• Todd Graham: 'The big thing is to get better fundamentally'

    Todd Graham: ‘The big thing is to get better fundamentally’

  • Early preseason top 10 college football teams for 2017

    Early preseason top 10 college football teams for 2017

  • Ranking the best college football recruiting classes in the last decade

    Ranking the best college football recruiting classes in the last decade

  • ASU coach Graham on Richard, Hill and more

    ASU coach Graham on Richard, Hill and more

  • ASU defensive line coach Michael Slater gives instructions at practice

    ASU defensive line coach Michael Slater gives instructions at practice

  • Todd Graham speaks after ASU holds first spring scrimmage

    Todd Graham speaks after ASU holds first spring scrimmage

  • ASU football completes second week of spring practice

    ASU football completes second week of spring practice

  • Todd Graham on new consultants White, Christensen

    Todd Graham on new consultants White, Christensen

  • ASU football completes fifth spring practice

    ASU football completes fifth spring practice

  • ASU football begins second week of spring practice

    ASU football begins second week of spring practice

  • ASU WRs Ryan Newsome and John Humphrey discuss eligibility

    ASU WRs Ryan Newsome and John Humphrey discuss eligibility

  • ASU QB Blake Barnett on starting spring

    ASU QB Blake Barnett on starting spring

  • Todd Graham on opening of ASU spring practice

    Todd Graham on opening of ASU spring practice

  • ASU football opens spring practice

    ASU football opens spring practice

  • Transfer QB Blake Barnett on coming to ASU to compete

    Transfer QB Blake Barnett on coming to ASU to compete

  • Billy Napier discusses first day of ASU practice

    Billy Napier discusses first day of ASU practice

  • Todd Graham talks staffing challenges, 2017 season

    Todd Graham talks staffing challenges, 2017 season

Arizona State teased the football fanbase with a 5-1 start in the 2016 season only to go 0-6 down the stretch.

But that’s all behind them as the team prepares for the annual spring game on Saturday, and the unofficial launch of the 2017 campaign.

Coaches and players will tell you the preparations actually began shortly after the 56-35 loss to the University of Arizona. They continued through 14 spring practices this season and azcentral sports’ Jeff Metcalfe was at all of them.

Here’s what we learned.

As spring practice nears an end, Todd Graham is doing little to tip his hand on a starting quarterback for 2017.

“I’m looking for the next Taylor Kelly,” Graham said. “A guy that has kind of leadership to lead us to a championship. It’s the intangibles more than it is all the physical stuff. It’s how he impacts the other 10 guys and elevates their play.”

Then asked where the QBs rank going into the spring game, Graham said only, “How do they stand? Manny (Wilkins) wears No. 5 and Blake (Barnett) wears No. 8. Those two guys are ahead of everybody else.”

The only other healthy quarterback this spring is sophomore Dillon Sterling-Cole, who could redshirt like he was in line to do last season before injuries changed that plan. Bryce Perkins and Brady White have been limited or out this spring due to injury.

It appears that Wilkins, who started 10 games as a redshirt freshman, will come out of spring atop the depth chart followed by Barnett, a transfer from Alabama. But what happens in the summer, when players work out on their own, and fall camp, starting in August, could change the QB order like it did in 2012 when Kelly came on to win the job over Mike Bercovici that he then held for three seasons.

“So much is put on the physical aspects of quarterbacks,” Graham said. “That’s overblown. You’ve got to check that talent box, but it’s the intangibles.”

The clock is ticking for Demario Richard and Kalen Ballage.

Arizona State’s senior running backs can hear it almost four full weeks into spring practice. The last this, the last that are approaching, creating an urgency in both to finish with the kind of team success that eluded them and others in their 2014 recruiting class the past two seasons.

ASU won 10 games when Ballage and Richard played as true freshmen and just 11 combined since then. Both could lean on their individual success – Richard already has 2,175 career rushing yards and Ballage tied the major college record for touchdowns in a single game last season – but what they hunger for is bigger than themselves.

“I ain’t trying to go out like no sucker,” Richard said. “I’m trying to go out on top. I love this team to death. We fight like brothers, we argue like brothers, but at the end of the day we’re all here for each other. My freshman year, we were running the table. We want to get back to it, but we don’t want to just have a 10-win season. Maybe 12 wins, 15 wins, but we just want to win.”

