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Arizona State’s offensive line is the embodiment of that old cliché “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger”.
Although then-quarterback Rudy Carpenter was nearly killed in 2007 when the line surrendered a staggering 55 sacks, progress has been made, and the 2011 iteration of the offensive front is shaping up to be the best Tempe has seen in quite some time.
For an offensive line, there is nothing more important than consistency. To be effective, they must play together as a single unit, and nothing undermines that quicker than a constantly changing lineup. Thankfully for Arizona State, all five starters from 2010 return. Not only that, but all eight players who made starts in 2010 return for a nearly unprecedented level of stability.
The group is led by senior center Garth Gerhart, a 6’1", 300-pound anchor in the middle. Gerhart has improved greatly during his tenure in Tempe, and is now among the best offensive linemen in the conference. Over the off-season, he was named to both the Rimington Trophy (nation’s best center) and Outland Trophy (best interior lineman) watch lists, a credit to his ability. His leadership ability is also a critical piece to the offensive puzzle, as evidenced by his selection as a team captain for this season.
Flanking Gerhart at the guard spots are junior Andrew Sampson to the right and senior Mike Marcisz to his left. Both players are tough and strong 300-pounders who began last season on the bench but ended it as starters, a testament to their rapid improvement. The top reserves at guard are Brice Schwab and Adam Tello. Schwab came in as a heralded junior college transfer but was unable to make much of an impact in 2010, while Tello has been slowed recently by a back injury and he will miss the UC Davis game.
There was a bit of a shakeup at tackle this week as starting left tackle Evan Finkenberg was replaced by senior Dan Knapp. The move is disciplinary in nature and Finkenberg still should see time in the opener. Finkenberg made starts last season at both guard and tackle, and the talented 6’6", 292 pound sophomore has a chance to become a fixture at tackle for the next few seasons. Knapp, a converted tight end, has battled persistent MCL injuries as a Sun Devils. Another senior, Aderious Simmons, will get the start at right tackle. A rough transition from the junior college ranks slowed him early in 2010, but he began to acclimate himself and made six starts.
The line has all the makings of a solid unit. Perhaps their greatest challenge will be in pass protection, where quarterback Brock Osweiler has shown an improvisational ability similar to Ben Roethlisberger. While that ability to extend plays often results in many big plays for the offense, it puts tremendous pressure on the linemen. I recently asked former ASU All-American tackle Juan Roque on the “”http://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/speak-of-the-devils/id460307196">Speak of the Devils" podcast about what ASU’s linemen need to do in protecting a quarterback like Osweiler.
“You got to finish your blocks. You can never assume a play is over until you hear the crowd cheer.”
If the line can finish those blocks, the talent at running back and wide receiver will have no problem making more than enough plays for the Sun Devil offense to be an elite unit this season, and that’s something that will certainly have the crowd cheering.
Pretty soon, the requirement for playing cornerback for Arizona State may simply be to show up in full pads.
An already thin group was dealt another blow this week when redshirt freshman Devan Spann reinjured his already ailing shoulder for the third time in a month, meaning surgery was required. He will miss the entire 2011 season.
Of course, this is in the wake of Omar Bolden, a unanimous All-Pac 10 first-team selection last season, tearing his ACL in April. While the door is not totally closed on a return at some point, it was a tragic blow for the defense.
The injuries are not limited to the season-ending variety, either. Junior Deveron Carr, perhaps the most talented remaining cornerback, had his 2010 season ended by a shoulder injury after only five games, a condition that has kept him out of much of fall camp. When healthy, the 5'11", 193-pounder has shown flashes of becoming one of the conference's top corners, and in light of Spann's injury, his return is all the more paramount.
Sophomore Osahon Irabor replaced Carr in the starting lineup last season and battled through the inevitably freshman struggles to consistently improve throughout the season. His improvement has been taken to new heights during camp, earning praise from his head coach Dennis Erickson.
