It’s officially game week for the Arizona State Sun Devils. With kickoff coming up before the work week ends, it’s time for head coach Todd Graham and company to finalize the squad that will take the field first against New Mexico State
Quarterback: Graham couldn’t make it clear enough. Redshirt junior Manny Wilkins is the starting quarterback until he says otherwise. That hasn’t happened yet, so Wilkins will be behind center Thursday night at the start of the game, with Blake Barnett watching from the sideline.
Running Back: The senior tandem of Demario Richard and Kalen Ballage will once again take the majority of carries for the Sun Devils. The powerful redshirt sophomore Nick Ralston is around for a change of pace with the freshman duo of Eno Benjamin and Trelon Smith fighting for the rest.
Wide Receiver: Without getting too much into the weeds of each specific receiving position, the starting group appears to be sophomore N’Keal Harry, redshirt sophomore John Humphrey and redshirt junior Jalen Harvey. Since ASU routinely uses more than three receivers, watch for redshirt sophomore Ryan Newsome, redshirt freshman Frank Darby and redshirt sophomore Terrell Chatman, all of whom have been taking snaps with the second-team offense.
Tight End: There hasn’t been much doubt that junior Jay Jay Wilson will be lining up at tight end for the Sun Devils getting first-team reps every day. Wilson caught just four passes last year, but three went for scores, displaying a much needed big play ability. Redshirt sophomore Tommy Hudson has has been seeing time with the second unit and redshirt senior Frank Ogas will be important in goal line situations.
Offensive Line: From left to right, the Sun Devils will start Cohl Cabral, Sam Jones, A.J. McCollum, Steven Miller and Quinn Bailey. The unit has a combined 32 starts, but only Bailey has completed a full season on the line. The second unit is headlined by redshirt sophomore Zach Robertson, an opening day starter a year ago who has received first-team reps at times during camp.
Defensive Tackle: Experience is not at a premium with senior Tashon Smallwood and junior JoJo Wicker in the middle. The talent and experience of Smallwood and Wicker will be important for the development of the defense as a whole, especially for freshman Shannon Forman, redshirt sophomore George Lea and redshirt junior Dougladson Subtyl, who will rotate in on the line.
Defensive End: The end spot has been rotating for most of camp, but redshirt senior A.J. Latu has put himself in position to get the most playing time of his career, beginning right away.
DEVIL: Attempting to replicate his stellar season a year ago is senior Koron Crump, rounding out the experienced backers. Nothing from camp has given any indication that he won’t see a full workload rushing quarterbacks, but junior Abraham Thompson has been on the second unit and would be the man to fill in for Crump.
MIKE: ASU’s leading tackler from 2016 is back for another run in the linebacking corps. Senior DJ Calhoun made 77 stops last season, including 4.5 sacks and has not missed a game since the end of his freshman season. When Calhoun is on the bench, redshirt sophomores Khaylan Thomas and Malik Lawal will take his place in the middle of the defense, moving from rush positions.
WILL: Back from injury, redshirt junior Christian Sam will reassume his spot at WILL after sustaining an injury mere minutes into last season. With the injury still fresh in people’s minds, ASU may play junior Deion Guignard a decent amount to keep Sam fresh for Pac-12 play.
SPUR: In the most intriguing position battle on the defense, it appears as though senior J’Marcus Rhodes has the advantage with just two practices to go. Rhodes beat out the likes of redshirt junior Tyler Whiley and redshirt senior Marcus Ball, a man without a position, to hold down the starting job throughout August.
Cornerback: Laker fans rejoice, as it looks like the Mamba pairing of Kobe Williams and Joey Bryant will be the starting tandem at field and boundary, respectively. Both have impressed all through camp, especially considering both are new to the program. Redshirt freshman Chase Lucas, senior Maurice Chandler, sophomore Darien Cornay and freshman Alex Perry have all worked with the first and or second team and will be available if either of the starters struggle.
Safety: The only first teamer in the secondary to start a game is senior Chad Adams, with five. He’s joined by redshirt junior Dasmond Tautalatasi, a special teams ace who has transitioned into regular defensive snaps throughout training camp. The only experienced Sun Devil behind Adams and Tautalatasi is Ball, followed by freshmen K.J. Jarrell and Ty Thomas, who have served on the second team together.
Kicker: The shoes of Zane Gonzalez will be hard to fill, but freshman Brandon Ruiz appears to have the skill to do so. Despite being a freshman, Ruiz was rated amongst the best recruits in the country and the coaching staff has raved about him.
Punter: With Matt Haack gone, along with Gonzalez, redshirt sophomore Michael Sleep-Dalton is good to go. Able to kick either rugby-style or straight on, Sleep-Dalton is a weapon in the special teams unit.
Kick Returner: With Ballage as the only returning option from 2016, the competition is open. Humphrey and Newsome both have the ability to take kicks back, so any configuration of the three of them should pose problems for the opposition.
Punt Returner: It’s hard to see anyone but Newsome, one of the most prolific high school punt returners in history, returning kicks, but if he becomes a valuable enough part of the offense, he might cede duties. Humphrey and senior Jacom Brimhall have both seen time during practice back deep, as well, giving ASU options.