TEMPE, Ariz. — There was a lot to look for in Arizona State’s season opener against Northern Arizona on Thursday night, but by the time ASU walked off the field with a 63-6 win, it was hard not to notice just how much the team’s youth played a part in the victory.
The Sun Devils played seven true freshmen in Thursday’s game, including two starters, and for will continue to see significant contributions from the talented young group.
“We feel like with where we’re at we had to play those guys,” coach Todd Graham said. “Five years from now it’ll look like a dumb decision, but we just don’t have the depth. We have to. It’s a very unusual situation as far as our depth. And we also have some unusually talented guys.”
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So between depth issues and promising talent of first-year players like running back D.J. Foster and receiver Richard Smith, it is clear Graham is comfortable playing his youngsters.
While Foster and nose tackle Jaxon Hood became the fifth and sixth true freshman ever to start a season opener for ASU, Smith, offensive lineman Evan Goodman, linebacker Carlos Mendoza, long snapper Easton Wahlstrom and safety Laui Moeakiola also saw action against NAU. Just about all of them did something impressive.
Foster, who caught the first pass of the game, carried the ball eight times for 67 yards and a touchdown, with long runs of 16 and 24 yards. He also caught four passes for 32 yards and made it to the postgame interview session in his Division I debut.
“D.J. we knew was going to start, and I liked that first play,” Graham said. “He caught the first ball, so I thought that was pretty cool.”
The fact Foster figured so heavily into ASU’s offensive attack came as no surprise, given Graham’s praise of the freshman all fall. Foster, out of Saguaro High School in Scottsdale, was the crown jewel of Graham’s first recruiting class, and Graham made no secret of the fact he wanted the ball in Foster’s hands often. Expect that to continue.
“I feel like I can always do better,” Foster said. “There’s always room for improvement at the end of the day, but I felt like I played OK. I played like my coaches expected, and I’m obviously going to get better.”
Graham was deeply impressed by Hood, too, calling his debut “incredible.” The Chandler Hamilton product recorded two tackles, including one of ASU’s nine for loss. On the other side of the line, Goodman displayed enough that Graham was already talking about getting him more time on the field.
“Evan’s a guy that is just so talented,” Graham said. “We’ve got to get him snaps because he’s going to be special.”
Moeakiola provided what might have been the true freshman highlight of the night when he picked off NAU quarterback Chase Cartwright in the second quarter. He also finished with four tackles. Mendoza tallied three tackles, including one for loss.
Smith caught a team-high five passes for 45 yards and the only receiving touchdown of the night. The undersized yet speedy receiver Might have gotten more time on the field due to senior receiver Jamal Miles’ one-game suspension, but his contribution was not unexpected.
“I’m not surprised,” Graham said. “The guys that I thought would play did play.”
As excited and proud as Graham was of his young talent in the season opener, he is just as worried about their inexperience going forward as the schedule gets tougher. He’s also worried about his team’s depth, which could force even more freshman into action should ASU suffer any injuries.
While there might be as many reasons for concern as for excitement, Thursday’s display could have positive ripples for years to come. The presence of seven true freshmen on the field sent a message to future recruits: If you’ve got the talent, you’ll play right away.