TEMPE, Ariz. — As Arizona State ran through warmups and drills Tuesday, there was little to suggest it was the first day of spring practice. The energy and focus were palpable.
In the latest indication of the transformation ASU football has experienced under Todd Graham, players say motivation and intensity ran higher than any recent season as the Sun Devils opened spring practice.
“The other three spring practices I’ve been in, we looked at it like ‘This is just spring ball, we have (fall) camp, it’s whatever, let’s just have fun,'” senior safety Alden Darby said. “This year is different. We’re preparing this spring like we play right after it, like it is camp. That’s the big difference — we’re preparing like we have a game in a month.”
ASU’s first game is more than five months away, but Graham has instilled strong desire in his team to improve on a 2012 season that was praised as a turnaround but dismissed Tuesday as “mediocre,” and “average.”
“The biggest thing for us is to look forward,” Graham said. “We did not have a great season; we had a little above average season. So we ought to be hungry. We’ve got to win six more ball games to win 14 games. We’ve got to win five more conference games to win the conference championship.”
Praiseworthy or not, the 2012 season got the Sun Devils hungry for more. The standard, Graham said, is still the Rose Bowl. That was evident by the poster on the sidelines bearing the image of the Rose Bowl trophy.
“We’re definitely hungry,” Darby said. “A lot of people were patting us on the back saying ‘Good job, 8-5.’ We had an OK season, but 8-5 is mediocre. So we know what the expectations are and we know what we can do.”
Perhaps the excitement of the first day back on the practice field will wear off as spring practice plays out, but first impressions can send a strong message about a team’s attitude. Tuesday’s impression displayed a clear desire to improve this spring rather than casually saunter toward the summer. ASU’s next practice is Thursday morning.
ASU made a number of personnel changes official Tuesday morning:
— Chris Thomsen, hired as running backs coach on Jan. 11, was shifted to offensive line coach, replacing Bob Connelly.
— Sherman Morris was named ASU’s new assistant athletic director for recruiting following six season at LSU as director of player personnel under Les Miles. Morris essentially replaces Bo Graham in the personnel role.
— Bo Graham, Todd’s son and ASU’s on-campus recruiting coordinator last year, was announced as the new running backs coach, a role he held previously under his father at Tulsa.
Bo Graham was Tulsa’s running backs coach in 2007 and 2008, both seasons in which Tulsa led the nation in total offense. In 2008, Tulsa ranked fifth nationally in rushing offense.
While a key factor in Bo Graham’s appointment to the position was his ability to relate to recruits as a younger coach, he’s excited to be back in an on-field role after a year behind the scenes.
“Being around football my whole life, it’s real natural for me,” Bo Graham said. “Moving in now on the field is something I wanted, and certainly today was an enjoyable day for me. It’s where I feel like I need to be.”
Bo Graham steps into a good situation as running backs coach, with the return of established running backs D.J. Foster and Marion Grice. ASU ranked 25th nationally in rushing offense last season.
“It’s very exciting,” Graham said. “They were able to accomplish a lot of things in year one. They were kind of learning as they go, and I think the future’s going to be even brighter. If they reached, say, chapter four, last year, we’re trying to get them to the end of the book.”
Graham also expressed excitement at working with redshirt junior Deantre Lewis and redshirt freshman Terrell Davis, who is up to almost 230 pounds and could take on a role this season like Cameron Marshall had last year as a downhill, power runner used in short-yardage situations.
“This spring we’re going to have a strong emphasis on downhill runs,” Bo Graham said. “We’re going to give those young guys some looks.”
Position battles during spring practice can be tricky because they involve an incomplete group of players. There’s still a whole recruiting class arriving in the fall, a group that includes a number of players who will contribute right away. There are also a number of players who are being held out or limited due to injury.
On the first day, here’s how the first teams looked during 11-on-11 drills:
Offense: LT Evan Finkenberg, LG Sil Ajawara, C Kody Koebensky, RG Vi Teofilo, RT Jamil Douglas, QB Taylor Kelly, RB Marion Grice, TE Chris Coyle, WR Kevin Ozier, WR Richard Smith, WR Alonzo Agwuenu.
Defense: DT Will Sutton, NT Jaxon Hood, DE Gannon Conway, LOLB Steffon Marton, MLB Carl Bradford, ROLB Grandville Taylor, Spur LB Chris Young, CB Osahon Irabor, CB Robert Nelson, S Alden Darby, S Ezekiel Bishop.
There are not many surprises in those groups, but there are a couple things worth noting. Conway working with the first team defensive line was unexpected, as Davon Coleman worked there most of last season.
Douglas spent last season at left guard, but with Ajawara’s emergence, he can shift to right tackle, a position where he’s probably more effective. Ozier, Smith and Agwuenu are pretty much it at wide receiver until the 2013 recruiting class arrives this fall.
Graham singled out wide receivers, free safety and place kicker as positions of focus this spring.
“I can’t wait to get the five (wide receivers) we signed in here,” Graham said. “Kevin Ozier and Alonzo and Rick Smith were guys that I thought stuck out today, but we don’t have very many scholarship receivers out here.”
— The following players did not practice Tuesday due to injuries: Offensive lineman Stephon McCray (left knee), wide receiver Kyle Middlebrooks (right knee), running back R.J. Robinson, linebacker Kipeli Koniseti (right arm).
— The following players were limited in practice Tuesday, wearing green “no-contact” jerseys: defensive lineman Junior Onyeali (shoulder), linebacker Carlos Mendoza (left shoulder), cornerback Rashad Wadood (shoulder).
— Todd Graham visited recently with New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick, who stopped by campus while in town for the NFL owners meetings. Graham said he intends to visit the Patriots sometime after spring practice.