On the second day of spring, the Arizona State football team is hoping its identity will begin to blossom in these spring practices at the Kajikawa Practice Field.
Wednesday was the fifth spring practice in 2022 for this edition of the Sun Devils. The sights and sounds remain the same as ever in the Herm Edwards era. The bright gold helmets. The black shorts under the vintage mesh practice jerseys. The authoritative dialect of the coaches. The waiting room Al Jaurreau-esque music that pumps from under an Addidas stamped tent in between the two fields during the early stretching period.
“Wake up!” That’s the voice of defensive lineman Omar Norman-Lott, cutting through the music with his command down the line of stretching Sun Devils.
Norman-Lott is a teacher’s assistant in pads and a helmet for defensive line coach Robert Rodriguez. Entering his third season with the team, the redshirt sophomore is trying to refill the mostly emptied cup of leadership for Arizona State.
D-Line coach Robert Rodriguez working through situational offensive line schemes. pic.twitter.com/w7NSHx2H6J— House of Sparky (@HouseOfSparky) March 23, 2022
Under the desert sun, beginning to remind everyone of the indefatigable heat it will present this summer, this practice looked no different than any that took place last year or last week. But this practice is a microscopic sample of what is one of the most comprehensive rebuilds being undertaken in any Power Five conference.
Arizona State does not just have 26 newcomers on their team. Many of those 26 newcomers are at some of their most vital positions.
The quarterback competition is wide open with incumbent starter Jayden Daniels now at LSU. Incoming Alabama transfer and 4-star recruit Paul Tyson is locked in a competition with 2021 backup Trenton Bourguet. Both players took first team reps today.
The running back room is without Rachaad White, the All-Pac-12 Second Team rusher who declared for the NFL draft, and DeaMonte Trayanum, who transferred to Ohio State to play linebacker. The Sun Devils will have to replace their production, which totaled over 1,400 yards and 21 touchdowns with returner Daniyel Ngata, transfer Xazavian Valladay, and true freshman Tevin White.
How will the receiver spot fare with Ricky Pearsall being the only reliable returner? The Sun Devils will need an ascendence from guys like Bryan Thompson and Elijah Badger to shore up that spot. At tight end, the emergence of Jalin Conyers will be necessary as well.
Conyers could line up in other areas across the formation as well. He took a few reps as a fullback in early jog-throughs on Wednesday.
Slow run play install. TE Jalin Conyers just carried from a fullback spot. This is Wyoming GR transfer Xazavian Valladay through the B-gap. pic.twitter.com/beRmuA72qW— House of Sparky (@HouseOfSparky) March 23, 2022
It is the vacancies on the back end of the defense that raise the most questions, and invite the most open of competition. No longer with the anchors of Jack Jones, DeAndre Pierce, Evan Fields and the omnipresent Chase Lucas, this unit is in need of a complete overhaul, not just in players, but in leadership.
One such player who has assumed a more vocal role on that end in Timarcus Davis, who saw the field in spots last season. Davis, a former transfer from Baylor, is now expected to guard opponents best receivers.
“When I came in I was a transfer and the new guy and always had Jack, Chase, other guys ahead of me,” Davis said. “Now you got to help the other guys.”
One of the key places the entire Sun Devil team is focused on this spring is discipline. If anything weighed down the team last season, it was penalties. In 2021, the Sun Devils were the fourth-most penalized team in college football, averaging over eight per contest.
“Emphasizing certain points and making sure everyone is on the same page,” Davis said about practicing discipline. “If we are all going to be in a Cover 3 then we are going to be in a Cover 3, not the corner who didn’t hear the call on the other side. There has to be certain new habits replacing the old ones.”
If there was an area the Sun Devils and new defensive coordinator Donnie Henderson can rely on, it is the defensive line, which was spectacular last season. That division propelled the Sun Devils to the 33rd-best rush defense in the FBS, and averaged over two sacks per game.
The defensive line is also an area that has proven depth. The Sun Devils love to rotate defensive lineman, and with the departure of Tyler Johnson, there are more opportunities for playing time.
That is where a player like Stanley Lambert can be impactful. Lambert put on extra muscle in the offseason, after he noticed his slight build made it an uphill battle to compete with the beefy Wisconsin offensive line in the Las Vegas Bowl. The rising senior had two sacks last season, and has set a high bar for improvement in 2022.
“Last couple games last year I flashed out and showed little flashes,” Lambert said. “My goal for this year is to get seven to nine sacks.”
Another player on the defensive line that is preparing himself for a bigger role is Joe Moore. As a redshirt freshman in 2021, Moore had 2.5 sacks, but was not an every down player. Now, there is a lane to become one with an impressive showing this offseason.
“I want to be perfect in practice,” Moore said. “I need to know the playbook by my hand and get the rushes down. The sacks and stuff, that’s just going to happen on the field.”
There is still plenty to decide in spring ball, and while the concrete of the team rotation and identity is being poured, it is still far from settled. But with so many faces on both sides of the ball, and the coaching staff, there is a palpable sense of opportunity. Only time will tell if the Sun Devils can seize it.