Season in review – offense

Under first-year offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone the Sun Devil offense at times looked very efficient, and in other instances looked as good as you would expect a group trying to execute a new scheme. Devils Digest's Joe Healey evaluates the performance of the various groups on this side of the ball and discusses their prospects for the 2011 campaign.

Quarterback

For the 2010 season to be any form of success on any level, the results produced by the Sun Devil quarterbacks had to substantially improve form the previous season.

Much like ASU's .500 record – a two-game improvement from the 2009 season – there were times of tremendous encouragement and others of painstaking frustration when evaluating Sun Devil passers.

After Brock Osweiler seemed to have control of the starting spot after spring drills, Steven Threet leapfrogged the lengthy sophomore in the fall and earned the first-string nod to begin the year.

In the early portion of the season, Threet appeared to be the answer that Sun Devil fans had longed for, as he threw for 391 yards in the second game against Northern Arizona and guided an efficient, composed attack in a near-win at Wisconsin.

From that point, Threet's success began to be shaded by poor judgment – in the following game against eventual conference champion Oregon, Threet passed for a season-high 387 yards, but also threw four costly interceptions, including suicidal ones in the red zone, collectively being a driving force toward ASU's loss to the Ducks.

Threet would go on to throw six interceptions to only three touchdowns over the next three games – two losses and one win – and in the two losses, he notched a dismal completion rate of 48.8-percent.

After a 300-yard, three-touchdown effort in ASU's shutout win over Washington State, Threet's efforts regressed slightly in the next two contests, games in which ASU fell to USC and Stanford.

With two games left on the slate, the synopsis on Threet was truly a mixed bag – he was among the nation's most interception-prone passers but was among the country's leaders in passing yardage. ASU's offense showed marked improvement, but, in many cases because of untimely mistakes by the offense, the Devils were staring down the barrel of another losing season.

Threet's season came to a premature close early due to concussion symptoms in ASU's post-Thanksgiving matchup with UCLA, and for that afternoon it seemed as though a future star had emerged when Brock Osweiler, who had only thrown 24 passes on the year in three games of mop-up duty, completed 27-of-36 passes for 380 yards with four touchdown strikes and another on the ground.

Osweiler's unrelenting command of the game and contagious pride and poise appeared to be a god send and perhaps an omen for future stability at the position.

As the season drew to a close, Osweiler was asked to do what few Sun Devils have – make his first start of the season versus Arizona in Tucson.

Though his numbers were less than flattering (22-of-49 passing), he threw for 267 yards with one touchdown and zero interceptions, while netting 56 rushing yards – many of which were integral for ASU to have secured the double-overtime victory as it did.

Even in victory, Osweiler dodged several bullets – especially in the first half – as a handful of decisions could have come back to haunt him, but as the game progressed his innate leadership and motivation took control and he was able to help facilitate an emotional and spirited road victory.

The end result?

There's definite improvement but still some uncertainty.

Threet had his ups-and-downs, big yardage games and the confidence and determination to improve, but a compulsion for deadly turnovers nearly marred his efforts. On the year he totaled 208-of-336 passing (61.9 percent) for 2,534 yards with 18 touchdowns and 16 interceptions – one of the highest yardage totals in ASU history by a quarterback not named Andrew Walter, but also one of the school's greatest single-season interception totals.

Osweiler has everything that you could want out of a college quarterback – except for experience. And based on experiences with players such as Danny Sullivan and to a lesser extent, Steven Threet, Sun Devil fans have some – at least a little – bit of reservation of investing in a first-time full-time starter. With only two career starts, Osweiler's résumé resembles an ambitious fresh college graduate when competing for a job against a grizzled troubadour – enthusiasm supersedes experience, but learning curves can sidetrack success.

Again, the end result?

Confidence and advancement but unmistakable room for fine-tuning and a likelihood of break-neck offseason competition.

Looking Ahead

The future of the Sun Devil quarterbacks seems bright and, if nothing else, highly competitive.

In the spring, Osweiler and Threet expect to slug back-and-forth for first-string rights, while Szakacsy returns, hopefully healthy, to cap off his college career.

The coaching staff's adoration for Taylor Kelly, a mobile freshman that redshirted this season, who will likely earn ample snaps in the spring, and Michael Bercovici is expected to enroll early and instantly dive into competition.

With five scholarship quarterbacks expected to be on campus for spring drills, the inherently heated competition likely will help facilitate additional discipline and growth for the Sun Devil offense in 2011.