"You talk about pleasant surprises, defensively he might be the most pleasant surprise. He's taken over that corner position," said Erickson.
Behind the starters, there is hype surrounding converted safety Alden Darby. He saw limited action in all 12 games last season, making 14 tackles. The 5'10" sophomore has the talent to become a playmaker in the secondary and will now have the opportunity. The one upside to Carr's injury was that Darby was able to run with the first-team defense in his place during camp. With so many teams now favoring spread formations, Darby will see a lot of action as the nickel back. True freshman Rashad Wadood is the other cornerback who is likely to see time early in the season.
Things are just as unsettled at safety.
Senior Eddie Elder established himself as a playmaking strong safety last season, his first in Tempe after coming over from the junior college ranks. He finished third on the team with 64 tackles, including 5.5 for loss, intercepted two passes and notched a sack. Elder did allow big plays throughout the year, but now with a full year at the FBS level under his belt, the expectations are rightfully high.
Outside of Elder, there are question marks along the defense's backline.
Starting alongside Elder at free safety will be Keelan Johnson, a junior, and backing up Elder at strong safety will be senior Clint Floyd. Both players saw action in all 12 games last season, with Floyd making seven starts and Johnson two. However, both failed to hold down their jobs, and the duo of Elder and now departed Max Tabach assumed the safety jobs down the stretch.
On a team so loaded with experience and talent in almost every position, the fate of the 2011 could hinge upon the play of this beleaguered secondary. If players are able to step up their games, this could be the final piece to an otherwise imposing defense. If not, it will be Sparky's Achilles' heel.
In an offense predicated on spreading the field, lining up in four receiver sets and operating at a breakneck pace, talented wide receivers are a precious commodity.
Thankfully for Arizona State, their coffers are overflowing with such wealth.
Perhaps not since the early 2000s, when Shaun McDonald and Derek Hagan were annually topping 1,000 yards, has ASU had the depth of wide receiver talent that their 2011 squad possesses. The fact that T.J. Simpson's injury, while tragic, doesn't diminish the expectations speaks volumes on the abilities of this dynamic group.
Willie is the team's leading returning receiver after catching 36 passes for 442 yards and a team high six touchdowns. He's got tremendous size (6'4", 220 pounds) and strength. He was best described by former Sun Devil Kerry Taylor, last season's leading receiver, as "a beast out on the field. He can run, catch, block and is probably the most physical receiver I have seen at ASU in my time there."
Willie made a habit of making clutch drive-sustaining catches on third down last season, a trait that when combined with his blocking ability, has drawn favorable comparisons to Hines Ward. Willie's sure hands and experience should make him a favorite target of quarterback Brock Osweiler.
Like Willie, Robinson is 6'4" and 220 pounds, yet he possesses greater speed, creating matchup nightmares for opposing secondaries. However, Robinson's on-field production has yet to match the levels of his considerable physical skills. He posted career highs in all categories last season, with 29 receptions for 387 yards and five touchdowns, but if he can finally piece together his game and maintain his focus on the game, look for most of those numbers to at least double this season.
Rounding out the seniors is Pflugrad, a former transfer from Oregon. Much smaller than Willie and Robinson (5'10", 180 pounds), Pflugrad played extensively in the slot last season, catching 29 passes, although a turf toe injury limited him to 10 catches over the season's final seven games. Now healthy, the sure-handed Pflugrad has moved out wide during camp and impressed.
Maybe the fastest wideout on the team may not actually be a full-time wideout. Sophomore Jamal Miles began last season at running back but was later moved to wide receiver, although his primary contributions came on special teams. That versatility led to his inclusion on the Paul Hornung Award list, an honor presented to the most versatile player in the country. He should be the primary punt and kick returner and see some time at running back, especially given the uncertain return of Deantre Lewis.
