Sun Devils still sorting out defensive options

TEMPE, Ariz. — With a total of 14 starters returning from the 2012 season, Arizona State entered fall camp with just a handful of holes to fill. Through two weeks, a few of the existing questions have been answered, but some remain unsettled.

What’s odd is that now, with two weeks until ASU’s season opener against Sacramento State, more questions exist on the defense, which lost only three starters to graduation, than the offense.

Injuries have been part of the story, as a couple players expected to compete for jobs have been sidelined. Things will continue to change over the next two weeks, but here’s where the position battles stand:

Field safety

Status: Very unsettled

In the mix: Marcus Ball (injured), Damarious Randall (injured), Robert Nelson, Laiu Moeakiola. James Johnson

Outlook: This spot was all but sewn up until Ball got hurt in last Saturday’s scrimmage. The freshman suffered a shoulder injury that will keep him out an estimated 3-5 weeks. Moeakiola seemed the natural replacement, but instead Nelson was moved over from cornerback. Nelson might have a difficult learning curve, but his speed will be an asset. Randall could start practice in about a week but would have to really excel to win the job after missing so much time with a groin strain. Ball could be back by ASU’s third or fourth game, and Graham expects him to play after that.

Linebackers (Will and Spur)

Status: Very unsettled

In the mix: Will – Chris Young, Carlos Mendoza, Antonio Longino, Salamo Fiso, Grandville Taylor. Spur – Young, Anthony Jones, Taylor.

Outlook: The Will spot seemed to be settled, as Young appeared to be an easy choice after moving there in the spring. But now with Spur (more of a linebacker/safety hybrid) still an area of concern, the Will position is impacted as well. If Young returns to Spur, as he has in practice this week, he would be the starter over Anthony Jones, who has dealt with a minor injury this week. Were that to happen, it creates an opening at Will, where Carlos Mendoza, who has battled a sore knee much of camp, and Longino have yet to excel. ASU is now trying redshirt freshman Salamo Fiso at Will to see if he can claim the job. But if the season started tomorrow and Young were forced back to Spur, senior Grandville Taylor would likely be the starter at Will.

Punter

Status: Nearly settled

In the mix: Matt Haack, Dom Vizzare

Outlook: All signs seem to say ASU wants Haack to win this battle. It’s been a close competition, but Graham said Haack has “stepped up” and taken the lead at the position. Vizzare appears to have a bigger leg, as he has boomed longer punts more regularly than Haack. But Haack seems faster getting punts off, though he could still shave some time off his kicks. After a nice performance in the Camp Tontozona scrimmage, Haack is in position to win the job if he can be consistent through the rest of camp.

Wide receiver

Status: Mostly settled

Who’s in: Jaelen Strong, Richard Smith, Ellis Jefferson

Outlook: Strong has been just about what ASU expected when it signed him from Pierce College in Los Angeles. He has shown his ability to make big plays down the field and compete against talented defenders. Though he’s still getting acclimated to the work ethic coaches demand, Strong could be a game changer on offense. Smith, meanwhile, has shown big improvement over his freshman season. Count him in as a starter. The third starting job could be a flexible spot. Big freshman Ellis Jefferson has seen significant time there, but so have running back D.J. Foster and tight ends Chris Coyle and Darwin Rogers, depending on the offensive package. Freshman Cameron Smith was in the mix before being set back by a hamstring injury.

Place kicker

Status: Settled

Who’s in: Zane Gonzalez

Outlook:
Gonzalez, a freshman, had a couple shaky days early in camp but now appears to have run away with the job, leaving Alex Garoutte and Jon Mora in the dust. Gonzalez went 8 for 8 in ASU’s scrimmage at Camp Tontozona, nailing a long of 49 yards. At the next practice he went 3 for 3 with a long of 47. Consider this competition settled for now.

Field cornerback

Status: Settled

Who’s in:
Lloyd Carrington

Outlook: Carrington, a transfer from Pitt who played as a true freshman under Graham in 2011, took first-team reps at Deveron Carr’s old spot on the first day of camp and hasn’t budged since, drawing regular praise from his coaches. Sophomore Rashad Wadood has not had the camp many expected him to, and Robert Nelson is now working at field safety.

Offensive line

Status: Settled

Who’s in: Right tackle Tyler Sulka

Outlook: ASU coaches hoped Sulka would come on strong in camp, and he did so after just a few days, taking over the right tackle job and not looking back. His emergence shuffled the line a bit, as Jamil Douglas moved back to left guard, forcing Sil Ajawara out of the starting lineup. Coaches like Sulka’s outside physicality, and Douglas should help open more holes in the middle. Ajawara broke his toe in camp, which has hampered his performance after a strong finish to 2012. He could work his way back into the picture later if someone struggles, but Sulka appears likely to line up beside right guard Vi Teofilo, center Kody Koebensky, Douglas and left tackle Evan Finkenberg.