This spring in Tempe, Arizona, a different tune is echoing from the buttes. No longer is there the sound of rebuilding.
Spring football is two weeks away and the Sun Devils are ready to arrive on the national radar in college football.
Since the inception of the Bowl Championship Series in 1998, Arizona State has never been featured in any of the four bowl games. In the Pacific Ten Conference, and moving forward, the Pac-12, the Rose Bowl is always at the top of the pecking order.
The Sun Devils last appeared in the Rose Bowl in 1997, following the ’96 season. Two Holiday Bowl appearances in San Diego and a few road games against the UCLA Bruins were the closest ASU came to returning to the “Granddaddy of Them All."
But don’t listen to me, take it from the head coach’s mouth. “What’s exciting to me, finally, is after four years we’re worthy. I thought last year we were really close, now I feel like we’re here.”
Of course, Erickson added a disclaimer, “Now we’ve got to do it on the field.”
There is no doubt that this year appears to be completely different than the past three-bowl-less seasons.
First of all, there is no question mark at quarterback. Brock Osweiler is the leader of the Sun Devil offense, and the maroon and gold’s leader off the bus each weekend.
Better yet, Osweiler knows he is the man at quarterback.
There is no need to look over his 6’8” shoulders for lingering competition, which in Tempe is very, very rare. Osweiler has witnessed the unraveling of quarterbacks firsthand throughout his career.
The first hand experience as a backup, making his first start at Autzen Stadium, only to get knocked out of the game, and late last season winning two games in comeback fashion, shows tremendous growth as a leader.
Rallying the troops late against the Arizona Wildcats in December has brought momentum into spring workouts, conditioning, and will now carry over to the spring practices.
This spring, the Sun Devil coaches will replace five starting players from last year’s squad.
Perhaps, the biggest question mark in the spring is the defensive line, as both Sai’a Falahola and Lawrence Guy look to be playing on Sundays in the NFL.
The defensive line will have the most question marks, but the depth Erickson has is plentiful. Everyone who doubted Erickson’s success on the recruiting trail recently will be pleasantly surprised by the depth ASU has at their disposal.
Not only do both rotation tackles return in Corey Adams and Bo Moos, but also Will Sutton returns from academic probation. Sutton was a force on the defensive line as a freshman in 2009, and a year away from the game can only add fuel to his burning fire.
The safety spots are another area of uncertainty in spring. Both Eddie Elder and Keelan Johnson will be held out of spring practice with injuries lingering from last season.
With both safeties sidelined, this gives Erickson’s staff time to continue developing the younger talent, and evaluate a pecking order once fall camp rolls around, and injuries are completely healed.
While a 6-6 team might appear to have plenty of holes to fill on their roster, Erickson is faithful that his players can get the job.
Offensively, all five starting offensive linemen return for the first time in a decade. That, in its’ self is a huge feather in Erickson’s hat. Confidence in a football team, and an offense starts at the foundation. No matter what style of offense a team runs, the offensive line either makes, or breaks a game, or the season.
Last fall, when the offensive line was in sync, the Sun Devils punished at will. When there were holes in the protection, the quarterbacks were raddled, and turnovers persisted.
Consistency is the key to any successful football team. Last season, and the two prior, the Sun Devils were inconsistent. Now, the team is stable, with competition brewing. It is time to iron out the wrinkles, and focus on being the conference champions on the practice field.
What do you expect from the Sun Devils in 2011?
After all, Erickson said, “Now we’ve go to do it on the field.”
Obviously, that is easier said than done, but the practice field is a good place to start. If Erickson’s squad continues to grow and progress from the momentum of two-straight wins to end the season, maybe this year’s team will, in fact, live up to expectations.
The growth of Arizona State’s football program is hinging on this upcoming season. After three-straight bowl-less seasons, another could set the maroon and gold back to the dark ages, but nobody is counting on that.
The players on the roster, that Erickson recruited, are too good. The depth behind them is profound, as well.
All arrows point towards a successful 2011, especially behind an upperclassmen-laden maroon and gold squad.
Erickson said it best, “We’re finally at a place, where if we have the success we think we’re going to have next year, that we can plug guys in the year after that and the year after that and the year after that. And we know what we need and what we can plug in to be really, really good.”
Sun Devil fans want to be good right now. And right now was three years ago. With so many upperclassmen and returning freshmen and sophomores who earned playing time, the Sun Devils are poised for a breakthrough season.
Even ESPN has jumped on the Sun Devils’ bandwagon. Erickson’s 6-6 squad cracked Mark Schlabach’s “Way-Too-Early 2011 Top-25,” and landed at No. 21.
ASU did finish strong, and lost four games by a combined nine points last season, so maybe that counts for something.
Hopefully, there are far less games decided by an extra point, or a field goal, because that is the one area the Sun Devils are, in fact, rebuilding.