New format for ASU’s spring game ramps up competition

Todd Graham says he altered the spring game format this year 'to create more competition, and it has.'

TEMPE, Ariz. — In past spring games at Arizona State, the scoreboard read "Maroon" and "Gold" along with a usually lopsided score. It could easily be understood as offense vs. defense.

That won’t be the case this year.

With a new format, ASU has created an unusually competitive edge for Saturday’s spring game, which will feature two separate squads led by factions of the coaching staff.

"I want them to compete," coach Todd Graham said. "I just thought it would create more competition, and it has. It has with our coaching staff, it has with our players."

The format works like this: Offensive coordinator Mike Norvell and co-defensive coordinator Chris Ball will lead the "Gold" team while co-defensive coordinator Keith Patterson and offensive line coach Chris Thomsen will lead the "Maroon" team.

The teams, both of which feature first team players on both sides of the ball, will face off in two very different halves, and the stakes are high — or perhaps "steaks" would be more accurate.

The winner gets T-bone steaks and the loser gets tuna fish sandwiches. The great thing about it is I’m on whatever team wins.

ASU coach Todd Graham

"The winner gets T-bone steaks and the loser gets tuna fish sandwiches," Graham said. "The great thing about it is I’m on whatever team wins."

Graham jokes, but those steaks are real, and they might just be motivating players more than the football side of things.

"I can guarantee that that gold squad is going to get some steak come Saturday," gold team quarterback Mike Bercovici said, countering maroon team quarterback Taylor Kelly’s similar promise.

"I don’t mind (tuna fish), but we’re going to get that T-bone steak," Kelly said.

To collect the meaty spoils, the victor will have to outscore the other in some unusual ways. The first "half" of the spring game will be an "ironman competition" that features four events worth three points each.

The four competitions are a ‘W’ drill — a tackling gauntlet in which an offensive player attempts to get past three defensive players and cross the goal line — a 7-on-7 session from the 25-yard line, a pass rush battle between offensive and defensive lines and an 11-on-11 "team run" session that gives each team four tries to run the ball into the end zone from nine yards out.

The second half will feature more traditional scrimmaging. The teams will face off in two 15-minute quarters with a running clock and traditional scoring before playing an overtime period starting at the 25-yard lines.

"It’s going to be very competitive," Kelly said. "Guys in the locker room are already not talking to some of the other players when we were loading the tram (to practice) this morning. It’s going to be fun."

The two squads split up for a short practice Thursday morning, with the maroon team using ASU’s indoor practice facility and the gold team outside on the practice fields. Here’s a look at the starting units for each team:

Maroon: Offense — Taylor Kelly (QB), Deantre Lewis (RB), Jaelen Strong (WR), Cameron Smith (WR), Ronald Lewis (WR), De’Marieya Nelso (TE), Jamil Douglas (LT), Devin Goodman (LG), Stephon McCray (C), Vi Teofilo (RG), William McGehee (RT). Defense — Demetrius Cherry (DT), Mo Latu (DT), Marcus Hardison (DE), Viliami Latu (Devil), Salamo Fiso (sam LB), Antonio Longino (will LB), Marcus Washington (spur LB), Lloyd Carrington (CB), Ronnie Sellers (CB), Damrious Randall (S), Ezekiel Bishop (S).  PK — Zane Gonzalez.

Gold: Offense — Mike Bercovici (QB), D.J. Foster/Kyle Middlebrooks (RB), Ellis Jefferson (WR), Frederick Gammage (WR), Gary Chambers (WR), Grant Martinez (TE), Evan Goodman (LT), Christian Westerman (LG), Nick Kelly (C), Tyler McClure (RG), Tyler Sulka (RT). Defense — Edmond Boateng (DT), Jaxon Hood (DT), Zach Abdorrahimzadeh (DE), Eriquel Florence/Chans Cox (Devil), Alani Latu (sam LB), D.J. Calhoun (will LB), Laiu Moeakiola (spur LB), Will Earley (CB), Solomon Means (CB), Jordan Simone (S), James Johnson (S). PK — Alex Garoutte.

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Each side seemed convinced Thursday that it has the superior squad, but for each advantage, there seems a counter on the other side. The maroon team has Kelly as the starting quarterback, but the gold team has offensive whiz Mike Norvell. The maroon team has ASU’s only two returning starters on defense, but the gold team has three starting offensive linemen.

"I feel like we got the heart," Foster said. "Yeah, they’ve got a little talent here and there, but we got the team’s heart."

Said Kelly: "Maroon’s going to win. We put together some good plays, some good scheme for the gold team."

The new format should make for an interesting atmosphere at Sun Devil Stadium on Saturday. If the way players and coaches talked Thursday — "We’ll be eatin’ steak," Patterson said — is any indication, there should be at least a little more buzz than in previous years where the day featured a laid back atmosphere.

"Really, more than anything, it’s about team-building," Graham said. "I want them to compete. We’ve gone two years the way we’ve done it (previously), and I think it’s gone well. But that’s why I did this, really — to create that competition and for our fans and people watching on TV. They get an opportunity to really see someone being competitive."

The spring game portion of Saturday’s fan fest will begin at 11 a.m. in Sun Devil Stadium and air on the Pac-12 Network. Former ASU quarterback Jake Plummer will serve as analyst for the game alongside Jim Watson on play-by-play.

— A few players will be limited in Saturday’s scrimmage. Foster, who is healthy, said he expects to play fewer than 20 snaps. Strong has battled a sprained toe, and Norvell said the star receiver will be limited. Cornerback Rashad Wadood likely won’t participate due to a thigh bruise.

— The rest of the maroon coaching staff: defensive line coach Jackie Shipp, running backs coach Bo Graham, receivers coach DelVaughn Alexander. And the rest of the gold staff: tight ends coach Chip Long, defensive ends coach Paul Randolph, offensive graduate assistant Aaron Pflugrad.

— A handful of graduated players from the 2013 team will serve on the coaching staffs as well but have yet to be assigned teams. Among those expected are Will Sutton, Alden Darby, Chris Coyle, Evan Finkenberg, Chris Young, Robert Nelson, Osahon Irabor, Carl Bradford and Steffon Martin.

— Graham left Saturday’s practice about halfway through to head to the airport. He is traveling back to his hometown of Mesquite, Texas, to address students, teachers and administrators at North Mesquite High School, from which he graduated. Graham said he still keeps in touch with his coaches from the school as well as teachers from second, third and seventh grade.

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