Graham praises defense after 'best first day' of fall camp at ASU

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By Brad Denny By Brad Denny

TEMPE, Ariz. -- On Friday, Arizona State opened up the third fall camp of head coach Todd Graham's tenure, and by his estimation, it was the best yet.

"That was the best first day of any fall camp since I've been here," Graham said. "Our standard is to be the best in the country, and after today, I feel like you can check that one off. It couldn't be any better today as far as the effort and the focus."

In Friday's morning session, the ASU veterans took the the Kajikawa practice field for some early tempo sessions and special teams work before moving inside the Verde Dickey Dome for the bulk of practice.

"The most impressive thing about today was how our defensive guys ran on the field," Graham said. "I like the attitude of this team. Our offense ran to the ball better than they ever have. Our defense ran the best they ever have. We had the best effort, the best focus. Now, we don't have any pads on. Very, very exciting first day."

While the offense returns an abundance of playmakers and experience, the focus of fall camp will be on the defense, which is replacing nine starters, six who made the All-Pac-12 first or second teams. With so many holes, Graham and his staff will be altering their approach.

"The thing we have to do defensively is not do what we did last year," said Graham. "We have to adapt to the player skills we have. It will look a little bit different. I don't have all that figured out yet. I have to watch it. I watched it in spring. These newcomers are going to blend."

Tops amongst Graham's concerns are the three key spots in the front seven.

"The WILL linebacker position is big for us, and I think in the interior of the line, we have to get newcomers and young guys developed in a hurry," said Graham. "The biggest areas of concern are three positions: WILL, 3-technique, and Devilbacker. Those are the three most productive guys on our defense. I'm waiting to look at Marcus (Hardison) this afternoon. Our Devil is not going to look like Carl (Bradford). He's going to look more like an outside linebacker, and maybe not have his hand down as much."

One the back end, Graham is more optimistic.

"I feel great about the secondary," Graham said. "We're going to be bigger. We're going to be better tacklers, I think. We lost three All-Pac-12 guys, so that is saying something about the confidence I have in our guys."

One of the reasons for Graham's early optimism was the play by newcomer Kweishi Brown. The junior college All-American cornerback was the only 2014 recruiting class member to practice with the veterans, and he certainly made an impression.

"We have not had anyone here that has that physical stature," said Graham of Brown. "He is so physically strong and fast. He's going to return kicks and punts for us. Dynamic kick returner. He's very raw. In our first install, he had to learn 17 techniques. I think he did a pretty good job. He's smart, but physically, we have not had a guy with the power and strength at defensive back, with the speed he has."

Brown was not the only cornerback to impress, as Graham also singled out Solomon Means and Lloyd Carrington for their play today.

The defensive line, perhaps the team's greatest area of concern after losing all four of last year's starters, had a good first day.

"I thought we moved well up front," said Graham. "We looked at Marcus (Hardison) at 3-technique today. I thought all those guys moved very, very well up front today. We stuck (tight end) De'Marieya (Nelson) over at Devil, and wow, that looked pretty good. No pads on, but he looked pretty good.

"We are going to have a guy that can impact the quarterback at that position, and we do have talent."

There were two personnel notes on the line.

"Sean O'Grady is no longer a part of our team," said Graham. "Jaxon (Hood) will be back with us. He's just taking care of some issues, and he's in good standing. He'll be back here shortly."

The team needs Hood, a 2012 Freshman All-American and by far the most experienced member of the group, to shake off a disappointing spring performance and become a factor up front.

On Friday night, the team's newcomers will take to the field for their initial practice, and Graham believes many will be seeing the field this season.

"Unfortunately, a whole lot of these young guys are not going to redshirt because they are going to be playing on special teams and help us win games there," said Graham.

One practice down, and just under four weeks to go

With just under four weeks to go until the season opener on Aug. 28 against Weber State, a lot can and will happen with this team, but the Sun Devils are off to a good start.

"I thought there would be a lot more corrections, a lot more having to stop and teach, but it was pretty crisp. That tells you guys have prepared well," said Graham.