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Arizona State ends spring football having established its identity

Arizona State head coach Todd Graham, right, talks with associated head coach Shawn Slocum, left, during a spring NCAA college football game Saturday, April 16, 2016, in Tempe, Ariz. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

TEMPE — For a last spring football practice, Arizona State’s two hours worth of work on Saturday morning looked very much like its first.

The setting was different, however.

With Sun Devil Stadium under construction, the 15th and final spring practice was held at the ASU Soccer Stadium, a much more intimate setting with seating reserved for roughly 1,800 fans.

“I kind of liked it. I thought it was kind of cool,” head coach Todd Graham said of the season ticket holders only event, which was also televised live by the Pac-12 Network.

As expected, there was no announcement as to the 2016 starting quarterback, and there won’t be one until the week of the season opener, according to Graham.

That puts a huge emphasis on summer work.

Asked what he saw this spring out of his three quarterbacks — redshirt sophomore Manny Wilkins plus redshirt freshmen Bryce Perkins and Brady White — Graham said smiling, “I’ve seen all three of them doing a good job.”

And that’s where Graham left it, not wanting to go into further detail for fear of his tipping his hand one way or the other.

All three quarterbacks saw action in 7-on-7 and 11-on-11 drills, though it was Wilkins, the backup a year ago, who ended practice leading the first-team offense on a two-minute drill.

Down two, the ball on the 45-yard line, 1:48 on the clock and no timeouts, Wilkins moved the offense down the field, twice converting on third down with passes to receiver Jalen Harvey and running back Kalen Ballage; the latter of which was a 17-yard gain.

Needing to stop the clock, Wilkins attempted to spike the football but fumbled the snap.

Fortunately for the offense, Graham put two seconds back on the clock and sent kicker Zane Gonzalez out for a 45-yard game-winning field goal.

The kick split the uprights.

“Better to make a decision like that now than to make it later on,” Wilkins said of his mistake. “(But) I think (the drive) went well. Moved the ball down the field easily; got to get out of bounds, I think, quicker, but overall, it went really well.”

As did the entire spring, according to Wilkins, who hopes to be the quarterback under center when ASU hosts Northern Arizona on Sept. 3.

“Team looks good, man. Team chemistry is up,” he said. “Guys are just having fun; high energy and just ballin’.”

Aside from a new quarterback, the Sun Devils will have four new offensive linemen and three new starters in the secondary next season.

“A lot of new energy; a lot of excitement,” Graham said. “I like our business attitude, blue-collar mentality; how we’ve worked. I think we’ve gotten better fundamentally. I think we’ve established our identity.”

And what is that identity?

“Offensively, we can really run the football,” said Ballage, who had a 25-yard touchdown catch in an overtime session of 11-on-11.

The offense scored on each of its five overtime drives, including touchdowns by receiver Ellis Jefferson (on a White pass to the left corner of the end zone) and running back Demario Richard (a four-yard run in which he started left and cutback through a hole into the end zone) in addition to Ballage.

On defense, the Sun Devils recorded a couple of sacks and one turnover, a fumble recovery by lineman Marshall “Bo” Wallace.

“We want to become dominate versus the run,” defensive coordinator Keith Patterson said. “If we can make people one dimensional and then be able to rush four at times. We’re always going to be an aggressive, attacking style of defense. We always are, but just being maybe a little bit more calculated in how we go about doing that; take some of the stress off the secondary but still be aggressive.”

A four-man rush is key this season, according to Patterson; and he believes he has the unit to consistently get to the quarterback with the likes of Koron Crump, Viliami “Ami” Latu, Tashon Smallwood and JoJo Wicker among others.

“There’s no superstars, just a bunch of guys who want to work hard, and they want play together,” Patterson said.

Saturday’s event, dubbed “Breakfast & Football”, attracted several former players including Jaelen Strong, Jordan Simone and Christian Westerman.

Athletic Director Ray Anderson was also on hand.

For Graham, while he was pleased with the work he saw through 15 practices, there is still much work to be done.

“The biggest things that I’m concerned about (before the start of fall practice) is development, making sure we have the identity we have and get back to playing football the way we did when we came here. You can’t win games and turn the football over,” he said, adding stopping the big play to taking care of the football as his two main priorities.

“I like this team,” Graham continued. “I liked that we’re four years into this thing. Our guys understand the expectation.”

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