The 6-2 Ballage from Peyton, Colo., and 5-10 Richard of Palmdale, Calif., are as different in style as their four-inch height disparity suggests. Richard is listed at 220 pounds but could play at less than that in the fall to bring back a little more of the lightning to go with 225-pound Ballage’s thunder.

“I want him to be lean muscle mass with speed and explosive power,” ASU coach Todd Graham said. “He has leaned up a little bit. I want him to continue to do that. I just want him to be at his peak performance from a speed standpoint. I can tell he’s quicker and more explosive.”

Richard said his weight room work “went too far” and took away from his speed. “At a certain time, I was benching over 350 pounds, squatting over 500 pounds, power cleaning over 300 pounds so it got kind of overboard. We toned it down a little bit and came to a manageable way. I’m a lot lighter on my feet, and I can move a lot better. My first step is quicker.”

Richard ran for 1,104 yards as a sophomore then, partly due to injury, dropped off to 593 last season. He has 21 career touchdowns (14 rushing, seven receiving) and 61 career catches for 595 yards.

Ballage is at 1,315 yards career rushing with 21 rushing touchdowns (23 total) and 62 career catches for 593 yards. The two, backed by sophomore Nick Ralston who is having a good spring, combined with a healthier, more cohesive offensive line and re-commitment to the run give ASU a chance to appreciably improve in rushing offense, which dipped to No. 112 nationally in 2016.

Richard and Ballage combined for 1,129 yards rushing last season, although neither cracked 600 individually. The entire ASU offense was affected by quarterback injuries, forcing the then-junior running backs to take snaps directly from a so-called Sparky formation more than anyone imagined when the season began.

No one is saying for now how much if the Sparky formation will return under new offensive coordinator Napier.

“You guys are going to have to find that out,” Ballage said. “There’s a lot of stuff we’re doing behind the scenes right now. I don’t want to give nothing away, but we have a very great plan moving forward.”

ASU Practice Report:Offense earns draw in second scrimmage

ASU is coming out of spring at least eight deep at receiver and seemingly in good shape to cover three positions even with the loss of Tim White, who had a team high 713 receiving yards in 2016.

“It speaks to our talent level,” new receivers coach Rob Likens said of varying reports during spring about different players excelling. “There’s a lot of new stuff and each one has kind of taken their turn on having a great practice. The thing we’re looking for now is some consistency with all the guys. We’ve got seven guys right now that have really performed at certain times and done some really good things. You can tell they’re going to be able to play for us. How much they play will be determined by how everybody does in fall camp. But we’ve got seven guys that are Division I-A wide receivers and they can produce.

Likens expands his ASU list to eight when including Frank Darby, who played on defense for much of the spring before returning to receiver last week with a splash. “He (Darby) has a great knack for the long ball,” Likens said. “Now we’ve just got to get him up to speed on what to do, splits, all that stuff and he should be fine.”

Others in the two-deep mix are N’Keal HarryJohn HumphreyRyan NewsomeJalen HarveyTerrell ChatmanRyan Jenkins and Kyle Williams.

Harry had a team high 58 catches in 2016 for 659 yards and five touchdowns but has not been allowed to do interviews this spring for whatever disciplinary reason. That doesn’t mean, though, that Likens isn’t impressed with the 6-4 sophomore from Chandler.

“He has a natural football instinct, that’s the No. 1 thing that comes to mind about that kid,” Likens said. “He is not a high repetition guy where you have to go out and show him how to run this route five million times before he perfects it. He can do it first time, second time. He knows what you’re talking about. He’s very natural, and you’d be surprised how many people are not that in football. It’s very refreshing to have a guy with his talent level to also have those natural instincts.”

ASU Football:New coordinator Phil Bennett has defense taking shape

After the first two weeks of spring practice, new defensive coordinator Phil Bennett said the front seven has “a chance” to be good although more linebacker depth is needed and that the secondary “better be” improving.

“We’ve put a lot of stuff in,” Bennett said. “We’re a work in progress, but getting better.”

The second team defense was not good in one late March practice on a Friday morning. But Bennett said he sees progress in the defense limiting explosive plays that have plagued ASU over the last two seasons. The Sun Devils are drilling extensively on back pedal and other techniques critical to pass coverage.

