TEMPE, Ariz. — Last season, Arizona State was one of college football’s most veteran teams with 13 senior starters. This year, only six seniors should start, and the eight listed on ASU’s two-deep depth chart ranks as the fourth fewest total in the nation.
In other words: The Sun Devils are going to be young.
ASU’s junior and sophomore classes will have a significant presence, but Thursday’s season opener against Weber State will show how much ASU will also count on true freshmen this season.
"We made a commitment to go with younger guys," coach Todd Graham said. "I’m comfortable with it."
Graham expects four true freshmen to see action in the opener on defense, with defensive tackle Tashon Smallwood and linebacker D.J. Calhoun in the starting lineup and linebacker Christian Sam and defensive back Armand Perry seeing action as reserves.
Smallwood and Calhoun would become the seven and eighth freshmen in school history to start their first game at ASU.
On offense, running backs Demario Richard and Kalen Ballage are likely to get in the game, and Ballage is expected to return kickoffs. Beyond that, at least two more true freshmen should play this season.
But the spotlight will shine brightest on Smallwood and Calhoun. Smallwood takes over at the "tiger" defensive tackle spot Will Sutton played the past two seasons. Graham has spoken glowingly of Smallwood throughout the preseason and continues to push him.
Todd Graham has described Tashon Smallwood as ‘the best freshman I’ve ever had.’
"I told him he’s the best freshman that I’ve ever had, but you want me to say you’re the best I’ve ever had period, instead of just freshman," Graham said. "I’ve got a lot of confidence in him. I think he is going to be a great one for us. We’ll see how he responds when the lights come on. If I’m correct, I think he’ll respond in a big way."
Smallwood, listed at 6-foot-0 and 275 pounds, feels prepared to make his college debut after just one fall camp but appears to have a healthy perspective.
"I do feel ready, but not at a (high) level yet," Smallwood said. "Not yet. I do feel I can compete at this level, but the next question would be ‘How much of an impact can I make?’ I’m not there yet to make a huge impact."
Smallwood said he has never played in front of a crowd of more than 6,000 or so people, so Thursday’s opener will be a new experience. Last year’s opener against Sacramento State drew an announced crowd of 55,743. Calhoun, too, has never played before such a crowd and said he’s excited about the opportunity.
Calhoun’s starting role seemed a strong possibility since the 6-foot-0, 205-pound linebacker arrived in the spring. He enrolled early at 17 years old and got a head start on learning ASU’s defense. This fall, he was battling redshirt sophomore Carlos Mendoza for the will linebacker job until Mendoza hurt his knee.
Graham has challenged Calhoun throughout camp, pushing him perhaps harder than others at times. As with Smallwood, Graham expects Calhoun to have a big debut performance.
"D.J. Calhoun, he weighs 205 pounds, but plays like he’s 230, very explosive, and obviously he’s learning," Graham said. "And what I like about him is he’s going full speed. He only has one speed about what he’s doing."
Linebacker D.J. Calhoun (4) is expected to start and running back Demario Richard is expected to see action as a slotback in Thursday’s opener.
Asked about his impending debut, Calhoun smiles and his eyes light up a bit.
"I’m a little nervous, but you’ve just got to play," Calhoun said. "The time is here, the time is now. I’m excited about just making big plays."
ASU’s last two will linebackers (Brandon Magee in 2012 and Chris Young in 2013) led the team in tackles, so it stands to reason Calhoun will get many opportunities. He’ll also be key to ASU’s run stopping and ability to pressure the quarterback.
Perry and Sam should also be factors this week and the rest of the season. Perry is currently ASU’s third cornerback behind Lloyd Carrington and Solomon Means. He impressed in camp after initially being pegged by Graham as a redshirt candidate. Sam has played multiple positions and currently projects as the backup at will and spur linebacker.
"Christian Sam’s light is going on," Graham said, noting Sam has pushed Calhoun in camp and should continue to do so.
Ballage admitted Tuesday to a range of emotions about playing his first college game, from excitement to anxiousness to nervousness. He has played in some big settings "but nothing like this."
"This many people, it’s crazy," Ballage said. "It’s something I’ve always wanted to do, and now that I’m actually here, it doesn’t seem real to me. I’ve got to wake up from that come Thursday."
Ballage, 6-foot-3 and 220 pounds, could become a prominent weapon in ASU’s offense. The Sun Devils have an established lead back in junior D.J. Foster, but Ballage may be too much of a talent to keep off the field. His size and athleticism give ASU a different look and make him versatile enough to play ASU’s 3-back position if needed.
Kalen Ballage is expected to see action as a kick return and in the offensive backfield.
Ballage’s most meaningful action Thursday will likely come on kickoff returns, but he should see some carries out of the backfield. While respecting Weber State, he’s viewing this game as a bit of a measuring stick.
"I think this will be a good game for me to kind of gauge where I’m at and kind of just step into things and test the waters a little bit," he said.
Richard, too, has too much potential impact to keep on the sidelines. ASU has used him in a slot receiver role, similar to Foster’s initiation to college football, but the 5-foot-10, 210-pound Richard also impressed as a running back in camp
"Anything in the backfield, that’s what I’m most comfortable with," Richard said. "But the slot, you’ll see me there. It will come quick, too."
From what coaches have said about Richard, he could be the most prepared to be an every-down back should anything happen to Foster. Richard exudes confidence and has a clear desire to make an immediate impact, so it’s no surprise he’s neither nervous nor excited about his debut.
"I’m more focused than excited," Richard said. "It’s my first college game, but I’m more focused and ready to get this season kicked off."