Wealth of newcomers pushing for key roles with Sun Devils

TEMPE, Ariz. — For as many experienced veterans as Arizona State has heading into the 2013 season, there has certainly been a lot of talk about newcomers.

It’s easy every year to get excited and talk about new players, be they freshmen or junior college transfers. But most of the talk in ASU’s fall camp has been more than just routine excitement about unknown potential … it’s been about contributing right away or competing for a starting job.

Despite 14 starters from 2012 returning, ASU coaches expect significant contributions from upwards of 10 newcomers.

“We have a lot of newcomers and a lot of really quality freshman,” coach Todd Graham said. “You’re going to have that every year, but this year a whole bunch of those guys factor in to our two deep.”

Graham said he could envision one freshman starting on defense and perhaps two on offense. As for new junior college transfers, at least one should start on offense and three are competing for starting spots on defense. The Sun Devils also are likely to start the year with freshmen handling kicking and punting duties.

“We pride ourselves on getting guys ready to play,” Graham said. “That’s something we do. We have no problem playing freshmen that are ready to play.”

Running back D.J. Foster and defensive tackle Jaxon Hood back Graham’s words up. Both started and earned freshman All-America honors last season.

The same stance applies to junior-college transfers, though it’s more of an expectation of many of them. Graham said transitioning those junior college players to the Division I level is the greatest challenge he and his staff face with a new recruiting class.

“We do that in a positive way, but that’s kind of the hardest thing — the mental aspect of it, the mental maturity of being able to transition,” Graham said. “I take great pride in that. I think we have a great system of being able to transition guys.”

The success of running back Marion Grice and linebackers Chris Young and Steffon Martin last season  support that belief. Graham is looking for a few more junior college additions to click in similar fashion this season.

Still, as much newcomer contribution as ASU might get, the Sun Devils remain a veteran team.

“I’m not going to say ‘Oh we’re a young team — we’re not,” Graham said. “We’ll be graduating 14 players on defense (this year). This is the year. We’ve got a veteran crew. We better be good.”

Those veterans will have plenty of help. Here’s a look at some of the key newcomers that have stood out early in camp and have a good shot at contributing this year.

Freshman Marcus Ball, free safety

Ball has done nothing but impress since he arrived in Arizona to take part in ASU’s strength and conditioning program.

“Marcus Ball has been a guy that’s really stood out,” Graham said.

On the second night of newcomer practices, Graham declared Ball a candidate to start at the open field safety position. He’s competing against redshirt freshman Laiu Moeakiola, who played in three games last season, and junior college safety Damarious Randall, who hasn’t practiced yet due to a groin strain.

Ball has been getting regular first-team reps.

“Ever since I came in here and ever since I was recruited here Coach (Chris) Ball and Coach Graham looked me in the eye and said ‘You have a chance to start, you have a great opportunity here,’ and when I heard that, I believed that was true,” Ball said. “So I came in here and didn’t act like a freshman. I just came in here right away composed and ready to play, ready to compete.”

Freshman Chans Cox, linebacker

Cox enrolled for the spring semester, and his time with the team in spring practice, despite an ankle injury, has given him a leg up.

“Night and day,” Graham said of the difference being around in spring made. “He doesn’t seem like a newcomer.”

Early in camp, coaches have experimented with how to use Cox, playing him at Devilbacker, defensive end and Sam linebacker. They still seem to be figuring just where he will end up, partially based on need, but he appears likely to contribute on the two-deep either way.

“I think Chans Cox has looked real good,” Graham said. “He’s going to be a very explosive guy, and man, he ain’t scared.”

Junior Marcus Hardison, defensive line

Hardison is battling to overtake Gannon Conway for the starting defensive end job.

“Marcus Hardison is going to be, I think, really good,” Graham said.

Hardison is still adjusting to the tempo at ASU, but by the time camp is over he could be sitting atop the depth chart, another weapon in ASU’s attacking defense. It would not come as a surprise, as he came to ASU rated as one of the nation’s best junior college linemen and has a knack for getting to the quarterback.

