There was a time, and not long ago, when analysis of the Arizona State University defense during spring and fall camps could have been denoted with an asterisk.
*Warning: Evaluation based on intra-squad repetitions with the ASU offensive line. Conditions of the performance are highly favorable. Results against opposing teams will vary.
There are plenty of euphemisms that could've described the unit in 2008 and 2009: injury prone, makeshift, shaky.
The Sun Devils had a reputation -- a bad one.
Then they discovered their inner Peter Finch.
"We were tired of everyone...," senior center Garth Gerhart said. "We were just tired of being the weak group. So we put our minds to it and turned it around."
The precise beginning of the offensive line's metamorphosis is hard to pinpoint, though accounts from veterans like Gerhart and senior guard/tackle and former tight-end Dan Knapp reference the pre-spring off-season of 2010.
"The offensive line came together with (head sports performance coach) Ben (Hilgart) and we decided to start changing things up a bit," Knapp said of the off-season when he transitioned to tackle. "Now we're the first ones in the weight room and the last ones leaving."
It didn't used to be like this -- rising before dawn to work out as a unit.
"I think it brought us all together,"Gerhart said. "The last couple of years the offensive line is the only group that works out at 6 in the morning. It definitely helps us in the weight room and makes us stronger."
Now it's gone beyond lifting.
"We come out to (Verde Dickey Dome) every Tuesday and Thursday and push sleds," Knapp said. "We do competitive things of that nature. One of us pushes another to do better. Now that we have a solid offensive line and everyone is strong, more mature as a group, we all push each other and just build upon that." Knapp's gone from a 245 pound tight-end to a svelte 285 pound guard/tackle.
"The majority of it is muscle," Knapp said. "But I don't hold back when I go to 'all you can eat.'" There's nary a 'bad body' in the bunch. Offensive line coach Gregg Smith recently called the current group the 'most athletic line' he's ever had. The evolution is clear in the numbers. Over the last three seasons the ASU offense has improved its yards-per-carry from 2.7 to 3.75 and 4.05 under first year offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone in 2010, though many passing plays function as running plays.
"We've got some guys who can get out and run and do some things," Smith said.
While Mazzone's offense often asks offensive lineman to move laterally or get downfield to the second level (block linebackers) on plays such as the zone stretch, and screen, the improved agility and movement also shows up in pass-blocking.
The Sun Devils line significantly cut down on their sack to pass-attempt ratio from 2008, yielding just 31 sacks last season in a pass-heavy scheme, with a now-retired quarterback who was sometimes prone to holding the ball for bigger plays to develop. The numbers may be a bit deceptive, as the offense transitioned from a pro-style scheme necessitating longer blocks to the current system, but the progress is undeniable.
"They have improved a lot," coach Dennis Erickson said. "It is a veteran group. I can remember the last three years where we got one guy got hurt and we were wondering what the heck we were going to do."
"Now we got some guys that have played and have experience and they are anxious to play and get out there," Erickson said. " And to me it is the strength of our (offensive) football team."
There's a certain symmetry between the maturation of a leadership core that includes seniors Gerhart, Knapp, Tello and Mike Marcisz, the infusion of talent, physical improvements, and a new mentality. Add the fact that most of the players in the first two units have played together in Mazzone's offense -- the synchronicity is not lost on those that matter.
2011 is the year.
"It's a whole different feeling in camp," Marcisz said. "I am so excited about this year. We are all excited. The offensive line, we are coming together. We went through a whole season together and we understand that we fixed a lot of things in the middle of the season and now we know what has to happen and know how hard we have to work."
Much has changed, even from the spring and fall camps of 2010 when the ASU offensive line was bullied on a near-daily basis.
The big boys punch back now.
"I came in there the first couple of days (of spring 2010) and got into two different fights playing offensive line and I think that started something," Knapp said.
Similar statements were made in 2010 and continue to be made so far this season. No more.
"Now things are changing tides," Gerhart said. "The offensive linemen are blowing the defense around. We are just sick of it."
It's easy to see the breadth of the unit's holistic transformation; easy to see how the bar has been raised. For example, senior guard Brice Schwab fundamentally changed his body in just a few months over the winter. But it's much more difficult to see the depth of the change, unless of course you happen to find yourself at Buffalo Wild Wings, or another lineman hot-spot, at just the right moment.
"Everyone mingles with each other, "Knapp said. "I mean, I don't think you'd want to hang out with an offensive lineman; it might get a little rowdy and someone might get hurt. We have a tight group."
"We are a family as an offensive line," Gerhart said. "We are all friends and hang out outside of football and that translates on the field."