TEMPE, Ariz. — Since Arizona State freshman and projected starting field safety Marcus Ball hurt his shoulder in last weekend’s scrimmage, the position has been in flux, and Saturday’s practice brought the latest development.
Senior Robert Nelson has seen first-team action at field safety all week after moving over from field cornerback, but Laiu Moeakiola has emerged as the leader with 10 practices to go before ASU’s season opener.
“Laiu’s had several really good days,” Graham said. “I really have a lot of confidence in him. If we played today, I’m not sure Laiu wouldn’t start at free safety. That’s probably what we’d do.”
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Moeakiola had battled closely with Ball, but Ball was positioned to start before suffering the shoulder injury expected to keep him out another two to four weeks. Moeakiola played in two games last season before suffering a hamstring injury that kept him out the rest of the season. He received a medical redshirt and did not lose a year of eligibility, making him a redshirt freshman now.
Nelson is still expected to be a factor at field safety, at least until Ball returns or junior college transfer Damarious Randall (groin strain) is able to practice. Nelson got first-team reps at the spot all week but on Saturday split time between there and field cornerback.
“That was the plan — to help fill the spot at safety and continue to play corner, too,” Nelson said. “They wanted me to play both, so if they need me I’ll be ready.”
Graham has called the field safety the “quarterback of the defense.” Accordingly, the position comes with a lot of responsibilities, which makes it a challenge to learn quickly.
“It gets frustrating at times,” Nelson admitted. “I’ve only been there five days, so I’ve really got to just get in the playbook and learn everything. I’m the type of guy that wants to know everything that’s going on, so it frustrates me sometimes when I don’t know certain coverages or I blow certain coverages.”
Added safeties coach Chris Ball: “He’s still learning it. It’s a hard position to just jump in and learn.”
Ball also expressed confidence in Moeakiola’s ability to start at the spot and said he’s waiting on Randall, who has not practiced yet. Graham said for the first time Saturday that Randall won’t likely be ready enough by the start of the season to win the field safety job.
“Hopefully Damarious will be where we can take a look at him, but ain’t no way I think he’s going to be ready by game one,” Graham said.
Reading between the lines, it sounds like Moeakiola’s fundamentals and assignment-soundness have him leading the more athletic Nelson for the job. Freshman James Johnson could be a factor at field safety as well, but Graham would prefer to redshirt him if possible.
After being absent for ASU’s first 20 practices of the fall, junior college linebacker Eriquel Florence made his first appearance Saturday. He wore shorts and a jersey and just observed drills.
Florence had been awaiting academic clearance, which Graham said he now has. By NCAA rules, the 6-foot-1, 235-pound Contra Costa College product must go through an acclimation period before putting pads on, but his may be extended a bit because of his lengthy absence.
“We won’t just throw him in there,” Graham said. “I’m not sure how good of condition he’s in. Probably not up to our standards, so we’ll probably condition him a little bit. It’ll be about a four-to-five-day process.”
Florence, who will likely play will or sam linebacker, was expected to factor into ASU’s depth right away, but his delayed arrival has set that back. In addition to conditioning, he must learn ASU’s scheme, a tall task with the season so close.
“What we do is so hard to learn, but he can do it,” Graham said. “I thought he would factor in big time to the linebacking corps, and that does help us tremendously to have him because we’ve got a lot of depth right now at linebacker, (but) I just need somebody to step up there with (senior will linebacker) Chris Young.”
— Graham said ASU had one of its best days of the fall Saturday and is pleased with the players’ mentality this season.
“We have good days but not great days,” Graham said. “And what I’m talking about is two things: your attitude and your effort. I thought today we really stepped it up, especially some of our leaders. We got better, we got closer today.”
— Graham said linebackers Alani and Viliami Latu — twins from Rancho Cucamonga, Calif. — have been very impressive and could be playing significantly at some point this season, perhaps in the first half. Neither is practicing with the scout team, which was introduced Friday.
— Graham said junior college transfer Antonio Longino was moved back to spur Friday and will likely remain there. Coaches are presenting things differently to Longino, Graham said, as he tries to learn the spot and transition to the Division I level.
— Notable scout team players include safety Ezekiel Bishop, who had been getting second-team reps behind Alden Darby at boundary safety, and defensive lineman Demetrius Cherry, a junior college transfer. Notables not on the scout team are freshmen safety Jayme Otomewo and linebacker Chans Cox. Graham said Cox is positioned to back up Carl Bradford at devilbacker.
— Tight end Darwin Rogers returned to practice in a limited capacity Saturday after missing the previous three practices with an unspecified injury. He was dressed but did not participate in drills during the portion of practice open to the media.
— Spur linebacker Anthony Jones shed the green no-contact jersey for Friday’s practice and returned to first-team duties.
— Limited Saturday were receivers Cameron Smith (hamstring) and Joe Morris (foot) as well as Randall (groin).
— Though Graham has said freshman Matt Haack is leading the battle for top punting duties, walk-on junior Dom Vizzare continues to get first-team reps. Both have begun attempting running, rugby-style punts.
— Former ASU safety Josh Barrett was at Saturday’s practice, having joined the football staff in a volunteer administrative role. Barrett played at ASU from 2004-07.