Arizona State Football Preview: Six Burning Questions

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Arizona State Football Preview: Six Burning Questions

Q: How will quarterback Rudy Carpenter’s composure factor into ASU’s success in 2008?

After former Sun Devil quarterback Sam Keller suffered a season-ending injury midway through the 2005 season, Carpenter took control of the reins to the Sun Devil offense, breaking all major school freshman passing records while leading the nation with a national freshman-record passer rating of 175.01 and placing second in the nation with a 68.4 completion percentage.

The tide would soon turn for Rudy, as Carpenter went from poster boy to whipping boy in the span of a single offseason, mainly as a product of Keller’s highly publicized and controversial transfer from ASU to Nebraska days before the start of the 2006 season.

As rumors swirled around the entire situation, including not only Keller and then-head coach Dirk Koetter, but Carpenter as well, inaccurate reports and allegations worsened the ordeal.  Claims were made that Carpenter and his father approached Koetter with threats to transfer if Rudy was not named ASU’s starting quarterback.

The source of this story is unknown, but as an ASU athletic department official stated recently (as well as at the time of the alleged occurrence), there was no such meeting and there were no such demands—this allegation was one of many fabrications stemming from Keller’s transfer.

However, the rumor did inflict damage on a local and national level, as many critics questioned Carpenter’s dedication to the team, despite the fact that no real events transpired that should call his devotion into doubt.

As the tumultuous 2006 season continued for the Sun Devils, Carpenter would, by the fourth game of the season, suffer injuries to both hands.

However, due to the fact that the only other scholarship quarterback on the roster at the time was true freshman Danny Sullivan, Carpenter refused to acknowledge or be sidelined by injury, and he was able to start all 13 games, although he was rarely at full health.

Making matters more complicated was ASU’s largely inexperienced wide receivers unit, drastically affecting Carpenter’s productivity. That season, he completed only 55.4 percent of his passes while throwing 14 interceptions, after only tossing two interceptions in nine games the year before.

With the 2006 season in the books and Koetter relieved of his duties as the Sun Devils’ skipper, Dennis Erickson was brought into the fold to help direct Sun Devil football in the proper fashion.  Erickson’s hire was nothing short of a breath of fresh air for Carpenter, as well as the program as a whole.

Carpenter was widely predicted to be one of the nation’s most improved players in 2007, which by and large was the case, as he again started all 13 games and upped his numbers to 3,202 passing yards with 25 touchdowns and only 10 interceptions, while completing nearly 62-percent of his passes.

He also helped engineer the turnaround for the Sun Devils that switched them from a 7-6, barely bowl-eligible team in 2006 to a 10-3, Pac-10 Conference Co-Championship squad in 2007.

Despite the improved play and team results, the world was far from perfect for Carpenter, as the porous Sun Devil offensive line allowed 55 sacks, a school record high and among the worst in the nation on the year.

Amid the frequent pressure Carpenter would face—even from otherwise pedestrian defenses—Rudy’s focus and composure were frequently challenged.  From the outside looking in, Carpenter was coined as carrying a poor attitude and lacking overall leadership qualities.

Again, looks can be deceiving in this situation. 

Rudy Carpenter is as spirited and competitive as any athlete around, and it is not due to a selfish, prima donna mindset.  More than any player on the roster, Rudy pines for success on and off the field and works year-round to acquire it.

Not only is he poised to take over all ASU passing records, but he also has already earned his undergraduate degree and will take graduate level classes during the 2008 season.

Despite injuries as a sophomore and being sacked more times than any passer in the nation the next year, he has started more consecutive games (31) than any active quarterback in the nation.

He wears his emotions on his sleeve, but without exception he will make any sacrifice—often times physically putting himself in harm’s way—even if just to turn a one-yard play into a two-yard gain.

If he yells on the sidelines after a sack, it’s not because his statistics are harmed—it’s because the team suffered a setback.

When he slams his helmet down following an interception, it’s not out of anger that his NFL Draft stock is impaired.  It’s because the Sun Devils—not Rudy Carpenter—were denied a scoring opportunity.

Rudy certainly caught some slack for comments he made prior to and during ASU’s meeting with Texas last December in the Holiday Bowl. What can be said? It’s just Rudy being Rudy. He doesn’t back down and won’t shy away from competition.

