inaccurate passing all day, was able to find running back Kalen Ballage in the flat. ASU’s senior back hauled in the pass and lowered his head, trucking over two Sun Devil tacklers and into the end zone. The day’s first touchdown sent the offensive sideline, and scattered hillside crowd, into a frenzy.
“We saw that play from Kalen, that was amazing,” sophomore guard Steven Miller said, who blocked for Wilkins on the play. “It’s just one of those things, you see it every day and sometimes you get used to it a little bit, and then they always amaze you.”
It didn’t take long for the defense to respond however. On the ensuing drive, a Barnett-led second team offense was pinned in their own half of the field on a third down. Barnett, who was sacked six times behind the team’s backup offensive line, tried to force a pass across the middle of the field. Sophomore linebacker Khaylan Thomas read the Alabama-transfer’s throw, jumping the route to intercept the ball and return it to the end zone for a pick-six.
Barnett made amends for the mistake during an extended “overtime” period, where the possessions started from the defense’s 25-yard line. On his first drive of the session, the Corona, California native completed all three of his passes to get the Sun Devils inside the 10-yard line, paving the way for true freshman running back Eno Benjamin to score on a six-yard touchdown run.
“I like where (our quarterbacks) are at. I think once we narrow down who is going to play and we start developing a little bit of chemistry, our execution level will increase,” offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Billy Napier said. “We definitely need to improve our chemistry and our timing. I think when we get that going, and we get a little closer to (playing games) that is going to help us.”
Benjamin, whom Graham guaranteed would see playing time this season, impressed multiple times on the day. During the third drive of the game, the four-star recruit broke into the second level of the defense and would have scored if not for a last-ditch Koron Crump tackle from behind. Benjamin also broke a couple tackles to pick up a nice chunk of yardage several plays before his touchdown run, only to see it brought back by an offensive holding penalty, one of roughly a dozen flags against the ASU offense Saturday.
“I think you can see he is very productive,” Napier said of Benjamin. “He has got great instincts. One of the things I’ve always believed about running backs is when you put on that high school film, if a guy can run the ball sometimes it’s natural. He certainly has got instincts and natural abilities with the ball. We need to work on his ball security but overall I think he’s one of the players we will try to get the ball to.”
Saturday gave ASU’s coaching staff a chance to see some of their other offensive weapons in extended game situations for the first time this fall as well. The receiving corps, led by sophomore N’Keal Harry, made plays when the ball was in their hands. Harry was targeted multiple times by Wilkins, especially on third downs and near the end zone. Fellow sophomore Kyle Williams had a touchdown catch during the overtime session, and transfer Ryan Newsome hauled in a two-point conversion, both receiving their scores from Barnett.
“I think we’ve got five really good players there (at wide receiver),” Napier said of his best pass catchers, including Harry, Jalen Harvey, John Humphrey, Newsome, and Williams. “Right now, there are five guys we would categorize as dependable, that have the ability and can go play. We are looking for a couple more guys to improve themselves in the next couple weeks. We’ve got some talent there. Obviously, we’re not game-ready yet, but we’re getting better and we’re developing.”
However, the passing attack was often disrupted by inaccurate passes and constant pressure from the Sun Devils’ dominant front seven. Wilkins consistently overthrew his deep balls, missing the speedy Humphrey on a post route, and Harry on a back shoulder fade, when both were open for touchdowns. The team’s returning starter also had a couple throws come dangerously close to being intercepted, most notably when safety Chad Adams undercut a lobbed ball heading into the end zone, but failed to hang on as he crashed to the ground.
Barnett meanwhile, battled to get throws off on most plays, victimized by the first team pass rushers. He did have one of the day’s better deep balls, when he targeted freshman Frank Darby with a perfectly placed rainbow throw in the back of the end zone, only to see junior defensive back Tyler Whiley knock it away at the last moment.
“A few missed opportunities in terms of home runs, we had a couple guys open that we missed,” Napier said. “I think they are both maturing as players. I think they are both getting comfortable within the system. They’ve had good days and bad days, both.”
The Sun Devils will return to their normal routine of practices in Tempe on Monday after the week-long trip to Payson. They begin the season in less than a month, when they host New Mexico State on Thursday, August 31.
“We’ve got a little ways to go, everybody does,” Miller said. “Most teams aren’t going to be perfect right now, but we’ll be ready.”