Running Back

Though some thought he had 1,000-yard potential in 2010, it is safe to say that Cameron Marshall (pictured) showed marked improvement compared to his true freshman season. ASU's leading rusher on the year, Marshall netted 787 yards on 150 carries (5.2 avg.) with nine touchdowns and added 21 receptions for 227 yards and one score.

Reliable, deliberate and both bruising and full of burst, Marshall's 10 total touchdowns matches the most by a Sun Devil since Biletnikoff Award finalist Shaun McDonald caught 13 touchdown passes in 14 games during the 2002 season.

For a player as muscularly impressive as Marshall, it often times is shocking how incomparably fast he can be, keeping the San Jose, Calif., native on track to continue his ascension to the upper echelon of the elite Pac running backs. The 2010 season saw Marshall take a decisive step toward that goal, as he garnered Honorable Mention All-Pac-10 accolades for his efforts.

Prior to the start of the season, few newcomers brought as lofty expectations to Tempe as true freshman Deantre Lewis, and the latest in a line of Norco (Calif.) High School graduates to wear maroon and gold surely did not disappoint.

From his collegiate debut, Lewis validated his four-star recruiting ranking, totaling 100 receiving yards in the season opener. As the season progressed, he emerged into a darting runner and dynamic receiver, registering three games with over 100 rushing yards and two contests with more than 100 receiving yards.

In total, Lewis was the only player in the Pac-10 Conference to submit 100-yard efforts in rushing and receiving, accumulating 539 yards on 92 carries (5.9 avg.) with four touchdowns as well as 23 receptions for 370 yards and two touchdowns (16.1 avg.) and two scores.

Compared to his peers, Lewis earned high rookie reviews, as he led all Pac-10 true freshmen in rushing yards and touchdowns, while tying standout receivers Robert Woods of USC and Marquess Wilson to lead the league's true freshmen in rushing and receiving total touchdowns.

Lewis also stood out remarkably among his more established conference counterparts, leading all running backs in receiving yards on the year.

Marshall and Lewis quickly became the clear-cut combination for the Devils from the start of the season, as the productivity dipped noticeably as the third-leading full-time running back was sophomore James Morrison, with totals of 18 carries for 66 yards (3.7 avg.) in seven games.

Sophomore Jamal Miles and true freshman Kyle Middlebrooks were all-purpose threats all year and saw equal action in the run game as in the pass game. At year's end, Miles ran 27 times for 63 yards (2.3 avg.) with two touchdowns, while Middlebrooks tallied 82 yards on 17 carries (4.8 avg.).

Quarterback Brock Osweiler ultimately entered the fray in a positive fashion when all was said and done, netting 124 yards and one touchdown -- good enough for third on the team in total rushing yards.

The final evaluation of the run game is certainly a sense of improvement from 2009 – statistically and in terms of the intangible sense of confidence that the future can be balanced and bright for the Sun Devil offense. For that to fully occur, however, continued improvement at quarterback and along the offensive line will need to be the theme of the training that will precede the 2011 season.

Looking Ahead

With Marshall and Lewis returning, ASU will likely boast the most accomplished one-two punch in the Pac-12 South, helping the Sun Devils not only keep offensive balance but keep additional firepower in the arsenal of an already potent offense. As the pair continues to jell into the offense and learn to use their respective strengths efficiently, ASU's entire offense will benefit in a significant way.

Morrison returns, as do Miles and Middlebrooks, to supplement the ground and pound talents of the aforementioned duo.

To cap off the depth chart, redshirt freshmen Taylor Walstad and Marcus Washington will prepare to earn field action as newcomers in 2011.

Wide Receiver

A function of the expected quarterback improvement, ASU was counting on its wide receivers to as a whole improve from previous years' efforts and in all; the results were more than satisfactory.

Though no player had out-of-this world efforts, multiple players stepped up over the course of the season, giving Sun Devil quarterbacks a variety of targets to utilize.

At the end of the regular season, ASU presented the league's top equal-opportunity passing attacks, as the Devils boasted five players to haul in 29 or more passes, the greatest quantity in the Pac-10 with at least that amount of receptions.

With Chris McGaha and Kyle Williams gone after the 2009 season, Kerry Taylor finally was given the opportunity to stand out as the team's primary receiver. The Chandler Hamilton High School product took advantage of the opportunity and concluded his ASU career on a high note, earning Honorable Mention All-Pac-10 recognition after leading the Sun Devils with 54 receptions for 699 yards as well as three scores, including a career-best 112 receiving yards in final collegiate game, ASU's thrilling victory over Arizona.

