ASU Football Fall Camp Primer: Depth chart battles to watchPosted: Updated:
Football is almost here.
Arizona State kicks off their 2015 preseason training camp on Wednesday Aug. 5 with plenty of lofty goals in their sights.
Coming off consecutive 10-win seasons under head coach Todd Graham, the Sun Devils are looking to not just reclaim the Pac-12 South division title they won in 2013, but also to make a run at the conference championship and a playoff spot.
In order to make a run at those goals, ASU has several lineup questions they will need to address as they gear up for the season opener on Sept. 5 against Texas A&M. Last week, the Sun Devils released their pre-camp depth chart, and it spotlighted some position battles that could prove critical to defining the success of the season.
The most significant change from last year's starting lineup comes at quarterback, where redshirt senior Mike Bercovici takes over for Taylor Kelly.
Bercovici flashed brilliance during his stint behind center last year, but he also brings a different skillset to the offense than Kelly. Whereas Kelly was noted for his mobility in and out of the pocket, Bercovici is a traditional pocket passer, relying on his strong arm to make plays. Protecting him will be key.
His protection up front appears solid, at least in the middle. ASU returns all three starters along the interior, and left guard Christian Westerman and center Nick Kelly were both on preseason award watch lists. However, questions remain at both tackle spots, where ASU must replace both of last year’s starters.
Redshirt junior Evan Goodman (6-foot-4, 314 pounds) came to ASU as a touted four-star recruit, but thus far in his career, he’s failed to make an impact. He entered spring as the starter at left tackle, but when sidelined by a hamstring injury, redshirt freshman Sam Jones (6-foot-5, 297) came in and impressed. The two are now listed as co-starters at left tackle, and the battle to protect Bercovici’s blindside will be a crucial one to follow over the next few weeks.
At right tackle, redshirt senior Billy McGehee (6-foot-6, 312) took over and provided a solid presence. Interestingly, however, Jones is also listed as a co-starter at right tackle, showing the confidence the coaching staff has in Jones.
Some other players who could get into the mix with strong camps are four-star freshman Zach Robertson (6-foot-5, 322) and redshirt freshman Quinn Bailey (6-foot-5, 315), who has made a noticeable improvement during his redshirt season.
X & Y Wide Receivers
Unfortunately for ASU and Bercovici, he will not be able to throw to last season’s top two wide receivers.
Jaelen Strong left school a year early and is now a Houston Texan, and speedy Cam Smith is out for the year with a knee injury.
One positive is at the Z spot, where the dynamic D.J. Foster (5-foot-11, 190), who rushed for over 1,000 yards a season ago, takes over. Despite being a running back for his first three years, Foster is no stranger to action in the slot. He was second on the team with 62 receptions last season, and his 163 career catches are already fifth-most in school history. With his speed and sure hands, he is primed to be the Bercovici’s go-to target, even as his route running continues to develop.
Where it gets dicey is at the team’s X and Y positions.
The major battle is shaping up in the race to replace Strong at X, with three players entering camp listed as co-starter. Ellis Jefferson (6-foot-4, 211) had an outstanding spring and may be the early favorite. With his improved speed and explosiveness, he presents some match-up problems on the outside. He will face a major challenge in newcomer Devin Lucien (6-foot-1, 200), the UCLA transfer who comes to ASU after making 58 catches over his three seasons with the Bruins. True freshman Terrell Chatman (6-foot-4, 185) was a late addition to ASU’s 2015 recruiting class, but his size and reliable hands could get him into the mix for some reps.
At Y, reliable redshirt senior Gary Chambers (6-foot-4, 211) returns as a starter after making 10 catches last year, but he could face some stiff competition from a trio of players coming off redshirt years. Eric Lauderdale (6-foot-2, 190) has the size and speed to be a contributor, but he struggled in picking up the offense a year ago after transferring from the junior college level. Behind him are redshirt freshmen Tyler Whiley (6-foot, 207), who provides a speedy element, and Jalen Harvey (6-foot, 196), who adds a more physical presence to the group.
Over the course of last year’s fall camp and into the season’s early weeks, ASU tried several different players at the Devilbacker spot, but none were able to fill Carl Bradford’s shoes effectively. That led to the team essentially ditching the position in favor of a four-man defensive line for the duration of the season. Could this year’s defense face a similar fate?
The Sun Devils thought they had their answer when they signed five-star junior college transfer Davon Durant. However, after being arrested earlier this year, he is no longer with the team. Back to square one.
