After a third spring in offensive coordinator Mike Norvell's offense, the Sun Devils are more confident than ever before in their knowledge of the offensive scheme. That confidence, mixed with a combination of skilled veterans and explosive playmakers, could spell doom for opposing defenses this fall.
Under Norvell, Arizona State has averaged more than 38 points per game in each of its past two seasons. This fall, the Sun Devils will feature quarterback Taylor Kelly returning for his third season, as well as top receiver Jaelen Strong and versatile running back D.J. Foster. Norvell won't be short on weapons, and it's up to the highly successful coordinator to find creative ways to put his athletes in space.
With Kelly, Strong and Foster, the Sun Devils know they have a few safe bets on the offensive side of the ball. Toss in tight end De'Marieya Nelson and a more athletic offensive line and Arizona State actually looks poised to improve upon its 457.3 yards per game average.
Still, with so much certainty, there remains a few clouds hanging over the heads of the coaching staff and players. Playing time is never a guarantee, and there's a lot riding on the fall camp performances of players at a few key positions. So where are the most important battles going to take place? Let's find out.
No. 2 Wide Receiver
The Sun Devils are in better shape at the wide receiver position than they have been since Todd Graham and his staff arrived in Dec. of 2011. Jaelen Strong is far and away the best receiver the program has had in recent memory, and the overall depth at the position will only get stronger as the new recruiting class arrives for fall camp.
However, even in its improved state, the Sun Devils have yet to determine who is second in line to Strong. Last season, D.J. Foster finished second on the team with 63 receptions and racked up 653 receiving yards. This year, Foster hopes to double his 501-yard output from the backfield, which means Arizona State will likely have a new face emerge as the No. 2 target. Foster could still end up with the second-most receptions, but for the offense's sake, the Sun Devils are hoping Kelly will strike a connection with another threat.
The question right now isn't who stands a chance at becoming the No. 2 man, but instead, who doesn't have a shot? Ellis Jefferson emerged this spring, and De'Marieya Nelson stands to catch his fair share of passes from the tight end spot. Fred Gammage and Gary Chambers both saw a significant chunk of reps this spring, yet both players could be beat out by incoming recruits. Deantre Lewis and Kyle Middlebrooks are both running backs who can play the slot, but neither player will likely see enough time to haul in 50+ catches.
In all likelihood, we won't know who Kelly's second-favorite target will be until the fourth or fifth game of the season. In fact, Arizona State could have a scenario like Washington State did last year in late October, when five different receivers had between 20 and 30 catches.
Arizona State's receiving corps will surely benefit from the likes of Eric Lauderdale, Jalen Harvey and Tyler Whiley joining the ranks this fall, and one of those players could become the go-to-guy. Still, it's hard to project how recruits will transition, so our guess is the receiving unit remains a fluid project well into the opening month of the season.
Left Tackle/Left Guard
Offensive line coach Chris Thomsen has a problem on his hands. Two of his top offensive linemen, Jamil Douglas and Christian Westerman, are both natural left guards. Of course, it's never a real problem when you have two great players who can fill a spot, so Thomsen will spend fall camp ironing out each player's position.
At the start of spring practices, Westerman was the odd man out on the offensive line. Douglas, the returning starter at left guard, held down his position and redshirt sophomore Evan Goodman stepped in to replace the departed First-Team All-Pac-12 selection Evan Finkenberg at left tackle.
About three or four practices in, the coaching staff decided that it had seen enough, and that Westerman warranted an extended look on the first-team offensive line. Because Douglas moves well for his 6-foot-4, 300-pound frame, Thomsen moved him out to left tackle and inserted Westerman at left guard.
Douglas told House of Sparky early in spring camp he's used to playing guard, but he's willing to play wherever he can to help the team the most. This kind of mentality could land him in the starting role at left tackle, because the offense needs the five best linemen on the field at all times.
It's hard to envision a scenario in which Westerman won't start this fall, and there's still a few different ways the staff could tinker with the starting line. Even so, most of those scenarios involve moving Vi Teofilo out of his right guard spot and onto the sidelines as a spectator, and unless Teofilo struggles mightily during fall camp, that's not going to happen.
No. 2 Running Back
It's always a good sign when the most intense position battles are taking place at backup roles, and that's exactly the scenario that Arizona State will face in fall camp. So much of the offense is already set, so younger players and newcomers will have to scratch and claw their way just to get repetitions at practice.
D.J. Foster is poised to take over the starting running back role after filling in for Marion Grice after Grice went down with an injury at UCLA last fall. Foster performed admirably in Grice's absence, and put to rest most of the questions regarding his durability as an every-down back. The Saguaro High School grad stands 5-foot-11 and weighs just north of 200 pounds, and he looks as solid as he has since arriving on campus.
During Graham and Norvell's tenure, the coaching staff has showed that it won't lean solely on one running back, so the competition for the No. 2 spot figures to be intense. Kyle Middlebrooks outperformed the presumed No. 2 back Deantre Lewis for most of the spring, yet Lewis found a way to turn it on with a few dazzling runs in the spring game.
Middlebrooks and Lewis will enter a heated battle this fall, as newcomers De'Chavon Hayes, Kalen Ballage and Demario Richard join the fold. All three backs are highly touted, and Hayes' highlight film reveals a burst of speed the Sun Devils could take advantage of immediately.
Of the three backs, it would likely be Hayes to receive the first crack at playing time because he comes with junior college experience and can be used in the return game as well. The coaches might take time to decide whether to redshirt Ballage or Richard, but Norvell told us prior to spring ball that he hopes to get Ballage in the lineup as soon as he possibly can. That means Richard, who reportedly received 10 Pac-12 scholarship offers, could potentially redshirt. If so, that speaks volumes about the Sun Devils' running back depth, and says that Arizona State's No. 2 back will likely be a pretty impressive player.