Arizona State's newcomer practice Tuesday night was anticipated in part because of the expected debut of junior college transfer receiver Jaelen Strong.
With Strong not yet cleared to practice due to what Todd Graham called a paperwork issue, another new receiver impressively filled the void.
Freshman Cameron Smith, one of three new scholarship receivers practicing for the first time, showed why he may have arrived at ASU as an underrated prospect.
Smith had the lowest Rivals Rating of the trio coming out of Coppell (Tex.) but separated himself from the other new receivers with impressive footwork for a freshman. He especially looked experienced getting off the line of scrimmage and on route transitions.
With ASU losing two starters at receiver and having an under-performing group on the whole, positions are up for grabs. Graham said he thinks one or more of the freshmen could earn playing time.
"It's motivating for sure," Smith said. "I actually believe in the upperclassmen. I think they have what it takes."I'm going to do my best and if that gets me on the field then I will do what I can to contribute to the team."
Smith took advantage of his reps today, especially in the first team drill. He had two catches from redshirt sophomore quarterback Michael Eubank.
It was a strong way to start fall camp. But he is not dwelling on it.
"I'm not too easily satisfied as far as that goes," Smith said. "I just focus on fixing my mistakes, that's the main deal right now."
A theme emerged from the new players' post-practice comments. A lot of them talked about getting used to the tempo of Arizona State's practices.
Smith was no different.
"It's really fast-paced," he said. "That's probably the biggest deal for me right now is to work on my conditioning. Especially from high school; we were a lot slower paced so it's been a big transition obviously."
If Smith can adjust to the tempo and continue to have strong practices he will put himself in a good position to compete for a starting nod at the 9-receiver position where he worked Tuesday, and will likely compete with senior Kevin Ozier and Strong.
Junior quarterback Taylor Kelly has been impressed by both Smith and Strong based on throwing with them during informal workouts.
"They're great," Kelly said. "I only threw a little bit with Jaelen and he's everything that people are talking about. He's very explosive, can jump, can run, can catch. Joe Morris the same thing and Cameron Smith really surprised me and Ellis Jefferson. Those two guys can play a big role in our offense and we can use their speed and size."
In Arizona State's Sept. 8 game against Illinois last season, then-true freshman Carlos Mendoza started the game at WILL linebacker due to senior Brandon Magee being out of the lineup with a concussion.
Mendoza re-injured a shoulder injury in the game, which required surgery and led to a redshirt season.
Fast forward to the start of this season and Mendoza has swapped positions with senior Chris Young, who started that game at spur.
Young was moved to WILL and Mendoza to spur late in the spring practice schedule and those moves have continued into the start of fall camp.
Linebackers coach Paul Randolph said the coaching staff knows Young can play the spur position in his sleep. He discussed why they moved Young inside after watching his newcomers practice for the first time Tuesday.
"We think that Carlos (Mendoza) and Anthony (Jones) have the athleticism to be a great spur if they continue to grow and develop at that position," Randolph said. "But one thing we know, Chris (Young) can play it if we need him to. So we got an opportunity to develop depth and other guys at that position."
The change in position means Mendoza will get out into the open field closer to boundary, where he will have to cover offensive skill players in more space.
Mendoza breaks it down very simply.
"It's just a little bit more running than last year," Mendoza said. "Last year it was a lot more filling the gaps and hitting up linemen but this year it's a little bit more running across the field."
Graham said after practice that Mendoza needs to improve his conditioning to compete at the new position.
"It's just a matter of me getting back in shape and getting my stamina up," Mendoza said. "Once I do that I feel like I will be a better player at this position."
Mendoza said his past shoulder injury was not the reason why he is not fully in shape. He said was not present for all of summer training so he is a little behind his teammates.
When Mendoza's conditioning returns he can make a run at Jones, the current first-teamer at the spur position. Randolph cannot wait for that.
"We have competition this year and that's what we're excited about," Randolph said. "Competition is what breeds great players and great camaraderie and team work."
Strong was joined on the non-participant list with three other junior college transfers. Defensive back Damarious Randall has a groin strain and hasn't been cleared academically. Receiver Joe Morris. Linebacker Eriquel Florence wasn't in attendance and hasn't been cleared academically.
Junior college transfer defensive lineman Marcus Hardison also made a splash in his first practice. In team drills and inside run drill he blew by some offensive linemen, including William McGehee, and recorded several tackles for loss and sacks.
Redshirt sophomore Mo Latu wore a white jersey today in practice and worked with the defensive line but had to stop practice prematurely, limping to an exercise bike. Latu had a knee procedure in the offseason and has gained substantial weight from last season's listed 338 pound.
Freshman linebacker Viliami Latu came off the tram and turned some heads. He's listed at 6-foot-3 and 230 pounds but looks bigger and physically reminded some of former ASU linebacker Vontaze Burfict as a true freshman.