2003 Spring Practice Preview

On Monday the 24th the Sun Devil football team will commence for 15 spring practices, and it will do so with a much different feel than last year. Coach Dirk Koetter's squad is fresh off the best ASU season since 1997, and with 17 returning starters (and 37 lettermen overall) quality depth is abundant. Numerous positions battles, some them due to departed players, will be staple this spring.

As opposed to last year, ASU's starting quarterback position is not up for debate. Andrew Walter, who will wear the no contact jersey during all of spring, is arguably the best returning signal caller in the conference. His record setting 3,877 yards last season, despite not starting the first four games, ignites the imagination as to the possibilities which lie ahead. His go to guy receiver Shaun McDonald departed for the NFL, but the returning core of experienced receivers should make the transition smoother than some would think. Both Chad Christensen and Kellen Bradley are coming off of surgery, with the former being designated as number two quarterback in the depth chart.

The Sun Devil coaching staff is determined to improve a sub par running game, which averaged only 89 yards per contest. Mike Williams lost and regained his starting position throughout the season. Coming into the spring he will be designated as the returning starter, and even get some looks at wide receiver. Cornell Canidate, who led the Devils with 493 rushing yards, started several games last year, and undoubtley will look to regain his starting status. Two players coming off a redshirt season, Randy Hill and Loren Wade, will get a plethora of snaps to show if they can live up to the lofty accolades that were bestowed on them while they were on the scout team. Hakim Hill will likely sit out all of spring due to medical reasons.

The fullback position is manned by a pair of Mikes. Karney, considered the best returning fullback in the Pac-10, is poised this season to wrap up a stellar ASU career before bulldozing his way to the NFL. Talbot is his back up, and after excelling on special teams last year; fans can look for him to get more snaps.

The tight end position holds a lot of intrigue. Junior college transfer Aaron Austin makes his much anticipated debut a year later than expected, but with the same grand expectations. Jamal Lewis is another player coming off a redshirt year, and is expected to bring a very athletic presence to the team. Lee Burghgraef is one of the hardest workers on the team, and is perhaps a better blocker than the two after mentioned players. Frank Maddox also brings great blocking ability and experience to the unit. If this group steps up to the plate it can make a high-octane offense that much more explosive.

How will the wide receivers group fair after the departure of McDonald? The answer to this question will be unveiled in the next few weeks, as this group will be under a scrutinized microscope. A unit that returns four players who caught 30 passes or more should normally not be an area of concern. However, MacDonald leaves behind his 86 passes, his team leading 13 touchdowns, and his big play ability. Daryl Lightfoot and Skyler Fulton are pegged right now as the starters. Lightfoot looks to be the speedster of the group, who will haul down many of Walter's long range bombs, while Fulton will likely be the possession receiver who will make his living catching balls over the middle. The wild card of the group is offensive scout team player of the year Terry Richardson. His first few days of spring will be eagerly watched, and he has the potential to unseat one of the starters. Derek Hagan returns as a great "after the catch" guy, and is a player who has the frame to be a big target for Walter. Matt Miller is a speedy receiver, which can make the tough catches.

Starting four new players last year on the offensive line, proved a hard lesson in the school of hard knocks. Nevertheless, all these starters return, and being a year older and wiser should pay hefty dividends in the running game and quarterback protection. The strength of this unit is its interior, which is lead by the return of senior Regis Crawford. Crawford will move from left tackle to right guard, and will replace Drew Hodgdon who will move to center. Senior Tim Fa'aita will be the only player to man his same position at left guard. Last years freshman phenom Chaz White gets the early nod at left tackle, while Grayling Love gets the first look at right tackle trying to fence off Adrian Ayala. Other players who will make a case for playing time, and also provide excellent depth are: last year's starting center Tony Aguilar, Chad Rosson, and three redshirts Stephen Berg, Zach Krula, and Andrew Carnahan. Berg and Carnahan are prospects to be future tackle bookends and were impressive last year on the scout team.

