The offseason talk this spring has revolved around how much improvement will be enough for the Sun Devils to reach a bowl game. To be quite honest, a wait and see approach is necessary in this judgment call.
Head coach Dennis Erickson cut ties with long time friend and offensive coordinator Rich Olson, and hired another past understudy Noel Mazzone. This spring, Mazzone instilled a philosophy that has rejuvenated an offense that was beginning to flat line. And this spring, the practices were conducted at a more up-tempo style.
The Sun Devils look to resemble a form of a quick strike, fast-paced offense seen at Texas Tech under former coach Mike Leach, the Arizona Wildcats under Sonny Dykes. Many other colleges similarly adopting this passing style around the country.
For Arizona State, this offense might suit them just right, considering their dismal performances the past seasons on the offensive line and their “Swiss cheese” performances protecting the quarterbacks. An offense that is based on quick hitting, timing patterns might just be the remedy that Erickson and the Sun Devil fans desired.
Just imagine even an average offense coupled with a defense that ranked number one in the conference in rushing defense, pass defense, and total defense, not to mention a defense that came in second in scoring defense behind none other than Southern California.
To be totally honest, any improvement over the past two seasons offensively will give the Sun Devils a huge boost of confidence entering the meat grinder of a schedule in late September starting at Wisconsin, and really and truly no ending until the final week of the season in Tucson versus in-state rivals the Arizona Wildcats.
The big question, among others on offense, has to begin at quarterback. This upcoming season is not a sure bet in the slightest bit, there is no Rudy Carpenter, no Sam Keller, not even a Paul Justin starting at quarterback. The most important position on the field is a huge question mark for Erickson and the maroon and gold.
However, the good news in this story is that there is plenty of time in fall camp to decide on a sure bet number one quarterback, and if any second guesses come up during camp, Northern Arizona and Portland State begin ASU’s 2010 non-conference slate. Come September 18, a quarterback must be decided, because in Madison, WI the Camp Randall crowd will not be forgiving of any sophomoric mistakes.
In 2010, the Sun Devil quarterbacks' competence, ability, and production level will be far superior than in 2009, and you can mark that down right now. No offense to my good friend Danny Sullivan, he performed admirably, but he was not a Division 1 quarterback. The quarterbacks that are available for Erickson on the roster have mobility, arm strength, and leadership qualities necessary to take the Sun Devils back to a bowl game for the first time since 2007.
Erickson will have his choice of three quality performers in Steven Threet, a former starting quarterback at Michigan, Brock Osweiler, an elite basketball talent who combines deceiving athleticism with a canon of an arm.
Barring any further injuries, a wild card in the quarterback sweepstakes will undoubtedly be Samson Szakacsy. Szakacsy was a former coveted recruit of then USC head coach Pete Carroll who started two games in 2009, finishing with 362 yards, four touchdowns and one interception. Whichever quarterback is given the green light this season, the Sun Devils will be in far better hands than in 2009.
Although the offense starts at the quarterback position, the play normally ends in someone else’s hands. This fall the Sun Devils will make a name for themselves at the receiving corps. Erickson made it an imperative point in his recruiting efforts to pursue speed and sure handedness at the wide receiver position. The incoming recruits will provide the necessary athleticism and big play ability to stretch Pac-10 defenses this fall. It will only be matter of time before fans and media pundits around the conference recognize this feat.
The Sun Devils will line up with three or four wide receivers more than half of their offensive snaps. The big names on the edge will be junior college transfer George Bell who made an instant impact during the spring, Oregon Duck transfer Aaron Pflugrad, as well as high school All-American Gerrell Robinson, and local Maricopa County products Kerry Taylor and T.J. Simpson. The Sun Devils have speed and explosiveness on the edge that will certainly catch opponents off guard early on in 2010.
However, the offense does not stop at just the quarterbacks and receivers, the running backs and tight ends will be a vital part of ASU’s offensive success or downfall. I throw the word downfall into the conversation because the Sun Devils’ returning leading rusher only amassed 280 yards in 2009.
A sophomore this year, Cameron Marshall will have to carry the rushing load this season for the Sun Devils. Although Marshall lacks experience, the 5' 11'', 220 pound back has all the measurables that coaches desire, and has the explosiveness that will be a valuable boost to the anemic offense Sun Devil fans have witnessed in recent years.
However, the running game will not rest totally on the shoulders of Marshall. A hard working and dedicated former walk-on, James Morrison (5'11'', 208) will provide Erickson with a change of pace back.
Morrison has been in the Sun Devil program for three seasons, and to be quite honest, the Phoenix native should have received playing time much sooner. In 2008, Morrison looked to push former tailbacks Keegan Herring and Dimitri Nance for major playing time before being forced into a redshirt season due to an ankle injury.
Another player who I will throw into the running back conversation is Jamal Miles. Standing at 5' 10'', 180 pounds Miles is the speed demon of the group, all the more reason to utilize his athleticism and quickness, Erickson and Mazzone will feature the sophomore at wide receiver as well. There were several times during the Spring that Erickson referred to Miles as a “home run threat," and that type of production will be counted on in 2010.
Comparatively to Miles, tight end Chris Coyle will be featured in a similar role. Coyle only stands at 6' 3'', 235 pounds, but plays with a presence on the field. He made a name for himself last fall, but eerily similar to Morrison, a foot injury forced the Oaks Christian (CA) product into a redshirt season.
The other tight ends on the roster that will put in the workmanlike performances that Sun Devil fans adore will be Trevor Kohl, (6'1'', 248) a former rugby player, and two local Arizona products Max Smith and Steven Figueroa who at 6'4'', 251 pounds stands as ASU’s biggest tight end.
Arizona State has made a living by throwing the football in the past, and doing so at a very successful rate. All of that past history and production has truly flown out the window recently. The struggles of the offense hopefully left with the departing Olson.
Albeit good friends, Erickson took a chance on Olson following a similar sub par showing at the University of Miami, but that ship has sailed. The passing game will feature a youthful and inspired style, and that might be the first step that is necessary to turning this high-flying desert attack around.