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Spring practice notebook: heading into the spring game

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Arizona State football finished their final practice before Saturday’s fan fest and spring game with a quiet day on the field.  Thursday’s practice was highlighted by All-American Will Sutton being selected to wear Pat Tillman’s camouflaged No. 42 jersey, an honor bestowed upon him by head coach Todd Graham prior to practice, as well as a 40-yard touchdown run by tailback Marion Grice.

For the most part the team executed practice quickly and efficiently, finishing nearly 30 minutes ahead of schedule.  Here are some of my takeaways from the final practice before the spring game.

Taylor Kelly is the quarterback, period

A lot has been made of Michael Bercovici’s performance this spring; after all, he was the leading candidate to start for the Sun Devils at this point last year, before Kelly, who entered the spring game third on the depth chart, blew both Bercovici and Michael Eubank away both in the game and over summer.

Bercovici shined in some areas. His arm strength is a grade above Kelly’s, especially in the intermediate game, and it showed several times as Bercovici was able to step up and drive the ball on 15-20 yard back-shoulder verticals and wheel routes.

But his accuracy in the short to intermediate game, where Kelly thrives, was lacking, especially on throws over the middle.  Twice, 3-back Darwin Rogers made diving grabs to keep Bercovici’s drive alive.  The redshirt sophomore also had a screen pass knocked down; had he been a half-second quicker, he would’ve had a touchdown pass to Grice, who had blockers and no defenders in his way.

Kelly, meanwhile, rarely missed his targets.  His one bad throw, a check down to 3-back Chris Coyle, was still caught, but Kelly left Coyle exposed and corner Osahon Irabor put a nice hit on the big receiver.  Kelly always missed in places where it couldn’t hurt his team, and his velocity actually looked improved when he had time to set his feet and throw from the pocket.

Bottom line: barring a breakdown of epic proportions, Bercovici is simply putting distance between himself and Eubank for the backup job.

Marion Grice got better, and that should scare the Pac-12

Grice had the highlight play of the day on the field, but is anyone really surprised at this point?

Head coach Todd Graham even talked about the amazing number of ISO’s run this spring, and the fact that the defense still can’t contain Grice is a credit to both the offensive line and Grice himself.  On this particular run, Grice cut right through the A gap, making SPUR linebacker Chris Young look like a drunk stumbling out of a bar, then exploding down the middle of the field before either safety could close the angle.

Grice is stronger than he appears, has great vision and understands the necessity of making one cut and exploding.  Dancing running backs tend to be fumble-prone and injury-prone, and Todd Graham likes aggressive players anyway.  Plus, nobody on the team has a better eye for the end zone than Grice.

Grice also looked great catching the ball out of the backfield, both on designed patterns and on broken plays.  Between Grice and DJ Foster, it is possible ASU could have the best running back duo in the Pac-12 this season, if not the country.  I would be shocked if Grice isn’t the star of Saturday’s scrimmage.

The CBE has arrived

For as much attention as Will Sutton gets, and he deserves every second of it, the Sun Devils have another defender who should compete for several post-season awards barring an injury.  Carl Bradford, ASU’s DEVIL linebacker, tormented all three quarterbacks Thursday, collecting at least 2.5 sacks and collapsing the pocket several more times.  He consistently beat senior left tackle Evan Finkenberg off the edge.

After practice, Sutton said Bradford has already warned him that he is planning on leading the team in both sacks and tackles for loss, and that the “CBE, or Carl Bradford Era, has begun.”  One thing I know is this friendly rivalry is nothing but great news for Sun Devil fans.  Sutton also said he “missed eight sacks last season,” and vowed not to let that happen again, saying he is aiming for at least 20 this year.

The scheme versatility that co-defensive coordinators Paul Randolph and Chris Ball bring to the table reminds me of what the San Francisco 49ers do with All-Pros Justin Smith and Aldon Smith.  Similar to the 49ers, Sutton can line up outside on early downs, pushing the pocket and disturbing the run, allowing Bradford to standup and hold down the fort on the outside.  On obvious passing downs, Sutton can move inside and disrupt the pocket from the inside, where he will get a majority of his sacks, or force the QB to scramble outside, where Bradford can cleanup the leftovers.

With the continued development of Sutton, Bradford, Junior Onyeali and Davon Coleman, along with the stellar pass-rushing recruits due to arrive this summer, I see no reason why the Sun Devils can’t and won’t surpass their total of 53 team sacks next season.  Unfortunately, this could also mean a lot of quick whistles Saturday.

Who can stretch the field?

The Sun Devils’ biggest weakness right now is clearly at receiver.  I don’t see a number one, and I’m not sure the coaching staff does either.  Kevin Ozier, a 6-2, 200-pound senior, was a walk-on until last season.  He is penciled in as the go-to wide receiver by default right now, but he lacks the route-running ability to separate from top corners.  He does have strong hands, and he attacks the ball at the highest point, so the value is there, but Ozier should really be a complimentary receiver used in the red zone.

Rick Smith has great straight-line speed, but I wonder if he can create separation off the LOS and out of his breaks.  If he can, he has a chance to develop into a nice slot receiver who can work underneath and turn the ball up field for big plays.  But his diminutive size (5-9, 165) will make it hard for Smith to be relied upon.

Of course ASU does return its top-three pass catchers from last season, but Chris Coyle, Marion Grice and DJ Foster can’t be relied upon as much if offensive coordinator Mike Norvell is serious about expanding the playbook and adding more vertical reads to Taylor Kelly’s progressions.

While everyone awaits Jaelen Strong, the Southern California JUCO transfer who will arrive this summer, I will be watching Darwin Rogers, a former quarterback in high school who played at Yuma Community College before transferring to Arizona State last year.

Rogers came on strong in the later parts of the season, and was used aggressively in Thursday’s practice.  He showed good burst down the seam, a knack for catching the ball with his hands, not his body, and an ability to shield himself from defenders, deflecting hits and getting the ever-important yards-after-contact.  Rogers is the one guy who stood out to me the most on Thursday as a player I didn’t expect to shine, but clearly did in every aspect of the game.

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