Spring Practice: Offensive Preview

With all but one starter returning from the 2010 campaign suffice to say that the ASU offense is rich with experience and poised to turn the flashes it has shown last year into a more consistent force. Yet, some questions still need to be resolved on this side of the ball as ASU begins spring practice this week.

Quarterback

Oh, the difference an offseason can make.

When ASU's fate for 2010 was determined in early December that the season had concluded without bowl eligibility, all eyes turned toward the 2011. In that shift of vision, one of the major uncertainties was whether Steven Threet would regain his starting role after being replaced by Brock Osweiler late in the year due primarily to concussion symptoms, but also erratic play.

Furthermore, would senior-to-be Samson Szakacsy get another crack at using his mobility and uniqueness to be a factor in the Sun Devil offense? Before long, however, those questions would be removed from the field of concern, as in mid-January, Szakacsy announced he would not return for his senior season, then roughly a month later, Threet was forced to make the same decision.

Essentially, in approximately two month's time, the Sun Devil quarterback picture—at least, in terms of who will be receiving snaps—went from unclear to blatantly obvious.

Now, without the topic of a quarterback quandary to debate, the conversations hover around whether Osweiler is prepared to be a full-time starter; if his size, moxie, athleticism and will to win will carry through an entire 12-game (hopefully 13 or 14-game) season in 2011.

In the two games Osweiler saw the most action last year, we saw a couple different sides of the oversized Montana native; against UCLA he flat-out dominated and was simply on a level different than the other players on the field, but then versus Arizona he struggled early but was able to rebound to have an efficient game in the second half and overtimes to lead ASU to its emotional victory.

These two circumstances are far from categorized as the very best and worst of Osweiler; however they did show areas of need in terms of offseason improvement as well as a glimpse of the superb abilities Osweiler has.

With Osweiler as the unquestioned big man on campus now—both literally and figuratively—he's no longer just the spirited, diplomatic 6-foot-8 beast in the pocket that fans chant to see as they marvel in his size and potential, Osweiler is the quarterback of the Sun Devils. As we all know, that role has turned a few athletes from gods to goats in Tempe, making his development this offseason a crucial process.

Thankfully, if there's an individual to have in this role, Osweiler is about as good as you could ask for. Especially since Offensive Coordinator Noel Mazzone's arrival last season, Brock has shown an admirable dedication to perfecting his craft and, as the famed "Jump Huddle" illustrated, perhaps no quarterback at ASU since Jake Plummer has the god-given charisma and leadership to rally his teammates when direction and cohesiveness are needed most.

The underlying topic of the scrutiny Osweiler will undoubtedly face is the overall team potential and urgency for the entire football program; there is no tip-toeing around the fact that 2011 has to be a major year for the Sun Devils, and naturally the team's quarterback is a driving force—for good or bad—in what the outcome proves to be.

As the old adage goes, fewer players are more popular than a team's backup quarterback, and though most attention will be on the play of Osweiler—the athlete that for the past two years has played the role of the revered reserve—many will take a lazy eye to redshirt freshman Taylor Kelly.

Though he arrived on campus last year with very little recruiting fanfare—the most notable competing scholarship offer to ASU's was Nevada, the school from which Kelly de-committed to join the Sun Devils—the Idaho native quickly drew the intrigue of the coaches by his natural compatibility with Offensive Coordinator Noel Mazzone's offense. What he lacks in size—especially compared Osweiler—Kelly makes up for in athleticism and accuracy in and out of the pocket.

With a full scout team season in the books and two would-be senior reserves gone from the roster, Kelly escalates from the bench to the bullpen and enters the spring as the unquestioned second-string quarterback.

Ironically, though many fans are eager to see what Kelly is capable of on the field, few want to view that display too frequently in 2011 if it comes at the expense of Osweiler's health or performance. However, if recent ASU history is any indicator, Kelly may want to have his arm warmed up throughout the season as one would really have to date back to stages of the Andrew Walter era to find a quarterback that endured an entire season with a sparkling bill of health.

Sequentially, Walter gave way to Sam Keller to end the 2004 season, then Keller's efforts in 2005 were cut short and Rudy Carpenter emerged who, despite not missing a start throughout his final three years, played through numerous injuries. When Carpenter departed after the 2008 season, ASU saw Danny Sullivan, Osweiler and Samson Szakacsy all start in 2009 and most recently, Osweiler replaced Steven Threet in the starting lineup late last season due to Threet's eventual career-ending concussion issues.