At times it will come back to bite him in the rear, but the confidence he exhibits and the high expectations he maintains often rub off on teammates.

Carpenter improved incredibly from his sophomore to junior seasons and has worked diligently on any remaining shortcomings during the spring.  He has been through more ups and downs than a seat on the Matterhorn, and he’s a player who simply focuses on taking care of business and does not look for style points.

He has a dynamic stable of receivers and a handful of capable backs at his disposal as he prepares for his senior season, and if the offensive line can make any sort of improvement, Carpenter may leap from one of the Pac-10’s top passers to one of the nation’s elite quarterbacks.

With Rudy Carpenter, either you’re in or you’re out—love him or hate him. He’s seen as much as a player can see in only three years on the field, and at this point, it’s not about politics—it’s about winning. It’s about going out on a high note.

Overall, it’s about spending 12 weeks from late August through early December defending ASU’s split of the Pac-10 Championship and further stabilizing the state of Sun Devil football.

 

Q: What are the expectations for ASU’s group of linebackers after losing star Robert James to the NFL?

A: James was one of the nation’s best surprise stories in college football last season, as he capped off a career which began with academic challenges—and nearly ended prematurely due to migraine headaches which hospitalized him during the spring before his senior season—with a first-team All-Pac-10 season in 2007.

After only recording 68 tackles in 29 games during his first three seasons, James exploded as a senior under first-year head coach Dennis Erickson, leading ASU with 106 stops as a starter in all 13 games at weak side linebacker, ranking him seventh in the Pac-10 in tackles.

The Phoenix native added 9.5 tackles for loss, seven pass deflections, and four interceptions, and received ASU’s Most Valuable Defensive Player of the Year Award.

Few Sun Devils developed and improved as greatly over his career as did James, who arrived to Tempe from Phoenix’s Maryvale High School as a 180-pound defensive back and transformed into a ferocious 230-pound linebacker, and was ultimately selected in the fifth round (138th pick) of the 2008 NFL Draft by the Atlanta Falcons.

As the Devils move on to replace their defensive leader, two main candidates emerged from the pack in the spring at weak side linebacker in junior Ryan McFoy and redshirt freshman Oliver Aaron.

Like James, McFoy began his Sun Devil career at safety, starting eight games in the secondary as a true freshman in 2006. Upon Erickson’s arrival to Tempe, McFoy was relocated into the front seven, a move Erickson compared to that he made with current NFL star Nick Barnett while at Oregon State.

The 6'2", 214-pound McFoy spent the majority of 2007 on special teams while continuing to learn the nuances of the linebacker position. However, he exited the spring as the top candidate to replace James.

A speedy Florida native, Aaron overcomes a lack of size (6'0", 200) with tremendous athleticism and intensity, and he was named ASU’s Defensive Scout Team Player of the Year while redshirting last season.

Ranked as the No. 44 weak side linebacker in the nation by Scout.com following the 2006 season, Aaron is expected to manage a way to make an impact during his first year on the field for the Devils in 2008.

Local product Colin Parker, the son of Anthony Parker, a defensive back for the Sun Devils in the 1980s and later in the NFL, had an impressive spring after having missed substantial time over the past three seasons due to multiple injuries.

Rated as the No. 48 weak side ‘backer in the country as a high school senior in 2006, the 6'1", 220-pounder will push McFoy and Aaron for time on the weak side.

Adding future depth to the position is incoming freshman Brandon Magee, rated as the No. 22 weak side linebacker prospect in the nation by Scout.com last season. Measuring 6'0", 230-pounds, Magee has often been compared to James by the Sun Devil staff.

The Sun Devils remain well stocked at the other three linebacker positions, with junior Travis Goethel, the team’s leading returning tackler from 2007, manning the strong side after starting all 13 games last season, while junior Gerald Munns earned substantial first-team duties at middle linebacker during the spring.

Goethel has totaled 100 tackles as a starter in 17 of 26 career games, while Munns has posted 35 stops in 23 career contests. 

Junior Mike Nixon, an intelligent, mature leader who will turn 25 years old shortly before the start of the season, has the ability to play any of the three linebacker positions and will see ample time, mainly in the middle and on the strong side.

Nixon, a former minor league baseball prospect of the Los Angeles Dodgers, has played in all 26 games over his first two seasons, starting eight, with 90 career tackles and 11 tackles-for-loss.