During spring practices, redshirt freshman Ismael Murphy-Richardson (6-foot-4, 210) and A.J. Latu (6-foot-2, 255) manned the spot. Murphy-Richardson flashed his athleticism at times, but he still has much work to do with his technique, and needs to continue adding bulk to become a more effective pass rusher.
During the latter parts of spring ball, ASU tried running back Kalen Ballage (6-foot-3, 222) at the spot, and he impressed. so much so, he enters camp No. 2 on the Devilbacker depth chart, and while he figures to remain primarily on offense, he could be an effective situational option.
The listed starter heading into fall camp is redshirt junior Edmond Boateng (6-foot-3, 256). Boateng was one of the failed options last year, but he had a very impressive spring camp playing defensive end, showing substantial improvement from 2014. He is not an elite pass rusher, but if he can sustain his improvement curve, he could prove to be an effective option.
One newcomer to watch is true freshman Jalen Bates (6-foot-5, 240). He has intriguing size, length, and quickness, and could be a factor if he is able to learn the defense quickly.
In the Pac-12, you can never have enough good cornerbacks.
At the boundary corner, ASU has one of the conference’s best players in Lloyd Carrington, who will make a strong push for All-Pac-12 honors.
Opposite him, a fun battle is brewing between a pair of capable seniors.
Junior college transfer Kweishi Brown (6-foot, 206) started eight of the final 10 games last season, tying for the team lead with three interceptions, including the Sun Bowl-clinching pick against Duke. Brown has a good mix of size, physicality, and ball skills.
During spring, Brown found himself battling Solomon Means (6-foot, 182) for the starting job opposite Carrington. Means started last year’s opener before being relegated to a reserve role, but he has made major strides with his game.
Regardless of who wins the job, it appears that ASU will have a capable trio of cornerbacks to face the pass-happy Pac-12 slate.
While the battles listed above have come by necessity, the one at SAM linebacker is the result of a youngster’s improvement.
Redshirt junior Salamo Fiso (6-foot-1, 236) has been an effective starter for ASU since the middle of the 2013 season, racking up 154 tackles, 16.5 tackles-for-loss, and 6.5 sacks during that span. He’s a tough, hard-nosed player at the heart of the ASU defense.
He now finds himself in a tense battle for his job with true sophomore Christian Sam (6-foot-1, 228). Sam was arguably the defense’s spring MVP, bringing increased explosiveness and athleticism to the position. He is still a work in progress and can be overly-aggressive at times, but Sam has earned his way into a co-starter spot on the depth chart.
This situation is not so much a battle for a starting job, as it is a watch on staying out of the trainer’s room.
When healthy, SPUR linebacker Laiu Moeakiola (6-foot-1, 212) is one of the most explosive and underrated defensive playmakers in the Pac-12. He made 72 tackles (10.5 for loss), and was second on the team with five sacks in 2014. However, he is a player who is prone to getting dinged up, and when he was out of the lineup, ASU saw a dip in overall effectiveness on defense.
That included this past spring, when he was sidelined with an injury. Stepping into his SPUR spot was redshirt sophomore Marcus Ball (6-foot-2, 215). Taking advantage of the situation, Ball showed off his enormous physical skillset, routinely making big plays for the defense. However, like Moeakiola, Ball has battled the injury bug often during his career.
If both players can stay healthy, the Sun Devil defense will be flush with dynamic players at the second level that can allow coordinator Keith Patterson to get a little creative with his schemes.
As ASU found out a year ago, one play can change everything.
When Kelly went down with a broken foot during the Colorado game, the Sun Devils had the luxury of the veteran Bercovici to step in and take over the reins. Should something happen to Bercovici this fall, ASU will not be so fortunate.
While the pecking order thinned out a bit with Coltin Gerhart’s move to defense, no quarterback on the roster other than Bercovici has appeared in an NCAA game.
With Kelly out of the lineup last year, Manny Wilkins (6-foot-2, 184) stepped up to the No. 2 role, and he entered spring with the edge for the backup spot. Wilkins has a great football IQ and a solid grasp on the offense, and while he may not have elite tools, he showed he can be effective with his arm and legs.
During spring, he battled true freshman Brady White (6-foot-1, 195), a highly-touted prospect with tremendous upside. While he experienced the expected struggles of any newcomer, White flashed excellent poise and pocket presence as he became more comfortable in the offense.
The X-factor in the race is another true freshman, Bryce Perkins (6-foot-3, 210). The local product from Chandler may have the most intriguing physical skillset of the bunch, being a highly effective dual-threat at the prep level. Those skills could make him an enticing option if his grasp on the playbook comes along quickly.