Can Kyle Middlebrooks run to daylight after a lousy 2011? (Photo by Norm Hall/Getty Images)
One of the benefits of a new coaching staff is a clean slate for the entire roster. With no prior allegiances to players, depth chart rankings or recruiting ties, a wise staff allows a true meritocracy to be established.
This is thankfully the case with Todd Graham and staff at Arizona State. He's here to change the program's culture and to win games, and whichever players give him and the team the best chance to do so will see the field.
There are many players on the current roster who now have a chance to cast aside a disappointing past for a chance at a productive future. For the purposes of this list, we'll omit guys coming off major injuries like Brandon Magee and Deantre Lewis and stick to players who disappointed based on performance.
Kyle Middlebrooks - Running Back
As a freshman in 2010, Middlebrooks had some success in spot duty as a change of pace scatback. That, combined with a flashy spring practice session coming into 2011 led many to believe the he'd become a vital cog of the Sun Devil offense. After Lewis' injury, those expectations were raised further.
Unfortunately, Middlebrooks failed to live up to the task. He ran the ball hesitantly and was unable to deliver upon the explosive potential he hinted about in 2010. In the 12 games against FBS teams, he failed to top 20 yards rushing in a game and averaged just 3.6 yards-per-carry for the year. His ineffectiveness through more of the rushing burden on Cameron Marshall and his tender ankles.
Middlebrooks seemed to take advantage of the clean slate offered by Graham by being perhaps the most dynamic player during the early part of this spring's practice. However, a shoulder injury suffered during a scrimmage required surgery and shelved him for the duration.
A loaded backfield may hinder his chance for carries, but if he can pick up his play from where he left off this spring, the coaches will find a way to get the ball in his hands.
Deveron Carr - Cornerback
By now, it's common knowledge that one of the primary culprits for ASU's second half collapse in 2011 was the play of the secondary...or rather, the lack of it. No player was immune to terrific bouts of inconsistency and costly lapses.
Perhaps the most disappointing of those was Carr, then a junior. He had shown flashes of developing into the type of corner that could seal off a half field for a defense. Yet, his 2011 season was characterized by blown plays and maddening inconsistency. For every pass deflected in the endzone against USC, for example, there were multiple long completions given up.
This spring, while other starting corner Osahon Irabor thrived, Carr was battling to keep his job from newly eligible Robert Nelson. For now, Carr has a hold on the job, but it's far from set in stone. If he can deliver on his potential, a tandem of Carr and Irabor would provide a fantastic boost to the defense.
Junior Onyeali - Devilbacker
In 2010, Onyeali burst onto the scene as a true freshman with 6.5 sacks, becoming the second consecutive Sun Devil to win the Pac-10's Defensive Freshman of the Year. With the hype headed into 2011, much was expected of Onyeali.
However, a torn meniscus cost him four games and he never was able to do much. In his eight games, he made just 11 tackles with a single sack. He was then suspended by then-head coach Dennis Erickson for insubordination prior to the Maaco Bowl, a disciplinary measure upheld to this day by Graham.
To his credit, Onyeali has made significant progress on the reinstatement conditions put forth by Graham and should be back for August camp.
Onyeali is now in great shape, and with his size (5'11", 245 pounds), speed and pass rushing ability, he is a perfect fit for the hybrid defensive end/outside linebacker spot known as the "Devilbacker" in the new ASU defense. With the new attacking scheme of the defense, a Devilbacker tandem of Onyeali and starter Carl Bradford could wreak havoc upon Pac-12 offenses in the fall.
Corey Adams - Defensive Tackle
It seems like an annual tradition: labeling the upcoming season as the "breakout year" for Corey Adams. His career has largely been defined by a never ending series of injuries that have kept the "potential" tag to the Scottsdale Saguaro product. Through three seasons, the talented defensive tackle has just made 29 tackles in 30 career games.
Last season, he played in all 13 games, making one start against in Week 2 against Missouri and was a non-factor.
He's been given a new chance under Graham. Nagged by injuries through spring, he managed to rebound during the latter half of the practices, and ended spring as the listed starter at nose tackle.
At 6'3", 273 pounds, he is undersized to play the nose when ASU goes to a three-man front, but he has the skills and athleticism to contribute in 4-3 sets.
Keelan Johnson - Safety
Like Adams, Johnson has been tagged with "potential" throughout his career, an indication of unrealized production. Over his three seasons, he's played in 37 games, starting six, including three last year. At times, he displayed the top-notch athleticism and playmaking ability many had hoped to see, but followed those moments up with devastating and costly lapses.
Now a senior, Johnson has been given a great and final chance to leave his mark in Tempe. A strong spring landed him a starting spot at safety alongside Alden Darby, but with the ultra-talented Chris Young joining the team this fall, he'll need a strong camp to keep the job.
If Johnson can finally pair consistency with his talent, the backline of the Sun Devil defense should become a potent playmaking force and avoid the letdown from a season ago.