ASU offense poised for next step after spring practice
When Arizona State opened spring practice a month ago, the defense, understandably, dominated the conversation. A new defensive coordinator, Keith Patterson, had arrived to oversee a unit that had lost nine starters.
But on the other side, ASU’s vaunted offense quietly went to work, taking stock of the returners and building on a solid foundation. After a strong spring, the offense appears poised to take another big step in 2014.
"It’s obviously a work in progress," offensive coordinator Mike Norvell said. "We graduated a few key guys, some great leaders for us, and we’re counting on some guys to continue to step up. But this group, they want to be successful, they want to push each other."
While the offense’s losses to graduation did not match the defense’s in number, it could be argued that they were just as significant in impact. Departed from the starting ranks are versatile running back Marion Grice, tight end Chris Coyle and offensive linemen Kody Koebensky and Evan Finkenberg. Receiver Kevin Ozier also graduated, and fellow wideout Richard Smith transferred.
Norvell and his offensive staff addressed the holes created by those losses with relative ease this spring. D.J. Foster, already an established difference-maker, slid right into Grice’s spot in the backfield, while De’Marieya Nelson took over Coyle’s spot, albeit with a different skill set. On the offensive line, Nick Kelly emerged at center and Christian Westerman staked his claim at left guard, pushing Jamil Douglas outside to tackle.
After those fixes and with so many core pieces returning, including quarterback Taylor Kelly (for his third year as the starter) and No. 1 receiver Jaelen Strong, an offense that ranked second in the Pac-12 in scoring and fifth in total yardage last year should be even better next season.
With coach Todd Graham’s third spring practice in the books, here are the big offensive takeaways as the Sun Devils break for the summer.
The offensive line is as deep as it has been since Graham arrived. Last season, offensive line depth was a concern. That changed very quickly this spring.
Kelly settled matters at center in short order, taking first-team reps from Day 1 and leaving little doubt he’s up to replacing Koebensky, whom Graham has called the smartest football player he’s ever been around. At 6-foot-2 and 294 pounds, Kelly gives the line a bigger, more physical presence in the middle, and coaches believe he brings greater athleticism to the position.
"He’s a guy we’ve got a lot of confidence in," Graham said. "We think we can improve at that position with his physical toughness, his flexibility and his explosiveness."
Also a factor in the sudden depth boost was Westerman’s eligibility. After transferring from Auburn, the former five-star recruit out of Chandler Hamilton had to sit out last season per NCAA rules and spent the year on the scout team. His landing a starting job seemed a matter not of if but when.
The offensive line has been the thing that’s gotten me most excited this spring. I think they’ve got a mean disposition about them. We’re bigger, we’re more physical.
ASU coach Todd Graham
Westerman’s move into the starting lineup depended in part on Evan Goodman’s spring. If Goodman would have secured the starting job at left tackle, ASU would have considered putting Westerman on the right side. While Goodman did have a good spring, it apparently wasn’t enough to prevent the shift that moved Douglas outside and Westerman into the starting spot at left guard.
But perhaps the bigger development came behind the starting group. Goodman and Stephon McCray established themselves as capable players while William McGehee, Devin Goodman and Jack Powers appear close behind. ASU believes it can go eight or nine deep on the line.
The line’s development might be of most benefit to Taylor Kelly, who should have more time to work out of the pocket, and D.J. Foster, who will see significantly more carries this season.
"The offensive line has been the thing that’s gotten me most excited this spring," Graham said. "I think they’ve got a mean disposition about them. We’re bigger, we’re more physical."
The situation at wide receiver has come a long way. Two seasons ago, receivers coach DelVaughn Alexander seemed hesitant at times to talk to reporters, knowing they’d likely ask about a unit that ultimately had just two players eclipse 600 receiving yards.
That, however, was a situation Alexander inherited when he came to ASU with Graham. In the past year, things have changed drastically.
Wide receiver became a position of strength last season with Jaelen Strong added to the mix. He became the No. 1 receiver almost immediately and landed on the All-Pac-12 second team. With him returning in 2014, the position remains a strength, and it should get even stronger despite Smith’s transfer.
This spring, redshirt freshman Ellis Jefferson displayed the progress he’s made since nearly earning a starting job last season before getting injured and redshirting. His physical development was apparent, as was his growing understanding of the offense.
Cameron Smith also made noticeable progress from the beginning of spring practice to the end, and Nelson at tight end showed he will be a favorite target for Kelly next season. Even walk-on Frederick Gammage displayed the ability to contribute in 2014.
Factor in the recruiting additions of Tyler Whiley, Jalen Harvery and highly touted junior college receiver Eric Lauderdale, who chose ASU over many prominent programs and is expected by many to start, and the Sun Devils might be deeper at receiver than they are at any other position.
What was a glaring weakness not long ago seems to have become somewhat of a strength, as ASU did what it had to do to provide ample targets for its quarterbacks.
Taylor Kelly must take another step. As he prepares for his third season as ASU’s starting quarterback, Kelly has room to grow — and he must. He is already one of the Pac-12’s top returning passers, but the others — Oregon’s Marcus Mariota, UCLA’s Bretty Hundley and Stanford’s Kevin Hogan — are either elite or on the verge of it, and Kelly is tasked with keeping pace.
As impressive as Kelly’s 2013 season was, it was still marred a bit by his 12 interceptions. Kelly had sought to cut down on his pick but didn’t. With that in mind, he’s again made it a primary goal in 2014. He didn’t throw any interceptions in Saturday’s spring game and also didn’t appear to give the defense any real opportunities for a takeaway. That’s a positive sign, and Kelly will have to do that consistently throughout the season.
Kelly also displayed improved game management this spring, which Graham complimented after the spring game. And he showed that his ability to improvise remains as strong as ever, though he might not have to do so as much next season if the offensive line holds up.
While there is room or improvement, the offense appears in good hands with Kelly, and that will be significant early on as the rebuilt defense finds its footing. ASU may have to rely on scoring a lot of points to win games, at least early in the year.