Saturday’s annual spring game for Arizona State football fans offered the first glimpse at a team many Sun Devil fans expect to contend for the Pac-12 championship in 2013. The pace was fast and furious from the start and several new faces stepped up and performed well in the contest, answering questions about depth in several areas of the game.
Here is a look at who stood out above the rest at Sun Devil Stadium on Saturday.
CB: Rashad Wadood and Robert Nelson – The Sun Devils entered spring practice with a giant question mark at field corner. They left Saturday’s game with no questions.
Wadood and Nelson both played great all day. While the younger Wadood is probably better suited for the nickel role, where his quick feet will allow him to stay with shifty slot receivers, he also showed a nice ability to stay with receivers down field, shining on a vertical route late in the first half, when Taylor Kelly thought he had Rick Smith for a touchdown. Instead, Wadood adjusted beautifully and deflected the ball without ever touching Smith.
Nelson also made a nice play on a corner route, turning and running with Agwuenu and positioning himself perfectly for an interception, which he dropped. Still, Nelson’s ability to read the deep route and not bite on the post-fake had to have defensive passing game coordinator Chris Ball grinning from ear to ear.
Even better news for the Sun Devils, neither corner seems particularly concerned with who starts, both understanding that playing time will come their way with the amount of nickel the team will be forced to play against the spread offenses of the Pac-12.
“We are making each other better,” Nelson said. “We have trust in each other. We are both going to have to play, it’s hard for a corner to go through the entire season without some bumps and bruises.”
Nelson echoed those remarks.
“We are both going to be on the field, and we are both going to make plays,” Wadood said. “At the end of the day, if we have six defensive backs who are good, that makes us all better.”
LB: Kipeli Koniseti – More than any other player on Saturday, Koniseti stood out as someone who was able to rise to the occasion and make an impact. At one point, Koniseti had a tackle for loss on Grice, a sack on Kelly and a fumble recovery on a botched reverse on three consecutive plays.
His penchant for being in the right place at the right time is something defensive coordinator Paul Randolph, who also coaches linebackers, covets. And as last season proved, linebacker depth is vital to the defense the Sun Devils want to run.
Koniseti showed the ability to play three of the four linebacker positions ASU uses: Will, Sam and Devil. He is officially listed as Carl Bradford’s backup at the Devil backer position, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see Koniseti as the first linebacker off the bench if any of the four starters get injured this year.
The thing that impressed me the most was Koniseti’s lateral agility. The tackle for loss on Grice really showed this, as Koniseti started by beating right tackle Jamil Douglas before cutting hard back to his left to keep Grice from bouncing outside. Koniseti also read the reverse well, staying home on the back-side of the field instead of over-pursuing Grice, who took the initial handoff.
Between Koniseti, Carlos Mendoza and Chans Cox, ASU looks to be particularly deep at linebacker this year, but only if Mendoza and Cox can continue to recover from their current injuries.
One thing that is important to remember is neither the offense nor the defense showed anything close to all of their plays on Saturday. With the game televised and open to the public, coach Graham kept things simple, limiting blitzes on defense and limiting motions on offense. The Sun Devils did use a triple-option often, bringing the slot receiver (usually Smith) in motion as the third man, and that intrigues me.
It was a productive afternoon for the Sun Devils, especially since they suffered no serious injuries, and now the coaching staff can focus on strength and conditioning and preparing for the arrival of a highly anticipated recruiting class.