Throughout most of Arizona State's spring football practices, much of the focus has been on the defensive line and the team's replacements for Will Sutton and Carl Bradford.
Changes to the defensive front are certainly significant stories, but in Arizona State's four losses last season, it was often the play of the offensive line that proved to be the Sun Devils' downfall. That's why the losses of multi-year starters Evan Finkenberg and Kody Koebensky on the offensive line could prove to be just as pivotal.
In three of Arizona State's four defeats in 2013, the Sun Devils averaged fewer than 3.2 yards per carry. In the Sun Devils' other loss, the Holiday Bowl game against Texas Tech, the offense didn't threaten the Red Raiders as Kliff Kingsbury's squad held Taylor Kelly and Co. to just 23 points.
Finding fill-ins for Finkenberg and Koebensky is a critical task for Arizona State this spring, and so far, the Sun Devils have liked what they've seen. Head coach Todd Graham said last Tuesday that the Sun Devils can go eight-deep on the depth chart with a five-man front, and he indicated that offensive coordinator Mike Norvell has the freedom to explore different combinations.
Left guard Jamil Douglas is entering his third season as a starter, and Douglas' athleticism and versatility is a major reason why the Sun Devils are able to take a look at different players on the offensive front. Douglas has the ability to play both guard and tackle, and he maintains he feels confident at any position.
"I like it, I'm comfortable at left tackle, I don't mind it and it's just going to better myself in the long run," Douglas said in an interview last week. "I can be more versatile and play two different spots."
Norvell believes that Douglas has already demonstrated he can be a physical presence at guard, so in spring practices, the coaching staff has experimented with moving the California native over to tackle to stretch his limits. If Douglas masters both positions, the Sun Devils become that much deeper at positions where they need to get bigger.
"In spring ball, I know his comfort at guard, he's been there for two years and he's got great talent there, but now I want to stretch that and be able to get him enough work at tackle," Norvell said.
One of the factors playing into the coaching staff's decisions is the play of guard Christian Westerman. Westerman transferred to Arizona State from Auburn prior to last season and after sitting out every game prior to the Holiday Bowl, the former 4-star recruit has excelled in his practice time this spring.
Westerman is a natural left guard, and his presence means that two of Arizona State's top linemen share the same position. With right guard Vi Teofilo enjoying a solid spring and the Sun Devils' still exploring options at left tackle, it only makes sense for Douglas to devote some time to honing a new craft.
"We have a bunch of combinations that we've been trying out," Douglas said. "There's about three different combinations that we can do and that's something we haven't been able to do in a long time."
Though Westerman is competing for Douglas' guard spot, Douglas doesn't harbor any animosity toward his teammate. He wants to do what's best for the team, and if that means playing tackle and letting Westerman play guard, then he'll do everything he can to help teach Westerman the nuances of the offense.
"We (Douglas and Westerman) have a great relationship. We work out together, we're always together on the field," Douglas said. "I try and coach him up as much as possible, get him rolling because I think he can do great things to help us here."
Douglas' leadership and willingness to succeed shows the maturity he's developed throughout his time at Arizona State. Douglas believes the coaching staff has put him in positions to lead, and he's excited about stepping forward this year and anchoring the offensive line.
"Coach Norvell and Coach Graham want me to be a leader of the offense, so it's just me stepping up and being consistent everyday and just leading by example with the guys," Douglas said.
With Douglas' team-first attitude, Arizona State has taken extended looks at Evan Goodman at left tackle, Westerman at left guard, and Nick Kelly at center. Those three players appear to have the upper-hand on winning the two open spots vacated by Finkenberg and Koebensky.
As the Sun Devils' discern which combination of linemen will ultimately form the starting five, Douglas wants the unit to maintain a singular focus. Regardless of who plays and who starts, everything the offensive line does should help push the team forward toward its goal of winning a national championship. Douglas says stats, numbers and personal accolades don't matter, as long as the offensive line can help produce victories.
"I want to win a national championship," Douglas said. "Individual goals, if we win a national championship, a Rose Bowl championship, all those other things will take care of itself."