Sun Devils looking for, and need, early impact from newcomers

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(Photo: Sun Devil Athletics) (Photo: Sun Devil Athletics)

Help is on the way.

During Herm Edwards’ first spring as Arizona State’s head coach, he did not hide the fact that his team needed reinforcements. After multiple post-practice media sessions, Edwards mentioned that new players would be making their way to Tempe over the summer, and that his team needed them.

The message was clear. Here are just a few examples:

“These guys know that when we come back in the summer, there are going to be 20 to 21 guys that are going to come in and compete for their jobs. So they’re well aware of it. I’m making them aware of it.”

And following the spring game:

“We are going to have 21 new players in there, a couple of them were in here tonight. They're going to help us as well. I think the players understand the game of football is about competing.”

If former head coach Todd Graham’s most-used buzzword was character, competition is the early leader for Edwards.

I recently sat down with Edwards for a comprehensive conversation on a variety of topics for the Speak of the Devils podcast. During our talk, he addressed the importance of his incoming players, the needs they address, and what their arrival will mean for the returning players.

"It creates competition. You always want to compete,” Edwards said. “That's the one thing we stress around here. Compete, compete, compete."

Edwards is also hoping that the competition will also help bring his new players into the fold.

"The chemistry is going to be important,” Edwards said. “This team had some chemistry. It's a seasoned team with some seniors on the defensive side as well as the offensive side. There's a core of players that have won and know how to win. I think bringing those other players in is going to be a shot in the arm, some new energy. When you bring in new players that haven't been under what these guys have been under these last four months, it's new to them."

The incoming players are primarily comprised of ASU’s 2018 recruiting class along with a pair of graduate transfers in offensive linemen Casey Tucker (Stanford) and Roy Hemsley (USC). Despite the thorough vetting, research, and analysis done during the recruiting process, Edwards and his staff know that this level of college football is a whole different beast, and every players responds differently.

"We have no idea what they look like yet, because they haven't been on the grass,” Edwards said. “That's the infusion we have. How this works out, we'll find out."

Given ASU's depth issues, Edwards will be looking for several newcomers to adjust quickly and contribute right away. However, putting too much reliance on newcomers, especially the true freshmen, can be dangerous.

“Hopefully some of the freshmen coming in can contribute, but in my 20 years of doing this, if you ever count on a true freshman to come in and play, you're setting yourself up to be fired,” ASU defensive coordinator Danny Gonzales recently told me. “The speed of the game is so different, and the transition time. It takes a special, special guy to be able to go from that level and make an immediate impact."

The Sun Devils hope—and need—their incoming class has a few special guys, because the depth chart is perilously thin. There are several needs on both sides of the ball, and as a result, Edwards is planning on throwing many of the newcomers into the fire early.

"There's probably going to be six or seven of them that are going to play a lot,” Edwards said. “A couple of them will probably be starters. They have to earn it, but the way that I think it is going to play out, they're going to be good enough to earn it. I think that's a good thing."

In the end, it's all about getting better.

"We're going to improve at some positions," said Edwards.

So who will those six or seven be? Let’s take a look at some of the most likely candidates:

Merlin Robertson - Linebacker

It’s easy to see why Robertson is arguably the crown jewel of ASU’s 2018 recruiting class. The 6-foot-3, 235-pound linebacker has a college-ready frame and skillset, and with the departure of Christian Sam and D.J. Calhoun, there is a need. When Edwards brought up Robertson during our conversation, the excitement on his face was evident.

"We like him,” Edwards said. “He's going to push some people as a freshman. We feel good about him."

With Jay Jay Wilson and Koron Crump seemingly pegged for starting spots on the outside, Robertson could make a strong push on Nick Ralston and Khaylan Thomas for the starting middle linebacker job.

Aashari Crosswell - Safety

Throughout spring, ASU’s defense utilized the same five starters in the secondary, including converted wide receiver Jalen Harvey at one of the Ranger safety spots. But behind them, there are concerns.

"We've got some very talented kids back there, we just don't have very many of them,” Gonzales said. “We have five that you you could walk into today and say that they could compete at this level. We don't have a whole lot of depth yet behind those guys.”

