Is it possible to watch a team for a whole season and still be baffled as to how good they really were? Maybe, if you're talking about the 2007 Arizona State Sun Devils. Last year, I thought they would surprise some people with Dennis Erickson at the helm and with a cushy schedule, and they did just that. They took advantage of a glut of home games to start the season and raced out in the national consciousness, only to flame out at the end. They have a fairly experienced team returning. What can we expect from them in 2008?
The Sun Devils started the season with four straight home games. They bludgeoned San Jose State, came from behind to beat Colorado, then pounded San Diego State. Their first true test came against Oregon State, and they were physically dominated. However, OSU blew a huge lead and shot itself in the foot with turnovers, allowing ASU to come back and score a 44-32 win. Then after a somewhat sluggish first half, the Devils wiped the floor with Stanford, and won a hard fought victory in Pullman on a late field goal. ASU came home and hammered Washington, and then stuck the dagger in Cal's season with a come from behind 31-20 win in Tempe. Suddenly, the Sun Devils were 8-0, and there was some talk of a national championship.
That talk ended in Eugene when the Ducks buried ASU with its running game. Oregon raced to a 21-3 lead, and this time, ASU could not come all the way from behind despite cutting the lead to five at one point. ASU's inability to protect the passer finally burned them, as they gave up nine sacks. Dennis Erickson's squad bounced back in Westwood with yet another come from behind win at 24-20. But then reality set in on Thanksgiving Day as the Trojans gave the Devils their worst loss of the regular season, dominating in a 20 point win. Arizona State did finish the regular season on a high note, taking advantage of some Wildcat turnovers and scoring a late TD to lock up the Territorial Cup. Still, the season ended in disappointment as the Texas Longhorns blasted the Sun Devils in every phase of the game in the Holiday Bowl. The season went from "big improvement after a seven win season" to "we still have a long way to go to compete with the big boys."
Rudy Carpenter returns for his senior year, and he played vastly better football in 2007 than he did in 2006. He is not a big guy, and he doesn't possess elite arm strength, but he is a feisty leader and is more mobile than he is given credit for. Erickson simplified the offense last year, which gave Carpenter a higher comfort level. For Carpenter to become the elite player that ASU fans hope he can be, he has to battle the weakness that Carson Palmer used to struggle with: locking on to the first read. ASU's offense is designed to diagnose where the ball goes before the snap. However, defenses picked up on that and started disguising coverages and blitzes more often. Instead of quickly moving to the next check, or checking down to a back, Carpenter would hold the ball and wait for the primary to get open. This was one of the main reasons that ASU gave up a whopping 55 sacks last season, including at least four in eight of their thirteen games. By contrast, USC, Cal, and Oregon gave up 52 combined.
Danny Sullivan played a little last year, including a disastrous short stint against UCLA. He's kind of in the Andrew Walter mold: big, strong arm, no mobility. He's a decent back-up who could take over the job next season. Redshirt freshman Chasen Stangel and Samson Szakacsy, a former USC commit, are not ready to play at this point in their careers. That's OK because the Sun Devils have a lot of experience in the top two guys.
Wide Receiver/Tight End
The top two wide receivers return in Erickson's spread offense, which usually has at least three guys wide in the formation. Junior Chris McGaha is the consummate possession receiver who isn't fast but knows hoe to get himself open. He had 61 catches, yet only managed one TD. The deal closer is Michael Jones, a big guy who makes plays down the field, and scored ten TDs on only 46 catches. Kyle Williams has made a few starts in his career and had six TDs in 2007, but he is being pushed by sophomore Kerry Taylor, who has the versatility to play split end, flanker, or in the slot. Nate Kimbrough also returns, but he has been dinged up and has not had the kind of career that ASU fans hoped for. This group is solid and experienced, but they don't scare you.
At tight end, Dane Guthrie could be the guy, but he was hampered in the spring by a shoulder injury and some academic woes. If he can't get on the field, the job would likely fall to Andrew Pettes, who is not a great talent. ASU is hoping that Jovon Williams can develop quickly, because of all the guys on the roster at TE, Williams is the one who could be a weapon in the passing game like predecessors Todd Heap and Zach Miller were.
This position is very similar to the quarterback position. The Sun Devils have solid Pac-10 level players on the two deep, but not any high draft pick type talent. After Ryan Torain went down last season, Keegan Herring filled in nicely at 5.3 yards per carry. He's a little guy with some great speed who can be used in the passing game. He's not really a tackle breaker though. Dmitri Nance is as the team's short yardage back, but a number like 3.8 yards per carry isn't going to keep defensive coordinators awake at night. Still, the two fashion an above average if not potent one two punch for ASU. The guy that fans are looking forward to seeing is true freshman Ryan Bass, a top 100 player who some think is a better version of Herring. This group is definitely good enough to compete in the Pac-10.
Here's where the concern lies. An experienced group last year had some big time troubles, especially protecting the quarterback. The running game wasn't too bad, but its effectiveness was dragged down by the multitude of sacks surrendered. Much of that was on the shoulders of Carpenter, but some of it just came from blown assignments and poor match-ups. The bad news is that ASU replaces three linemen, including center Mike Pollak, who was first team all conference and a second round pick. Only eleven teams have fewer starts along the line coming into this season than Arizona State.