When junior Mike Willie (pictured) arrived in the fall his presence was felt in an instant and he became a solid contributor over the course of the season, catching 36 passes or 442 yards and a team-high six touchdown scores. Willie, a former junior college transfer, brought physicality and athleticism to the position and had a fighting chance to join Taylor on the end of season all-conference squad.

Speedy junior T.J. Simpson, who showed a flurry of talent as a sophomore before missing time due to an ankle injury, came on late and added 29 catches for 481 yards.

In a bit of ironic parity, two other players tied Simpson with 29 catches to rank third on the squad, as local product Gerell Robinson and former Oregon Duck Aaron Pflugrad, both juniors, were both frequently used in the aerial attack.

After a pair of very bland seasons at ASU, Robinson finally began to show the skills that made him a nationally desired prep All-American, while Pflugrad was used mainly in the short yardage passing game. In all, Robinson totaled 387 yards on his 29 receptions with five touchdowns, while Pflugrad recorded 329 yards on the 29 passes he caught.

Over the course of the year, sophomore Jamal Miles and true freshman Kyle Middlebrooks overcame their slight size with superior speed and shiftiness, and the coaches used those talents both in the run and pass game. On the receiving end, Miles totaled 25 catches for 203 yards with four scores and Middlebrooks chipped in 13 catches for 86 yards in his debut season.

Though the group as a whole took some noticeable steps in the right direction, the primary disappointment was the play of George Bell, a midyear junior college transfer that performed at a high level both in junior college and in spring drills, but only mustered nine receptions for 84 yards on the year.

Sophomore A.J. Pickens worked his way into the rotation and caught three passes for 57 yards, as did sixth-year senior Brandon Smith, who caught one pass in seven games.

Redshirt freshman J.J. Holliday was credited with seven game appearances with no receptions on the year, while fellow redshirt freshman Jarrid Bryant is listed as having played in the season opener but typically was not on the dress list for games.

All things considered, a reliable pecking order emerged over the course of the season. Though, as mentioned earlier, a superstar, 1,000-yard caliber catcher did not present himself throughout the year, enough reliable competitors came into play to enable ASU quarterbacks to target qualified receivers through every progression they make.

Looking Ahead

Kerry Taylor had a very good senior year, but by-and-large the Devils are well-equipped to supplant his departure when the fall rolls back around.

With seniors Mike Willie, Gerell Robinson, Aaron Pflugrad and T.J. Simpson returning as the likely starters, senior George Bell, sophomore J.J. Holliday and junior A.J. Pickens as primary backups and sophomore Jarrid Bryant and redshirt freshmen Kevin Anderson and Randy Knust also vying for time, ASU will clearly have no lack of quantity when it comes to the wide receivers.

Also, players such as junior Jamal Miles and sophomore Kyle Middlebrooks figure to continue to shift from roles in the backfield to duties at receiver to exploit their incredible speed and elusiveness.

As the offense as a whole grows increasingly acclimated to ASU's offensive objectives and the individual players continue to hone their skills, the passing game that make significant strides from 2009 to 2010 should remain in excellent hands next season.

Tight End

There's really not a great deal to say here -- in terms of statistical production, it's hard to imagine that many teams had smaller contributions from their tight ends.

As recent years have passed, the tight end position at ASU has been phased into anonymity, with junior Trevor Kohl -- with merely two receptions for 30 yards -- as the lone receiving productivity by Sun Devil tight ends for the entire 2010 season. Kohl, however, is a player whose presence can be felt in ways that do not end up in the stat books as he has proven to be a capable lead blocker out of the backfield or along the line of scrimmage.

Over the past five seasons, tight end productivity has steadily declined at ASU, from Zach Miller's All-America season in 2006 (50 receptions, 484 yards) to his brother Brent in 2007 (22 receptions, 211 yards), then to Andrew Pettes in 2008 (21 receptions, 151 yards), next down to Jovon Williams (seven receptions, 44 yards) in 2009 and finally Kohl's nearly unnoticeable box score efforts.

Of course, this downslide is more scheme than a lack of skill -- but it is still surprising that the involvement was as scarce as it was this year. First-year Offensive Coordinator Noel Mazzone was largely expected to spread out four and five receivers with little use of the roster's tight ends, but fans likely expected more than two total catches to be the position's collective result.

In addition to Kohl, former four-star prospect Christopher Coyle (pictured) appeared in all 12 games as the primary reserve. However, not only did he fail to record a catch, he was rarely targeted by ASU quarterbacks. Coyle's absence from the passing game was shocking not just based on his high school pedigree but also his practice performances at ASU, but he has shown enough in two years on campus -- though not in live game action -- to instill optimism for his sophomore year and beyond.