“I kind of get nervous,” Hardison said. “There’s a lot of people that have got really high expectations. But just working hard I can fulfill those expectations.”

Freshman Ellis Jefferson, wide receiver

No one was talking about Ellis Jefferson when camp opened. All the attention was on junior college receivers Jaelen Strong and Joe Morris. Now, Jefferson is the talk of camp on the offensive side.

The 6-foot-4 Denton, Texas, native doesn’t look like a freshman. He’s big, physical and strong. And he’s grasping ASU’s offensive system quickly.

“He’s been the standout so far,” Graham said. “Just really sharp routes, he’s very smart. He’s picked up the system very quickly. We knew he was a good player, but he’s really, really shined.”

That was just one of the times Graham has mentioned Jefferson through the first week of camp. Graham also singled Jefferson out to meet legendary ASU coach Frank Kush after a recent practice.

Junior Antonio Longino, linebacker

Longino is exactly the kind of explosive hard-hitter Graham and his coaches are looking for in their defense. He even got chastised once in the first week for going too hard at a key offensive player.

Coaches took a few days to figure out where Longino fits best, and he’s now competing at Will linebacker, where Chris Young is the likely starter. If Longino comes on really strong through camp, Young could move back to Spur to open a starting position for Longino.

Longino was the only player taking notes on the sidelines of ASU’s first veterans only practice, and his desire to contribute right away is easy to see.

“I feel real confident I’m going to be a big part of the defense,” Longino said. “I came here trying to make an impact.”

Freshman Cameron Smith, wide receiver

Smith impressed greatly in newcomer practices but has cooled off a bit since. Still, the 6-foot Coppell, Texas, native may be the fastest player on the team, and coaches have been impressed.

Smith is a polished player for a freshman, having made very few mistakes through one week. He’s not getting carried away, however.

“I don’t think I’ve done enough actually, but I’m just trying to stay focused so I can improve on what I need to and become more balanced as a receiver,” Smith said. “I need to know the plays automatically, not thinking too much when I get to the line so it can be second nature.”

Junior Jaelen Strong, wide receiver

Strong was by far the most anticipated newcomer of 2013. A tall receiver at 6-foot-4, he has the potential to be ASU’s No. 1 receiver. Missing the first three days of practice awaiting academic clearance and not wearing pads for the next two seemingly did nothing to change that perception.

“He has come on quick,” receivers coach DelVaughn Alexander said. “He’s really smart and really focused. He has a lot of natural instincts when it comes to the game. It’s just a matter of him getting used to what we do and how we do it.”

Strong has the athleticism to be a No. 1 receiver. But he has intangibles as well. Those instincts Alexander spoke of showed in Monday’s scrimmage when a defensive back deflected a pass behind Strong, who turned his head around and caught the ball as it came down behind him for a big gain.


— Freshmen Zane Gonzalez and Matt Haack are likely to handle kicking and punting duties.

— Freshman safety James Johnson has worked his way into the competition at field safety. Graham has praised his communication skills. It’s a competition ASU wants to settle quickly, though, and others are currently leading.

— Freshman linebacker Viliami Latu has drawn Graham’s praise a few times already. He has a solid chance to earn a backup job.

— Junior wide receiver Joe Morris, a teammate of Strong’s at Pierce, is expected to compete for a starting job but has been limited by a foot injury. He should move onto the radar in a week or so, but the competition is heating up.

— Junior tight end De’Marieya Nelson, from San Joaquin Delta College, might be the ideal player for ASU’s H-back position. Coaches love his explosiveness and wide-ranging skill set. He could contribute this year but in a somewhat limited role.

— Safety Damarious Randall comes highly touted from Mesa Community College. The belief is he may end up winning the field safety job, but he hasn’t practice yet due to a groin strain. He’ll be worth watching as camp rolls on.