Arizona State's first week of spring practice concluded on Saturday with just about all the earmarks of an early year scrimmage: Inconsistent play on both sides of the field; an unusually high number of turnovers; big hitting by anxious players that haven't had a chance to do so in months; some very good individual performances; a semi-pleased head coach.
"The enthusiasm obviously was good," Dennis Erickson said. "Defensively early in the scrimmage we ran around and made a lot of plays, got some turnovers. Offensively we didn't execute like we need to. I thought we ran the ball pretty well at the end and made some plays in the passing game, but we turned the ball over too many times -- a couple fumbles, a couple interceptions. The biggest difference in a game and the biggest statistic in football is turnovers. You lose when you turn it over. That's something that can easily be changed early in a spring; a first scrimmage that's usually what happens. I thought we ran around real well. Our running backs ran well. Ryan (Torain) and Dimitri (Nance) ran really well."
With Keegan Herring held out due to a bruised right shoulder suffered in Thursday's practice, Torain and Nance got the majority of carries. Both ran hard and found the holes in front of them but Torain had a couple of fumbles, in uncharacteristic fashion. One may have been a missed handoff.
Nance appears to be in better shape physically this year (and he was already in good shape last season), and he had some excellent cut-back runs on a 40-yard touchdown drive. He's always had very good footwork and vision, and while he will never be the fastest of players in the open field, he seems a bit quicker. He's hitting the holes hard and with zero hesitation when there is an available lane to run through.
A veteran offensive line perhaps demonstrated that it is the top position group on the roster, and was a key factor in the success of the run game on Saturday. It certainly got the best of a defensive line that is still settling in, with several key players lost from last year's squad and at least one newcomer -- mid-year JUCO transfer Luis Vasquez -- with a chance to make an immediate impact.
We've seen quite a bit of zone blocking through the first four practices of the squad and the offensive line has done an excellent job. Saturday was no exception. All of the starters played well and backups Richard Tuitu'u, Thomas Altieri, Shawn Lauvao and Saia Falahola also showed well. Tuitu'u is clearly in the best shape we've ever seen him and he was moving extremely well. Altieri is a solid backup at center, and Falahola had a great day as the third team center on Thursday, and had a good scrimmage performance as the second-team right guard.
It was difficult to really gauge where the team is at in the passing game because Rudy Burgess and Nate Kimbrough continue to be out, Mike Jones was limited due to trouble with his back, and Brandon Smith was in orange and largely unseen following his smash up with Tyrice Thompson on Tuesday.
The receivers who got most of the work were Chris McGaha, Kyle Williams, Rodney Glass and Jeff Gray. Williams clearly had the most impressive showing, though he was stripped downfield after a catch by Troy Nolan. Glass caught a nice ball in traffic coming across the field from the slot but still looks rather green at the position in terms of routes, hands and comfort level. Gray also had a solid performance, something we've seen from him in camp and spring ball over the last year.
At tight end, though there was nothing spectacular in his performance, Dane Guthrie looked about as good as we've seen him since his arrival in Tempe. We've already pointed out that he's in the best shape of his career, and he had some nice possession-receiver style catches in short yardage situations and also blocked reasonably well. It was a good starting point to build on for a player that has struggled in the last year getting healthy and in good playing shape.
Lance Evbuomwan also looked really good and he could be a player to watch as a potential depth chart riser between now and the early part of next season. He's much further along with the receiver side of the position, as he has great hands and good body control. When blocking, he was much less consistent, and occasionally tipped plays by cheating on protections. But with his body type and athleticism, he should ultimately become a tremendously well rounded player.
Brent Miller clearly showed everyone in attendance, as he has all week, that he has the ability to be an excellent receiver at the tight end position. It wouldn't surprise us at all if ASU has little or no drop off at the position in terms of catches and yardage despite the loss of Zach Miller. Where Zach will certainly be missed most is his blocking.
Rudy Carpenter had one of his best practices of the last year on Thursday, and he had moments of very solid play on Saturday, but he overthrew a receiver and was picked off by Justin Tryon, and he double clutched and then delivered a short throw to the flat that was intercepted by Nolan.
Defensively, the star of the day was Nolan. With Josh Barrett sitting out spring ball to this point, Nolan started the week with the first-team in somewhat of a surprise, but he's showing that he's more than deserving of consideration for that top spot. One play after Nolan stripped Williams post-catch, he intercepted Carpenter. He also made numerous solid tackles coming up on the action. Safety play has been one of the strong points in recent practices. Angelo Fobbs-Valentino has also shown reasonably well.
If anything, when Barrett comes back, the battle for that second safety spot will be fierce between Nolan, Jeremy Payton, and Ryan McFoy. Payton was flying to the ball on Saturday, as he has all week and he's becoming very good in coverage. McFoy has a massive hit on Brady Conrad that took Conrad's helmet off.
Cornerback was a bit more spotty on Saturday, but Justin Tryon was very good and Chris Baloney had numerous excellent open-field tackles in space while playing with the second team. The guy who struggled a bit was Grant Crunkleton with the first-team, but he's had some pretty good practices this week and is showing signs of putting it all together.
One of the problem-areas with the defense may be with depth at the linebacker spot. Morris Wooten showcased his athleticism at the MIKE position and Travis Goethel is right with him as the two best linebacker prospects on the roster in our opinion. Robert James is also going to be very reliable. Mike Nixon, who doesn't have the raw athletic ability of the others, but is among the smartest on the roster.
We like Gerald Munns at the MIKE spot and he had a great looking interception of Danny Sullivan, but beyond these five it's been very spotty.
In the kicking drills, Thomas Weber showed better leg strength than we'd anticipated, but his accuracy was not consistent. He was kicking 37-yarders that were regularly long enough by at least 10-15 yards. He made a 47-yard attempt.
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