Arizona State Sun Devils Feature a New-Look Squad This Spring
Fans that bleed maroon and gold were teased in 2007 when their Arizona State Sun Devils captured a share of the Pac-10 Championship and a trip to the Holiday Bowl.
A 10-win season, as well as a top-25 recruiting class, left fans wanting more.
However, as the "bleacher creatures" bought into the early success, in return fans were left in Sun Devil Stadium watching back-to-back losing seasons and no bowl appearances.
Now as spring football commences, fans all around the valley are wondering, what's next for the Sun Devil football program?
Much-Needed Reinforcements Arrive
Dennis Erickson had to cope with back-to-back losing seasons in Tempe, and no one was close to feeling satisfaction—although an ounce of promise was about to rain down on the Valley of the Sun.
On Jan. 4, Erickson hired a new offensive coordinator to replace longtime friend and coaching mate Rich Olson. The man that will take hold the reins of the Arizona State offense is Noel Mazzone.
Mazzone was a member of Erickson's staff in 2002 at Oregon State. However, this was not a friend helping another friend out with a job; this hire was to revamp the ASU offense, and that is just what Mazzone plans to do.
In previous coaching stops, Mazzone has tutored elite quarterbacks in the Southeastern Conference at Auburn and Ole Miss, as well as a two-year span at North Carolina State to guide Philip Rivers.
Erickson and Mazzone have a plan of attack laid out for the 2010 Sun Devils. The offense will no longer be a pro style, under the center attack; instead Mazzone has taken a page from former Texas Tech head coach Mike Leach.
Mazzone wants a spread offense, with quick passes, screens, and a wide-open attack to utilize the speed and ability of Erickson's talented playmakers on the edge at wide receiver and running back.
If fans were hoping for a ball-control offense to keep the defense off the field, Mazzone's style will implement this notion, but not in a three yards and a cloud of dust hard-nosed style.
Who Will Take the Reins as ASU's Starting Quarterback?
Ever since the departure of former Sun Devil great Rudy Carpenter, fans in the valley have been chomping at the bit to find a competent replacement at quarterback.
Fans in Tempe sure miss the days when No. 12 was throwing touchdown passes like they were going out of style.
Last season, Erickson selected Danny Sullivan as the leader of ASU's offense. Was it a good decision? At the time, yes; however, the results and performances by the offense were not what anyone expected.
Sure, ASU was competitive, but the offense was hard to watch when matched up against top-notch competition.
When the going got tough in 2009, Erickson made the switch not once, but three times, flip-flopping back and forth between Sullivan, freshman Brock Osweiler, and the athletic Samson Szakacsy.
This offseason, Erickson is once again hosting a battle for the top spot at quarterback. Arizona State has opened up the competition to include Michigan transfer Steven Threet, who many feel will win the job due to his experience playing in the Big Ten Conference.
Don't sleep on Osweiler, who showed signs of greatness in only his first season on campus. Not to mention a 6'8" quarterback would be fairly helpful to see over the line of scrimmage and create passing lanes, which might not necessarily be available for someone of smaller stature.
But Threet has the experience of playing in crucial situations; a sold-out crowd in Tucson will not compare to the environment Threet experienced in the Big Ten. Sure, Threet has not played in a game since 2008, but come the first snap of the 2010 season, I think that we will see Steven Threet bringing ASU's high-flying offense back to prominence.
New Faces Bring in New Life for a Broken-Down Offensive Line
Ever since his days at the University of Miami, Dennis Erickson has been known as one of the best recruiters in the country.
At ASU, Erickson lured top defensive recruit Vontaze Burfict to sign with the maroon and gold, and many locals thought that the Sun Devils might strike gold twice.
However, when recruiting 300-pound offensive linemen, a diamond in the rough is hard to find.
Erickson and his staff hit the road and put together a top-35 recruiting class. The objective is always to fill the holes left by departing seniors and fill the needs where there are deficiencies. With the results the past two seasons, ASU had a few glaring holes to fill.
