Arizona State has reached the midpoint of preseason practice. Two weeks in, two weeks to go.
The Sun Devils open coach Herm Edwards’ first season Sept. 1 against Texas-San Antonio. Coaches this weekend are expected to finalize the depth chart and start game-planning.
Let’s take a look at where they stand:
Settle the offensive line. Graduate transfer Casey Tucker has made a difference at left tackle, but ASU still is rotating linemen at different spots. Recent injuries haven’t helped. Junior center Cohl Cabral and junior right guard Steven Miller both have missed time this week with various issues. “I’m not as concerned about the first five,” line coach Dave Christensen said. “I want to know, do we have five guys that can play? Six? Seven? Eight? That’s what I’m trying to find out.”
Iron out the secondary. Tyler Whiley’s season-ending injury left a hole at Tillman, a hybrid position in ASU’s 3-3-5 scheme. Senior Dasmond Tautalatasi, sophomore Evan Fields and senior Jalen Harvey are in the mix. “It might be all three of them,” defensive coordinator Danny Gonzales said. “The good thing is they each have different strengths. Evan is probably the most athletic and can cover the best. Das is probably the best in the run game, potentially. And then Jalen kind of gives you a mix.”
Pick a backup quarterback. Entering camp, no one expected this. Then again, back then no one knew who walk-on Kurt Walding was. Today, the junior-college transfer is battling sophomore Dillon Sterling-Cole for ASU’s No. 2 quarterback spot. Are coaches simply trying to motivate Sterling-Cole? Perhaps. But the fact it’s gotten to this point probably is not a good sign for Sterling-Cole. This is a competition he cannot afford to lose.
Get healthy. Whiley aside, ASU has several key players out with minor injuries. Sophomore receiver Frank Darby had a strong start to camp before getting hurt. Fields has been out with a hamstring issue. Senior receiver Ryan Jenkins, junior defensive end Darius Slade and senior linebacker Koron Crump also have been limited.
Kyle Williams. The sophomore receiver seems to get behind the secondary every practice, which is good or bad depending on your perspective. Either way, Williams will cause problems this season.
Merlin Robertson and Stanley Lambert. Both freshmen were expected to make an impact, both linebackers have lived up to expectations. Robertson may start. At minimum, Robertson will be in the defensive rotation and contribute on special teams. They’re two of four true freshmen Gonzales expects to play, along with linebacker Darien Butler and defensive back Aashari Crosswell.
Brandon Aiyuk. Junior-college transfers are supposed to have a difficult transition to the Division I level. So far, Aiyuk has handled it better than most, earning a first-team spot alongside Harry and Williams. Aiyuk also is expected to make an impact as a kick returner.
Kobe Williams. Cornerback Chase Lucas gets a lot of attention, but his partner across the field has been solid all month.
Ryan Newsome. A transfer from Texas, Newsome last season had a shaky first season in the desert. This month, however, he’s been a solid second-team option at receiver. “ ‘News’ has had a much better camp,” receivers coach Charlie Fisher said. “He’s playing better than he did in the spring. He’s healthy, that’s a good start. He’s playing faster. Seems a little more sure of the playbook and what he’s doing. And he’s a nice complement to Kyle Williams.”
How will Jay Jay Wilson’s absence affect the defense? In the spring, linebackers coach Antonio Pierce said that Wilson could develop into an All-Pac-12 linebacker. That seems like years ago. Even before he was suspended this week, Wilson’s status was somewhat mysterious because he rarely lined up with the first team. His absence – however long it extends – robs ASU of experience.
Is Eno Benjamin ready? The sophomore is positioned to take over as ASU’s lead running back. To start, he has a lot of production to replace. No one doubts Benjamin’s talent. But sometimes learning as you go in the Pac-12 is not the best strategy.
Is Renell Wren’s time finally here? Throughout his career, coaches have waited for the massive defensive lineman to become a force. As a senior, he’s running out of time. “If he continues to play at the right pad level, he can be a dominating nose guard, one of the best in the country,” Gonzales said.