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Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Two-A-Days: Arizona State

Over the past few weeks, I've traded emails with beat writers for each SEC team, along with Georgia's three other BCS-conference opponents to get some insider insight into what fans can expect from UGA's competition in 2009.

Each day, we'll preview two teams, culminating with a big-picture look at the SEC and a deeper look at the biggest issues facing your Georgia Bulldogs. To submit a question for the Georgia entry in Two-A-Days, send me an email with the subject line "Two-A-Days" and I'll do my best to find you an answer.

The fourth entry in the series is the Arizona State Sun Devils.

Head coach: Dennis Erickson (third season)
2008 Record: 5-7 (4-5 Pac-10)
Total Offense: 309.42 ypg (7th in the Pac-10, 100th overall)
Total Defense: 335.17 ypg (5th in the Pac-10, 44th overall)
On the docket: Arizona State opens the season Sept. 5 against Idaho State and travels to Athens to play Georgia on Sept. 26.

Arizona State opened the 2008 season as a a top-15 team and an intriguing non-conference opponent for Georgia. As it turned out, the Sun Devils proved not to be much competition for the Bulldogs and ended up in the bottom half of the Pac-10 standings. Now, Dennis Erickson will be starting from scratch offensively and leading his troops to Athens in 2009. So can the Sun Devils rebound from a bad showing last season? I talked with Arizona Republic beat writer Jeff Metcalfe to find out.

David Hale: Rudy Carpenter was a stalwart on offense for Arizona State for the better part of the past four seasons, but he's gone now and ASU is looking for his replacement. Who impressed this spring, and who is most likely to actually land the job this fall? Does the loss of Jack Elway actually affect that mix much?

Jeff Metcalfe:
Senior Danny Sullivan, a three-year backup to Carpenter, was No. 1 going into spring practice and remains atop the depth chart. Sophomore Samson Szakacsy is very fast and mobile and seemingly perfect for running ASU’s new read option offense, but his arm strength still is less than what it should be because of elbow surgery in November 2007. 6-8 true freshman Brock Osweiler is graduated early from high school to get a jump on his college career and could be the future, but it’s unlikely that he can get to No. 1 this year. He is not out of place, though, even being fresh out of Kalispell, Mont. Barring injuries, losing Elway is not a factor since he was unlikely to end up first or second on the depth chart.

DH: Arizona State's offensive line has ranged between bad and dismal the past few seasons. The unit will have an even bigger challenge this year without Carpenter's experience under center. How has the O line looked during the spring, and what are the chances that the Sun Devils can piece together a solid unit in 2009?

The offensive line remains a work in progress. Dennis Erickson’s staff has signed 13 O-linemen in its first three recruiting classes (2007-09). Only one has washed out, but none has developed enough to make a major impact with injuries to three slowing the progress. Three in the 2009 class aren’t even on campus yet. Bottom line, they like the left side of the line – tackle Shawn Lauvao and guard Jon Hargis – and think that sophomore Garth Gerhart will be a decent starting center. The right side still must prove itself. The new zone blocking, at least in the spring, seems to be a positive.

DH: As if those first two weren't concern enough on offense, there aren't exactly a lot of other established playmakers on offense either. Has anyone stepped up in the spring and looked like they could provide a spark? There were rumblings, too, that there might be some elements of the spread installed this season. Have there been any significant changes in the offensive approach since the Sun Devils will almost be starting from scratch with personnel?

The offense is having trouble making big plays in the spring, but that’s also a credit to a defense beginning to look as dominant as the one Erickson had at Oregon State in 2000 (11-1, Fiesta Bowl champion). There are playmaker candidates at tailback – Dimitri Nance, Shaun DeWitty, Ryan Bass, James Morrison, incoming freshman Cameron Marshall – and wide receiver – Chris McGaha, Kyle Williams, Kerry Taylor, Gerell Robinson -- but they have a lot to prove especially with a new quarterback and the O-line issues. Tight end has not been a strength since Zach Miller left early for the NFL after the 2006 season and remains a question mark. The extent of the spread that ASU uses could depend on who wins out at quarterback since Sullivan has nowhere near the mobility of Szakacsy.

DH: As much trouble as ASU has had protecting its quarterback, Dexter Davis has had nearly as much success getting to the other team's QB. He can't do it alone though. Has anyone looked like a solid compliment to Davis this spring, and could that pass rush help Arizona State stay in some games early while Dennis Erickson gets his QB situation figured out?

There are rumblings that ASU’s defensive line and front seven in general are approaching the level of the 1986 and ’96 Pac-10 championship teams that played in the Rose Bowl. That’s probably wishful thinking, but there is a lot more than Davis (25.5 sacks in the last two seasons) including Freshman All-America DT Lawrence Guy, D-ends James Brooks, Dean DeLeone (a junior college transfer) and Jamarr Jarrett and D-tackles Saia Falahola, Otis Jones and incoming freshman Corey Adams. ASU also is fast enough and has enough linebacker depth to blitz more from that level with the likes of Shelly Lyons and Brandon Magee. Incoming middle linebacker Vontaze Burfict, the highest rated recruit ever to sign with ASU, could make an immediate impact although there already is depth at that position. Cornerback is deeper and better than in recent memory. It’s quite conceivable that ASU opponents could average less than 20 points per game, which would take pressure off the offense especially early in the season.

DH: After seeing the team this spring, what jumped out at you in a positive way, and what would you say are the biggest questions ASU still needs to answer before the season begins?

The development of the offensive line and ability of Sullivan, if he locks down the starting quarterback job, to manage games and make plays when necessary are the biggest questions. The defense is a huge positive and perhaps what will keep Erickson from suffering the first back-to-back losing seasons of his college head coaching career.

* Jeff Metcalfe is a reporter for the Arizona Republic and has been covering Arizona State sports since 1985. You can find his ASU coverage online HERE or check out his Sun Devils blog HERE. He's also got a great spring wrap up HERE and chatted with readers about ASU football HERE.

Next up: The Mobile Press-Register's Gentry Estes discusses Alabama.


Matt said...

SeƱor David: Can we get an interview with Albert Jackson or another player on the basketball team about their impressions of Coach Fox, and the reaction of the team to the new staff? That would be splendid as would any update to our recruiting efforts, Miller's status, and Leslie's academics.


David Hale said...

Matt -- fair request, and something I'm working on. Hopefully have something like this for you in the next few weeks. As you may have seen, one of Felton's two recruits won't be around in the fall, so Fox isn't off to a great start. But I can totally understand if he wants to bring in HIS guys. The rebuilding may take a while.