As fans and spectators thumb through Arizona State Football preview magazines this offseason, they may notice a problem has plagued ASU for six seasons: the offensive line. And the problems are piling up. On Tuesday, Dennis Erickson and his squad received word that slated starting right guard Zack Schlink will "retire" due to excessive knee injuries and surgeries.
Now, this so-called "retiring" will not receive the publicity of the latest Brett Favre saga, but in Tempe and inside the Sun Devil locker room this is a big loss.
Given the injury track record that the Sun Devils have had with offensive linemen, no player "entering a season" as a starter has ever been a sure bet. Nonetheless, Erickson will rally the troops and begin the season this Wednesday and see what type of depth the Sun Devils have.
Fans of ASU are hoping this season is different and their players can avoid the training room. After all, a new crop of hog mollies will be blocking for ASU. Currently, only one returning starter is slated to start in 2010, center Garth Gerhart. Gerhart's fellow offensive linemen should take a note from his book; Gerhart has been one of the healthiest linemen in maroon and gold since his arrival in Tempe.
Although Gerhart has only started 10 games, the Norco, CA native has appeared in 18 games, and has been hurt, but through toughness and determination the big boy still competed. Sure, ankle injuries and major knee tears are not on the same scale, but Gerhart made the statements and put up the performances to show that he is a leader. In 2010, Gerhart at center will be a driving force.
In past seasons, the Sun Devils' leadership up front was lacking. Not since the days of Mike Pollak have the fans in the desert seen something that resembles a solid offensive line. In 2007, Pollak did guide the Sun Devils to a conference championship and a Holiday Bowl berth. Could Gerhart be the 2010 ASU version of Mike Pollak?
Although no one in Tempe will be shouting from the buttes that the Sun Devils will win the conference this year, with Gerhart leading a new group of road graders optimism and expectations are there.
In January, the prospects of the running game and pass protection rose with a major junior college signing for ASU. When Brice Schwab signed on to join the Sun Devils, fans immediately expected great things from the 6'8" Palomar Junior College tackle. Big things should be expected. Another good sign; Schwab had made a solid commitment to football powerhouse USC before Pete Carroll jumped ship for the NFL.
By Signing Day, Schwab was ready to be a Sun Devil.
But beside Gerhart and Schwab, uncertainty hovers around the offensive line. Fans have heard high praise about names like Adam Tello and Matt Hustad, but when the games have been played their performances were lacking and injuries ensued. Hustad was a solid starter for ASU last season at tackle, but once again, a knee injury ended his season. This fall, Hustad will move inside to guard, and the expectations for his productivity are low.
Two years ago, Adam Tello was the starting right tackle for ASU as a redshirt freshman. With two years separating his stints in the starting rotation, a stronger, more agile protector is desperately needed. The last time Sun Devil fans saw Tello in action, his ability as a Division I tackle was waning. Although a tough Georgia pass rush exposed his liabilities in 2008, 2010 is a fresh start.
The newcomers that should provide an added lift in productivity in 2010 will include Chris De Armas, Aderrious Simmons, redshirt freshman Evan Finkenberg, and of course the aforementioned Brice Schwab.
With Fall Camp opening up today, the question marks will surely be following the big boys up front. Not only will the success of this season's squad hinge on the growth of the offensive line, but the progress toward more wins will start and end up front too.