Spring games aren't normally known for trash talk, exciting plays and winner-take-all rewards, but don't tell that to Todd Graham. The Sun Devil football coach is looking for more intensity in his program's spring game, and he's introduced a new format to make sure competition in April is at an all-time high.
Instead of holding a glorified practice, the Sun Devils will take part in a high-stakes scrimmage in which the winning side will earn t-bone steaks and the losing squad will eat tuna fish sandwiches.
Traditionally, the Sun Devils have trotted out their first-team offense against their first-team defense and so on for a few series and called it a day. That's not the case this year as the coaching staff split up the entire roster evenly with a mix of starters and second-team players expected to battle.
"I just thought it would create more competition, which it has," Graham said of the new format. "It has with our coaching staff, it has with our players, and now, they're on a team. It's not the defense against the offense, they're on a team."
Graham said that he liked the format in the past, but that it needed a bit of tinkering to create more excitement. This year, it isn't just the players taking sides, it's the coaches too. Mike Norvell and Chris Ball will coach the 'Gold' team while Chris Thomsen and Keith Patterson will head up the 'Maroon' side.
"It's been interesting to see the sneakiness," Graham said. "There's been a lot of sneakiness around the offense, Coach Thomsen and Coach Patterson had some closed door meetings. They can run whatever they want, they can do whatever they want."
Graham is encouraging his coaching staff to make the most of the players it has available, which means fans could see players like Marcus Hardison, Marcus Washington and even Damarious Randall play on both sides of the ball in certain situations.
The players have embraced the atmosphere and leaders on each team are telling their teammates to avoid talking to the other side this week. Both squads are confident in their abilities to earn the prized steaks, and based on Thursday's practice, it looked like the coaching staffs were going all in as well.
"I want it to be entertaining for our fans, I want it to be exciting for our players, but really more than anything it's about team-building," Graham said.
D.J. Calhoun still shining
More than a month after he made his debut on the practice field, freshman linebacker and early enrollee D.J. Calhoun continues to impress the Sun Devil coaching staff. Calhoun has demonstrated a firm understanding of the basic defensive principles and spent the vast majority of the spring taking repetitions with the first-team defense.
Todd Graham continues to gush about the Will linebacker in his post-practice comments and thinks that the experience he gained this spring is extraordinarily beneficial.
"That's been huge in his development and he's been a big positive and I think you're going to see him next fall, he's going to be way ahead of the game," Graham.
So far ahead, in fact, that the coaching staff will expect him to take on a leadership role. Graham said the expectation is for Calhoun to help transition fellow recruits from his class to the defense and help them develop and learn. With a spring under his belt, Graham believes Calhoun can provide a relatable voice to freshmen going through what he just did this spring.
"What I've told him, he can help Connor (Humphreys), he can help (Tashon) Smallwood, Chad Adams, those guys that are coming in defensively that are obviously going to be impactful," Graham said.
The Sun Devils are hoping Calhoun is as strong of a leader as he is a learner because they will lean heavily on the players coming in this fall. Arizona State needs reinforcements all across the board defensively and that will become evident with the amount of walk-ons taking the field this Saturday.
Even with a depleted defense, Graham says he isn't worried about getting his team up to speed. He cited Will Sutton and Carl Bradford as players who did not accomplish much before he arrived to Tempe, but quickly became two of the most important players on the team once they received the coaching they needed.
"We've got talent that's coming in, we're going to be inexperienced, we're going to be young, we just got to coach them," Graham said. "We did pretty well this spring against a pretty good offense."
Editor's Note: A complete Spring Game preview will be released on Friday with updates on game rosters and players' comments on who they think will earn the rights to t-bone steaks.