August 7, 2006

Sun Devils show well in first shells practice

The words from ASU cornerbacks coach Al Simmons repeatedly echoed throughout the Kajikawa Practice Facility on Sunday evening: "Stay up, Stay up, Stay up, Stay up." From his stance 30 or so yards behind the defense, Simmons was encouraging players to not wrap up on their tackles and wind up bringing offensive players to the ground in the process. After all, this was still just the team's first practice in shells. But with an intensity and vigor that felt almost palpable, even for observers on the sidelines looking on, it was clear that this team is anxious to speed up the process and get to some real hitting.

In a practice that was described as "awesome" by ASU coach Dirk Koetter, the Sun Devils displayed tremendous energy with focused aggression, copious amount of showcased speed and athleticism and raw, brute-force physicality.

This is the most athletically talented team Dirk Koetter has ever coached in Tempe. Easily.

The defensive line is so far and away better than anything we've seen in Tempe in the last few years, it's just downright staggering. And importantly, it's a group that is healthy.

Kyle Caldwell looked better than we've seen him in two years and remember, this is in the third practice session in three days. He was active, aggressive, agile, and athletic and earning praise from his coaches all along the way.

Loren Howard showed no signs of being rusty or still on the mend. On the contrary, he was strong, mobile, flexible, and contorting and leveraging himself in ways you wouldn't think possible for a player taking the field at less than 100 percent.

You want to talk about running backs? Best group this program has seen since the 1996 Rose Bowl season.

Keegan Herring has picked up right where he left off last season only now he's nearly 10 pounds heavier and making even quicker, more aggressive and decisive cuts, especially after moving beyond the first line of defense.

Ryan Torain is a serious downhill runner who looks tremendously lean for 6-foot and 216 pounds. He's aggressive to the hole and sees the field well and should only improve in those areas as his familiarity increases.

Dimitri Nance is a serious head turner to put it mildly. Fist of all, when we saw this guy on tape in the Texas State Championship game last season, we thought there was no way he weighed over 200 pounds. OK, we were wrong. Nance doesn't have a huge frame -- he's not much bigger in the waist than Herring for example - but he has a dense body type with extremely strong legs and thick calves. He's easily 210 pounds but he moves so effortlessly and so light on his feet with tremendous lateral agility and footspeed/coordination with amazing cuts.

Rodney Glass has a much better body type than you would imagine when thinking of a 171 pound track guy. He looks like he is at least 10 pounds heavier and has a great frame that will continue to add weight easily. And did we say that he's fast? This guy was quite possibly the best 100 meter guy in the nation last year and it definitely translates to the football field.

As good as the defensive line and running back groups looked today it was probably the wide receivers that stole the show. The top standout in practice on Sunday, in my opinion, was Rudy Burgess, hands down.

Burgess opened the evening on the receiving end of a deep toss by Sam Keller over the middle in a game situational drill that would have resulted in six points. Keno Walter-White got toasted on the play, as he would again later on in the evening on a near-identical play, but I'm not sure Burgess was capable of being covered by anyone on that play, or, quite frankly, in the entire practice.

What stands out about Burgess and sets him apart is his level of focus and intensity that carries through every repetition on the field. And then just as soon as the rep is over, he's ready to joke around with you again and be light and fun.

Make no mistake though, this guy is a killer. We only saw him drop one ball all day and that happened late in the session was Angelo Fobbs-Valentino was tracking at his head from his deep position on an inside slant route.

Even in these sessions, Burgess works on things you'll never seen from the average player, like on one play when we saw him work to stay inbounds for five yards tip-toeing along the sideline after a catch, when there was nobody defending him.

But Burgess was only one of a number of standouts at the position. Jamaal Lewis[db] ran outstanding routes all day and looks very sleek, trim and quicker-than-you'd-think. He's also one of the more intense, focused players not only in this group, but among all players on the roster.

Mike Jones had several fantastic catches and he also was a standout on special teams, when he blocked a kick. He's easily one of the most impressive athletes on the team, and at 6-foot-3, 208 pounds, he's going to physically overwhelm players with his size-speed package and ability to catch the football.

One of the best sessions of the day pitted the wide receivers against the linebackers and defensive backs in 7-on-7 drills and it was highly enjoyable. I found myself focusing almost entirely on the defensive players and as I noticed throughout the evening, the physical presence of guys like [db]Gerald Munns and Travis Goethel was nearly jaw-dropping.

Munns spent a significant amount of time learning his role by absorbing the action in spring ball and it shows. He has tremendous physical posture and looks mature beyond his years on the playing field. He is extremely proficient technically and just appears to have a much better idea of what he's trying to accomplish on the field than the average true freshman.

Goethel is another player who has an amazing physical presence and he's such a fluid, dynamic athlete that his ability to cover ground and make plays almost is under-appreciated. He drops back in coverage effortlessly and is excellent in pursuit at all angles and directions.

There were a number of other reasons to feel positive about the standing of the team three practices into fall camp, as the key players on the offensive line looked to be physically in the best shape as a collective group I've ever seen. In particular, Mike Pollak, Brandon Rodd, Shawn Lauvao and Robert Gustavis where very impressively put together.

With regard to injuries, as mentioned above, there were very few to speak of although transfer JUCO defensive tackle Martin Tevaseu did go down with a right knee injury when it appeared another player landed on his knee, and Zach Catanese found himself in an orange jersey for precautionary reasons due to a stiff back.

Overall, we're not going to ahead of ourselves. There is much work to be done, many questions to be answered and a lot of bad luck to avoid, particularly as it relates to guys winding up injured.

It remains to be seen how the linebackers will come together and whether this team can find a couple of lockdown cornerbacks to hand its hat on. But overall, there can be no doubt that the talent level is higher than it's been in Tempe in years, the recruiting class is very impressive and this team does have the chance -- yes, we're saying there's a chance -- of achieving greatness down the road.

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