James Morrison is diving headfirst into the running back battle (Photo: ASU)
There are just two more practices--Tuesday and Thursday--before Arizona State's spring game on Saturday April 21st concludes the Sun Devil slate of spring football practices.
The first on-field activities of the Todd Graham-era at ASU have been full of the expected mix of adjustments, scheme installations, learning opportunities and new opportunities, and after 12 practices it can be said that the overall feeling around the team is one of legitimate optimism.
That's far from saying a Rose Bowl is in the near future, but the first tangible efforts combined with the off-field successes have renewed a sense of hope and excitement for 2012 and beyond.
With just about everything about the team new except the uniforms, there are few, if any, important decisions that will be finalized by the end of this week. The position battles, depth charts and such will be a prolonged process played out into fall camp.
That being said, there are some key observations that can be made from the first dozen practices.
1) Michael Eubank is the future...and present
Clearly, the major story line throughout this entire offseason will be the three-man quarterback battle to replace Brock Osweiler as the team's starting quarterback. With a new staff in place, there have been no pre-existing loyalties, and it appears that it will truly be a "best man for the job" situation.
Sophomores Mike Bercovici and Taylor Kelly have seen roughly equal time with the first-team offense as redshirt freshman Michael Eubank. At the start of spring, many felt that one of the two experienced players would win the job while the ultra-talented but raw Eubank would sit another year. However, with Eubank and the ASU offense, the future may be sooner rather than later.
By now, the story of how Eubank was hotly recruited by Graham and offensive coordinator Mike Norvell while both were at Pittsburgh is well known, but that feeling that Eubank is a perfect fit in their offense is beginning to become clear.
The Sun Devils' new offense will feature a lot of running from the quarterback, and the 6'5", 242-pound Eubank is a dynamic and punishing runner, far better in that regard than the other two quarterbacks. He still has a lot of development to do as a passer, but has shown great improvement throughout the spring, and in Saturday's scrimmage he had three touchdown passes.
No matter who wins the competition, they will be making their first collegiate start come September. With his tremendous potential and four years of eligibility, it may be in ASU's best interest to hand him the reigns now.
2) The new quarterback is in good hands with Kevin Ozier
One of the new quarterback's primary challenges will be developing a rapport with a wide receiving corps that lost three key starters and over two-thirds of it's production from last year. There is a vast amount of talent at the position, but it's entirely untested in terms of significant playing time.
Nevertheless, a go-to target has quietly been emerging this spring.
Junior Kevin Ozier is not the type of player who is going to wow anyone with incredible ability, but he's becoming the team's best all-around option. The former walk-on caught 11 passes for 169 yards and a touchdown last season, and his hard offseason work was rewarded by Graham this February with a scholarship. He's returned his coach's favor with strong, sure-handed play that has Ozier in line for a starting job.
Ozier has good size at 6'2" and 200 pounds, runs sharp routes and has caught the ball consistently well. Should he continue the improvement he has shown throughout his career into the fall, he could be the team's top receiving threat.
3) ASU's deep backfield just got deeper
After the additions of four-star prospects D.J. Foster and Marion Grice in ASU's 2012 recruiting class, many believed they would team with returning star Cameron Marshall and a recovered Deantre Lewis to form an incredible backfield. That potent foursome may have some company.
With Marshall out for the spring while recovering from ankle surgery, the "bottom" part of the depth chart has had a chance to shine.
Junior Kyle Middlebrooks was an early star of the spring, as he looked to put a thoroughly disappointing 2011 behind him. The scatback showed off improved running ability, slashing his way for consistent gains and putting himself into the conversation for playing time. However, he suffered a shoulder injury in an early scrimmage and has been sidelined for the remainder following surgery.
This has opened the door for one of the spring's biggest stars, senior James Morrison. Looking to shake off three underachieving years, the 5'11", 214-pounder has run hard and with authority, earning the nickname of "Tank" from Coach Graham. Morrison has positioned himself very well for playing time if he can continue his effective running.
Lewis has yet to show the explosive burst that made him so lethal as a freshman in 2010, but his recovery has been promising, as he has been effective thus far. Even Marcus Washington, who has seen a lot of time at H-back, has been a productive runner, as he led the team in rushing with 99 yards in Saturday's scrimmage (stats courtesy of DevilsDigest.com)
4) The defense is walking the walk
When Graham and his staff took over, among their first promises was a pledge to feature an aggresive, attacking defense. So far, they have delivered.
Typically, in the earliest parts of a season, the defense is ahead of the offense, but the performance of the unit is still impressive. One of the most promising players, Carl Bradford, has seen time at both defensive end and linebacker, and his ability to make plays in the offense's backfield has been a consistent presence during the spring.
The losses in the linebacking corps, with the loss of last year's top four contributors leaving many to assume the unit would be Brandon Magee and little else, has been a pleasant surprise. In particular, juniors Kipeli Koniseti, Brandon Johnson and Grandville Taylor have been impressive. Koniseti has seen a lot of time as the starting middle linebacker as Magee recovers from last season's Achilles injury, and has continually been a fearsome presence against the run and as a pass rusher. Taylor and Johnson have been among the team leaders in tackles in nearly every scrimmage.
With talented juco newcomers Steffon Martin and Chris Young arriving this August adding their ferocious skills, the defense could be a disruptive force this fall.
5) Field goal attempts are still cause for concern
Since Thomas Weber won the Lou Groza Award as a freshman in 2007, ASU's field goal kicking has been a model of inconsistency. That continued in painful fashion in 2011 when Alex Garoutte took over for Weber.
Garoutte was--at best--streaky. He had streaks of six and four made field goals, but also was a supremely costly 0-for-3 against UCLA, and has a terrible 21-yard miss against Washington State. On the year, he was 15-for-22, a less than enthralling 68.2%, and had four misses under 40 yards.
Hopes that a year of experience under his kicking shoe would lead to greater consistency are in danger of being dashed, at least through the spring. He's mixed in some disheartening misses along with some excellent makes, and recently extra points have become an (mis)adventure due to blocks. These continued struggles have resulted in reserve kickers Parker Flynn and Matt Kirwan some kicks.
While the end result of these kicking woes is uncertain, Graham may have to start thinking about going for it on fourth down rather than attempt mid-to-long range field goals.
Follow me on Twitter @BDenny29 for the latest on ASU football