The moral of the story—the second-team quarterback at ASU rarely just holds a clipboard and calls in plays, so Kelly will have prepare for his freshman season at ASU to possibly be more than just a sideline learning experience.

In addition to the compelling factors surrounding the expectations for Osweiler and Kelly, true freshman Michael Bercovici is far from devoid of intrigue, as the departures of Szakacsy and Threet bump him to third on the list for his first taste of live practice action at ASU. Though his high school starting experience is limited to his senior season at Taft High, Bercovici blazed through the year and put up monster numbers, all the while displaying a skill set that appeared seasoned and technically sound.

With his early arrival to ASU, Bercovici gains a leg up on classmate Michael Eubank, who will join the team in the fall, and as spring drills commence, many observers will critique Bercovici's abilities to quickly acclimate to the college game. Nonetheless, Bercovici has the mechanics to compete with Kelly for reserve snaps behind Osweiler, and has managed to create quite a buzz among his teammates during informal workouts the past couple of months. Throughout the spring his cognitive adaptation from high school to college likely will do a great deal to help determine the fate of his true freshman season, but no one should be surprised if he was named the #2 quarterback when spring practice concludes.

In all, ASU head coach Dennis Erickson acknowledges tremendously high regard for this year's quarterbacks unit as a whole, and spring drills will quickly identify either the substance or flaws in that confidence.

Spring Questions: Quarterback

• Is Brock Osweiler ready to take full-time control of the offense?

Will Taylor Kelly prove to be a reliable backup?

• How quickly can Michael Bercovici adjust to the offense?

Who Needs It Most: Brock Osweiler

Though it would be athletically catastrophic for Osweiler to be anything but the clear-cut starter all through out the spring, he certainly does not have a free pass to lack focus throughout the session. The past two years, he has always been the center of much attention and excitement while playing a backup role, but now it is time for him to elevate to the level of living up to his potential. The foundation is definitely in place for Osweiler to be everything ASU needs out of a quarterback, but it must be consistently exhibited and a daily basis—starting now.

Spring Will Be a Success If:

• Osweiler unquestionably maintains a consistent grasp of his responsibilities as a starter and makes technical improvements in the short pass game and his decision-making skills.

• Either Kelly or Bercovici plays at a level worthy of being an accountable backup.

Running Back

Similar to the quarterback depth, the pecking order at running back is fairly predictable when forecasting the 2011 lineup.

Entering the season, ASU boasts one of only two Pac-12 Conference returning running back duos in which both players amassed 500 rushing yards last season, as Cameron Marshall (pictured) and Deantre Lewis join only LaMichael James and Kenjon Barner of Oregon for that honor, having combined for over 1,300 rushing yards and 16 total touchdowns in 2010.

All things considered, the performances for both players were nearly as good as expected from preseason predictions prior to 2010 as Marshall showed the diversity to be a dynamically well-rounded back, while Lewis submitted one of the more prolific freshman seasons by an ASU runner in recent years as a threat both in the rush and pass game.

Entering the spring, Marshall is undoubtedly the featured back, not just because of his seniority but also the uncertainty of Lewis, who was am innocent victim of an offseason shooting incident is expected to be unhindered on a long term scale but whether he will be held back for the majority of spring practice or not remains to be seen.

If given enough carries, Marshall has every necessary tool to be a 1,000-yard back, as his 4.9-yard career average puts him well within range if he were to tote the ball in the vicinity of 20 times a game. However, with the emergence of Lewis and greater schematic focus on the pass game, Marshall, barring injury to Lewis or any other relevant runner, likely will stay within the 800-yard mark per season but has the potential to look damn good in doing so.

If Lewis is held of contact for extended periods this spring, the possibility exists for the enigmatic James Morrison to gain a higher depth chart spot. Since his arrival in 2008, the Phoenix native has been tough to figure out—he began as an unheralded walk-on but quickly earned a scholarship, however in two years after redshirting he has yet to make much of a mark in live action, totaling only 66 rushing yards on 18 attempts in 14 games.

By most assumptions, Morrison was well on his way to transferring to the FCS level this offseason but ultimately he ended up on campus to begin the spring semester and Lewis' setback, as well as ASU not signing a running back in this year's class, may provide a slight window of opportunity.

Kyle Middlebrooks and Jamal Miles, a pair of impressive performers as underclassmen last year, likely will be utilized in a number of ways on offense to exploit their stellar athleticism, whether out of the backfield or in motion as receivers.