On defense, top pro prospect Terrell Suggs leaves behind a lot of sacks for the taking. All three starting linebackers graduated, and some depth was lost at the defensive tackle position. However, not all is bleak when it comes to the outlook of this side of the ball.

The starters at defensive end right now are among the biggest ASU has had in years. With the explosive Nick Johnson bulking up to 270 pounds (while maintaining a 4.6 speed) on one side, and standout Jimmy Verdon fitting in at the same weight on the other end, the Devils should be equally effective against the run and the pass. Backing up those players up will be redshirt Ricky Parker, Matt Mason, Connor Banks and Jared Wolfgramm. On the interior, returning starters Brian Montesanto and Shane Jones look to have a huge senior year. Backing them up will be two new players, JC transfer Gabe Reininger and redshirt Ali Likio (who will miss a good deal of the spring due to the death of his mother). Reininger figures to heavily push both starters, and a nagging injury to Jones many land the JC transfer more first team reps than earlier anticipated. Matt Mason may get some reps at tackle as well.

What the linebacker corps lacks in experience, it more than makes up in talent and depth. The first player many fans will be drawn to is JC transfer Justin Burks, who was considered the best in his position last year. His size, speed, and hitting leave many convinced that he will man one of the two starting spots. The other spot could be occupied by returning freshman standout Jamar Williams. The linebacker has a nose for the ball, has outstanding range, and was one of the most pleasant surprises last year. Barton Hammit returns from an injury looking bigger and just as quick, and stands a reasonable chance to unseat Williams as a starter. Adding further depth, speed and competition are Ishmael Thrower, De'Andre Johnson, and defensive scout team player of the year Jordan Hill. Look for Hill to be the middle linebacker fixture, a la Solomon Bates last year, in any 4-3 schemes ASU runs against run oriented teams like Oregon State.

The secondary is deep, fast and full of guys who have played significant time. There are far less spots for playing time than there are talented players. Even more exciting is the arrival of three top-notch cornerbacks in the fall. Right now, the starting safeties would be Jason Shivers at free safety, and the duo of Riccardo Stewart and Brett Hudson at outside (strong) safety. Shivers had led the team in tackles the last two seasons, and Stewart is a ferocious hitter. Hudson brings outstanding cover skills with sure tackling and great play making back to the safety position after playing much of last year at corner. One candidate to play on passing downs will be Lamar Baker. The converted cornerback is a very solid tackler, and has good cover skills. Most importantly his nagging injury appears to be behind him. Making this a ridiculous two deep roster are sophomores Joey Smith and Matt Fawley. Fawley had a tremendous year despite breaking his arm, and will be impossible to keep off of the field. Smith came on strong in the second half of last season, and can play all three safety positions. Look for some of these players to star on special teams as well. J.W. Lucas is coming off of a redshirt season, but it is not known what impact he will have.

At cornerback, returning starter RJ Oliver mans one spot. He came into his own as a sophomore last year leading the team with six picks, and figures to be one lock down guy who will allow the Devils to blitz. The other corner spot will have three sophomores in tight competition. Mike Davis Jr. has great size and speed, and made some key plays in limited time last year. Josh Golden started five games last year and figures to be the best adjusted to the college game. Emmanuel Franklin makes a significant return from a medical redshirt year in which there was doubt if he would ever play again. Time will tell if he can make a successful comeback. All four of these players need to make as big of an impact as possible, since a trio of very talented cornerbacks are set to arrive in the fall.

Punter Tim Parker returns after leading the conference last season. Jason Burke heads a long list of candidates at short and long snapping duties. The punt and kickoff return duties are another position that needs to be settled during the spring. Assigning the kicking duties should provide an interesting task, since the likely starter, Jesse Ainsworth, won't be here until the fall.

Overall, this Sun Devil team is fortunate to have several key returning players, as well as vital new additions getting a head start during spring practice. No one can blame fans for being mildly apprehensive for this season, after losing stars such as Suggs and McDonald. Nevertheless, the squad is deeper than it has been in quite a while and should be able more than just make up for the losses endured following last season

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