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ASU Football: Shifts on offense, special teams during spring practice

The Sun Devils held their third day of spring practice at Sun Devil Stadium followed by a youth experience.

Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

It's no easy task to evaluate a football team when the majority of the 2014 Arizona State recruiting class has yet to arrive on campus. It comes naturally then to focus more on team attitude and character building in the spring with existing players so that when the transfers and freshmen arrive in the fall, everyone else can hop on board quickly.

"Our attitude and our character is off the charts,"  head coach Todd Graham said. "This has a chance to be the best team we’ve every had when it comes to work ethic, character and leadership."

ASU held its Saturday morning practice in front of roughly 700 young children and their parents as part of the youth experience the Sun Devils hold every year. It was the first practice in full uniform with pads and full contact.

New defensive coordinator Keith Patterson is already settling into his leadership role and is consistently one of the most vocal coaches on the field. It has been well documented that the Sun Devils have a lot of work left to do as they attempt to replace nine starters on the defensive side of the ball but Graham feels up to the task.

"Obviously a lot of things to correct and get better," Graham said. "I mean I was pleased with where we were defensively today."

Replacing defensive back strength

Graham has made a point of working specifically with the defensive backs early this spring in position drills. The Sun Devils need to replace Osahon Irabor and Robert Nelson who are both headed to the NFL.  Lloyd Carrington and Rashad Wadood seem to be the front-runners so far for the boundary and field corner spots.

"I think Lloyd is obviously a veteran and Wadood is a bright spot," Graham said. "I’ve really identified those guys and that as an area where we can get a lot better technically so I’m spending a lot of time with them."

Junior college transfer Kweishi Brown might challenge for a spot in fall camp, but for the time being the spots are Carrington and Wadood's to lose.

"Lloyd you can really tell he’s a seasoned veteran and Wadood has a lot of ability," Graham said. "He’s been a guy that has really caught my eye and done a great job so far."

Straightening out special teams

The woes of the ASU special teams nearly cost the Sun Devils a couple of games last season and Keith Patterson was brought in just as much for his special teams expertise as his defensive knowledge.

"We have a lot of things to work on on special teams, that will be dealt with immediately and that will be something I take a personal interest in," Graham famously said after the ASU loss to Texas Tech in the Holiday Bowl. "That has killed our team. We've lost three ballgames this year because of that."

ASU has to replace Robert Nelson and Marion Grice who split duties returning punts and kickoffs last season. Although both players were solid and dropped very few kicks, it was clear that neither man had a true knack or intuition for kick or punt return.

The maroon and gold's first crack at trying to solve the special teams mystery has come in the form of fifth-year senior Kyle Middlebrooks. He has lined up at running back, wide receiver and kick returner in his career, most notably when he almost returned a kickoff for a touchdown against Wisconsin at Camp Randall in 2010. Middlebrooks was the first man back to return punts and kickoffs in practice today.

"Kyle is poised to have an incredible year as a guy that can help D.J. and on special teams," Graham said. "As far as the return game and stuff like that we think Kyle can really help us."

Plagued with a knee injury at the end of the 2012 season, Middlebrooks didn't see the field in 2013 and it looks like Graham is willing to give him another chance. Middlebrooks said graduate assistant Aaron Pflugrad had approached him about returning punts and kicks again before the spring began.

"I'm feeling pretty good out there just trying to make plays trying to learn," Middlebrooks said after practice. "When you sit on the sideline you just get that feeling like ‘oh my gosh I want to be out there' now it's time and I feel good about it."

Meanwhile Matt Haack continues to get most of the reps at first-team punter while Alex Garoutte remains first string on kickoffs.

Wide receivers in motion

With Marion Grice in the backfield last season, the Sun Devils could afford to put D.J. Foster in the slot wide receiver position. Now with the plan for Foster to get most of the carries this season and the news that Richard Smith has elected to transfer, a starting spot or at least an increased role in the wide receiving core is up for grabs. Fred Gammage is leading the charge for more reps.

"Fred is doing a good job, him and (Jordan) Simone are two walk-ons who are putting themselves in position," Graham said. "Now you gotta earn it, those guys are both well on their way and exemplify what this program is about. "

The local product out of Brophy Prep lined up consistently at the Z-wide receiver spot last season but only had six receptions for 32 yards with Jaelen Strong, Smith, Foster and Chris Coyle all getting more targets.

Gammage said he was willing to step up and was looking forward to more playing time this season adding that he just wanted to help the team in any way he could.

"They have tremendous character and work ethic and they bring it every single day," Graham said.