TEMPE, Ariz. — Arizona State has lost two, possibly three, defensive players for the season due to injuries, coach Todd Graham announced Tuesday.
Graham said senior defensive lineman Junior Onyeali and freshman linebacker Chans Cox will miss the rest of the season with shoulder injuries, while freshman linebacker Alani Latu is likely to miss the rest of the year with a “a serious ankle injury.”
Onyeali, who suffered a shoulder injury last season as well, was hurt during Saturday’s loss at Stanford, Graham said. Onyeali, the 2010 Pac-10 Defensive Freshman of the Year, had been playing primarily in third-and-long pass rushing situations.
The past couple seasons have been difficult for Onyeali. At the end on the 2011 season, Onyeali got into a heated argument with then-coach Dennis Erickson and was suspended for the Maaco Bowl Las Vegas. The suspension continued when Graham was hired, but Onyeali worked his way back into good graces.
After starting the first three games of 2012 at defensive end, Onyeali was supplanted by Davon Coleman in the starting lineup and battled shoulder injuries throughout the year. This offseason, Onyeali was investigated by police after a domestic incident but was not arrested.
Onyeali found himself behind starter Gannon Conway and Coleman on the depth chart this fall. ASU could conceivably petition to get a medical redshirt for Onyeali, but this might be the end of his career as a Sun Devil.
Cox, the highest rated recruit in ASU’s 2013 signing class, had not played yet this season, and ASU had expected to redshirt him before the injury. Cox also missed spring practice with a foot injury after enrolling early.
Latu has played only against Wisconsin on special team. ASU will likely be able to obtain a medical redshirt for Latu, preserving a year of eligibility. DROPS CONTINUE
While ASU’s special-teams woes have been front and center the past couple weeks, another disturbing trend has developed: Dropped passes.
Against Wisconsin, ASU’s receivers dropped at least five passes. Against Stanford, there were a few more, including a couple on third downs.
“I’ve seen more drops in two weeks than I’ve seen around here in a year and a half,” Graham said. “It’s just lack of concentration.”
Graham was particularly irked by the third-down drops, including one from running back Marion Grice, which would have resulted in first downs.
“That was two possessions we lost,” Graham said. “I’m not saying we would have scored there, but we still lost those possessions.”
After the Wisconsin game, Graham called the drops “inexcusable.” It’s a troubling trend for a receiving corps that has been hailed as a vast improvement over last season.
Junior college transfer Jaelen Strong has been stellar the first three games, but even he has a few drops. With as much as Strong is being targeted though — seven times against Sacramento State, 13 times against Wisconsin and 19 times against Stanford — an occasional drop seems inevitable. Sophomore Richard Smith has at least four drops in the past two games.
Another contributing factor: With ASU’s run game struggling, quarterback Taylor Kelly is throwing more than usual. Kelly is averaging more than 45 attempts per game and surpassed 50 attempts the last two games. He averaged 27.6 attempts per game in 2012, only surpassed 40 in a game twice and never reached 50 attempts in a game.
— Starting defensive tackle Jaxon Hood, who left Saturday’s game with a hamstring injury, was not present at Tuesday’s morning practice. Graham said Monday that Hood is “very doubtful” to play against USC.
— As expected, starting defensive end Gannon Conway slid inside to take Hood’s spot during 11-on-11 drills open to the media. Coleman took Conway’s spot as the starting end.
— After an alignment error by the punt shield team against Stanford, changes could be coming. Will Sutton worked with the unit Tuesday, splitting reps with Coleman. It was Coleman who got in the way of a Matt Haack punt Saturday, which forced Haack to kick the ball out of the end zone for a safety.
— Haack continued to get first-team punts Tuesday despite an underwhelming performance against Stanford. On four punts, Haack averaged 38.8 yards.
— Redshirt freshman Salamo Fiso got first reps at sam linebacker Tuesday in the portion of 11-on-11 drills open to the media. Graham said Monday that Fiso is likely to start this week, though he said Tuesday a competition remains ongoing with Steffon Martin.