Pitchfork Notepad: What To Look For In Spring Ball

Spring in the valley is busy. Cactus League Spring Training baseball, the Cardinals making moves, and the Suns are in the heart of a successful season. Dreams are alive and well, so it’s no different for college spring football practice.

Arizona State opens year four of the Herm Edwards tenure with spring practice starting tomorrow. Last year Sun Devil fans were buzzing over the hype surrounding the team, which mounted in a disappointing 2-2 season. But, there is reason to believe that Edwards is correct in saying he’s been changing the nature of this program and the future everyone has been waiting for is finally here. While it might take actual games in the fall to convince anyone that this team is legit (see schedule here), there are plenty of players and storylines to follow throughout spring ball. Here are seven.

1. The growth of Jayden Daniels. He entered the program as a skinny, 175 pound quarterback who many believed would struggle to be durable. He’s only missed one start in his career and coach Herm Edwards says he’s bulked up to around 190 pounds with the goal to hit 200. Daniels has been listed as one of the top ‘young’ quarterbacks in college football the past few years, but now’s the time to develop into one of the top quarterbacks in the country. ASU needs him to become elite this year in order to reach the potential they’ve been building towards in the Edwards era. The jump in velocity from year one to two was noticable for Daniels but he often times missed easy throws by not knowing how to be efficient with his throw types. Spring ball for Daniels will be all about demonstrating growth in progressing through his reads and controlling his newfound strength. Chemistry with his receivers will also be key.

2. Transfers. The Sun Devils hit big with transfers last year, including running back Rachaad White (more on him later). This year, they signed four transfers who could make an impact. Wide receiver Bryan Thompson from Utah is an interesting player, but he isn’t enrolled in school yet so he’ll miss out on spring ball. The other three are: Tristin Miller (North Carolina), Travez Moore (LSU), and Jalin Conyers (Oklahoma). One thing all three players have in common is experience at universities that tend to do well nationally, something that Edwards and his staff are trying to accomplish in recruiting. Miller joins an offensive line unit that played well in the run game last year, something he takes pride in himself. It will be difficult for him to earn a starting job. Moore was apart of the national title team in 2020 down in the bayou, but position coach Robert Rodriguez won’t hand the grad transfer a starting spot on the defensive front. He’ll have to earn it and that could mean checking any ego that comes from winning a national title at the door. Conyers was in-line to play a significant role for the Sooners last season, but he fell behind after testing positive for COVID-19 right as the season began. He never found consistent playing time.

3. Antonio Pierce is now the sole defensive coordinator, after Marvin Lewis moved into a special advisor role. Pierce brings energy and excitement that even jumps through a Zoom screen, which is a big reason why he’s heavily involved in recruiting as well. In the first two games of the 2020 season, the defense failed to hold onto leads in the final possession. Lewis is telling his unit to finish strong no matter what. It was a learning experience, one that paid some dividends against Arizona (70-7…) and Oregon State. The defense still has a lot of work to do before the fall.

4. It’s the first time in four years that questions remain about who the “go-to” receiver is. First it was N’Keal Harry, then Brandon Aiyuk, finally Frank Darby (prior to injury). This spring, there are at least three players throwing their hat in the ring to be the top guy. Sophomore LV Bunkley-Shelton and Johnny Wilson both shined in brief flashes last season. Shelton lead the team in catches with 11, mostly working out of the slot. That’s where Daniels shines in the passing game, so his skillset fits the offense best. Wilson is 6-7 and played a larger than expected role due to injuries and he never found a rhythm with Daniels. He still has redzone and big play potential. The player most ready to lead in this group is redshirt sophomore Geordon Porter, who avaregaed 24 yards per catch last season. His confidence grew drastically from his first two seasons, he could be a guy who really figured it out and will be a difference maker this year.

5. The defensive line went from a weakness to a strength in 2020. That trend should continue in spring practice. Tyler Johnson was the best player on defense last year, leading the team in sacks. He’s always been bit by the injury bug, but another healthy season could turn him into a day one or two prospect. Moore will be a welcome addition as a pass rusher. Jermayne Lole and Michael Matus will look to showcase their power in spring as well. Despite those four names, there’s still more room for players to earn time within this position group.

6. The running backs are the least worrisome group. Rachaad White and Chip Trayanum stole the show last season, with a thunder and lightning approach. White showcased big time playmaking ability with long runs and skills in the passing game out of the backfield and White is a bruiser who kept finding the endzone. These two will look to solidify themselves as a top group in the nation. Also, don’t be surprised if offensive coordinator Zak Hill gets Daniyel Ngata and Jackson He more involved in the gameplan. He is more likely to contribute on special teams.

7. The words “Good is no longer good enough.” Antonio Pierce has hammered that message many times since the season concluded. This goes for offense, defense, and special teams. The Sun Devils are among the favorites to win the PAC-12 South. Good just isn’t going to cut it anymore. The fans want to celebrate at a meaningful bowl game in January, not December. Last season was tough, but 2-2 wasn’t good enough. The coaches know this. The players know this. Spring ball at ASU has been a hypefest the past two years, which is understandable. This year, expect less hype and more progress. There’s no reason to create and buy into the hype, if it’s not going to pan out.