Graham indicated Monday that this is a two-horse race between redshirt freshmen Marcus Ball and James Johnson, but it’s complicated.
Ball has only just begun practicing regularly after missing the start of camp with an undisclosed medical issue. He practiced in a gold non-contact jersey Monday and appears to be the leader, but his availability for the season opener is in question.
"I really don’t know," Graham said. "He’s practicing right now. He had pads on today, so we’ll see. We’ll progress it as we see fit. If we started today and Marcus couldn’t go, then James would be the free safety right now."
So this one will likely come down to when Ball gets cleared for full contact. Jordan Simone should still see action at this spot, but Graham said ASU may look at him as a spur linebacker.
Top returning corner Lloyd Carrington moved to the boundary cornerback spot, creating a competition at field cornerback. Solomon Means has run with the first-team defense all camp, but the way Graham talked Monday as if this one is hardly decided.
"I think Solomon right now is probably in the lead," Graham said. "He better not rest on his laurels because Kweishi (Brown) is flat coming on, and he’s more physical than any corner we’ve got."
Brown, a junior college transfer, is still learning ASU’s defense, but it sounds as if he could be close to taking the starting job.
Will Sutton’s old spot at 3-technique tackle stood as one of the biggest holes ASU had to fill this fall, and it looks like it could be filled be a true freshman wearing Sutton’s old number. Tashon Smallwood has consistently been the first-team tackle, and coaches have praised him often.
"Tashon Smallwood has done some things very good for just being a freshman," defensive line coach Jackie Shipp said Monday.
Redshirt sophomore Edmond Boateng has also been in the mix recently, and Shipp likes how he’s progressed since the spring.
The nose tackle spot might be more of a question mark. Redshirt junior Demterius Cherry had been holding down the first-team job, but junior Jaxon Hood returned to the team last week and immediately jumped into the mix despite needing more conditioning. He got first-team reps Saturday and more on Monday.
"Jaxon’s a seasoned veteran." Graham said. "You could tell when he got in there. No doubt he’s a guy that will be in the starting rotation and looked really good."
Besides for junior Jaelen Strong, no receiver has locked up a starting job, according to offensive coordinator Mike Norvell, who said Monday the "Z" and "Y" spots are likely to be filled with a by-committee approach.
Norvell went on to praise junior Gary Chambers, who has run with the first team during camp, and sophomore Cameron Smith, indicating both could the the first options.
"Cameron Smith is a guy that no doubt is going to play a ton," Norvell said. "I think he has the chance to be one of the most explosive receivers we have."
Sophomore Fred Gammage and redshirt freshmen Ronald Lewis and Ellis Jefferson are also expected to play regularly. Junior college transfer Eric Lauderdale has not come along as quickly as coaches probably hoped and isn’t in the picture to start right now.
Also likely to see regular action as a receiver: Freshman running back Demario Richard, who has been working out of the slot.
Early in camp, it sounded as if this spot would be filled primarily by converted tight end/H-back De’Marieya Nelson, but Graham backed off that, deciding Nelson will be needed most on offense. Nelson will still play here, most likely on third downs.
Redshirt junior Antonio Longino is currently the leader after moving to Devil-backer early in camp. He might not be the playmaker Carl Bradford was, but ASU seems confident with him here in tandem with Nelson and former tight end Marcus Washington.
This battle would probably still be ongoing if not for Carlos Mendoza injuring his knee last week. He will be out at least 3-4 weeks, so the job essentially belongs to freshman D.J. Calhoun, who joined the team before spring practice.
Calhoun has come on strong since the start of camp and was pushing Mendoza. The job is now his to lose, and ASU wants to push him. Freshman Christian Sam has started playing will and provides some competition for Calhoun and while adding depth in the wake of Mendoza’s injury.
"We want to get a competition going," Graham said. "We think those guys can push each other."
Graham said Monday ASU plans to alter its preparation by having the first-team offense practice against the second-team defense, instead of the third-team D as it had been.
"I just think we’ve got to get better," Graham said. "We’re very young in a lot of places, especially in depth (and) especially on defense. We need a lot more work. … We just need more experience, so we need more plays at a faster pace."