Redshirt freshmen Steven Figueroa (six games played) and Max Smith (10 games played) also saw action on offense and special teams. The former is expected to transfer out of the program.

Looking Ahead

For the 2011 season, Kohl returns for his senior season as will Coyle and Smith to start their sophomore years. Recent reports have stated that Figueroa is likely to transfer to a lower division school, but no official move has been made.

Though the position likely will not be addressed in the 2011 signing class, a key new face is expected to arrive in the spring in the form of Phoenix St. Mary's product Josh Fulton, a signee from last year that delayed his enrollment while recovering from shoulder surgery.

Fulton is reportedly fully healed and completely committed to Arizona State and should enroll in January to begin his Sun Devil career.

The pieces are in place for some sort of respectability to return to the position group; Kohl is a fearless blocker and passable receiver, while Coyle and Fulton have the prep accolades to promote encouragement for their collegiate capabilities. Smith rounds out the group and is cut from a mold similar to Kohl, theoretically giving the tight ends unit a four-man dynamic that has what's necessary to revert back to a higher level of productivity.

The question mark for 2011 is the strategic element and how that affects the tight ends; if ASU's multiple wide receiver sets will continue to overshadow the use of tight ends.

Offensive Line

One of the unsung improvements was the play of the offensive line; though the group certainly was short of incredible, the raised quality of play can't go unnoticed.

From March through the end of August, nothing but bad seemed to happen for the Sun Devil offensive line – Patrick Jamison quit the team, Jon Hargis suffered what seemed to be a season-ending injury, Matt Hustad and Zach Schlink were forced to retire due to chronic injuries, junior college transfers Brice Schwab and Chris DeArmas appeared to be massive disappointments and a third JUCO transfer, Aderious Simmons, missed a handful of early fall practices while clearing up his academic eligibility.

In the fallout of all this hysteria, a group of five starters – only one of which could have been predicted in the preseason – emerged to give the Devils solid if unspectacular efforts.

The highlight of the line was center Garth Gerhart (pictured), the only lineman that carried out his expected role as full-time first-stringer as he was the only blocker to start all 12 games on the year. After seeing split action at guard and center during his first two seasons, Gerhart slid into a permanent home at center and ultimately earned Honorable Mention All-Pac-10 accolades.

Evan Finkenberg showed high potential as a redshirt freshman, starting 11 games – eight at left tackle, three at right guard – while junior Mike Marcisz also started 11 games – 10 at right guard, one at right tackle. The starting right tackle position was generally split by juniors Dan Knapp (six total starts) and Aderious Simmons (six starts at right tackle).

Right guard Andrew Sampson also worked his way into the starting lineup for the final eight games, while junior Brice Schwab earned four combined starts at guard and tackle and junior Adam Tello started the first two games at left guard.

In reserve duty, Jon Hargis was able to valiantly battle his way back to health and appear in four late season games and Kyle Johnson registered playing time in every game.

Redshirt freshman Kody Koebensky was not credited with an official game appearance.

In all, the blocking had highs and lows but can generally be considered an improvement over the porous performances by the Sun Devil lines the past few seasons. ASU's rushing yardage increased by 20 yards per game (119.2 ypg. in 2009 to 139.2 in 2010) and while the sacks total raised (31 in 2010 from 27 in 2009), the total offensive output increased by leaps and bounds – ASU averaged 32.2 points and 425.7 yards in 2010, a notable bump from the averages of from 22.3 points and 334.4 yards in 2009.

Looking Ahead

Moving forward to 2011, only Hargis – whose efforts likely impacted team morale more than game outcomes – departs from the roster, giving the Devils respectable depth and experience to mold into a five-man front.

With eight players carrying starting experience, a veteran reserve in Johnson, an improving interior lineman in Koebensky and three players – junior Chris DeArmas and freshmen Sil Ajawara and Tyler Sulka – available after redshirting, the scholarship depth figures to be as bountiful as it has been in several years in Tempe. The starting five figures to remain the same, with only the right tackle position seeming to provide any sort of depth chart battle, but the twos and even threes along the line should be much improved.

Offensive tackle Jamil Douglas, a true freshman in 2010, may re-enter the fold to prepare for the 2011 season after a season-long suspension, however no decision either for or against his return has been rendered at this time.

Though the Devils likely won't expect a brutal and dominant protection unit, realistic expectations for a reliable line are certainly within reason and can be actualized in 2011 with steady offseason efforts.


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