ASU begins spring football practices; UA already underway

March Madness is in the air and the attention of the college sports fan is riveted on filling out the basketball brackets for this week’s start to the NCAA Tournament.  But outside the gym, another sport is beginning to awaken from its two-month slumber.

Spring football in Arizona is underway.

Actually, the University of Arizona Wildcats have been outside rolling around in the grass since March 2, when head coach Rich Rodriguez called an official start to his second season at the controls of the Tucson program.

Arizona State stepped out into the bright sunshine of a beautiful spring day at 8:30 this morning to kick off the first of 15 spring practice sessions.  Rodriguez has laid out plans for his 15 practices, including one he is going to plop down right in ASU’s backyard.  The Cats will conduct a scrimmage at Phoenix College on March 29 to give the folks in the Valley a chance to preview the team.

Players on both teams are a little better prepared for this year’s spring practices, since it was hard to tell last year what to expect from the first-year head coaches at each school.  Both coaches installed fast-paced, hurry-up types of offense and needed to get their players adjusted early to the speed by overhauling procedures and attitudes at the very first practice.  As a result, the players weren’t used to the speed at practice.  This year, the returning players all know what to expect.

“From a familiarity standpoint, it’s night and day,” said Rodriguez in comparing this year to last.  “We’re not in shape right now, but they understand the routine.  There’s a lot less of stressing effort than there was this time a year ago.”

Another early-season methodology shared by Rodriguez and ASU head coach Todd Graham is avoiding trying to do too much, too soon.  They both say they want to keep these early practices as simple as possible, focusing on fundamentals and basic skill instruction.  There’s only so much that can be accomplished anyhow in the 20 hours a week that’s allowed; tackling, too, is limited to seven days.

“We’re really so simple in the spring, we shouldn’t have a lot of mental mistakes,” says Rodriguez in explaining his approach.  “Fundamentally, I want to see them doing the right things and effort…are they doing it on every snap?”

Both coaches have had a chance now to begin blending some of their own recruits into the fold and evaluating talent will be a key element from the very first practice as they try to fit the right personnel into those positions that need to be filled before the season begins.

The big challenge for Rodriguez is finding a quarterback after he loses Matt Scott to graduation.  Going into fall practice, B.J. Denker will be the most likely replacement for Scott since the senior from California appeared in six games last season, the only experience on the incoming roster.  Jesse Scroggins, a junior who transferred in from El Camino College in California and was redshirted last season so he could have foot surgery, should challenge for the starting role; he was ranked as the No. 6 high school quarterback when he graduated in 2010.

Also looking for a spot on the depth chart will be Javelle Allen, a redshirt freshman from Texas, and Anu Solomon, a true freshman from Las Vegas.  Allen was a three-star prospect who didn’t get a lot of attention from college recruiters, but put up impressive numbers at Prosper High School.  Solomon was a highly-recruited four-star prospect from the high-profile Bishop Gorman High School.

“It’s not a competition between the quarterbacks,” says Rodriguez, “it’s more about ‘Can he do it’?  Nobody’s going to win the job in the spring, but they can show us that we can win with them.  I think that’s a key difference.  If you’re good enough to win with, you’ll play.”

Actually spring practice is generally too early for coaches to even develop depth charts at the various positions. There are players still nursing injuries and a bunch more that won’t arrive until summer to begin fall practice. Rodriguez says he’s got around 30 new players arriving between now and then, and Graham’s situation in Tempe will be pretty similar.

Graham has 16 starters returning, many in key positions including the heart of his defense, All-American defensive tackle Will Sutton; last year’s starting QB Taylor Kelly; and both running backs, D.J. Foster and Marion Grice.

Rodriguez will be able to rely heavily on a ground game again this year, if his star running back can work his way back out of the coach’s doghouse.  Ka’Deem Carey, who had a brush with the law in the off-season, was the nation’s leading rusher last season as a sophomore.  He ran for 1,929 yards and averaged just over 148 yards a game.  In the process, the graduate of nearby Canyon del Oro High School broke the 13-year-old school rushing record.

The results from spring practice will be on display April 13, when ASU wraps things up with its annual Football Fan Fest that will be covered this year by the Pac-12 Network, and Arizona puts on its annual Spring Game.

(Photo: Arizona Athletics)