5 Fall camp questions on offense for ASU footballPosted: Updated:
TEMPE, Ariz. -- Arizona State opens fall camp on Friday Aug. 1 as they aim to defend their Pac-12 South division title.
As the Sun Devils prepare to hit the practice field, they have the makings of a tale of two teams.
On defense, ASU must replace nine starters and most of their key-play production from 2013. Recent developments along the front seven have raised major concerns on how the team will fare against a potent schedule, and the pass rush will need to come from a host of unproven players.
However, the Sun Devil offense is primed and ready to be one of the most potent attacks in the nation, led by senior and third-year starting quarterback Taylor Kelly. Even with the departures of key players such as Marion Grice, Chris Coyle and Evan Finkenberg, the 2014 Sun Devils could be something special.
Here are the top five questions facing this unit with camp just a few days away.
How will D.J. Foster be used as the "premier back"?
D.J. Foster has been one of ASU's most potent offensive weapons over his first two seasons, but has never been "the man" in the backfield. Thanks to the presence of Cameron Marshall and most recently Grice, Foster has found success as a slash player, seeing most of his time lined up as a wide receiver. During his career, he has gained 994 yards on the ground and 1,168 through the air.
Now with Grice and his 20 touchdowns gone, Foster has been dubbed by head coach Todd Graham as the "premier back" of the offense. After Grice was lost for the year in the win at UCLA, Foster showed promise that he could be a lead back with a pair of 20-carry, 100-yard rushing efforts against Arizona and Texas Tech.
But can he handle the rigors and pounding of being the full-time back for the entire year?
Foster has bulked up to 203 pounds, and is in prime shape. While he may not be a typical 20+-carry back like Marshall or Grice, Foster has the ability to make plays whenever he has the ball in his hands. Offensive coordinator Mike Norvell has proven to be very adept in crafting plays that put his players in favorable spots in space, and with Foster's versatile talents, there is no reason to think that Foster will not be in line for a big year.
Who is the next man up behind Foster?
As talented as Foster is, no running back can single-handedly man the position. Thankfully, the Sun Devils have no shortage of options vying for the leftover touches.
Redshirt seniors Deantre Lewis and Kyle Middlebrooks fit a similar profile to Foster as speedy dual-threat players. Lewis flashed some of his old form last year, but key fumbles landed him on the bench. Middlebrooks, coming off an ACL injury, was one of the team's standouts during spring practice. Both players have the potential to earn a number of carries, but given how each has struggled with injuries and inconsistency, depending on either to be a contributor in 2014 is premature.
Some talented newcomers will also find themselves in the mix.
Perhaps no player's arrival is as eagerly anticipated as that of Kalen Ballage. The true freshman is lauded as a physical specimen, standing 6-foot-3 and 215 pounds with 4.4 speed. While his size/speed combo will initially start at running back, he could be in line to play a few positions on both sides of the ball. In contrast to Ballage's power, De'Chavon "Gump" Hayes brings an electrifying element to the team. Also a dynamic kickoff returning, Hayes is working through qualification requirements that may delay his on-field arrival. Demario Richard, a 4-star recruit, has the talents of a traditional tailback, but stated recently that he will begin as a slot player. Following their progress will be one of the most interesting storylines during camp.
Who will emerge opposite Jaelen Strong?
For the first time in several years, there is no debate or worry wasted on figuring out who will be the team's No. 1 wide receiver. Jaelen Strong debuted last year in phenomenal fashion, and enters this year as the leading returning receiver in the Pac-12 (1,122 yards). With a year now under his belt, the junior is primed to challenge many of ASU's receiving records.
In order for that to happen, he will need another viable threat at wide receiver to emerge. After Strong's 77 catches, no returning ASU wide receiver had more than Cameron Smith's eight receptions in 2013. While inexperienced, the group vying for reps opposite Strong is not lacking for talent.
