(Photo: Blaine McCormick/WCSN)
Entering the 2017 season with plenty of new faces on the field and on the sideline, Todd Graham’s squad is becoming clearer by the day, as they continue to prepare for their season-opener at the end of the month.
After opening camp this past week in Tempe, the Sun Devils left straight from Sunday’s practice to Payson, Arizona for their annual Camp Tontozona, a big milestone on the path to opening night.
“I think we’ve had five really good days; we’ve improved every day. Never is it as good as you want, but evaluating the players, getting them in the right spots, and coming out of Camp T as a team, that’s the main thing,” Graham said. “We want to come out of there with hardcore discipline, hardcore fundamentals.”
Hitting the road for its week-long trip north, favorites are beginning to emerge in some of the team’s key position battles.
At quarterback, however, four practices this week have done little to settle the camp’s biggest battle. Returning starter Manny Wilkins was still running plays with the first team offense Sunday, forcing Alabama transfer Blake Barnett to settle for reps with the backups.
Donning full pads in the final opening week practice, both contending passers missed downfield throws; most of the yards gained by the offense Sunday came on screen throws and handoffs, a trend likely to continue into the regular season. During the media viewing period, the only full scrimmage pass completion came when Wilkins’ found tight end Jay Jay Wilson with a short toss.
Camp T, however, will be less about the personal jockeying for playing time, and more focused on bringing the entirety of the team together.
“Get rid of your cell phones, no headphones, no TV, there’s no TVs there, it’s just a cool deal. It’s really a nice time to really come out of there as a team,” Graham said, adding, “I want to create the opportunity to really find out and know each other.”
Graham’s offensive line is one of the position groups molding together on the eve of camp. Junior guard Sam Jones and junior tackle Quinn Bailey headline the group, as both are returning starters from last year. Meanwhile, senior AJ McCollum has grabbed ahold of a starting spot at center through the first week, snapping the ball with the first-team ahead of redshirt sophomore Cade Cote. Sophomores Cohl Cabral and Steven Miller round out the starting five, a group praised multiple times by the coaching staff for opening up holes on running plays.
In the backfield, impact running backs Kalen Ballage and Demario Richard have predictably seen plenty of touches this week, but have also been accompanied by pleasantly surprising contributions from promising freshmen Eno Benjamin and Trelon Smith, as well as redshirt sophomore Nick Ralston. Smith had the most explosive play on Sunday, taking a handoff and bursting through a hole on the left side of the line to break into the second level of the defense.
Defensively, a Sun Devil secondary ravaged by the unexpected summer losses of cornerback Kareem Orr (transferred) and safety Armand Perry (retired) has started to be rebuilt around the safety duo of junior Dasmond Tautalatasi and senior Chad Adams. While both were predominately backups last year, they have brought some stability to a pass defense that finished dead last in the nation the last two years. Their earlier success has been enough to knock returning starter Marcus Ball down to the second team defense.
At cornerback, the absence of injured senior Maurice Chandler has opened the door for freshman Chase Lucas and sophomore JUCO transfer Kobe Williams to take first team snaps so far.
While players continue to stake claims to playing time, however, the team as a whole is still being polished up by the coaching staff. Sunday’s practice showcased Graham’s renewed focus on aggressiveness, putting his players through ball security, tackling, and up-tempo drills.
However, a couple of procedure penalties on both the offensive and defensive lines during 11-on-11 drills was a reminder the finished product is still a work in progress.
“I’m not interested in you being tough, that’s not good enough. I’m not interested in you doing your job, that’s not good enough. I need your best,” Graham said. “Hardcore discipline, hardcore toughness. Because that’s the number one factor that we have to do to get back to where we need to be.”
Heading to Camp T will not only give the coaching staff a chance to iron out some of these issues, but also tie all the players into a tradition that has deep roots in program.
“I remember a couple years ago, we carried him off the field, I just thought to myself, ‘That’s the last time.’ That was a pretty cool deal, but he started it,” Graham said. “There wouldn’t be a Camp T without him, so it’s a pretty special deal to go up there. That’s why they call it Mt. Kush.”
Graham also mentioned that Kush’s son will speak to the team on Sunday night about the history of the camp, and the special place it holds within the tradition of the program.
The highlight of Camp T will be next Saturday’s trip-concluding final practice scrimmage, which will be open to the media and the public, giving a first glimpse this fall of team’s performance in real-game situations. All eyes will be on the dueling quarterbacks, who will be on full display for the first time since April’s Spring Game.
DEPTH CHART AFTER 1ST WEEK OF PRACTICE
1st Team Offense:
RB—Kalen Ballage, Demario Richard
WR—N’Keal Harry, John Humphries, Jalen Harvey, Frank Darby
TE—Jay Jay Wilson
1st Team Defense:
Spur LB—J’Marcus Rhodes