Bennett already is sold on veteran defensive linemen Tashon Smallwood and JoJo Wicker and linebackers Christian Sam and DJ Calhoun as well as Devil backers Koron Crump and A.J. Latu. The development of players such as George Lea, Jordan Hoyt and Renell Wren up front, and linebackers Malik Lawal, Khaylan Thomas, is crucial to the depth and overall soundness of the front seven, as is the improvement of and Deion Guignard, who moved from defensive back.

Hoyt is a transfer from UC Davis who redshirted last season. Guignard came from Tyler Junior College (Texas) and played in six games as a sophomore in 2016. He returned an interception for a touchdown during a practice in late March and also has been recording some tackles for loss, catching the eye of Wicker.

“I’m more confident and humbled,” said Wicker, now a junior. “It’s a different feeling than last year. It’s just calm. We know what we have to do to win now, and I feel like we’re going to get it done. I’m not saying we’re going to be perfect at everything, but it’s going to be a lot better.

“Sometimes you’ve got to be patient. Maybe it just wasn’t our time (in 2015 or ’16). We’re ready to work and approach it a different way and ready to learn.”

ASU Practice:Defense wins opening scrimmage

ASU’s secondary has, for two consecutive years, allowed the most passing yards in major college football.

That helps explain the emphasis on the secondary- both in coaching and in recruiting- but it’s going to take time to sort out the new players and for coaches to understand how much progress is possible this season.

It’s safe to say that returning starters Kareem Orr at cornerback and Armand Perry at safety figure heavily into the fall.

Beyond that is anyone’s guess since five of the six defensive backs in the 2017 recruiting class won’t arrive until summer. Of the incoming group, only freshman safety Ty Thomas is here early for spring practice.

A quartet of freshmen defensive backs with four-star ratings – Evan Fields, K.J. Jarrell, Alex Perry and Langston Frederick – is on the way as is Darien Cornay from Cerritos College (Calif.). Additionally, Adrian Baker is scheduled to visit this weekend before deciding his next stop as a graduate transfer from national champion Clemson. Baker, who sat out in 2016 due to a major knee injury, has visited Oklahoma State and UCF.

Bennett said he told all of the freshmen DBs, “Let’s don’t talk about redshirting. I’ve always thought to tell a kid he’s going to redshirt is cheating a little bit and sort of puts him in neutral instead of trying to get better. If they’re not a full participant, obviously we’d let them grow and get stronger. We’re going to try to get all of them ready to play.”

With that in mind, what’s happening in spring is more preliminary than with any other position group. Still, reviews are positive even with Perry out for spring due to surgery and Orr limited in contact.

Orr started 11 games at boundary corner and Perry 10 at free safety. Senior Marcus Ball, also limited in contact this spring, made six of his eight starts last season at bandit safety and could play there or Spur linebacker (he was the second leading tackler in 2016).

J’Marcus Rhodes also is a swing player between safety and linebacker and like Maurice Chandler, who started four games at corner, in his second year out of junior college.

ASU had just nine interceptions last season (No. 81 nationally) while giving up 357.4 passing yards per game, up from 337.5 in 2015. Big plays by opponents were a constant problem as was tackling.

“I see a lot of progress,” Orr said. “New (defensive) scheme, new personnel we’ve got. We’re looking real good on the back end I think. It’s really just making plays this year that we should have last year. We didn’t really run to the ball good last season. We’re doing the extra things we didn’t do.”

Others trying to work their way into the secondary mix include Thomas, redshirt freshman Chase Lucas and juniors Dasmand Tautalatasi, Owen Rogers and Deion Guignard.

Thomas graduated early from Cooper High School in Lubbock, Texas, and is the nephew of former NFL Pro Bowl linebacker Zach Thomas.

Thomas was an honors student in high school who already had 16 college hours to his credit, so academically he essentially started as a second-semester freshman in what would have been his second semester as a prep senior.

“I’m majoring in business, but I’ll do the pre-med track and apply for medical school,” he said. “I’ve got to find a balance between the two (school and athletics), but it’s going good.”

LOOK AHEAD: 15 Pac-12 games to watch | Pac-12 power rankings | Top 25


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