Who knew that an 11-piece puzzle could be so hard to solve? While there are certainly more than 11 elements to Arizona State's defense, the Sun Devils used Tuesday's practice to experiment with some of their defensive players in different positions.
D.J. Calhoun, Chans Cox, and Marcus Hardison were just three of the players that switched spots on Tuesday after spending the majority of their first three practices in fixed roles.
Arizona State head coach Todd Graham is looking for the perfect mix of his 11 most talented defenders, and even with Tuesday's change of pace, the Sun Devils still have a ways to go. Taylor Kelly and the offense dominated the team periods as the defense struggled to find a consistent rhythm.
"The offense tore it up today," Graham said. "You can tell today, it's practice four, so a little bumps and bruises, a little bit of inexperience on defense, a little tired body language and a lot of explosive plays today offensively. Again, we're going against a really good unit so we learned today about how you respond."
Tuesday was the first time this spring that the offense was clearly ahead of the defense, but Graham admits the coaching staff made a conscious decision to set it up that way. After losing nine starters from last year's unit, the coaches wanted the defense to experience success before the offense took advantage of its inexperience.
"We kind of scripted the first three practices for the defense to have success," Graham said. "We scripted that because they need to have a little bit of success and today, it was just all equal. The offense dominated which wasn't surprising."
During one team period, Taylor Kelly completed five of six passing attempts including long completions to Jaelen Strong and De'Marieya Nelson. Mike Bercovici also impressed on Tuesday and found Ellis Jefferson and Cameron Smith for touchdowns.
"Mike Bercovici is a guy that really stuck out to me in practice, a guy, hard to keep him off the field the way he's throwing the football," Graham said.
The Sun Devils don't have a quarterback competition, yet they do have a number of positions that are up for grabs and a variety of players shifting spots in an effort to try and find the right fit.
Through the first three spring practices, Arizona State kept its personnel very much consistent. On Tuesday, the coaching staff began to tinker and that started with the defensive line.
Marcus Hardison kicked inside to the Tiger position, which Will Sutton manned last season. Demetrius Cherry started out there last week, but Cherry was relegated to the second team when Hardison played on the interior.
In Hardison's absence, Viliami Latu received an extended look at the end position. Latu also lined up as the first-team Devil backer at times on Tuesday, and his versatility should help him see playing time early next season. Latu and Chans Cox both aligned as defensive ends and Devil backers, and the Sun Devils showed more 4-3 looks than they usually do.
One of the reasons the Sun Devils are looking at 4-3 fronts is because Graham prefers Latu and Cox to rush the quarterback from a 9-technique which is more toward the outside of the line of scrimmage than the 7-technique that Carl Bradford rushed from last season. It remains to be seen how the defense will continue to adapt, but the coaching staff is high on both Latu and Cox's ability to play at the line of scrimmage.
He's just 17 years old, but early enrollee D.J. Calhoun spent much of Tuesday's practice running with the first team defense. Calhoun started last week as the second-team Spur linebacker behind Laiu Moeakiola, but he switched over to the Will linebacker spot and supplanted Antonio Longino on the first team.
"D.J. Calhoun, he might have been the bright spot of today for the defense," Graham said. "Made a lot of plays, flying around, doing some good things."
Calhoun wasn't the only linebacker on the move, as Eriquel Florence switched from the Sam linebacker spot over to Devil backer. Florence looked a bit slow last week as the second-team Sam behind Salamo Fiso, and at his current weight, Devil backer could be a more natural fit.
As Florence moved out of his Sam spot, Alani Latu (brother of Viliami), took reps with the second-team defense at Sam. Alani Latu can play the Will position as well, but the Sun Devils will likely keep him at Sam because they lack depth behind Fiso.
Finally, the linebacking unit welcomed a friendly face on Tuesday as Marcus Washington switched over to the Spur linebacker spot after spending his first three practices as a tight end. Washington is a big, physical athlete, and Graham said he wanted to take a look at utilizing Washington's athleticism in different ways.
"We looked at Marcus Washington. He's too good of an athlete to sit over there and not play so we're going to take a look at him and see if he can get in," Graham said.
There weren't very many changes in the defensive backfield on Tuesday, although the Sun Devils did take a longer look at Marcus Ball. Ball is still wearing a green non-contact jersey, but that didn't stop him from taking first-team repetitions during a team period at the boundary safety spot.
Ball began last season as a field safety and likely would have started the season there if not for a shoulder injury. Now, with the emergence of Damarious Randall, Ball has transitioned over to the boundary safety position in an effort to fit the puzzle.