Crosswell figures to change that.

Like Robertson, Croswell comes to ASU as a heralded four-star recruit from a California powerhouse. The 6-foot, 190 pounder played for new ASU linebacker coach Antonio Pierce in high school, and his physical and ballhawking style should fit in well with Gonzales’ 3-3-5 scheme. If any defensive back can overcome the freshman hurdles Gonzales mention, it figures to be Crosswell.

"He's going to push some people as a freshman,” Edwards said.

Casey Tucker - Left Tackle

ASU’s offensive line has been an issue for a few seasons, and during spring, Edwards often cited the group as a concern. So it was no surprise to see the group heavily addressed over the offseason, with three high school signees in the recruiting class along and two more added as graduate transfers.

Casey Tucker certainly looks the part of an NFL offensive tackle at 6-foot-6 and 315 pounds, and he has the pedigree as a former 5-star recruit and Stanford starter. However, injuries derailed him in 2016 and he redshirted last season.

The former Hamilton High School star returns to the Valley with the left tackle spot all but locked up, and will look to spend his final college season living up to his potential and securing Manny Wilkins' blindside.

Roy Hemsley - Left Guard

In addition to Tucker, Edwards mentioned Roy Hemsley as another newcomer that should see time, specifically at left guard.

Like Tucker, Hemsley was a highly-rated prospect out of high school and has impressive size (6-foot-5, 315 pounds). Unlike Tucker, Hemsley does not have much in the way of experience, with zero starts and 14 game appearances on his resume.

With the early departure of Sam Jones to the NFL, Hemsley will be a contender for the left guard job.

Jarrett Bell - Offensive Line

A four-star recruit out of Norco, Calif., Bell has an opportunity to avoid a redshirt and contribute immediately.

The 6-foot-5, 295-pounder is lauded for his work ethic, and he has the versatility to play several positions along the offensive line. Bell could figure into the left guard battle with Hemsley and Alex Losoya, or push returning right guard starter Steven Miller.

Geordon Porter - Wide Receiver

ASU has arguably the top receiver in the Pac-12 in N’Keal Harry, and a rising star at the position in Kyle Williams. Behind them, the Sun Devils have some talented options in Frank Darby, Curtis Hodges, Ryan Newsome, and Terrell Chatman. However, with reliable third-down target Jalen Harvey now on defense and John Humphrey out for the year, there is a need within the group.

"We got some young wide receivers coming in here,” Edwards said. “They can come in and maybe grab a spot or two to give us some depth."

Porter provides ASU with a speedy downfield threat that can help stretch defenses and open things up underneath

Stanley Lambert - Linebacker

ASU’s defense places a premium on versatility and athleticism. Those happen to be strengths of the 6-foot-4, 215-pound San Antonio native.

Lambert was a big-bodied defensive back at the prep level who now projects to outside linebacker with the Sun Devils. His size, ability to cover, and play up against the run could earn him meaningful reps behind Wilson and Crump with an eye on a starting job in 2019.

The Running Backs

"We have a lot of running backs coming in here."

Yeah, Coach Edwards, you do.

With Demario Richard and Kalen Ballage moving to the NFL and Ralston's move to linebacker, the Sun Devils signed four new members of their backfield to join projected starter Eno Benjamin and spring standout Trelon Smith.

The newcomers bring a variety of skills to the fold.

Brock Sturges (5-foot-10, 200) starred at one of Texas’ most prolific high schools and fits a feature back profile. Demetrious Flowers (6-foot, 219) and A.J. Carter (6-foot, 223) are power backs that add a thunder element while junior college transfer Isaiah Floyd (5-foot-7, 185) can bring the lightning.

Richard and Ballage accounted for 92 percent of the carries by running backs a year ago, so there will be plenty of touches available. Someone will need to step up.

This is not to discount any players not listed at making a strong name for themselves in fall camp and earning playing time. Every year, someone outperforms the expectations and creates an opportunity for themselves. After all, that’s what Edwards is hoping comes from the competition on the practice field. He knows his team needs it, and he’s ready for it.

"That's going to be fun to watch"

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