Adding depth in the middle will be senior Morris Wooten, while redshirt freshman Derrall Anderson and sophomore Jeff Bereuter will compete for time on the strong side.

Incoming freshman Shelly Lyons, a prep teammate of classmate Brandon Magee, was rated as the No. 24 strong side linebacker prospect in the country by Scout.com as a high school senior last season and can also play middle linebacker if needed.

 

Q: Which players would you predict to provide surprise performances for the Sun Devils this season?

One of the surprise teams nationwide last year, it is no surprise that the 2007 Sun Devil squad was loaded with unexpected achievers such as Troy Nolan, Robert James, and Lou Groza Award winner Thomas Weber.

With the program back among the nation’s premier teams, the Sun Devils enter 2008 with greater expectations, both as a team and as individual players.

Despite a loaded stock at the position, wide receiver Kerry Taylor was one of the most consistent offensive performers during the spring. With starters Chris McGaha and Michael Jones virtually set in stone, Taylor has greatly narrowed the gap with junior Kyle Williams as ASU’s third receiver.

With the Sun Devils set to employ more four-and five-receiver sets, the 6'0", 191-pound Chandler native is likely to see greatly increased action after appearing in all 13 games with eight receptions last year as the only offensive true freshman to see time in 2007.

Beside Williams, Taylor will have to ward off senior Nate Kimbrough, junior Brandon Smith, and potentially his former high school teammate Gerell Robinson on the wide receiver depth chart.  However, if his spring performance is any indication, Taylor is prepared to skyrocket as a sophomore.

Regarded as one of the most intelligent and technically sound athletes on the roster, Gerald Munns looks to become a full-time starter at middle linebacker after spending his first two seasons in reserve duty.

A former high school teammate of Kerry Taylor at Chandler (Ariz.) Hamilton High School, Munns quickly established a name for himself by earning playing time as a true freshman in 2006 and continued his improvement in 2007.

Boasting tremendous size at 6'4", 238-pounds, Munns has started three of 23 career games and spent the spring as the top middle linebacker above junior Mike Nixon, who figures to roam around the three linebacker positions, and Morris Wooten, ASU’s primary starter at the position who was suspended for the team’s Holiday Bowl appearance and faces an uphill battle to regain first-string duties.

A former walk-on, senior Rodney Cox has an opportunity to close out his college career in a very high note, as he is first in line to replace departed starter Josh Barrett, now with the Denver Broncos, at safety for the Sun Devils.

A starter in the last two games of 2007, including ASU’s Holiday Bowl appearance against Texas, Cox filled in nicely after Barrett was shelved due to injury, and the 6'1", 215-pounder exited the spring above classmate Jeremy Payton at strong safety.

Despite only totaling 28 tackles in 32 career contests played primarily on special teams before last season, Cox enjoyed a tremendously solid spring and looks to provide a surprise punch in the Sun Devil secondary. 

Two of the greatest surprise stories of the spring came from a pair of walk-ons, Dave Bertrand and Pierre Singfield, both of whom saw first-team action at times during practice.

Bertrand, a 6'1", 283-pound defensive tackle that spent the 2005-06 seasons with the rival Arizona Wildcats, upgraded to Tempe in the fall of 2007 and steadily ascended up the depth chart.

A transfer from Pima (Ariz.) Community College, the 5'11", 210-pound Singfield took advantage of a largely inexperienced cornerbacks unit to earn significant reps during the spring.

Time will tell if the two walk-ons will earn game action in the fall. However, both players have provided the Sun Devils tremendous “bang for their buck” as contributing non-scholarship players.

 

Q: Which true freshman will be expected to contribute immediately for the Sun Devils in 2008?

In signing the No. 17 class in the nation (Scout.com), the Sun Devils bring in a bounty of capable prospects to begin their careers in 2008.

Over the past five seasons, 19 true freshmen have seen action for the Sun Devils, including three last year in cornerback Omar Bolden, defensive tackle Jonathan English, and wide receiver Kerry Taylor.

A top candidate to see action immediately is wide receiver Gerell Robinson of local powerhouse Hamilton High School in Chandler, Ariz.  Rated as the No. 78 overall prospect in the nation and the country’s No. 14 wide receiver recruit by Scout.com, the 6'4", 210-pound athlete also played quarterback and safety in high school and has the physical gifts to make his way into the offensive rotation from day one.

