(Photo: ASU Athletics)
The Arizona State Sun Devils football team would never publicly admit it, but they had to be a little hurt after not being included in the USA Today Coaches Poll to start the season. A strong finish to 2012, including a come-from-behind victory over rival Arizona and a dominating victory over Navy in the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl, paired with the return of All-American Will Sutton and most of the key starters, led many Sun Devils to believe this team is poised for a Pac-12 Championship run in 2013.
With the team in the middle of its second trip to Camp Tontozona under head coach Todd Graham, most of the starters are already known. But there are still a few key spots up for grabs, and with incoming recruits now more than a week into their Sun Devil careers, a few players are starting to stand out as those who could step in and play immediately, much like Marion Grice, D.J. Foster and Chris Young did last season. Here’s an early look at who should be starting for the Sun Devils when they host Sacramento State on September 5th.
QB – Taylor Kelly
There is no competition here. The redshirt junior stormed onto the scene last year with a fantastic spring game and never looked back. After entering Camp T in a three-way battle for the starting job, Kelly proved his incredible April was no fluke, took the reigns and guided the Sun Devils to within one win of the Pac-12 Championship Game. Fall camp is about Kelly taking that next step, but the real battle is for the backup job. Much like last season, expect coach Graham’s familiarity with Michael Eubank to give the redshirt sophomore the edge. It doesn’t hurt that Eubank has far more physical talent than Michael Bercovici.
RB – Marion Grice
Don’t get me wrong. D.J. Foster could very well ‘start’ the opener, and any other game for that matter. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised to see both Foster and Grice on the field together the majority of the time. But make no mistake about it: Marion Grice is going to be the featured back this season. Todd Graham has spent all summer hyping Grice as a dark horse Heisman candidate. Graham told me at Pac-12 Media Day that he believed Grice was the best running back in the conference, and you know what? I agree. Start the Twitter campaign.
X Receiver – Kevin Ozier
He doesn’t have the most talent. He isn’t the fastest player, the best route runner or the highest jumper. He might be the strongest. But what Kevin Ozier brings to the table can’t be measured. He is a fighter, a once-homeless walk-on who earned a scholarship and came on strong at the end of the 2012 season. Ozier is a lead-by-example type, and every team needs one. He won’t drop passes, won’t run the wrong route and won’t commit stupid penalties. He also won’t lead the team in any receiving category, but he will be a factor all season long. That’s what you want in a split-end receiver, someone who does the little things right, like blocking and occupying the safety to give the slot receiver favorable matchups underneath, and Ozier is at his best when doing things that statistics can’t measure.
Z Receiver – Jaelen Strong
Strong arrived late to camp, awaiting clearance. But the wait will be worth it. Coach Graham has hyped Strong almost as much as he has hyped Grice this summer, telling me at Pac-12 Media Day that he doesn’t believe Strong will be in Tempe for all three years of eligibility, insinuating he will leave early for the NFL. That’s high praise for a kid who has yet to catch his first pass as a Sun Devil. The flanker receiver is responsible for taking the top off the defense in Arizona State’s offense, and Strong should be able to do that from the beginning. Sun Devil fans will love him. Keep an eye on freshman Cameron Smith, who should back up both Strong and Ozier; he is sneaky fast and surprisingly big.
Y Receiver – Rick Smith
The slot man will be a revolving door this season in Tempe. D.J. Foster will certainly get some reps, and I expect freshman Ellis Jefferson to contribute too. But Rick Smith has had an entire offseason to master his craft. He is the prototypical slot receiver, small and fast, able to quickly get free underneath and wreak havoc on opposing linebackers. I also like his chances of beating safeties down the seam.
H-Back – Chris Coyle
The best receiver on the Sun Devils, Coyle is essentially a tight end. Nothing he does impresses you, except for everything he does. Coyle is a crafty route runner, makes stupid-tough catches, is deceptively athletic and can block with the best of them. It’s a shame that Washington has the best TE in the country, this fellow named Austin Seferian-Jenkins, but his status for the first game (and beyond) remains a question after more off-the-field troubles this past summer, opening the doors for Coyle to make a name for himself outside of Tempe.
T – Evan Finkenberg, Tyler Sulka
Surprise! No, not Finkenberg, who evolved into one of the most consistent blind-side blockers in the Pac-12 last season, but needs to take that next step this year for Taylor Kelly to truly blossom. Instead I’m talking about Tyler Sulka, a big tackle who didn’t factor into the rotation a ton during the spring, but has emerged in the past week. Sulka always made the most sense at right tackle, and it was pointless to move one of the best guards in the conference, Jamil Douglas, to a foreign position. I’m not a fan of moving established players; it runs the risk of creating a weakness at two positions instead of just one. Sulka has the look of a RT, big but lacking the footwork required to play on the blind side. If Sulka can hold his ground and pave the way in the rushing game, it will be worth it for Arizona State.
G – Jamil Douglas, Sil Ajawara
Douglas is the best lineman on the team, a true NFL talent at left guard who possesses great feet and athleticism, perfect for pulling and sealing the edge or taking out the backside defender on a trap play. He belongs at guard and should have never been moved to tackle in the spring. Right guard is a question mark, but I think Ajawara beats out local product Vi Teofilo. Teofilo is more of a road paver, but Ajawara is more complete and this offense asks a lot of its linemen.
C – Kody Koebensky
The player who impressed me the most last season on the line was Koebensky. Having to replace current NFL center Garth Gerhart, once the heart and soul of the Sun Devils offensive line, was never going to be easy. But Koebensky did a fine job of it, growing throughout the season and doing a nice job calling out blitzes and adjusting reads at the line. The center is usually not an athletic maven, but he has to be smart and a leader, and the other linemen must know that the center always has their back. Koebensky is the glue that holds this line together.
You can reach Jason Galvin on Twitter @Jason_Galvin or by email email@example.com