Redshirt freshman Ellis Jefferson was arguably spring ball's MVP. The 6-foot-4, 209-pounder showed off sure hands and improved speed, making plays both above and past opposing defenders. Smith brings perhaps the group's best straight line speed, but will have to overcome the nagging injuries that slowed him during his true freshman year. Gary Chambers and Frederick Gammage saw extensive time with the starting offense during spring practices. Chambers, in his fourth year in the program, has yet to record a reception, but does have good size (6-foot-3, 209) while Gammage offers a shifty dimension after snaring six passes a year ago. Ronald Lewis is coming off a redshirt year and was tried at cornerback during the spring, but will return to wide receiver for the time being.
After the success of Strong last year after coming in as a junior college transfer, all eyes will be on Eric Lauderdale to see if lightning can strike twice. Lauderdale has a similar size (6-foot-2, 195) and speed skillset as Strong, and comes to ASU as a lauded 4-star prospect. If he can pick up the playbook and speed of the game anywhere close to what Strong did a year ago, they can be among the better 1-2 combos in the conference. True freshman and 4-star recruit Tyler Whiley projects as an explosive playmaker, and fellow freshman Jalen Harvey brings a physical element to the group at 6-foot-2, 185 pounds.
Can Grant Martinez become a reliable contributor?
One of quarterback Taylor Kelly's favorite targets over the last two seasons was tight end Chris Coyle. A first-team All-Pac-12 performer a year ago, his departure opens the door for the talented De'Marieya Nelson to take the job.
Nelson is one of the team's best and most versatile athletes, and that potential earned him a spot on the Mackey Award watch list. While he will serve as the starting tight end, his athleticism has him in line to possibly see reps as a short-yardage running back and a pass rusher from the Devilbacker spot.
While he can seemingly do a little bit of everything, Nelson will need help. Enter redshirt freshman Grant Martinez.
Martinez spent 2013 redshirting, learning the ropes from Coyle and Nelson, and bulking up. At 6-foot-5, Martinez added over 10 pounds since last season. Now over 220 pounds, he still has a ways to go but is much better prepared for the rigors of the position.
During spring, Martinez was a standout, showing improved strength at the point of attack as a blocker, as well as a player that can take advantage of his height and make plays as a receiver. Tight ends coach Chip Long feels that as Martinez continues adjusting to the speed of the college game, his role will only increase.
"Things are moving different and moving faster. He’s just got to get used to that," Long said. "If he keeps coming like he’s coming, there’s going to be a spot for him.”
Given the importance ASU's offense places on the position, that will be a crucial spot.
How will the offensive line depth chart shake out?
The line lost a first-team All-Pac-12 left tackle in Finkenberg, as well as center Kody Koebensky, but the unit could actually be better in 2014. Just how that could happen remains to be seen.
By the end of spring ball, the starting five appeared to be locked down. Senior Jamil Douglas became entrenched at left tackle after starting the last two years at left guard, and the right side of the line consisting of guard Vi Teofilo and Tyler Sulka return after a solid, if unspectacular first year as starters. They are joined by athletic center Nick Kelly and former 5-star recruit and Auburn transfer Christian Westerman at left guard.
Barring injury, that figures to be the five that will lineup on Aug. 28 when the Sun Devils open up against Weber State. Last year, ASU was exceedingly fortunate on the injury front in the trenches, with no starter missing a single game. To be that lucky again would be great for ASU, but it's hardly something that can be counted upon. So who will be the next men up?
Evan Goodman is in line to be the top reserve tackle. The redshirt sophomore and one-time 4-star recruit is looking to finally make an impact, and has earned praise for his work during the summer. Billy McGehee (6-foot-6, 305) is also in the tackle mix. Inside, Stephon McCray (6-foot-3, 313) ended spring as the top backup to both Westerman and Kelly. McCray has some intriguing skills, and has the versatility to slide out to tackle if needed.
The team is also welcoming two freshman newcomers, and both could break the two-deep with strong camp showings.
Sam Jones (6-foot-5, 285) is an athletic and mobile lineman from Colorado that can be plugged into the interior spots with the upside of playing tackle down the road. Quinn Bailey (6-foot-6, 302) is a local prospect that gives the tackle positions more depth with an eye towards the future.