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ASU Football: Sun Devils getting healthier as USC game approaches

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ASU is facing what is widely deemed the toughest game of their regular season in this Saturday's matchup versus USC, but the Sun Devils are getting healthy and visualizing an end result similar to last year.

Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

After the Arizona State Sun Devils held their first practice in preparation for a crucial conference matchup against USC, coach Todd Graham said he and his team are ready for the challenge.

"I'm as hungry as I've ever been," Graham said.  "I've had to work extremely hard to lay a foundation and get this program where it's at and there's still a lot of work to do and a long ways to get there but I couldn't be more motivated."

Wide receiver D.J. Foster recalled ASU's iconic "Jael-Mary" to win last year's matchup against the national title contenders and said in its long-lived afterglow it is still fueling this year's team.

"(The Jael-Mary) was an unbelievable experience and that's something Coach Graham said to visualize tonight," Foster said.  " The history and memories like those we'll never forget in our lifetime and just seeing something amazing like that against that team it definitely gives us motivation this week to just go out and get a victory again."

Saturday will be an opportunity for ASU put its first foot forward in the competitive Pac-12 South race this season. Now the Sun Devils are just hoping to regain some valuable players and tighten up their offense as they head into what many claim will be ASU's most important game of the season.

Getting Healthy

Perhaps the biggest takeaway from Tuesday's practice was the return of running back Kalen Ballage to practice. Both Ballage and De'Chavon Hayes shed their green non-contact jerseys and were participating in drills. Graham said he expects Ballage, Hayes and Viliami Latu all to play on Saturday.

"(Ballage) looked a lot better than he did last week," Graham said.  "He's good to go so he'll play."

Still on the sidelines is safety Armand Perry, who Graham said is doubtful to play due to his sprained ankle. The good news for Sun Devil fans who saw wide receiver Devin Lucien and Foster get banged up against New Mexico is that both were taking reps today and Graham said they looked like they will be ready to go as well.

"We gave Foster two full days off and we didn't practice Monday so three full days off for those guys really helped," Graham said.

Rotating for Reps

Both cornerback Kareem Orr and safety James Johnson saw reps in Friday's New Mexico victory. Orr registered four key tackles in the game, enough to impress Graham enough to want to see more of the freshman from Tennessee.

"Kareem Orr is wow," Graham said. "I said, ‘Kareem I wish I were you, I'd have a lot better future.' That guy's going to be unbelievable. He's so mentally mature, he wants to be great and he's a phenomenal athlete. I wish that I would've started to put him (at cornerback) more but he's just got to learn but if you got somebody hurt he can really play for us at nickel corner. I think he did very well (last week) and obviously he's going to have a big week this week."

Graham also saw potential in redshirt sophomore James Johnson but Johnson is a little bit positionally buried behind players like captain Jordan Simone and Laiu Moeakiola so Graham indicated some shifting in order to see more of Johnson.

"Well, he plays the same position as Jordan Simone and Laiu so we're going to play hi, more at that Spur position and see if we can get him more reps there and maybe in nickel at the adjuster."

Impact of Explosive Playmaking

Graham is always emphasizing the need for explosive plays on his offense. Fans finally saw some of those explosive plays last Friday, namely from the long plays from wide receiver Tim White and from running back Demario Richard who took one to the house from ASU's own 7-yard line.

White explained why explosive plays are so important to this team in practice Tuesday. He said any plays that can recapture the momentum and change morale are the game-changing moments.

"It's definitely a crowd pleaser number one," White said. "And you know it gets your team rallied and it just makes everybody play at a higher level. Whatever sparks the offense sparks it but we just try to make plays for the whole team. Whenever I touch the ball I try and make an explosive play because that's the mindset you have to always have."

White is still getting reps on special teams doing punt and kick returns, an area the transfer excelled at during Hayes absence. It is still unknown if Graham will put Hayes back at punt returner despite White's recent success but White said it's still a competition and neither of them will know until Saturday.

"Right now we're just focusing on assignments, raising the tempo, getting to the ball faster and executing what we have to execute," White said. "We know (USC) has athletes, we have athletes too. So we're just ready to compete."

Notes:

  • Wide receiver Frederick Gammage was back in his green non-contact jersey.
  • Evan Goodman (T), Christian Westerman (LG), Stephon McCray (C), Vi Teofilo (RG) and William McGehee (T) all had first team reps on the offensive line.
  • Demario Richard was lined up in the backfield with Kody Kohl at tight end, D.J. Foster lined up in the slot and Gary Chambers and Tim White out wide for first team reps.
  • Perry was still sidelined on crutches