ASU spring football: 10 players to watch

Todd Graham believes Antonio Longino has a chance to be an impact player at the linebacker position previously filled by Chris Young.

Casey Sapio/Casey Sapio-USA TODAY Sports

Arizona State opens its third spring practice under coach Todd Graham next week, and it will undoubtedly be the coach’s most important spring yet.

Graham and his staff must begin working to replace 13 starters, nine of them on the defensive side. But truthfully, only so much can be accomplished in the spring. Contact is limited, key players are often recovering from minor injuries and the year’s recruiting class has yet to arrive. Also, Graham says ASU will scrimmage less and focus more on situational work.

Even if all that holds true for ASU this spring, it will still be a pivotal period as players try to make an impression on the coaching staff and position themselves for jobs in the fall.

Graham sat down recently with local beat writers, and in a 90-minute interview Graham mentioned a number of players he expects to make big strides next season. Here we examine most of those players and add a few of our own to the list of names worth watching this spring.

Asked which returning players could make the biggest leap next season, Graham first named Longino and emphatically so.

"We’re very excited about Antonio," Graham said. "Antonio Longino is going to be a guy that’s going to step up in a big, big way."

Coaches have been high on Longino since he arrived last fall, but the junior-college transfer simply didn’t adapt quickly enough to win a spot on the depth chart.

"He just got left behind because we had guys that were ready to go," Graham said.

This spring, Longino will be in one of the few position battles worth watching — most won’t really take shape until the fall — as he and early enrollee D.J. Calhoun battle for the lead at will linebacker. The Sun Devils need to replace Chris Young there, and Longino could be the guy.

Among the defensive recruits in Graham’s first three classes, none may have a better understanding of what Graham is trying to do at ASU than Calhoun.

"I asked D.J. Calhoun ‘Why’d you come here?’ " Graham said. "He goes ‘Man, ’cause at Arizona State you play defense.’ "

On Signing Day, Graham called Calhoun "one of the best linebackers in the county." Of course, there were probably dozens of coaches saying that about their linebacker recruits, so spring practice will offer a first look at just how good Calhoun is.

Calhoun will benefit from the head start he’s getting, particularly from a strength and conditioning standpoint, and could position himself to win the starting will linebacker job in the fall.

Through no fault of his own, Cox might have been one of ASU’s most disappointing recruits last season. Expectations were high for the in-state linebacker, who was the highest rated player in Graham’s second class, but injuries kept him off the field. Now healthy, Cox could emerge as the impact player coaches expect him to be.

"This guy is going to be a great player for us," Graham said. "He’s going to be a great defensive end Devil (linebacker) for us."

Graham said Cox is a different style Devil linebacker than Carl Bradford was, and ASU will adapt accordingly to that style. Cox has some strides to make as a down lineman, but it’s obvious Graham is excited about Cox.

"We beat Notre Dame on this guy, we beat USC," Graham said. "This guy is 6-foot-4, 255 pounds and can run."

Marcus Hardison saw limited action in 13 games last season but could establish himself as a leader on a rebuilt defensive line.

Hardison’s name was second out of Graham’s mouth after Longino as a guy ready to emerge next season.

"I think Marcus Hardison is going to have a breakout year," Graham said.

Hardison already has experience, having played in 13 games last season, but he didn’t develop as quickly as ASU had hoped of a highly rated junior college recruit. But now, with openings across the defensive line, Hardison has the chance to really blossom.

Hardison has played multiple spots on the line and could end up at defensive tackle, replacing Will Sutton, or defensive end, replacing Gannon Conway. Spring practice will give coaches a chance to work him at both spots as he further develops his technique.

The highest-rated player in Graham’s first recruiting class and originally a Dennis Erickson recruit, Goodman has been slow to develop at ASU. As he enters his redshirt sophomore season, it might be now or never.

"Evan is so physically talented," Graham said. "His process is just learning the system and understanding what we’re doing."

Goodman redshirted last season and now has the opportunity to win a starting job with two spots on the offensive line opening up. If he makes the progress Graham expects him to, Goodman could be the starting left tackle come August, but he’ll have to make the right impression this spring or risk getting left behind.

Barring injury, it’s hard to imagine a scenario where Westerman, an Auburn transfer and former five-star recruit out of Chandler Hamilton, isn’t starting in 2014.

"I think Christian is going to have a big-time year," Graham said. "Obviously people expect that."

Westerman is easily ASU’s most physically impressive offensive lineman, and his presence could make ASU’s line better than last season even with the loss of two starters. Westerman probably projects best as a right guard, putting Vi Teofilo’s starting job in jeopardy.

Among ASU’s underclassmen without a Division I snap under his belt yet, none might be as highly regarded as Johnson. On numerous occasions, Graham has offered up unsolicited praise of the 6-foot-2 safety.

This spring, Johnson has the chance to take another step and position himself as a potential replacement for Alden Darby. The competition for the spot opposite Damarious Randall, one of ASU’s two returning starters, should be fierce. Johnson has already gotten noticed and now has the chance to differentiate himself from the pack.

More Sun Devils

Perhaps the most under-the-radar player on ASU’s roster entering spring practice, Simone has the opportunity to make a big impression. Simone, a walk-on who followed defensive coordinator Chris Ball to ASU from Washington State, was described by Graham as a "sleeper" who would have started on every special teams unit last season if he had been eligible.

Simone may not be in line to win a starting safety job, but he might be able to land a prominent spot on the depth chart with a strong spring and fall. Furthermore, he could be in line to get put on scholarship in the fall.

The more telling period for Latu could be the start of fall practicel, when ASU hopes to have him slimmed down. Graham said Latu came into 2013 overweight and is at 385 pounds now.

"If we can get him down to 330 pounds … he’d be the best in the league," Graham said. "We’ve got to figure out a way to get him (in shape). It can be done, and we can get that done."

Latu could be a big part of ASU’s run-stopping efforts in 2014 if he loses weight and doesn’t face any further knee issues. Coaches love his athleticism and explosiveness and want him to take on a bigger role.

Mendoza remains one of the big mysteries on ASU’s roster. Coaches have always liked his potential, but he hasn’t been able to stay healthy in two seasons. When he is healthy, though, he shows great instincts.

Mendoza will work at spur linebacker, competing with Viliami Moeakiola to replace Anthony Jones and give ASU the impact spur linebacker it has lacked since Chris Young moved to will last season.

Marcus Ball, S: A "big-time safety" in the making, according to Graham, Ball would be among the top 10 to watch if not for the fact he will be non-contact this spring as he recovers from offseason surgery to repair the clavicle he broke last fall.

Rashad Wadood, CB: Wadood had a strong spring in 2013 but didn’t impress in fall camp and played sparingly. With a starting job up for grabs, Wadood has another chance to emerge. Graham says he must develop mentally.

Stephon McCray, OL: Graham calls McCray a "tough dude," and after recovering from a knee injury, he could challenge for a starting spot on the offensive line.

Eriquel Florence, DL: Florence had a "really good offseason," Graham said, and is up to 247 pounds. He could compete for a starting job but more likely fits on the second line for now.

Viliami Moeakiola, LB: Moeakiola has had trouble staying healthy in two seasons and bounced between safety and spur but might have a home at spur now. He’ll compete for the starting job there, starting this spring.

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