Defensively, end Lawrence Guy has the tools well beyond his years, and at 6'5", 270 pounds, he was rated as the No. 67 overall prospect and the No. 7 defensive tackle prospect in the country by Scout.com last year after he recorded 102 tackles and 15.5 sacks, capping off a dominant career at Western High School in Las Vegas.

Guy reportedly still has work to do academically before making his way to Tempe. However, recent reports have been encouraging about his ability to qualify. If he makes it to campus, he has the ability to immediately join the defensive line rotation, backing up starting ends Dexter Davis and Luis Vasquez, while also having the ability to play tackle if needed.

Running back Ryan Bass assembled an illustrious prep career at Corona (Calif.) Centennial High, including 47 rushing touchdowns in 2007, which ranked second in the country among high school players.

A four-star prospect according to Scout.com, the 5'10", 200-pound Bass joins high school teammates Shelly Lyons and Brandon Magee among ASU’s signees and has the explosiveness to make a major impact at the college level. Similar to Guy, Bass has yet to gain full academic clearance, but his outlook remains more optimistic than not.

 

Q: ASU signed a total of six junior college transfers to begin their Sun Devil careers in 2008.  What will be expected of each player?

Dennis Erickson is well-known for having an eye for elite junior college talent, and Sun Devil fans are hoping 2008 will be no exception to that idea.

Making their Sun Devil debuts this season will be transfers Terell Carr, Spencer Gasu, Eugene Germany, Stanley Malamala, Tom Njunge, and Max Tabach, all of whom come to Tempe with high expectations.

Perhaps the transfer most likely to immediately start is Carr, a 5'9", 180-pounder from Pasadena (Calif.) City College. As ASU looks to replace three senior contributors at cornerback, including second-team All-Pac-10 member Justin Tryon, now with the Washington Redskins, Carr has the speed and athleticism to immediately earn first-team reps opposite phenom cornerback Omar Bolden.

One of three transfers to attend ASU in time for spring practice, Carr was rated as a four-star prospect by Scout.com last season and the No. 82 overall junior college player by JCFootball.com.

Gasu, a powerful and mobile defensive tackle, will join the team in the fall after earning second-team All-America honors at Santa Ana (Calif.) College last season.

Regarded as a four-star prospect and the No. 6 junior college defensive tackle recruit in the nation by Scout.com last season, the 6'2", 295-pounder is expected to compete with Jonathan English, Dave Bertrand, and Saia Falaholato to start beside senior David Smith on the defensive line in 2008.

A college football nomad, Eugene Germany’s career began as a USC signee— however, he never made it to Troy and ultimately began his days at the University of Michigan, redshirting in 2005 and appearing in eight games as a freshman the next season.

In 2007, Germany would make his next collegiate stop at Mt. San Antonio College in Walnut, Calif., where he started 12 games, collecting 9.5 sacks and 18.0 tackles for loss last year.

One of the premier defensive line prospects in the nation prior to the 2004 season, Germany preserves the ability to make a big impact at any spot along the line. The 6'4", 270-pounder looks to begin his Sun Devil career at defensive end, as long as all goes right academically for Germany, as he has been reported to have a need for improvement before gaining full clearance to wear maroon and gold.

A late addition to the 2008 class, signing with the Sun Devils on May 23, Malamala chose ASU over offers from Oregon and Texas A&M. At 6'4", 254 pounds, he adds a physical, athletic presence to perhaps ASU’s most questionable position group on the roster.

With the recent dismissal of Dane Guthrie, a would-be senior and predicted starter, as well as the decision of sophomore Lance Evbuomwan to leave the team, ASU is in dire need of immediate talent at tight end.

Malamala reportedly is already on campus, and he has quickly impressed the coaching staff with his work ethic and attitude, which is certainly a turn for the better after a string of disappointments.

The remainder of the tight end depth chart lists junior Jovon Williams and senior Andrew Pettes, each of whom have caught only one career pass, while redshirt freshman Dan Knapp, with no college game experience, rounds out the unit.

Despite being a tardy addition to the class, Malamala may quickly be one of the top acquisitions of the offseason, as he may be brought into action early and often.   

