Wide Receiver Rashad Ross
Several key departures have created a lot of opportunity for ASU football. Here are six Sun Devils poised to make a big impact in 2012.
Change is the name of the 2012 Arizona State Sun Devils, and "Speaking Victory" their motto.
It begins at the top, where new head coach Todd Graham has a daunting task ahead of him in reinvigorating a program where complacency and indifference have for too long reigned supreme. It's still far too early to draw any conclusions, but the early returns of his hard-nosed approach seem to be positive.
His immediate success will be greatly impacted by the significant change ASU will see on the field. The Sun Devils will be losing 10 starters from last season, including quarterback Brock Osweiler and linebacker Vontaze Burfict, who both passed up their senior seasons in favor of the NFL Draft.
These large holes in the lineup will pose a great challenge for the team's success in 2012, but they also create opportunities for players to become playmakers.
Outside of the three-player quarterback competition that will play out all offseason long and capture the lino's share of attention, here are six players in alphabetical order that have the potential to mature into a true X-factor for Arizona State this season.
Alonzo Agwuenu - Wide Receiver
Graham and new offensive coordinator Mike Norvell are bringing with them a spread offense, one that shares many similarities to the scheme ASU has run for the last two seasons. As with any spread attack, a premium is placed on having several talented wide receivers, and this is going to be an area of need for the Sun Devils in 2012.
ASU is losing four senior wide receivers: Gerell Robinson (77 receptions for 1,397 yards and seven touchdowns), Aaron Pflugrad (44-665-5), Mike Willie (36-455-3) and George Bell (18-211-1). That combined production represents 52% of the team's reception total and 66% of their receiving yards from 2011.
Both Robinson and Willie were big bodied receivers who stood 6'4" and presented inviting downfield targets, and among the returning receivers who saw significant playing time in 2011, none stand taller than 6'0". With a first-time starting quarterback a certainty, a tall wide receiver can be a valuable commodity.
Enter junior college transfer Alonzo Agwuenu.
Standing the same 6'4" as Robinson and Willie, Agwuenu signed with Arizona State over the mid-year signing period in December as a three-star prospect according to Rivals.com. Some academic difficulties led Agwuenu to take the juco route out of high school, but he's matured over the past two seasons, and in 2011 he was a force for Mount San Antonio, hauling in 73 passes for 1,125 and a staggering 19 touchdowns.
With his height, experience, speed (a reported 4.48 40 time) and a 33-inch vertical leap, Agwuenu presents an excellent package of skills and could make an immediate impact in one of the team's biggest areas of need.
Ezekiel Bishop - Safety
The biggest on-field change for ASU next season will be on defense, where the 4-3 scheme under former defensive coordinator Craig Bray will be dropped in favor of an aggressive and attacking 3-3-5 base that will feature elements of a 3-4 defense. In order for a 3-3-5 to work, speed and versatility are two of the most critical elements needed for a player.
Ezekiel Bishop was a versatile two-way player in high school, and came to ASU as a very promising safety prospect. A tireless worker, Bishop had worked his way to the second unit defense last season as a freshman and saw action in the opener against UC Davis. Unfortunately, he tore his ACL and was lost for the season.
Having played in a 3-3-5 scheme while in high school, Bishop has the experience of playing in such a scheme to complement his tremendous ability. At 5'10", 175-pounds, he is on the smaller side as far as safeties go, but compensates by being a hard-hitter with great closing speed. He could be an excellent fit in a rover role in the defense, being able to play both back deep and up in the box.
Carl Bradford - Defensive End/Linebacker
Bradford began the season as a reserve linebacker, seeing some spot duty but later moved to defensive end to help a position hurt by James Brooks' sudden offseason departure and the injury and subsequent ineffectiveness of Junior Onyeali.
As the season progressed, Bradford's play earned him greater playing time. He posted two tackles for loss against Arizona, and when Onyeali was suspended for the Maaco Bowl against Boise State, Bradford got his first career start and had two tackles, including one for loss, against the Broncos.
At 6'0", 240-pounds, Bradford may be a bit small for full-time work as one of the three down lineman, but his high-motor, speed and experience should make him a contributor in a hybrid defensive end/linebacker.
Alden Darby - Defensive Back
With injuries plaguing the Sun Devil secondary, Darby was pressed into service in a greater capacity than was initially expected, and the results were mixed.
Darby showed off his impressive skill set at times, making plays at cornerback, safety and even linebacker, making 51 tackles and finishing second on the team with three interceptions. He showed good closing speed and flashes of some excellent coverage skills.
However, he struggled with consistency throughout the year, and his play tailed off noticeably over the season's second half, just like the secondary as a whole. He was beaten on many key plays, including the critical third and 29 play against UCLA.
Now a junior, Darby is poised to take a big leap in 2012. His speed and positional versatility will be extremely valuable assets, and he should be among the five starting defensive backs, whether at safety or cornerback, when the Devils kick-off their season on September 1st.
Deantre Lewis - Running Back
The other players on this list are poised for increased responsibility next season. Deantre Lewis is in position for a comeback.
As a true freshman in 2010, Lewis was an explosive force. He posted 10 plays of over 20 yards from scrimmage, including three plays covering greater than 50 yards, and scored six touchdowns. He had three consecutive 100-yard rushing games against Wisconsin, Oregon and Oregon State and was a dynamic factor in the passing game with 370 yards on 23 receptions.
Unfortunately, Lewis was an innocent bystander in an offseason shooting, and the result injury kept him out for the entire season.
Now fully rehabbed, Lewis is primed to become a true X-factor. His game-breaking speed and skills as both a skilled runner and receiver make him a touchdown threat anytime he gets the ball, and pairing him in a backfield with Cameron Marshall would help to greatly offset the uncertainty at quarterback and wide receiver.
Rashad Ross - Wide Receiver
If Agwuenu has the inside track on becoming the big-bodied target, Rashad Ross could very well be the speedy deep threat.
Like Bradford, Ross' role on the team increased as the season progressed. He saved his best performance for last, as in the regular season finale against Cal, Ross set personal bests with five receptions for 108 yards and a 35-yard touchdown. He also had a 37-yard reception, showing off his raw downfield ability. Ross also was a contributor on special teams, and opened the second half against Boise State with a 98-yard kickoff return for a touchdown.
With his background as a track star and his 4.37 speed, outrunning opponents will not be Ross' biggest concern. If he can refine his route running and catch the ball with consistency, he could be the bane of opposing Pac-12 secondaries this season.
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