A-State Eight: Sun Devils To Watch In 2017

By Justin Toscano

Arizona State football is coming off consecutive seasons where it finished a game below .500 and 2017 seems like a defining year in coach Todd Graham’s tenure in Tempe. The Sun Devils ended their summer workouts with the annual breaking of the rock on Wednesday, and begin practicing next Tuesday.

Below is a list of eight players worthy of keeping an eye on this season, for one reason or another. There are obviously others who could fit in these categories that aren’t listed, but here is a few you should watch for in 2017.

You might not know them well, but you will

TE Jay Jay Wilson

Many Sun Devil diehards have been itching to see Wilson earn a larger role in the offense because of his touted upside, but the casual fan may not know much about him. Regardless, those who want to see more of him will most likely get their wish this fall. New offensive coordinator Billy Napier has called the tight end position the “jack of all trades” in his offense, and said the position will be featured.

When I spoke to wide receiver Ryan Newsome during the spring, he told me about one of Wilson’s one-handed catches where he twisted his body in mid-air. Newsome said Wilson is probably the best tight end in the conference, and that he anxiously awaits when fans can see what the Sun Devils have seen behind closed doors. If you’re looking for a pick to have a breakout year, Wilson is a good bet.

WR John Humphrey

Humphrey is a transfer from Oklahoma who had to sit out last year due to NCAA transfer rules, but he is expected to immediately impact this year’s offense. I spoke to him at ASU’s spring media day back in February and his passion was immediately noticeable.

Well, he was ready for spring ball. He made a quick impression on the coaching staff and is expected to start in the fall. During the scrimmage part of the spring “game” festivities, Humphrey caught multiple touchdown passes (it was against the second team defense, but still impressive). He should impact the offense by giving it a downfield dimension because of his speed, as well as someone who can make plays off of screen passes. Expect him to have an exciting season.

I assume if anyone asked him if he were ready for the season to start, he’d respond with the same, “Is the Pope Catholic?”

Players ASU needs to be pleasant surprises

DB Chase Lucas

The former Chandler High standout was one of the biggest — if not the biggest — spring practice surprise. Lucas played a lot of running back in high school, but ASU’s running back corps is full of talent. Lucas made the switch to defense upon entering the program, but redshirted his freshman year. He then finished this past spring as the starting field corner, a position held by De’Chavon “Gump” Hayes last year.

Following the spring “game” (it wasn’t a game, just drills and a small scrimmage), new defensive coordinator Phil Bennett tabbed Lucas as somebody who has great potential because of his athleticism. ASU will seemingly have a good group of receivers this season, so Lucas is getting some valuable experience in practice. Heading into the fall, it seems as if he’ll have a great opportunity to keep working for a starting spot. If he contributed this year, it would be a huge help to a secondary full of question marks.

DB Evan Fields

ASU’s secondary almost set records last season, but not in the good way. The unit was dead last in total pass defense, and after top cornerback Kareem Orr transferred, the situation looked bleaker, if that was even possible. If there’s a positive, it’s that ASU has multiple recruits coming in who should help the defensive backfield.

Fields is a 4-star safety (depending on the recruiting site you look at) from Oklahoma. According to Rivals.com, Fields had reported offers from Notre Dame, Oregon, TCU, UCLA and other notable schools. After ASU broke the rock on Wednesday, sports performance (strength) coach Shawn Griswold said Fields had a great first summer working out with the program.

Established, but need to have a good season

DL JoJo Wicker

The defensive line took a step back last year, but hopes to trend upward this season. In 2015, the unit led the Pac-12 in sacks, but dropped to fifth in the conference last season. Wicker, a junior defensive lineman, has great potential. During the spring, Bennett said he wants Wicker to get to the point where opposing offensive coordinators are looking out for him and calling him a “stud.”

Bennett has a funny saying that goes, “When we blitz, one of the bands is going to be playing and we hope it’s ours.” Todd Graham’s teams at ASU have been known for this sort of “do or die” pressure scheme, but in years past, the defense got to the quarterback. The secondary is probably the biggest question mark of all the position groups, so any success on defense may need to start up front.

LB Koron Crump

Crump was recently named to watch lists for the Butkus Award (nation’s top linebacker) and the Bednarik Award (Defensive Player of the Year). Crump’s 46 pressures are the most of any returning Pac-12 player, which is important because ASU will most likely heavily rely upon its pass rush while trying to figure out the secondary. 

Crump is 218 pounds and one of his most overlooked abilities is his speed. ASU sports performance coach Shawn Griswold recently posted an Instagram picture of a list of the fastest players, based on the GPS tracking devices ASU uses. Senior running back Kalen Ballage was the fastest, but Crump’s speed ranked second.

RBs Demario Richard and Kalen Ballage

I think putting these two on this list goes without saying. The Sun Devils are experiencing a time of transition with a new offensive coordinator, new members on the offensive line, new skill players and perhaps even a new starting quarterback.

The constant?

The backfield. ASU needs a big year out of these two to survive a tough Pac-12 slate. As there was last year, there’s talk about whether or not Richard and Ballage can each rush for 1,000 yards. After all, running backs coach John Simon had two 1,000-yard rushers at Southern Miss, his previous stop.

The running game was nonexistent last year as Richard was plagued with injuries, Ballage experienced some of his own and a young offensive line became injury-riddled. But if ASU wants to have success this year, it’s going to need to start up front with Richard and Ballage. Their jobs won’t end with just running the ball, but the coaches seem to think they’ll be crucial in helping the younger players adjust to a new offensive scheme.

ASU breaks the rock

ASU completed its final summer workout on Wednesday. It included a weight room portion and a conditioning portion at the Verde Dickey Dome.

Before he broke the rock, redshirt junior offensive lineman Sam Jones reminded the team of a goal they set out to accomplish when the summer started. The Sun Devils wanted to have the “best summer ever.”

After weeks of summer workouts, players feel like they checked that box. Here are some scenes from Wednesday’s workout: