Turning the Page on the Sun Devils' Spring: Arizona State Offensive Report
As the calendar turns the page from April to May, yet another season of college football is rapidly approaching. Then again, the pigskin never seemed to have left at all.
The Sun Devils concluded their spring workouts in disappointing fashion, at least offensively, but if you take a closer look there were far more positives to Arizona State's spring than meet the eye.
Not only was Dennis Erickson tired of watching his nationally ranked defense let down by a total lack of production, consistency, and efficiency on the offensive side of the ball, but the head man also knew changes needed to be made.
So, what did "Chief" do? The decision was simple. The rumors had swirled around for nearly two seasons, and the writing was on the wall: Longtime friend and staff member Rich Olson was relieved of his coaching duties at ASU. The program was moving forward in new direction.
Now, enter the younger, more exuberant, and outspoken Noel Mazzone. Not only does ASU's offense look vastly different than in previous seasons, but the Sun Devils are also utilizing an offensive style that Mike Leach made a mainstay at Texas Tech for years.
A positive coming out of the spring, both offensively and defensively, is both sides of the football are going to be ahead of the learning curve in terms of how to execute and defend bubble screens. If you happened to tune in the past two seasons, viewers witnessed the nightmares against Oregon and California, among others.
However, let's focus on the offensive side of the ball for now.
The offense looked completely different from last spring to this spring, not only in terms of schemes and execution but with personnel as well. The roster had a lot of turnover from last season—some positive, some negative. Erickson's recruiting class was not all present during the spring, but the junior college transfers that were eligible to participate put on a show.
Standout junior college All-Americans George Bell, a 6'4" wide receiver, and Brice Schwab, a 6'7", 345-pound left tackle, both made nearly instantaneous impacts on offense.
Bell, a transfer from Southwestern Community College (CA), caught the only offensive touchdown of the spring game last weekend, but in practice his hands remind some of former Sun Devil receiver Chris McGaha. The comparison will be taken to another level as well, since Bell will be sporting McGaha's old jersey No. 13.
Not only will Bell provide a big play threat downfield, but his size and leaping ability will be huge assets for ASU in the red zone. Bell might be the newcomer of the year for the Sun Devils thus far. Look for this playmaker to make a statement in his first Pacific Ten Conference season.
From the first snap of spring drills, Schwab took on the important role of protecting the quarterback's blind side. With that being said, in recent years, blind side or not, the pressure has been fierce from all angles. Not only did Schwab provide a huge upgrade in size but the consistency and leadership attributes will pay big dividends this fall as well.
Improvement on the offensive line has been a gradual process the past four years. In 2006, under former head coach Dirk Koetter, the Sun Devils gave up the most sacks in school history with 48 sacks allowed. In a 13-game season, what quarterback is going to have success when he is picking himself up off the ground after each play?
Since 2006, the sacks gradually decreased and the number of scholarship offensive linemen has increased.
In 2010, the expectations up front for the "big uglies" are higher than ever. With a big-time recruit in Schwab filling the void left by fourth-round draft pick Shawn Lauvao, the other four members of the line are young in terms of experience but the talent and depth has provided the necessary competition to turn the corner this fall.
The anchor in the middle is a name that everyone will know, and this stud plays his position just like his brother. Garth Gerhart, brother of Minnesota Vikings second-round selection Toby Gerhart, has the size and tenacity to be the quality road-grader that ASU has been seeking since Mike Pollak graduated in 2007.
It is very rare that athletic is a word used to describe an offensive lineman, but when referring to Gerhart it is a perfect fit. Plus, in Erickson's running schemes, the center has to pull and kick out defensive ends and linebackers countless times in one game.
Unfortunately, it was not all smiles for the offensive line this spring. When ASU's senior leader and most experienced lineman, John Hargis, blew out his knee early in the spring it was unclear how effective and fluid the five men up front would play.
So far the reps have been split between both sophomore Andrew Sampson and redshirt freshman Kody Koebensky. Both weighing over 300 pounds, the size is there, but on the other side of the coin, neither player has much quality game experience.
The same goes for right guard and right tackle. Both Zack Schlink and Evan Finkenburg have limited playing experience. Schlink started one game in his career at Washington in 2008, and he performed admirably. However, late in that game Schlink suffered a similar injury as Hargis. The good news is that Schlink is finally 100 percent healthy.
All of that inexperience referred above will have time to iron out the wrinkles against Portland State and Northern Arizona before the line will be tested on Sept. 18 in Madison, WI. The offensive line is not the only area where the players are relatively green, though. Running behind the "big uglies" will be a running back by committee including Cameron Marshall, James Morrison, and true freshman Marcus Washington.
A stable of running backs should mean fresh legs and bodies for the late November and early December games. The Sun Devils would sure like to have Dimitri Nance back for one more year, but the Atlanta Falcons are gauging his NFL talent. With ASU lacking a true featured back at this point, Erickson will get to sit back and witness the internal competition between these three come fall camp.
The Arizona State quarterbacks this spring performed well in practice but came up short in the scrimmages and spring game.
A leader has not yet been named, but the starter at the end of 2009, Samson Szakacsy, has yet to make his opening argument for keeping the job. Szakacsy has been sidelined all spring due to offseason elbow surgery. With Szakacsy's accuracy, even fighting through elbow pain last fall, and his elusiveness, he is undoubtedly a valuable weapon that defenses would be forced to game-plan around.
During Szakacsy's absence, Michigan transfer Steve Threet and sophomore Brock Osweiler have been battling to lay claim to the top spot. Through 15 practices neither quarterback was named the starter or a leader heading into fall camp. Unfortunately, turnovers were the issue once again, and even when the passing game was struggling, the bad news was the running game struggled to find its stride as well.
Now that the quarterbacks, the big boys blocking up front, and the ball carriers that will seek out the holes to hit the big play have been discussed, it is time to discuss maybe the most interesting area of the team this season: the wide receivers and tight ends.
Sure, most people will look at the quarterback battle, or the improved offensive line, or even ASU's dominant defense, but today it's all about the offense and the new spread formations and schemes.
Erickson did not just choose offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone's name out of a hat and hand him the job. The system that Mazzone preaches is excellent for the abundance of skill, speed, and athleticism on the edge for ASU. The Sun Devils' wide receivers are lightning fast and agile, and the short quick patterns and screens will highlight this sentiment come game time.
Coupled with newcomer George Bell, Gerrell Robinson is a big-play threat in the red zone with his size and athleticism. With two receivers in the starting rotation standing at 6'4", the matchups with opposing defensive backs will undoubtedly be in ASU's favor.
Another new face this season will be Aaron Pflugrad, a transfer from Oregon forced to sit out last fall. Pflugrad was the second-leading receiver for the Ducks in 2007 and looks to make a similar impact in the slot for the Sun Devils.
The past two years fans at Sun Devil Stadium witnessed never-ending drops each Saturday, but with Pflugrad and Bell hanging on to nearly everything this spring, the "dropsies" will hopefully be a tale of the past.
Returning senior wide receiver Kerry Taylor has big shoes to fill this fall. Yes, Taylor has started 14 games in three seasons for Erickson, although the production as a top-tier receiver has not been there. Last year Taylor finished his suspension-shortened season with only 27 catches and four touchdowns. Not only is maturity an issue, but consistency has never been Taylor's middle name either.
This is, however, Taylor's final season in Tempe, and if he has any aspirations to follow in his father's footsteps (San Francisco 49er-great John Taylor), his production will be forced to increase.
Other notable receivers and slot players will include T.J. Simpson, who missed a good part of spring ball, Jamal Miles, J.J. Holiday, and two incoming freshmen, Randy Knust from Texas and Kevin Anderson, both of whom I believe have bright futures ahead of them.
With all that being said, the one position that ASU has really and truly missed has been a standout athlete at tight end. The names Todd Heap, Zack Miller, and even brother Brent Miller all were quality performers in a great line of tight ends.
This spring, Erickson might have found that safety net over the middle that Sun Devil quarterbacks and fans have been desperately awaiting. Look no further than redshirt freshman Chris Coyle. A product of Southern California powerhouse Oaks Christian, Coyle has the speed and route precision of a wide receiver, as well as the power and strength to lend a couple of helping hands to the running game.
Last fall, Coyle made an immediate impression on the coaching staff, as he climbed his way up the depth chart only to then injure his foot, requiring surgery, which then forced Coyle into a redshirt season.
If injuries plague Arizona State once again, even the depth this season at tight end is improved. Junior Dan Knapp, a 6'5", 260-pound beast, is known for his contributions in the running game and hard-nosed blocking. However, Knapp will occasionally slip the coverage and find himself in the end zone celebrating.
Behind Knapp is former walk-on Trevor Kohl, who found his way into the starting lineup last fall, as well as Max Smith and Steven Figueroa, both of whom have ideal size.
The positives for Arizona State coming out of spring practices are that Erickson and Mazzone finally got to see how their players would produce in the new offensive system and got them more repetitions and seasoning, while noticing rapid growth across the board.
Another solid fact following spring football resurfaced from the first day, as the defense reinforced the fact that the 11 men on the defensive side are still dominant even after matriculation.
Up next: the defensive breakdown of spring football.
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