ASU football fall camp primer: Breakout contenders

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TEMPE, AZ (3TV/CBS 5) -

Arizona State opens their fall camp on August 5 with plenty of expectations surrounding the team.

Coming off a second consecutive 10-win season, the Sun Devils have plenty of momentum on their side, but they also have plenty of questions to answer and holes to fill at a number of key areas.

As the team gears up for a run at the Pac-12 South title, we now take a look at six Sun Devil players who are poised to deliver on their potential and post a star-making turn in 2015.

WR Ellis Jefferson

As anyone who listens to the Speak of the Devils podcast knows, both my co-host Joe Healey and I are very high on Jefferson’s potential heading into 2015, for a number of reasons.

A redshirt sophomore, Jefferson enters his third year in the program, and during that span, he has grown increasingly comfortable in the scheme. Last season, he appeared in all 13 games, backing up the record-setting Jaelen Strong at the X spot, and caught 11 passes for 144 yards and two touchdowns. Jefferson is also roommates with quarterback Mike Bercovici and fellow wide receiver D.J. Foster, allowing the trio extra time to hone their craft. In particular, the chemistry and confidence with Bercovici—from whom Jefferson was targeted far more often than starting quarterback Taylor Kelly—bodes well for a larger role for Jefferson.

During spring practices, the 6-foot-4, 211-pound Jefferson stood out as one of the most reliable playmakers on the team. Since his arrival in Tempe, he’s impressed with his sure hands and big body, but he has also become noticeably more explosive, allowing him to beat defensive backs deep and make plays after the catch.

His mental approach, physical skillset, and great team need at wide receiver all converge to put Jefferson on the brink of stardom.

S James Johnson

This past April, Damarious Randall became the first Sun Devil to be taken in the first round of the NFL Draft since 2003. While his loss is significant, his replacement is poised to maintain that level of production.

Like Jefferson, Johnson is a redshirt sophomore who backed up—and learned from—a future NFL Draft pick in 2014. In 13 appearances, including two starts, Johnson notched 25 tackles (three for loss) and one sack.

Johnson was also a top performer during spring practices, becoming one of four players to earn the right to wear the coveted Pat Tillman practice jersey for his prowess on the field and in the classroom.

Like Randall, and Alden Darby before him, Johnson is a ballhawking presence from the safety position, often making instinctual plays on the ball. At 6-foot-1 and 192 pounds, Johnson is also a willing tackler and has the physicality to be a factor against the run.

With Jordan Simone already entrenched as one of the Pac-12’s best safeties, should Johnson continue build upon the level he showed during the spring, ASU could feature one of the nation’s best backline tandems.

LB Christian Sam

It’s not often that a team makes a change with a returning starter with two years of first-team experience under his belt, but that possibility just speaks to the level of performance that Christian Sam put forth during the spring.

A true sophomore out of Texas, Sam played in all 13 games as a true freshman last year, making 10 tackles along with one sack and one interception.

He built upon that this past spring, becoming an impressive force at the team’s SAM linebacker spot and earning significant first-team reps. While still developing his game and techniques, the 6-foot-1, 230-pound Sam brings a physicality and relentlessness to the linebacking group that is a perfect fit for the scheme.

Salamo Fiso has been the team’s starter at the SAM spot over the last two years, and the competition in fall camp between him and Sam should be among the most impressive to watch. No matter who wins, the battle between the two should make both better players and give defensive coordinator Keith Patterson plenty of options.

If spring was any indication, the future is bright for Sam in Tempe.

DT Demetrius Cherry

Over the first five games of last season, ASU’s defense was unable to find a player who could successfully man the team’s Devilbacker position. That forced the staff into some tinkering, and as a result, the defense moved to a larger base set featuring four defensive linemen.

That changed helped provide Cherry a chance to make an impact. Coming on at the nose tackle spot, the 6-foot-5, 298-pounder made six starts over the final eight games, collecting 18 tackles and recovering two fumbles. His play along the interior of the lines was a big reason why ASU’s rushing defense improved markedly down the stretch, going from 207 yards-per-game over the first five contests of the season to just 126 over the final eight.

In spring ball, Cherry continued to see first-team reps while providing a stout physical presence. While his technique has areas of improvement, Cherry's size and strength at the point of attack showed that he is primed to be a factor this fall. With Marcus Hardison now a Cincinnati Bengal, ASU’s defensive line will be extremely young at all three spots, meaning that Cherry, a redshirt senior, will be counted on to step up and lead by example.

RBs Demario Richard and Kalen Ballage

It may not have been the ideal ending spot for last season, but the 2014 Sun Bowl did provide a promising glimpse of the future of the Sun Devil offense.

While D.J. Foster had run for more than 1,000 yards during the season, it was true freshman Demario Richard who had emerged down the stretch as the team’s most effective back. Registering just 19 carries over the first six games, Richard burst onto the scene with some key runs in the road win at Washington before logging his first 100-yard game the next week in the win over Utah. He helped key the victory over Notre Dame with a pair of huge plays in the fourth quarter, and he culminated his debut year with a four-touchdown performance against Duke in El Paso.

That development, along with Foster’s receiving ability, led to Foster’s full time move to wide receiver this year and the handing over of the run game reins to Richard and fellow true sophomore Kalen Ballage.

Often described as a “bowling ball”, Richard was already a powerful runner at 213 pounds. Now after a full year in the Sun Devil system, Richard is even stronger and faster than a year ago, and he appears ready to not only take over the mantle as the team’s lead running back, but make a name for himself nationally.

However, he is not the only exciting breakout prospect in the backfield.

Ballage came to ASU as a highly-touted 4-star prep recruit, but took some time to find his groove in Tempe. He showed flashes of his rare athleticism in early-season wins over New Mexico and Colorado, and he ended his year with a clutch 96-yard kickoff return to secure the win in the Sun Bowl.

During spring practices, Ballage showed off his rare skillset and versatility. He has a tantalizing mix of size (6-foot-3, 222 pounds), speed, and explosiveness, and he put those on display on both sides of the ball.

Offensively, he showed that he could be an effective dual-threat out of the backfield, with the ability to both run over or around defenders. With his physical tools and a persistent need at Devilbacker, the coaching staff used Ballage as a situational pass rusher, where he showed flashes of his game-changing potential. 

How well these two true sophomores produce will go a long way into determining if ASU can reach their lofty goals for 2015.

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