As the Sun Devils look to replenish a porous offensive line from 2007 that loses five seniors, Erickson signed Tom Njunge, a junior college teammate of Terell Carr, to help shore up the pass protection for ASU. After joining the team in the spring, Njunge was the top challenger for first-team left tackle Jon Hargis, who was moved from defensive tackle prior to the spring.

At 6'5", 280 pounds, Njunge (pronounced Nunn-G), provides a reliable reserve presence, highly valuable with Hargis’ inexperience and a lack of proven depth along the offensive line.

A product of nearby Scottsdale Saguaro High School, Tabach attended Glendale (Ariz.) Community College for the 2007 season and joins ASU as a sophomore with four years to play three. Despite leading the nation as a high school senior with a state record 16 interceptions, at only 170 pounds, Tabach was without a Division-I scholarship offer after his prep career.

One year and 35 pounds of mass later, the 6'2", 205-pounder was rated as the No. 8 junior college safety recruit in the nation by Scout.com and joined the Sun Devils in the spring, serving as reigning second-team All-Pac-10 member Troy Nolan’s top backup at free safety. 

 

Q: Head coach Dennis Erickson and staff exceeded virtually all expectations by leading ASU to a 10-3 record in their first season in Tempe last year. What will be expected of that regime in year two?

The ultimate pessimist’s glass-half-empty view of Dennis Erickson’s stellar debut season at ASU in 2007 is that he will be hard-pressed not only to match the team’s 10-3 mark, but also be greatly challenged to improve upon it, an ascent most coaches would be predicted to make in their second year within a program.

First and foremost, the standards of Arizona State University football have already been drastically altered. The caliber of athlete that dons maroon and gold now is a fiercer, dedicated player. The stands of Sun Devil Stadium quickly became packed during Erickson’s first year on campus and the flow of fans expects to continue.

Recruiting—especially in-state—has skyrocketed and plans not to slow any time soon, while booster involvement and program donations are at all-time highs.

Erickson and staff greatly exceeded expectations last year by earning a split of the Pac-10 Championship, helping earn Erickson his third Pac-10 Coach of the Year Award. In year two, the schedule is tougher, and as many preseason predictions indicate, ASU is highly unlikely to “surprise” anyone this year as they seem to have last season.

Sun Devil antagonists insist that ASU’s home meeting versus possible top-ranked Georgia, followed shortly by a road trip to Pac-10 giant USC, as well as five of nine conference games on the road, will greatly hinder the Devils’ chances at repeating last season’s success.

In ASU’s favor is its greatly experienced offense, guided by Rudy Carpenter, the Pac-10’s and one of the nation’s most experienced quarterbacks. In all, ASU returns 14 starters on offense and defense, tied for second-most in the Pac-10, while safety Rodney Cox started the last two games of 2007 and expects to replace Josh Barrett in the full-time lineup in the fall.

Defensively, Erickson has brought in two recruiting classes of top-notch athletes. ASU’s special teams boasts Lou Groza Award winner Thomas Weber at kicker (he also punts), and Kyle Williams was the Pac-10’s first-team punt returner last year. Questions remain on the offensive line, but overall there is a great deal of talent—if the pieces are properly assembled, the 2008 season could be a memorable one.

Although the schedule presents more road conference games than home, ASU was 4-1 last year against the Pac-10 teams it faces on the road this year (of course, all those games were in Tempe).

Joining Georgia on ASU’s non-conference slate are UNLV, fresh off a 2-10 season last year, and FCS member Northern Arizona.  

In the eyes of many, ASU had it easy last season—including a golden path to an 8-0 start—and was later exposed when placed against top competition. That is the biggest area for possible improvement this season—not only continuing to beat the likes of Washington State, Stanford, and of course Arizona, but leaving a mark when the Bulldogs come to Tempe and when the Devils travel to the Coliseum.

Dennis Erickson’s calling card has been his ability to make an immediate impact, and he certainly has done that. The key now is continued success and longevity.  As a department, ASU athletics is rallying to enter the elite and the unquestioned backbone of the department is the football program.

A sense of pride was restored in 2007, and 2008—with some work—could be even better.

Joe Healey is a 2006 graduate of Arizona State University and has contributed to ASU football media guides, press releases, and other official publications. He also is featured on www.DevilsDigest.com and can be reached via email at josephwhealey@hotmail.com.

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