ASU Football: Defense taking shape in early spring practices

The Arizona State defense may have lost nine starters, but Todd Graham is adjusting to make sure the team is where it needs to be come fall.

Spring football isn't a time when competitions end and starting jobs are set in stone, but rather an opportunity for football teams to determine how to best prepare for the fall season.

At Arizona State, Todd Graham and the Sun Devils are using spring practices to figure out new ways to utilize their personnel while maintaining a commitment to the core values that Graham has instilled in the program.

"Good second day, we talked about again, unfinished business, leave no doubt," Graham said after Thursday's practice. "That's exceptional attitude, exceptional effort, exceptional service mentality and exceptional toughness."

It's no secret that the Sun Devils have plenty of voids to fill on defense, and right now, Arizona State is missing a handful of players expected to be key contributors this fall. Aside from early enrollees D.J. Calhoun and Edmond Boateng, the Sun Devils are missing their entire 2014 recruiting class which should provide immediate reinforcements.

Because of that, the Sun Devils are slightly limited in the options they can explore personnel-wise, so they have to focus on meeting the demands that Graham has set forth in terms of tempo, pace, and discipline. While many players have spent the offseason hard at work in the weight room, the team as a whole still has a ways to go in meeting the expectations.

"It was a good second day but not to my satisfaction," Graham said. "But again, this is an exciting group to work with and I'm telling you we really moved that standard up when it comes to that."

Practice Notes

A New Defensive Star?

With the losses of Will Sutton and Carl Bradford, Arizona State is searching for a household name who can rack up sacks and tackles for loss on the defensive line. It's too early to predict who will emerge, but coach Todd Graham could be tipping his hand with the way he's talking up defensive end Marcus Hardison.

"He's the best pass rusher out here, right now," Graham said of Hardison. "We'll utilize his skills and we didn't even start moving him. That dude can move. He is in shape, he's 304 pounds, 6-foot-4, can flat move, can flat rush the passer."

Graham has high expectations for the junior college transfer who had an underwhelming year last season. Hardison was highly touted coming out of junior college, but his coach admitted that the Sun Devil staff didn't make the most of Hardison's transition.

"We're leaning on him big time. We didn't transition him as fast as we usually do, you know with JC guys," Graham said. "He had a good year, not a great year. He's going to have a great, great year next year."

The Sun Devils have shown adaptations to their defensive scheme in the first two spring practices and Graham said Hardison's skill set is a major reason why. Graham said the Sun Devils will stunt with Hardison and get him on the move, and work him to both the field and boundary sides of the defensive alignment to maximize his abilities.

"We adapted what we we're doing to Will's (Sutton) talents and Carl's (Bradford) talents," Graham said. "Marcus is the one guy right now, he's going to be a guy that we're going to adapt to his skills."

Waiting in the Wings

Hardison is a standout on defense, but he won't be able to rest on his laurels. Early enrollee Edmond Boateng has ingratiated himself with the coaching staff and his teammates and has made quite an impression on Graham already.

Boateng entered Arizona State in January weighing 260 pounds and has already bulked up to 270. With a goal of reaching a playing weight of 285, the Sun Devils plan on Boateng being an asset at defensive end as soon as this fall.

"Tremendous character, tremendous discipline. We did a great job recruiting the right guy there," Graham said. "He's a guy that I consider right now, if you asked me, he'd be in the starting rotation."

Even though Hardison is the clear-cut front-runner for the starting defensive end job, Graham considers the first two men on the depth chart as starters at that position. He says the past few seasons have been an aberration, because Carl Bradford is the rare type who can play every down on the defensive line.

"I've been doing this a long time, I've never had a guy like Carl (Bradford)," Graham said. "He played every down. People don't do that. There are very few people who can do that. He was kind of an exceptional person to be able to do that. Marcus (Hardison) is not a guy that can play every snap, he's a little big. So Boateng will be a guy that we're counting on him to be a starter."

The Man in the Middle

Arizona State suffered tough losses on the defensive line, although the offensive line was hit by graduation as well. Left tackle Evan Finkenberg and center Kody Koebensky have moved on, and the Sun Devils are using spring practice as an opportunity to evaluate their potential replacements.

One of the pleasant surprises so far has been the continued improvement of center Nick Kelly, who has shown versatile athleticism that could translate very well into Mike Norvell's offense. The Sun Devils put Kelly on the move in offensive position drills and coach Chris Thomsen was noticeably excited about Kelly's progress during drills.

The physical aspect of the game is where Kelly is excelling, but he'll need to bring a strong mentality to the heart of the offensive line to avoid a drop-off.

"Smart, tough, physical. He's a guy that we have a lot of confidence in that needs to replace one of the smartest football players that I've ever been around in Kody Koebensky," Graham said.

If Kelly can learn the finer points of the position, the Sun Devils believe Kelly will pick up right where Koebensky left off. With a more athletic player in the middle, Arizona State may even see improvement.

"Nick's a guy that has some physicality there that I think we can improve at that position with his physical toughness, his flexibility and his explosion," Graham said.

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