"Good day today," ASU coach Todd Graham said. "We’ve got a lot of things we need to work on, but I was very pleased with the competition. I love this team, love the character. We had a great spring, and our program is about one thing, and that’s winning championships."
ASU took some key first steps this spring toward adding another championship under Graham after winning the Pac-12 South last season. With 13 starters departed, the 15 spring practices gave the Sun Devils the opportunity to evaluate their returning talent and start to lay the groundwork for the fall.
The culmination of those practices was a fairly balanced scrimmage that saw the offense and defense each have their moments. Perhaps the biggest play of the scrimmage came on the maroon offense’s first play of the day, as Kelly hit star receiver Jaelen Strong with a deep back-shoulder fade for 62 yards, setting up a Deantre Lewis touchdown.
"I loved the big shot to Jaelen from Taylor Kelly," Graham said. "Boy, Taylor really looked good today. Really managed the offense and was very much in command of things."
Kelly threw one touchdown pass on the day, with that pass going to tight end De’Marieya Nelson on the maroon offense’s second series. Unofficially, Kelly completed 7 of 22 passes for 92 yards over 10 series in the two quarters and overtime period.
"It was just another day at practice," Kelly said. "Going out there and competing at a high level, making it like a game situation, guys were flying around. It was awesome."
Kelly was quick to praise maroon team running back Deantre Lewis. The senior got plenty of carries, unofficially finishing with 88 yards and a touchdown. Graham liked what he saw from Lewis, who likely will be D.J. Foster’s primary backup this coming season, but also saw room for improvement.
"I thought Deantre showed a lot of good signs today," Graham said. "It’s got to be more consistent. It’s got to be every down. I liked how he ran through the two quarters. I didn’t like how he ran in the overtime period. That’s when it counts."
Foster, running for the gold team, was somewhat limited for precautionary reasons, and Graham said Foster was frustrated that he didn’t get to play more. Still, the junior-to-be caught a 35-yard touchdown pass from gold team quarterback Mike Bercovici early in the scrimmage and finished with 67 receiving yards. Bercovici finished the day with 149 passing yards, three touchdowns and an interception.
ASU’s offense, which returns eight starters, figures to be the team’s strength in 2014. For as solid as it looked Saturday, Graham wasn’t entirely pleased.
"Way too many dropped balls, tempo was way too slow," Graham said.
Some of that presumably could be attributed to the mixed nature of the offensive units, with the first and second teams dispersed between the two sides. But Kelly said it will be up to the players to get in better shape through the team’s summer conditioning program.
On the defensive side, the effort was more collective Saturday, though ASU’s two returning starters stood out. Sam linebacker Salamo Fiso nearly picked off more than one pass from Bercovici, while safety Damarious Randall intercepted Bercovici’s third pass of the day. Randall also blocked a point-after attempt.
After allowing touchdowns on each of the first two series, the gold defense allowed only six points the rest of the way. In the overtime period, linebacker D.J. Calhoun and defensive tackle Edmond Boateng sacked Kelly on consecutive plays to keep the maroon team from scoring and giving the gold team a chance to come back on its final drive. Cornerback Solomon Means registered a few impressive pass breakups, and walk-on safety Jordan Simone led the unit with nine tackles.
New defensive coordinator Keith Patterson was encouraged by the defense’s daily growth this spring. He knows the dynamic will change significantly when a group of likely defensive contributors arrives in the fall, and he has turned his focus toward the future, confident the new defense can be just as good as last year’s.
Everyone’s talked about losing nine starters. But let me tell you something: That’s not an excuse. We’re not going to lower our standard just because we lost some really good players.
ASU defensive coordinator Keith Patterson
"We’re not going to lower the standard," Patterson said. "Everyone’s talked about losing nine starters. But let me tell you something: That’s not an excuse. We’re not going to lower our standard just because we lost some really good players. We want to be about winning championships, and what championship-caliber teams do is reload."
The rebuilding defense will no doubt remain the central storyline when ASU reports for fall camp in early August. The new faces from a highly touted recruiting class will play a big part in that, though Graham said he’s concerned about integrating newcomers on both sides of the ball.
"The biggest (offseason concern), if you ask me, is just going to be transitioning our newcomers," Graham said. "We have a tremendous class of guys coming in, and we pride ourselves on being able to transition them very quickly."
Graham also expressed great confidence in the players here now, many of whom have just had their first real opportunities to prove themselves. Those players, Graham said, will be most important to getting ASU where it wants to be in the fall.
Graham took one more opportunity Saturday to hammer home where that is and what the Sun Devils want to accomplish in 2014.
"Anything less than being Pac-12 champions is unacceptable," Graham said. "These guys understand the task ahead of them."
— The maroon team started the scrimmage portion of the spring game with a 9-3 lead after winning the ‘W’ tackling drill, 7-on-7 drill and "team run" segment. The gold team won the pass-rush drill.
— Placekicker Zane Gonzalez was 2 for 3 on field-goal attempts in the scrimmage, making kicks from 19 and 23 yards and missing from 51 yards.
— Running back Kyle Middlebrooks got the bulk of carries for the gold team before exiting with what appeared to be a minor right shoulder issue. Middlebrooks, a senior, had his shoulder pop out during a scrimmage earlier in the spring.
— Tight end Grant Martinez also exited during the scrimmage portion of the game. He appeared to have a minor injury of some sort in his left shoulder/neck area, which was wrapped with ice.
— Defensive tackle Jaxon Hood played a couple snaps as an offensive guard in a jumbo package during the "team run" drill, which gave each team four attempts to run the ball into the end zone from the 9-yard line.
— According to a media relations official, 8,456 fans showed up for Saturday’s spring game and fan fest. Last year, the event brought out an announced crowd of 6,386.