Their best returning player is Paul Fanaika, who has made honorable mention in the Pac-10 for the last two years at the right guard position. Shawn Lauvao plays the other guard position. From there, it gets a little ugly. Junior Richard Tuitu'u is slated to take the right tackle position, and he's a big dude at 353 pounds. Tuitu'u made a start two years ago as a redshirt freshman, so at least he has some experience. Jon Hargis on the other hand played defensive tackle last season, and now he is expected to be the team's starting left tackle? Yikes! JC transfer Tom Njunge was supposed to compete for the spot in the spring, but he was inconsistent, and at 280, is probably too small to play left tackle.
Meanwhile Thomas Altieri and Garth Gerhart underwhelmed at center in the spring, and the competition will extend into the fall. To make matters worth, depth along the whole line is very suspect. True or redshirt freshmen will probably back up at every single position on the line. Injuries here would be a disaster, and the group may not be very good even if they stay healthy. If ASU is going to replicate last season's success and win total, they will need to shore up this position in early September. The schedule, which I discuss below, demands it.
The Sun Devils are in decent shape here. They are anchored by defensive end Dexter Davis, who notched ten and a half sacks last season and was second team all conference. On the other side, senior Luis Vasquez gives ASU a stout player to complement Davis. Jamarr Robinson's more from linebacker to DE paid dividends in the spring, giving Erickson a three man rotation at end. The college debut of much talked about but never seen talent Eugene Germany will help as well.
At tackle, things are a little sketchy. Senior David Smith has a lock on one tackle spot, but he's a little smallish at 280. The other tackle position is completely up for grabs. Walk-on David Bertrand was actually playing with the first team at the end of spring, which isn't a great sign. Sophomores Jonathan English and Saia Falahola appear to be just guys, so that leaves the door open for true freshman Lawrence Guy to step in and take the spot, even though he played at 270 in high school and on the other side of the ball. Even with uncertainty at the tackle spot, ASU should probably be at least as good as they were last season along the front.
Observers were impressed by the linebacker growth. Gerald Munns turned some heads by always being at the right place at the right time in the spring. He should be the guy to man the middle. That will push former Bruin Mike Nixon to the weakside where he belongs. Nixon was fourth on the team in tackles last season. Travis Goethel is the experienced player of the bunch with 16 starts in his career, so he'll be the Sam backer. He's a smart guy, but is not a playmaker. The starting group can get the job done, but depth here is shaky. No one would step up and take the weakside job, so Nixon ended up there. This unit is not in dire straits, but injuries here won't help the cause.
I really like Omar Bolden and wish he would have come to SC. He was outstanding last year as a true freshman corner, and he will be first team all conference sooner rather than later. By the end of last season, teams were already staying away from him. The Sun Devils are hoping that Terell Carr can play as well as Justin Tryon did last year, but that will be tough. Travis Smith will man the nickel spot.
Troy Nolan returns after a banner season in 2007, when he pulled down six INTs. He will move from strong safety to free safety, and he's versatile enough to make the transition smoothly. It appears that Rodney Cox has passed fellow senior Jeremy Payton at strong safety. This position is a bit of a concern because it is especially crucial in coverage in defensive coordinator Craig Bray's Cover Two scheme. Still, if Carr can fill in admirably, the back four should be pretty good, and could be the strength of the team.
Thomas Weber showed up on campus last year as a freshman and breezed his way to a Groza Award. What can he do for an encore? Even a slight step back in production would mean that ASU is in great shape at kicker. Punting is another story. Weber took over halfway through last season and struggled. He will be pushed by redshirt freshman Zach Richards. Kyle Williams isn't a bad punt returner, and he could end up the main guy on kickoff returns as well, alongside McGaha. The returns teams likely won't be explosive, but they won't hurt ASU either. The coverage teams last season were terrible and must be improved.
A main factor in the turnaround last season was the schedule. The potential for a good start is there with three straight home games against NAU, Stanford, and UNLV. Then preseason #1 Georgia comes to town. Then ASU plays four of their next five on the road in this order: at Cal, at USC, Oregon, at Oregon State, at Washington. That makes the Stanford game crucial for the Sun Devils. If they lose that one, they are probably looking at a best case scenario of 1-2 in the Pac-10 before hosting Oregon, and winning in Corvallis won't be easy. Arizona State must win their home games in conference.
Last season, the Sun Devils played a vanilla style on offense and defense. This caused them to make fewer mistakes against the teams with similar or lesser talent, and the elite teams teed off on them because they were too predictable. They will try to mix it up more, especially on offense, this season. They're going to have to, because other than Davis, Bolden, and Jones, I don't see playmakers on the field. They have some smart players and they are well coached, but on the road against the big boys, or at home against UGA, that won't be enough. Until some of their recruiting classes can pay off, they will have to take some chances in the big games. Otherwise, you get what we saw in their three losses to Oregon, SC, and Texas: 131 points and 1382 yards allowed, and a combined 148 rushing yards for the offense.
I doubt this team gets close to ten wins. The easy schedule is gone, and their offensive line is a mess.