Saturday's spring game marked the conclusion of organized on-field activities for the Sun Devils until fall camp opens in August.
Over the course of the 15 practices held during the past month, the team has come a long way in it's ongoing transformation from the underachieving group under Dennis Erickson to the ultimate goal of a high-octane, disciplined contender under Todd Graham.
As with any offseason, but especially one that includes such turnover both on and off the field, there are a number of position battles, with players vying for playing time and starting jobs. The most obvious duel is at quarterback, where Michael Eubank, Taylor Kelly and Mike Bercovici are battling to replace Brock Osweiler.
However, while that competition has (rightly) received the majority of attention, here are five more that warrant a close watch.
1) Cornerback: Robert Nelson v Deveron Carr
Osahon Irabor was one of the standout performers throughout spring, and has seemed to lock up one of the starting cornerback spots. Who will be his partner across the field will be decided this fall.
Deveron Carr has been a two-year starter and has 21 career starts under his belt. He has excellent measurable, standing 5'11" and 193 pounds with good quickness and speed. He has shown flashes of being a top corner at times, notably in last season's USC game. However, he has been plagued by inconsistency that has resulted in glaring lapses in coverage. His performance during spring ball was hampered a bit by some nagging injuries.
In contrast to the big-bodied Carr, Robert Nelson is a different type of corner. Standing 5'10" and just 167 pounds, Nelson is a pure coverage corner, relying on technique and tremendous ball skills to blanket receivers. Having sat out 2011 after transferring from Louisiana-Monroe, Nelson had a terrific spring and earned some time with the starting unit.
After the late-season secondary slump, ASU fans will not be tolerant of continued coverage issues. Regardless of the outcome of their battle this fall, both will see a lot of time, but whoever can provide the greatest consistency will nab the job.
2) Running back: Primary Back-up to Cameron Marshall
When you become the first Sun Devil to rush for over 1,000 yards since 2006 and tie the school record with 18 rushing touchdowns, it's safe to say the the starting running back job is your's, even if you miss all of spring football recovering from minor surgery.
Such is the case with Cameron Marshall. Who will be the first guy to spell him from what figures to be a loaded backfield will be a fun situation to monitor this fall.
When spring camp opened, the diminutive Kyle Middlebrooks excelled. After a terrible 2011, he rebounded by running with speed, quickness and authority. However, he suffered a shoulder injury early on and missed the remainder of practices.
This opened the door for James Morrision, who had three disappointing seasons so far under his belt. He ran with power and decisiveness and became arguably the star of the spring. His running was so impressive, it earned him the nickname of "Tank" from Graham. Along with Morrison, Deantre Lewis performed well in his first action since missing last season due to a gunshot wound. While his signature explosiveness has not yet returned, he still had a strong camp as both a runner and receiver.
Entering the fold this fall will be two members of ASU's 2012 recruiting class. D.J. Foster, from local Saguaro High school, is a dynamic speedster who can score anytime he touches the ball either as a runner or receiver. Marion Grice, the top junior college back, is a power runner who can bull over opponents.
With so much talent, it will be impossible to get everyone the touches they deserve. Whether the coaches want a speedier threat to counteract the power of Marshall, or to bring more of the same, their options will be plentiful.
3) Safety: Keelan Johnson vs. Chris Young
Cornerback is not the only secondary position where a job may be up for grabs.
Safety Alden Darby has emerged as both a playmaker and a leader on the defense, and his move to being a full-time safety after a 2011 that saw him in numerous positions gives him one of the starting jobs along the backline.
His partner this spring has been senior Keelan Johnson, who has had three relatively disappointing seasons, at least when considering his substantial talent. Like Carr, he's shown flashes of being a major contributor, but the consistency to be a top safety has eluded him.
He'll face some stiff competition in the form of juco transfer Chris Young. At 6'2", 220 pounds with 4.5 speed, Young had an amazing stint at Arizona Western as both a linebacker and a safety, registering 111 tackles, nine sacks, two interceptions and six (yes, six) defensive touchdowns in his final season.
There will be no shortage of playmaking talent at safety this fall. Whether that will emerge on a consistent basis will be the issue.
4) Wide Receiver Not Named Jamal Miles
We've discussed the issue at great length since the end of the 2011 season. ASU's wide receiving corps experienced excessive turnover with Gerell Robinson, Aaron Pflugrad and Mike Willie departing. The lone experienced veteran, Jamal Miles, had most of his 60 reception come on swing passes, leaving many questions surrounding the position.
However, after a slow start to spring, Miles answered many questions about his future at wide receiver. He showed improved route running, caught most anything that came his and showed the ability to turn any reception into a score. After Miles, however, it gets a little murky.
Kevin Ozier has made great strides since joining the team as a walk-on in 2009. He recently earned a scholarship from Graham, and makes up for his less-than-elite athleticism with a great work ethic and sure hands. Rashad Ross has world-class speed, and capped a strong back half of spring practices with a nice 54-yard touchdown during the spring game. J.J. Holliday was a standout on Saturday, continuing a very strong recent stretch that earned him first-team reps. Gary Chambers has come on strong, and other guys like Karl Holmes and A.J. Pickens are also around.
This fall, talented 2012 recruits enter the fray. Juco transfer Alonzo Agwuenu should vie for a starting job with his mix of size (6'4", 210 pounds) and experience. Richard Smith is a 5'9" speedster who could become very effective out of the slot.
The losses at wide receiver are only eclipsed by the departures at linebacker, where the top four players at the position from 2011 all have moved on. That situation is mitigated somewhat by the return from injury by Brandon Magee. A dynamic linebacker when healthy, Magee provides the team a versatile playmaker and an even greater leadership presence.
After Magee, there was nothing but uncertainty as spring began. However, the coaching staff received pleasant surprises in the form of Kipeli Koniseti, Grandville Taylor and Brandon Johnson. Koniseti ran at middle linebacker in place of Magee and became a force, stuffing running backs and sacking quarterbacks.Taylor and Johnson exceeded expectations and consistently placed among the team leaders during the spring scrimmages.
The new defensive scheme allows the linebackers to play more "downhill", putting them in position to aggressively attack the offense. This August, four new linebackers will join the battle, led by juco 'backer Steffon Martin. A 240-pounder with 4.5 speed, Martin terrorized the juco ranks, and his skills and experience will put him smack dab in the race for a starting gig.
Incoming high school recruits Matt Rowe, Carlos Mendoza and Salamo Fiso all bring athleticism and aggression. Add in defensive ends Carl Bradford and the likely to be reinstated Junior Onyeali who make great fits at outside linebacker when the team moves to a 3-4, and you have the stage set for a battle royale this August .
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