Last season, Simpson was the team's top deep threat, so when he tore his ACL, there was concern that the Devils had lost that field-stretching ability. Those fears have subsided substantially with the strong camp put together by Rashad Ross, a junior college transfer and converted defensive back. Timed with a 4.37 second 40 yard dash, Ross was called a "real pleasant surprise" by head coach Dennis Erickson, and could fill Simpson's former role. Another speedster, sophomore J.J. Holliday, could also help downfield once his broken collarbone heals in a few weeks.
Another former juco player is senior George Bell, whose playing time last year was hampered in part by his battle with drops. Bell has the talent to be a contributor for the Sun Devils and whether he can leverage his off-season improvement to on-field production remains to be seen.
All told, this is a very talented group. Along with an equally impressive stable of running backs that should prevent defenses on hanging back, the wide receivers have all the makings of an elite--and highly productive--unit.
Ever since Ryan Torain plowed his way to 1,229 yards in 2006, the Arizona State running game has lacked the effectiveness that is necessary for an offense to achieve it's peak effectiveness.
Since that 2006 season, no Sun Devil runner has eclipsed 1,000 yards, and the team has not surpassed a four yard per carry average, with the production bottoming out in 2008 when they posted a horrendous 2.9 mark.
However, 2011 brings with it the kind of talent in the backfield that ASU has not had since the J.R. Redmond and Terry Battle days. In fact, the three-headed attack is arguably the strongest playmakming unit on the team. With offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone's offense putting a premium on spreading the field, the running backs play a major role in both the running and passing games.
The leader of the pack is junior Cameron Marshall, who led the team with 787 yards rushing and 10 touchdowns last season. Blessed with a powerful 5'11", 215 pound frame, Marshall proved to be a powerful runner in 2010, consistently keeping drives alive with hard inside runs. However, he also proved to possess breakaway speed, evidenced by his runs of 75 and 71 yards over the last two seasons. Marshall was also a factor in the passing game, adding 21 receptions for another 227 yards. His play earned him a spot on the Doak Walker Award watch list, given annually to the nation's top running back. If not for the wealth of talent in ASU's backfield, Marshall could be a serious contender to lead the conference in rushing, as he has all the tools to be a traditional workhorse back.
As productive as Marshall is, there is arguably no more explosive playmaker on the team than sophomore running back Deantre Lewis. He burst onto the scene in his very first collegiate game last season, scoring three touchdowns against Portland State and topped 100 yards receiving on only three receptions. He then posted consecutive 100-yard rushing games against Wisconsin, Oregon and Oregon State and at that point led the conference in yards-per-carry. However, he suffered a leg injury that hampered him the remainder of the year. Despite that injury, he still made 10 plays of over 20 yards from scrimmage, including three of over 50 yards.
Over the off-season, he was an innocent bystander in a shooting and was shot in the buttocks by a stray bullet, and his recovery has been slow. After some fears that he'd miss significant time or even redshirt this season, he's improved and is now expected to contribute this season, although he will not play in the opener against UC Davis and his return date is still unknown.
Rounding out the talented trio is another sophomore, Kyle Middlebrooks. What he lacks in size (5'8", 175 pounds) he makes up for in speed, as he's touted as ASU's fastest player. He saw some time during Lewis' injury, amassing a modest 188 yards from scrimmage, but look for that total to multiply this season. He's a shifty scatback type that can create nightmares for defenses in the open space that Mazzone's system creates. Middlebrooks is also a dangerous kickoff returner, and fell a single yard shy of a touchdown on a return at the end of first half at Wisconsin.
Behind them is junior James Morrison, a tough, grinding runner in the mold of former Sun Devil Dimitri Nance. His carries have been scarce during his tenure in Tempe and with the talent level in front of him, that is unlikely to change barring injury.
