ASU freshmen progressing differently as midseason approaches

Linebacker D.J. Calhoun has had an immediate impact for ASU's defense with 27 tackles and one sack thorugh five games.

TEMPE, Ariz. — Just as everyone expected after Arizona State lost 13 starters from last season, the Sun Devils are young in 2014.

Through five games, ASU played 11 true freshmen, seven of whom played significantly, making this team easily the youngest under coach Todd Graham.

Most of the youth is on the defensive side, where ASU lost nine starters from last season. Twice ASU started three true freshmen on defense. No true freshman started on offense yet, but two saw meaningful action.

Three true freshmen — DeAndre Scott, Brendan Landman and Jordan Schlueter — played very limitedly on special teams, and walk-on Mitch Fraboni took over primary long snapping duties. The following seven players were much more involved.

With the midpoint of the season coming Saturday against Stanford, we asked ASU position coaches to evaluate the freshman so far.

Four games, 18 carries, 108 yards, 1 TD; 3 receptions, 47 yards

After a strong showing late in fall camp, Richard made a move up the depth chart, perhaps even positioning himself as the No. 2 back. He has seen a little less action lately with senior Deantre Lewis getting more play, but coaches remain high on Richard as big-time playmaker who eventually could be ASU’s every-down back.

Demario Richard

Running backs coach Bo Graham on Richard: "I love where Demario’s at. He’s a complete back. I think he can do it all. I think we’ve got to get him in games more so he can have more opportunities. That’s the hardest thing: We’ve got such a talented backfield. Trying to feed all these guys is complicated, but he’s doing a great job. There’s not anything that he can’t do.

What Richard could improve: "The thing about Demario is the hard plays are easy for him and the easy plays are hard. So just when he’s wide open, making those easy ones. That’s what we’ve been focused on. Our system is not hard to learn."

Five games, 26 carries, 88 rushing yards, 3 TDs; 5 receptions, 67 yards, 1 TD

Kallen Ballage

Ballage has done a little of everything so far, though Graham has resisted trying him on defense. His size (6-foot-3, 220 pounds) gives ASU a different look out of the backfield, and they’ve taken advantage. Ballage has also returned kickoffs but will probably do so less going forward.

Bo Graham on Ballage: "I think Kalen’s come along pretty well. He’s got a great understanding of the offense, and he’s doing well so far, doing everything we’re asking him to do. He caught a couple screens in the earlier games, but just catching it, running it, pass protection — I think all around he’s just getting better."

What Ballage could improve: "Just all the routes that we run. He’s such a big guy. Just fundamentals in route running, keeping his shoulders down, getting comfortable adjusting to balls out on a route. That’s the biggest thing."

Five games (five starts), 3 tackles

Tashon Smallwood (left)

Smallwood has been perhaps the hardest to evaluate so far. He didn’t register a tackle through ASU’s first three games but has remained the starter and seemingly avoided mistakes. He’s seen a little less action as Viliami Latu has been worked in at three-technique.

Defensive line coach Jackie Shipp on Smallwood: "He’s made a lot of progress. Just a lot of learning. You’re talking about a guy that’s in his first year playing. He’s picking up a lot of different things we’re doing. He’s getting better every day. Now, is he where he’s going to be one day? No. Is he going to get there? Yeah. But he’s making good progress, and he’s learning. What’s the old saying? He’s learning in the fire. He’s been thrown in the fire, and he’s having to learn on the go. He’s had some ups, and he’s had some downs. The biggest thing is consistency and continuing to learn."

What Smallwood could improve: "The biggest things he can improve: fundamental technique and knowing exactly what he’s doing and not getting nervous. And he’ll get it."

Five games (five starts), 27 tackles (3-1/2 for loss), 1 sack

D.J. Calhoun

Calhoun probably has been the standout among ASU’s true freshmen so far. Starting every game, he’s shown gradual improvement and held onto his starting job. Against USC, he had nine tackles (2-1/2 for loss) and a sack. He’s also made a handful of key tackles in big moments.

Defensive coordinator/linebackers coach Keith Patterson on Calhoun: "I’m pleased with where he is. He’s still a young freshman. … I think he’s done extremely well. I thought he played his best game against USC, and I think you’ll see the same thing this week."

What Calhoun could improve: "It’s such a transition. It’s not the physical transition — and I probably said this back in spring football and I probably said it during fall camp — it’s the mental. When you go to a high school football game, it’s probably a four-hour process. With TV, getting to the game two hours before, it’s more of a mental focus, being able to focus over extended periods of time. … Plus combine that with a multiple defense, that’s a lot on the plate of a young man."                              

Five games, 11 tackles (1 for loss), 1 sack, 1 INT

Christian Sam

Sam stepped in at spur linebacker when starter Laiu Moeakiola went down against Colorado. He recorded a sack and an interception in that game. He’s continued to get opportunities there with Moeakiola’s injury lingering.

Patterson on Sam: "Christian is behind D.J., obviously, because he didn’t go through spring football. They’re both going to be tremendous players for us two or three years down the road from now. They’ve got unbelievable athleticism and size."

What Sam could improve: "You just kind of see them out there on the field reacting to everything instead of anticipating and kind of know what’s coming. Therefore, you kind of play on your heels play a little bit timid just trying to keep from making mistakes. I think that’s kind of where Christian is right now. I think once he breaks through that wall, that threshold, I think you’ll continue to see him get better and better."

Five games (two starts), 20 tackles (1-1/2 for loss), 1/2 sack

Armand Perry

Perry made a big impression late in the preseason and wound up getting his first career start in Week 2. He started again the following week, but since junior Kweishi Brown emerged three weeks ago and ASU’s opponents have gotten tougher Perry has seen less action.

Three games, 2 tackles

Adams moved around in the secondary during the preseason and earned opportunities early in the year. Once ASU hit the tougher part of its schedule, the opportunities were fewer. Adams does give ASU a versatile depth piece and should see more action next season.

Todd Graham on Perry and Adams: "Just (progressing) slowly. The biggest thing is both those guys are really, really talented, and I tell them every day ‘The only person keeping you off the field is you and your development.’ … They’re doing well, they’re progressing, playing special teams, playing sparingly on defense, but both those guys are really fast and really talented and need to be playing more, but that’s according to how their development goes, and it’s been steady. It’s not been as fast as I want it to be."

What Perry and Adams could improve: "It’s just hard as a freshman. It’s hard to sustain the intensity that it takes and just the level of practice you have to (have) to play at this level, especially at corner. That’s probably the hardest place to play in college football."

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