The first and most important was the offensive line. Erickson brought in six offensive linemen in the 2010 class. The most notable is 6'8", 320-pound Brice Schwab.
Not only is Schwab large in stature, but his abilities are just as profound. Schwab was one of the top junior college offensive linemen in the country, and once he was tagged with that title, schools from all across the country came calling.
USC thought that Schwab was set to be a Trojan until Pete Carroll left to take the Seattle Seahawks job.
Schwab will undoubtedly compete instantly for a starting position on ASU's line, along with fellow incoming recruits Silvarious Ajawara, Chris De Armas, Aderious Simmons, and Jamil Douglas.
The new blood brought in by Erickson's staff, coupled with quality returning talent in the likes of Garth Gerhart, Zack Schlink, and John Hargis, among others, will be a breath of fresh air not only for fans, but the quarterback sitting back in the pocket as well.
Look for ASU's offensive line to be the most improved unit on the Sun Devils' squad.
It Is Time for the Youth to Step Up
The past few seasons in Tempe, fans in Sun Devil Stadium heard the calls on the PA System, "Mike Nixon with the interception," "Travis Goethel on the tackle," and "Dexter Davis with another sack."
All of those perennial All-Americans have since graduated. Now, it is time for the youthful talent that the defensive coaching staff has been raving about to make its mark.
Nixon, Goethel, and Davis are all gone. That is two starting linebackers and ASU's top sack master for the past four years all no longer eligible.
Vontaze Burfict, ASU's prized recruit from a season ago, will now be fully entrenched in the starting middle linebacker role. The question is, who will he be flanked with?
Look no further than Burfict's high school teammates Brandon Magee and Shelly Lyons. Both Magee and Lyons have put in their work on special teams and showed signs of promise in reserve roles last season, but if their intensity and production is anywhere close to that of Burfict, ASU's linebackers will be just fine!
Erickson also received positive news on the status of linebacker Gerald Munns. Munns was one of the top linebackers on ASU's roster last season but left the program to deal with off the field issues.
Munns, Magee, Lyons, and the incoming freshmen will have big shoes to fill, but their ability on the field will speak for itself.
The job of replacing Dexter Davis might be a far tougher feat than replacing the linebackers. Erickson hit the recruiting trail hard to try to land five-star defensive end Jackson Jeffcoat, but in the end the Texas native stayed close to home and chose the Oklahoma Sooners.
However, Erickson's job was not done. Arizona State signed four defensive ends to the 2010 recruiting class, including Nduka Onyeali, a four-star defensive machine from Denver.
The buzz around the program regarding Onyeali is that he might be too small for defensive end, but he is too valuable to waste as an outside linebacker. Onyeali is 6'1", 240 pounds and runs a 4.5 40-yard dash. If a newcomer is going to fill the void left by Davis, look no further than Onyeali.
The Sun Devils also have starter James Brooks returning, as well as key reserves Dean DeLeone and Jamaar Jarrett, who both saw significant game action last fall.
What Can Fans in the Valley of the Sun Expect in 2010?
The past two seasons in Tempe would rather be forgotten than etched into stone. Back-to-back losing seasons do not sit well with anyone in the football offices or fans in the stands.
So with the changes that are underway, what are the expectations for ASU in 2010?
Sure, some might say it is too early to expect a championship season or a downright awful year for any team, but with the talent returning for Erickson's squad and the key additions both in terms of coaching and in athletes, fans can certainly feel the hype of a much-improved season for the Sun Devils.
Is it a Pacific Ten championship-caliber team? Not yet. However, Arizona State is taking the necessary steps to regain its form and return to the top tier of the conference. Four wins is not going to cut it.
Many feel that if Erickson does not produce a wining product this season, his job is in serious jeopardy. However, with his current contract and continued budget cuts in the state of Arizona, I feel his job will be safe unless another four-win or less season is in the works.
My prediction on ASU's 2010 season: 6-6 or 7-5 at best. A generous postseason bowl check will be a nice reward for a bounce-back season, but that will be the first step in returning Arizona State football to prominence.