One wild card in the backfield is sophomore Jamal Miles. He began last season at running back and scored three touchdowns (one rushing and two receiving) in the season's first two games before being moved to wide receiver. On the year, he caught 25 passes for 205 yards and ran for another 63 yards. However, he made his biggest mark on special teams, as the top punt returner with 29 returns for a healthy 8.6 yard average. He only returned three kickoffs, but happened to take one of those back 99 yards for a touchdown against UCLA. His dynamic versatility landed him on the Paul Hornung Award watch list, which is given for the most versatile player in the nation. Look for Miles to make in impact all over the field, including at running back, especially if Lewis misses more time than expected.
With the entire offensive line returning and quarterback Brock Osweiler in his first full season as the starter, the running back unit should be counted on to lead the offensive attack in the season's early weeks. Given their talent, they could very well run this team to a Pac-12 South championship.
The 2011 season is bringing with it the kind of lofty expectations that the Sun Devils have not seen in some time.
It will not take very long to find out whether that hype is warranted.
The Sun Devils' schedule has the makings of two distinct halves, with the October 22 bye week separating a difficult first seven games from a homestretch that should play to ASU's favor. How ASU handles the first six weeks in particular will firmly place either the "contender" or "pretender" label upon the team.
After ASU opens their season with what should amount to a tune-up scrimmage against FCS opponent UC Davis, they face their first true test when they host No. 21 Missouri on September 9. As if facing a tough Big 12 team that features one of the top defensive lines in the country wasn't hard enough, the bout against the Tigers will be televised nationally on ESPN and serve as the debut of the Devils' new black uniforms, making this a crossroad game for ASU. A victory in that atmosphere gives legitimate hope, while a loss would surely bring about the familiar groans of "same old Devils".
It won't get much easier the following week when ASU travels to Champaign to face Illinois. The road has been ASU's downfall of late, as the Devils are a paltry 4-12 over the past three seasons away from Tempe. A win there could help exorcise those demons, a necessity in order for ASU to meet their championship expectations.
Along with their road woes, another longtime antagonist has been the USC Trojans, a team that ASU has not beaten since 1999. Despite their NCAA sanctions, the No. 25 Trojans are still a talented team led by quarterback Matt Barkley and will provide the Devils a major challenge as they open conference play.
The Sun Devils should be able to handle Oregon State a week later at home before embarking on a brutal two-game road trip.
Their first stop may very well be the most important game on their schedule, as they battle new Pac-12 South division rival Utah. Given USC's postseason ban, the Utes should serve as the Devils' primary rival for the division title. Star quarterback Jordan Wynn leads 12 returning starters from last season's 10-win team, and the Utes have consistently proven to be able to battle BCS conference competition during their time in the Mountain West Conference. Now in their first season in the Pac-12, this game will have massive implications for the South division race.
The road trip continues a week later as the team heads to battle No. 3 Oregon. Had it not been for three fourth quarter interceptions in last season's meeting, ASU could have defeated last season's BCS title game participants, but this year the game will be in the always raucous Autzen Stadium. This is a game ASU doesn't need to win, but a strong showing is critical for a team continuing their quest for legitimacy.
The bye week will allow ASU to rest up for a homestretch that should be much more favorable. Their first three games are against teams--home against Colorado and on the road to UCLA and Washington State--that won a combined 11 games last season and don't figure to be much better in 2011.
While they shouldn't provide a serious challenge to the Devils, but ASU must not allow themselves to look past them with the Duel on the Desert against Arizona on the horizon. After last season's epic double-overtime game in Tucson, this season's Duel will be held this year in the friendly confines of Sun Devil Stadium. In a rivalry this intense, records and momentum can and will be thrown out the window. This will be a vicious battle, and one that should be wrought with South division title implications.
The season comes to a close with a home date against the rebuilding Cal Bears. Jeff Tedford's squad is coming off an uncharacteristic 5-7 season, but is talented enough to knock off the Devils, especially after their emotional war with the Wildcats a week earlier.
If ASU is able to push through the early challenges, the relative ease of their schedule's second half should put the Sun Devils in prime position to play in the inaugural Pac-12 Championship Game on December 3.
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