With the 2010 college football season roughly one month away and fall camps kicking off within the upcoming week, crunch time on now for each and every one of the 120 Football Bowl Subdivision teams.
On the heels of consecutive disappointing seasons, the Arizona State Sun Devils have a sense of urgency entering the 2010 season.
Though the Devils have been selected ninth in the Pac-10 Conference to start the year, ASU boasts an excellent defense and talent on both sides of the ball.
However, for the Maroon and Gold to return to the postseason and return to the level of play showcased merely three years ago, when ASU claimed a split of the Pac-10 championship, a handful of needs must be addressed.
Within this slideshow, Joe Healey of DevilsDigest.com breaks down the 10 most crucial areas in which the Sun Devils will need to achieve high proficiency for ASU to return to its previous winning ways.
Though ASU's defense as a whole was terrific last season and expects to possibly exceed that level of play, the Sun Devil pass rush was average at best.
In 2009, Arizona State ranked seventh in the Pac-10 in sacks per game (1.92) and now loses the services of Dexter Davis, ASU's third-leading career sack-master.
Davis' senior season was by and large a letdown, as he collected only 3.5 sacks in 2009, but his presence alone made offensive lines have to think and work a little bit harder, perhaps letting other Sun Devils ease through to the quarterback.
In Davis' absence, no truly fearsome end steps forward with a background in disrupting passers. The top threat at this point is strong-side end James Brooks, a junior and second-year starter who has totaled five sacks in two seasons.
Overall, the most threatening pass rushers may be at the tackle position, led by Lawrence Guy (pictured, No. 50), who paced the Devils with 4.5 sacks last season, while senior Saia Falahola nipped on his heels by adding four of his own.
Ends like Gregory Smith, Dean DeLeone, and true freshman Nduka Onyeali have the skill sets to be effective rushers but aren't proven, while tackles Corey Adams (pictured, No. 68) and William Sutton are both capable of penetrating lines and wreaking havoc as well.
From the linebacker position, weakside 'backer Brandon Magee is the most potent blitzer, while star middle linebacker Vontaze Burfict seems to always be magnetized to the ball carrier.
For ASU's defense to be as ferocious as it has the talent to be, a stable pass rush is a must. It is unlikely that any one individual will approach the 10-sack mark such as Davis did as a sophomore and junior, but if a handful of defenders are in the four to five-sack range, the Devil "D" can be deadly.
Dimitri Nance may not be remembered among the all-time great Sun Devil running backs, but as a senior in 2009 he quietly provided a consistent effort both as a runner and receiver from the tailback position.
Entering 2010, ASU loses four scholarship runners from last year, Nance, Shaun DeWitty, Jarrell Woods, and transfer Ryan Bass, all of whom saw field action in 2009.
Cameron Marshall (pictured) is the only returning ball carrier to have seen time last year, appearing in 11 games with one start and totaling 280 yards on 64 carries (4.4 avg.) with two touchdowns. A powerful, speedy runner, Marshall has the physical tools to be a threatening playmaker and will be given every opportunity to succeed as a sophomore in 2010.
Coaches and fans are largely counting on Marshall to succeed, because behind him there are many more questions than answers.
The second-string spot likely will belong to either sophomore James Morrison or true freshman Deantre Lewis. Morrison is regarded as a sturdy, no-nonsense runner while Lewis is a quick, darting speedster with electric skills.
Both players are highly talented, but neither has much experience, as Morrison played in seven games on special teams with no carries while Lewis first set foot on campus as a college student earlier this summer.
Behind those three, exciting sophomore Jamal Miles figures to earn some carries but likely will be an all-purpose receiver/running blend.
Freshmen Marcus Washington and Taylor Walstad add depth, but both may redshirt this season.
Though the pieces may be in place for a formidable pecking order between Marshall, Morrison, and Lewis, little is proven at running back, and the jury is still out on the unit's collective capability.
(Photo courtesy Robert Kline/Cactus Ranch)
On ASU's 2010 roster, approximately a dozen scholarship athletes will practice at wide receiver, but for good reason fans still are unsure as to what can be expected from the group.
The first task at hand is replacing departed stars Chris McGaha and Kyle Williams, two dynamic and steady receivers that combined for 113 of ASU's 225 completed passes in 2009 and 12 of the team's 17 touchdown receptions.
Whether based on a lack of concentration or bad luck, multiple Sun Devils had issues with dropped passes last season, an error that ASU's new pass-based offense can ill-afford to repeat.
In the new scheme, timing between quarterbacks and receivers will be crucial as the aerial attack will feature frequent four-receiver sets to help spread the field.
Replacing McGaha and Williams likely will be a group effort, and serving as one of the leaders toward that cause is junior Gerell Robinson (6'4", 223) (pictured), ASU's leading returning receiver from 2009 having collected 26 receptions for 261 yards.
In terms of numbers, Robinson gets the pat on the back as the Devils' top dog, but the former U.S. Army All-American is still on a mission to validate the high school credentials that followed him to Tempe from nearby Chandler Hamilton High School.
Senior Kerry Taylor (6'0", 197), who totaled 23 receptions for 276 yards last year, is the offense's most experienced athlete but generally lacks the consistency and reliability that should accompany a fourth-year contributor.
T.J. Simpson (6'1", 189), one of ASU's most effective playmakers, has caught three touchdowns among his seven career receptions but missed spring drills after suffering an ankle injury midway through the 2009 campaign.
The overall quality and efficiency of the wide receivers may very well hinge on the contributions of three transfers—JUCO products George Bell (6'3", 198), Mike Willie (6'4", 215) and former Oregon Duck Aaron Pflugrad (5'10", 180).
Pflugrad joined the team after concluding spring drills with the Ducks last year and redshirted in 2009 but brings a savvy, reliable presence to the Sun Devil passing game, while Bell enrolled in January and in spring practices showed his talents to be a big-time factor in the vertical passing game.
Willie recently made his way to Tempe and has yet to officially practice, but by the accounts of the Sun Devil staff, his frame and physical nature will be called upon early and often in his ASU career.
While the three transfers have a world of talent, none of the three has seen game action for ASU and likely will face some sort of learning curve when live duty commences in 2010.
Speedster Jamal Miles (5'10", 180), a high school running back that saw action at receiver as a true freshman last year, is expected to be a difference-maker for the offense this year and likely will line up at multiple positions over the course of the season.
Rounding out the receiver depth charts are redshirt freshmen Jarrid Bryant (6'5", 180) and J.J. Holliday (6'0", 170), as well as often-injured sixth-year senior Brandon Smith (6'2", 202) and sophomore A.J. Pickens (5'10", 172).
Three true freshmen will also begin their collegiate careers this week, with track star Kyle Middlebrooks (5'9", 176) the most plausible candidate to earn immediate time.
Hopefully for the Sun Devil receivers there is strength in numbers and the upperclassmen and rookies can mesh in ASU's new quick-strike offense.
There is a very fine line between useful aggressiveness and a lack of discipline, and far too often last season ASU found itself on the short end of that equation.
In 2009, the Sun Devils ranked dead last among 120 FBS teams in both penalties per game (9.25) and penalty yardage allowed per game (84.67).
With a tremendously unproven offense and a high-octane but emotional defense, if ASU repeats those statistics in 2010, the Devils will find themselves again in a world of hurt.
Superstar sophomore linebacker Vontaze Burfict (pictured) gets the brunt of the blame, primarily because he is in the spotlight more than any other Sun Devil, but he certainly was responsible on many occasions for personal fouls, leaping penalties on kicks, and other infractions that can be avoided with better focus and discipline.
Head coach Dennis Erickson insists that it is not his objective to mute the emotions of his players, though he believes that Burfict and company have matured since last year, and hopefully these numbers will not be repeated.
The most significant personnel addition this offseason may not have been star high school running back Deantre Lewis, pass rush demon Nduka Onyeali, stud JUCO wide receiver George Bell, ballhawk Eddie Elder, or beastly offensive lineman Brice Schwab.
When Dennis Erickson announced shortly after the 2009 season wrapped up that offensive coordinator Rich Olson would not be retained and quarterback guru Noel Mazzone would take his place, bits of optimism began to emerge for an offense that had been in slow motion the past two seasons.
This acquisition could prove to be the most crucial one made since the close of business to the 2009 season.
Mazzone, who has mentored offensive standouts such as Ronnie Brown, Jason Campbell, Rudi Johnson, Philip Rivers, and Carnell Williams, brings a more open and quick approach to the Sun Devil offense with the playcalling based in a fast-paced passing attack. A variety of receivers figure to be called into duty, and the tempo plans to increase a few notches to help revive a dormant offense.
There is little doubt that the philosophy is a step up from the previous scheme, but the fact remains that ASU is utilizing many new pieces to engineer the attack, not the least of which are new starters at quarterback, running back, and tight end and three of the five offensive linemen.
In the spring, the results were sporadic, but at times the age-old dilemma persisted in which it was uncertain whether the offense was sputtering or the defense was thriving.
For ASU to effectively operate the new offense, starting with the quarterback—whoever it is—the 2010 squad can surprise virtually all prognosticators that have picked the Devils near the cellar of the Pac-10.
At this point, it is generally assumed by the media that the Sun Devils will fail in quickly implementing an effective offense, but "if", and we will soon see how big of an "if" that is, the staff and personnel can fuse the philosophy with field performance, the season could get interesting.
For all Sun Devil fans, the 2007 season in which ASU finished 10-3 and tied for first in the Pac-10 Conference seems like decades ago.
To kicker Thomas Weber, that spirited season must feel like it is centuries in the rear-view.
The first freshman to win the Lou Groza Award as college football's top kicker after connecting on 24 of 25 field goal attempts, Weber struggled mightily in 2009 because of injury.
After suffering an injury that kept him out of four games during the first half of the season, the former All-American was never the same, connecting on only eight of 13 field goals and missing all five attempts over 30 yards.
To be fair, Weber was never fully healthy after his September injury, so the No. 28 that was seen back in duty near the end of the year was not the same sharpshooter that Sun Devil fans grew to expect to be automatic early in his career.
When Weber was sidelined, true freshman walk-on Bobby Wenzig took his place and most notably became known for a blocked attempt at a game-winning field goal in the final stages of ASU's loss at Georgia.
With four losses by a combined 15 points last season and a generally ineffective offense, to have had a healthy Weber realistically could have sent ASU to the postseason and a much less tumultuous offseason and outlook for 2010.
If he is healthy, Weber may prove to be ASU's Most Valuable Player, because the Sun Devil defense has proven to be able to limit high-octane offenses and keep ASU in the fight for field position regardless of the quality level of the Sun Devil offense.
Many believe that when combined with the projected strengths and weaknesses of the 2010 Sun Devils, Thomas Weber may be good for one or two wins on his own, a philosophy that may have some credibility behind it.
(Photo courtesy Robert Kline/Cactus Ranch)
Oh, what could have been.
Where to start?
Whether the "thud" heard 'round the Sun Devil world when UNLV blocked Thomas Weber's 2008 field goal attempt in overtime to demoralize ASU's football program?
Or perhaps the blocked field goal at Georgia last year (pictured) that could have allowed ASU to shock the college football nation?
Still a glutton for punishment?
How about Vontaze Burfict dropping an easy end zone interception against California, allowing the Golden Bears a go-ahead field goal attempt?
Still want more?
Surely look no further than Kyle Williams' muffed punt against Arizona and subsequent game-winning Wildcat field goal, when the football spirits seemingly were going to let the Devils go out in style in 2009?
The past two seasons have been tough, and they have been painful. The Sun Devils have lost in countless ways; some margins have been embarrassingly gaping, while some final outcomes rank among the most heartbreaking in recent memory.
There is no one trait or quality that has caused this spell of bad performance and bad luck, but concentration and consistency are two underlying factors that ASU has not administered enough over the past 24 games.
In some cases, if the defense is stiff, the offense falters.
If the offense gains momentum, the defense has momentary lapses.
Sprinkle in inconsistent special teams, and Rachael Ray herself couldn't cook up a better recipe for disaster.
Thankfully, though, it is a controllable circumstance. If put into a scientific equation, ASU's defense figures to be a constant, while its offense—and potentially special teams—are the variables.
If those variables can create a greater sense of reliability—especially in clutch moments—perhaps the Devils can be the ones watching opponents grovel in defeat and not the other way around.
(Photo courtesy Robert Kline/Cactus Ranch)
There's no greater buzz kill to preseason excitement for ASU's hope to swing back to its previous winning ways than to look at the schedule, particularly the slate away from Sun Devil Stadium.
In order, after two FCS games versus Portland State and Northern Arizona, ASU travels to Wisconsin, comes home to face defending conference champ Oregon, then off to a three-game stretch touring Oregon State, Washington, and California with a bye wedged between the Seattle and Berkeley trips.
After facing Washington State at home, the Devils venture to USC and then face two home games against Stanford and UCLA before completing the schedule in hated ground at Arizona in Tucson.
All things considered, five of the six teams ASU faces on the road appeared in the postseason, and the group combined for a 58-32 record in 2009, including 10-win seasons from Oregon and Wisconsin and a nine-win effort by USC.
To make matters worse, ASU hasn't been particularly stellar away from Tempe lately, with only two wins among 10 road games the past two seasons, taking victories at Washington State last year and Washington the previous season—two squads that combined for a sickening 1-23 record.
For the Sun Devils to have a successful season, momentum will have to be found on the road, beginning with the team's Sept. 11 trip to Camp Randall to face Wisconsin.
No game among the road slate is a "gimme," even though the Devils have taken six straight from Washington. If ASU can finish no worse than 3-3 on the road, it could find a path to four home wins and a 7-6, bowl-eligible record.
Questions are swirling around Tempe as to who will be ASU's quarterback in 2010.
I can tell you right now that it is certain that Brock Osweiler (pictured, No. 17) is going to be ASU's starting quarterback.
Unless it's Steven Threet.
And of course also unless it's Samson Szakacsy (pictured, No. 10).
OK, though the big Montana native has the edge entering camp, nothing is set in stone.
In some ways, it doesn't really matter.
Let me explain.
Though the position has been a sickening sight lately, confidence exists that the combination of talent and compatibility with the offense is present among the three candidates. Of course, there are many issues to address and much to be proven, but the most likely case is that whichever player emerges from the pack will have asserted himself to a satisfactory level in fall camp.
Of course, SOMEONE has to guide the offense, but the general consensus is any of the three candidates is an upgrade from Danny Sullivan who, God bless him, was like a 12-year-old stealing the keys to his Dad's truck. He shouldn't have been in the driver's seat, and a car wreck was the only plausible outcome.
Now simply an upgrade would still put ASU at an "average" level in terms of quarterback play, and that alone likely won't kick-start any fanatical offensive improvements.
The Devils don't need Andrew Walter or Danny White to suit back up and light the world on fire, just that the starting signal caller knows his strengths and weaknesses and authors a composed, efficient offense. New offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone will ask the quarterback to keep his eyes peeled, but in the majority of sets there will be a number of receivers at work creating a multitude of options if the man at the helm properly goes through his progressions.
Easier said than done? Possibly.
Simply put, it will be very obvious at an early point if the quarterback play is improved or not. If it is, the season could build some steam quickly, but if the offense stalls as it has lately, the scoreboard will reflect so in a way that won't have Sparky doing too many push-ups.
If there's a topic that is more prevalent around Tempe than the quarterback quandary or the temperature of the chair upon which Coach Erickson is seated, it's the ever popular debate topic of the Sun Devil offensive line.
Even back in 2007, when ASU split the conference crown with USC, the Sun Devil line was one of the most transparent in college football. Though matters have improved, the unit has yet to prove to be a reliable strength.
The 2010 offensive line has many new faces, and time will tell if that's a good or bad thing. Gone from last year is star guard/tackle Shawn Lauvao, as well as Thomas Altieri, Brent Good, and Tom Njunge, all of whom saw action in the starting lineup in 2009.
In the spring, ASU took a big shot in the foot—or knee, when senior Jon Hargis suffered a season-ending ACL injury. More recently, one day before fall camp kicks off, it was announced that possible starting guard Zach Schlink would be a terminal injury casualty and would have to hang up his cleats permanently.
What's left is a group that has some depth and talent, but most of it is either disorganized, unproven, or both.
The leader of the pack figures to be center Garth Gerhart (6'1", 305) (pictured, No. 52), brother of Heisman Trophy runner-up Toby Gerhart. The younger, larger Gerhart has started at guard and center for the Devils and will need to take on a steady role for the line to succeed this year.
Returning letterwinner Matt Hustad (6'5", 292) moves from right tackle to left guard in place of Hargis, though Hustad has had severe injury issues of his own, having played in only five games through his first two seasons at ASU.
Redshirt freshman Evan Finkenberg (6'6", 290) showed promise this spring but has the tall task of taking on the left tackle position.
Meanwhile, massive Brice Schwab (6'7", 345), a player with scholarship offers from coast to coast and a one-time USC commit, was a little more chocolate chip than blue chip when he arrived on campus in January from Palomar Junior College, showing inferior athleticism and quickness for a player expected to stand out at left tackle. At the end of spring drills, Schwab relocated to right tackle, and as fall camp approaches, there is some buzz that he may be again repositioned to right guard.
If Schwab moves to guard, former tight end Dan Knapp (6'5", 258)—former, as in he was a tight end up until merely three months ago—may step in at right tackle, while junior Adam Tello (6'3", 290), who hasn't seen game action since Sept. 20, 2008, may fill in at guard if Schwab remains at tackle.
Junior Mike Marcisz (6'5", 304) played in two of the first three games last year before missing the final nine, as well as spring drills, due to injury, while boom-or-bust junior college transfer Aderious Simmons (6'7", 310) may provide intriguing depth at either tackle spot if he can meet academic eligibility requirements—which are still up in the air with fall camp starting Wednesday.
Reserves Chris De Armas (6'4", 292), Kyle Johnson (6'7", 292), Kody Koebensky (6'4", 303), and Andrew Sampson (6'3", 300) are all scholarship linemen but aren't likely to create much of an impact this year, while the three true freshmen that signed in February each will likely redshirt.
What does this mean?
Trouble, of course.
Well not necessarily. There may very well be a talented five that can surface among this group, a quintet that could help the Sun Devil offense evolve past a crawling pace. However, ASU fans have come to expect that the five that begin the season likely won't be the five that end the season, so keeping the hogs healthy is paramount to the Sun Devils' overall success.
ASU has the skill position players to improve, but as any football purist will tell you, games are won and lost in the trenches, so the big hog-mollies likely will pave the way—literally and figuratively—to the outcome of the 2010 season, good or bad.