Sun Devils camp preview: Top position battles

Every fall in college football brings new position battles, new opportunities for returning players to step up or newcomers to stake their claims. Some years are slow, with only a few spots up for grabs, but other years feature a whole host of battles.

For Arizona State, it’s one of those years.

With 14 starters to replace, ASU has plenty of battles worth watching as fall camp unfolds and the Sun Devils try to assemble a lineup capable of defending their Pac-12 South title.

ASU wants more than another Pac-12 South title of course, but it will take a lot to be better than the veteran team that went 10-4 and hosted the Pac-12 Championship Game last season. As position battles go, this fall is all about defense.

Only two defensive starters return. Some spots are more settled than others, with experienced players likely to fill holes at nose tackle (Jaxon Hood), defensive end (Marcus Hardison), spur linebacker (Viliami Moeakiola) and field cornerback (Lloyd Carrington), but that still leaves more than a handful of big questions.

Things are pretty settled on offense, and expectations are this could be the best offense ASU has ever fielded.

Running back D.J. Foster slides into Marion Grice’s old spot as the featured back, while De’Marieya Nelson takes over for Chris Coyle at tight end/H-back. Jamil Douglas slides out to left tackle to replace Evan Finkenberg as Auburn transfer Christian Westerman takes Douglas’ spot at left guard. That leaves center, where Nick Kelly appears all but certain to replace Kody Koebensky, and two receiver spots, one of which is junior college transfer Eric Lauderdale’s to lose.

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Those apparently settled spots will still be worth watching, but here’s a closer look at those spots with little or no certainty to them as ASU prepares to open camp Friday.

Departed: Will Sutton

Contenders: Demetrius Cherry, Connor Humphreys, Tashon Smallwood, Marcus Hardison (possible), Jaxon Hood (possible)

The skinny: This competition is hard to handicap after the news that junior college transfer Dalvon Stuckey, the likely front-runner, won’t enroll due to academic reasons. Cherry might have an inside track given the amount of time he’s practiced with this defense, but expectations are high for incoming freshmen Humphreys and Smallwood. Both should have the opportunity to win a starting job. If ASU isn’t confident in those options, though, it could look to returners Hardison and Hood, who are expected to start at defensive end and nose tackle. Neither has a ton of experience at the ‘tiger’ position but could prove adaptable given their significant playing time. This may be the most unclear and critical position battle as camp begins, as it is paramount ASU’s efforts to reestablish its pass rush.

Departed: Alden Darby

Contenders: Marcus Ball, Jordan Simone, James Johnson

The skinny: There has been speculation Ball would move to spur linebacker, but Todd Graham says he prefers to keep Ball in the backfield. As long as that remains the case, Ball is the leader entering camp. He won a starting job in camp last season, but before he could play a game a shoulder injury sidelined him for the season. Athletic and big at 6-foot-3 and 216 pounds, Ball comes to camp with high expectations. A summer in ASU’s strength and conditioning program should have Ball well positioned. Simone is a high-energy walk-on who impressed in the spring and should push Ball in camp. He’s a hard hitter who goes all out and learns quickly. Simone has probably about as many first team practice reps as Ball and should at the least earn a spot in the two-deep. ASU expects to use Johnson, a redshirt sophomore, at field safety behind Damarious Randall at the start of camp, but if the need arises or Ball moves to spur, Johnson could be back in the mix here.

Antonio Longino

Departed: Chris Young

Contenders: D.J. Calhoun, Antonio Longino, Carlos Mendoza

The skinny: Calhoun made a big impression during spring practice after enrolling early. Still just 17 years old at the time, Calhoun drew rave reviews from Todd Graham and defensive coordinator/linebackers coach Keith Patterson, who said Calhoun has the physical tools to be a special player as long as he can master the mental aspect. Calhoun ran with the first team in the spring, but Longino apparently will start there this fall. Coaches have lauded Longino’s strength and conditioning work this summer, and junior college transfers like Longino often click in their second season. A couple inches bigger than Calhoun at 6-foot-2, Longino is a hard hitter with physicality. Mendoza has had trouble staying healthy in his two seasons but has shown big potential when he is. He could make this competition interesting.

Departed: Osahon Irabor

Contenders: Kweishi Brown, Solomon Means, Will Earley,

The skinny: Another big unknown here. The competition to replace the ever-reliable Irabor shrank when Rashad Wadood left the program recently, but Brown, a junior college transfer joins, the fray this fall and should get first crack at winning this job. Brown was an All-American at the junior college level and had 11 interceptions over two seasons. He also brings more size to the secondary at 6-foot-0 and 198 pounds. As with any junior college prospect, there is no guarantee Brown’s ability carries over. Means is a junior who’s not particularly big but showed potential in the spring. Earley, a redshirt freshman, is probably the least likely candidate to start but should get opportunities to prove himself and possibly earn a spot on the two-deep. True freshmen Chad Adams and DeAndre Scott could also push for position on the depth chart.

Departed: Carl Bradford

Contenders: Chans Cox, Viliami Latu, Eriquel Florence, De’Marieya Nelson, Marcus Washington

The skinny: ASU expected touted junior college recruit Darrius Caldwell to come in and win this job, but Caldwell did not make it to ASU for academic reasons. Florence, a redshirt junior after transferring from junior college last year, moved to Devil-backer in the spring to give ASU another possibility and ended up with his name atop the depth chart when spring drills concluded. Still, he didn’t do enough to secure a hold on the position. Neither did Cox or Latu, both of whom are big-framed players still learning to work with their hands on the ground as this position often requires. Both are bigger than Carl Bradford, whom Todd Graham has called the prototypical Devil-backer. Cox has been praised for his progress in workouts this summer but will have to prove he can stay healthy. Latu began to emerge as a slight leader at this position in the spring before sitting out a few practices with concussion symptoms. Nelson, who has pass-rushing experience, will get a look but may be more of a situational pass rusher given his importance to the offense. Washington is probably a more likely candidate at spur linebacker but should get a shot here, too.

Ellis Jefferson

Departed: Rick Smith, Kevin Ozier

Contenders: Gary Chambers, Ellis Jefferson, Cameron Smith, Tyler Whiley

The skinny: There are technically two spots up for grabs here. First is the "Z" receiver spot filled by Rick Smith and Kevin Ozier last season and set to be taken over by Lauderdale. Second is "Y" receiver, the slot position ASU used last year to have D.J. Foster and De’Marieya Nelson on the field at the start of games. Chambers has been noticeably improved and ran with the first team for most of spring drills, but he’ll have stiff competition this fall. One advantage for Chambers: size. The redshirt junior checked in at 6-foot-3 and 209 pounds at the end of spring. But if ASU decides it wants its best three receivers on the field, Jefferson should get a shot here. Jefferson, 6-foot-4 and 209 pounds, was considered a potential starter last season but redshirted and spent the spring at "X" behind Jaelen Strong. Cameron Smith could be the man if he shows more consistency this fall, but he’ll be ASU’s speed guy regardless. Even if he doesn’t start, Smith should see plenty of time as a deep target. True freshman Whiley could make a run at the starting job if Jefferson stays at X.

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