College football spring practice has concluded across the nation, and Sun Devil fans have to survive the summer until official practices begin in August. ASU held its spring game, in front of a reported 6,386 fans, and spring practice officially concluded for the Sun Devils on April 18 with a padless session. It is time to go back and assess the ASU Devils Den football podcast “Three Tines to Spring 2013 Practice”.
First Tine of Spring Practice: Improving Run Defense
The defense didn’t show any new formations and any new blitzes during the televised spring game, but the coaches did speak about the team’s focus on stopping the run, especially with games against Stanford and Wisconsin to begin the season. One key to stopping the run is to create depth in the defensive line so players don’t get tired and beaten. Gannon Conway stepped up this spring and selflessly did all the necessary dirty work tying up offensive linemen to stop the run. Conway ran with the first team for most of the spring.
New defensive line coach Jackie Shipp aggressively coached technique to all defensive linemen, and he seems to fit in naturally with Head Coach Graham and Defensive Coordinator/Linebackers Coach Paul Randolph. Will Sutton and Jaxon Hood will anchor the defensive line. Personnel, different formations, and updated depth charts will come out more in the late summer as Junior Onyeali and Kisimia Jagne will return from injury and junior college transfer Marcus Hardison and Demetrius Cherry will be part of the program.
The coaching staff did make a major change toward the end of spring. Mo Latu has moved back to defensive tackle where he started his Sun Devil career under Dennis Erickson. Latu immediately becomes the back-up nose to Jaxon Hood. While his technique was rusty in the spring game, Latu was fun to watch as he clogged up the middle and fought through multiple people. Latu immediately adds depth and run-stopping ability.
Recall that last season, the Sun Devil defense finished 77th in the FBS with their 172 rushing yards allowed per game. At the end of last season, seven of the top ten teams in the nation finished in the top 17 in defensive rushing yards allowed per game: #1 Alabama (1st), #3 Ohio State (14th), #4 Notre Dame (11th), #7 Stanford (5th), #8 South Carolina (17th), #9 Florida (4th), #10 Florida State (3rd). It is easy to get lost in all of the sack numbers and tackles for loss this defense puts up, but stopping the run is the most critical aspect to a successful defensive football team.
Second Tine of Spring Practice: Define and Solidify the New Offensive Line
The released spring depth chart and the spring game had the same first team offensive line: Evan Finkenberg (LT), Sil Ajawara (LG), Kody Koebensky (C), Vi Teofilo (RG), and Jamil Douglas (RT). This was the first team five for most of the spring, but for a couple practices, Ajawara was tried out at right tackle in hopes of keeping Douglas at his 2012 position of left guard. For 2013, Douglas will be moving from left guard to right tackle where the Sun Devils hope to take advantage of his athleticism and strength. The surprise of the spring was Ajawara who really committed to the weight program and looks like a new player. Ajawara won a starting guard spot ahead of Mo Latu, Devin Goodman, and Stephon McCray (who was out this spring due to injury).
The big news from the offensive line was a late breaking spring development. Second team center/guard Mo Latu was moved to the defensive line. Not only does Latu moving to the defensive line help the run defense, as discussed in the First Tine of Spring Practice, but it is a direct result of the solid play from 2013 signee and early enrollee Nick Kelly, who has now taken over as second team center. Kelly will anchor a second unit which includes Evan Goodman (LT), Devin Goodman (LG), and Tyler Sulka (RT). Christian Westerman, who was an absolute physical monster during the spring game, was practicing as the (RG) with this unit, but as a Division 1 transfer, he is ineligible for the 2013 season. Expect McCray to take that spot in the fall when he fully recovers from the torn meniscus suffered this winter.
While the offensive line has solidified in personnel, it needs to continue to develop in communication, protection, and discipline this summer and into the fall. The offensive line committed several false starts during the spring game, and the ASU defense was able to get to the quarterback during the spring game without many elaborate blitzes.
Third Tine of Spring Practice: Developing More Quarterback and Wide Receiver Timing and Comfort
As seen during the spring game, this is still a work in progress as H-back Chris Coyle was the leading receiver. A common theme from offensive coaches was somebody needed to step up at wide receiver. However, wide receivers were struggling to get open, especially downfield, and there were too many drops on the field. Kevin Ozier had a solid spring game with seven catches, and Ozier will continue to be the big possession receiver. Richard Smith, looking stronger with the same tremendous quickness, will be a threat on the field when he gets the ball. However, due to his height, defensive backs can “catch-up” if beaten deep. Alonzo Agwuenu and Gary Chambers have tremendous physical traits, but they are not creating separation or catching the ball consistently.
In order to see a more dynamic Sun Devil offense in 2013, quarterback and wide receiver development is critical. Wide receivers need to be able to create space for Coyle and running backs Marion Grice and DJ Foster to work inside. While timing and catching can be worked on during the summer and into the fall by this current group of wide receivers, a new group of Sun Devil outside playmakers arrives in the fall. Certainly, this spring showed that 2013 signees and junior college transfers Jaelen Strong and Joe Morris will be expected to compete immediately in the two deep. In-coming freshman Ronald Lewis, Cameron Smith, and Ellis Jefferson, each with their own different, yet exciting skills, will compete for playing time.