Last season, Miles carried 27 times for 63 yards with two touchdowns and added 25 receptions for 203 yards and four scores, while Middlebrooks rushed 17 times for 82 yards and a touchdown with 13 catches for 86 yards. Both players were frequently featured on special teams, as Miles was ASU's primary punt returner and added a 99-yard kickoff return touchdown, while Middlebrooks led a stellar ASU kickoff return unit with a 26.4-yard average with a 95-yard near-touchdown return against Wisconsin.

Rounding out the scholarship depth chart this spring is redshirt freshman Marcus Washington of Phoenix Desert Vista High School.. To date, Washington has not had much opportunity to showcase his abilities to the coaching staff and likely is on the outside looking in as it relates to viable practice time. With the recent departure of classmate Taylor Walstad, Washington may have a slighter advantage for practice reps, but the obstacles remain strong for him to be relevant in the actual game day strategies.

Walk-ons R.J. Robinson, who saw brief game action last year, and D.J. Bush will compete for reserve reps this spring as well.

Spring Questions: Running Back

• Will Deantre Lewis practice this spring? If so, how limited will he be?

• What specific roles will Jamal Miles and Kyle Middlebrooks play?

• Will James Morrison or Marcus Washington make any noticeable impact?

Who Needs It Most:

James Morrison

Being a junior sitting behind a top tandem consisting of a junior and a sophomore, Morrison faces the daunting reality of potentially staying in the lower ranks of the depth chart for the remaining duration of his collegiate career.

Spring Will Be a Success If:

• Marshall stays healthy and continues his development as a high-level starter.

• Morrison and/or Washington show some spark to be able to contribute.

• Lewis, if active, shows expected growth in his first spring session at ASU.

Wide Receiver

As many had hoped when Noel Mazzone revamped ASU's offense last offseason, the productivity from the wide receivers improved from previous seasons, and heading into 2011 the vast majority of unit returns for duty.

Different from the days of Shaun McDonald, Derek Hagan and other All-America caliber receivers at ASU, last year's group was more widely prolific than top-heavy in any way; the leading receiver, Kerry Taylor, had somewhat modest numbers for a top target at 54 receptions for 699 yards, but in total, eight players caught over 20 passes and six targets notched over 300 receiving yards on the year.

With Taylor's departure, the only starter from last year on offense, there is no clear cut definition of the top receiving target, though the senior foursome of Aaron Pflugrad, Gerell Robinson (pictured), T.J. Simpson and Mike Willie figures to be the primary group of options in ASU's passing attack.

Statistically, Willie is ASU's top returner in receptions (36) and touchdown catches (six) from 2010, while Simpson paces those who return in receiving yards (481).

Seemingly from the day he set foot on campus last fall, Willie began to catch the attention of onlookers and he became a legitimate presence as his physical nature and size provide a tremendous advantage over nearly all opposing defensive backs. A hard worker with a knack for finding the end zone, Willie is likely to be a steady focal point for ASU quarterbacks this year; however he is likely to be held out of contact in spring drills after recovering from an offseason injury.

Simpson, by comparison, complements Willie well in that he has excellent deep speed and throughout his career has polished his technical skills to a formidable luster. Additionally, the coaching staff has always been high on his abilities and work ethic, creating a plausible opportunity for the former Peoria High standout to step into a much greater role as a senior.

After two lackluster years to begin his tenure as a Sun Devil, former high school All-American Gerell Robinson finally showcased some of the skills that made him Arizona's top recruit in 2008, catching 29 passes for 387 and five touchdowns. In the grand scheme of things, those numbers will not earn him national notoriety but hopefully serve as a foundation on which to build a stellar final year at ASU.

Pflugrad came to ASU in 2009 after decent two-year tenure at Oregon and was expected to add a combination of quickness and sound technique to the lineup. All-in-all, his debut season as a Sun Devil was solid if unspectacular, as he was mainly used in short routes but also has the ability to make plays further down the field if granted the opportunity. In total, he notched 29 receptions for 329 yards and two touchdowns and is expected to be a sturdy piece of the passing game puzzle in 2011 as well.

George Bell, a fifth senior in the depth chart, faces a crucial spring after what was a generally disappointing junior season in 2010. A dominant receiver at the junior college level, Bell totaled 134 receptions for 2,068 yards in two years at Southwestern College in San Diego, but managed only nine receptions for 84 yards in 12 games last year while enduring frequent inconsistency and technical inadequacies. What makes his minimal contributions additionally perplexing is that he enrolled last January and participated in spring drills while fellow junior college transfer Mike Willie did not.

In Willie's expected spring absence, Bell should have a chance to earn consistent time with the first-team in four-receiver sets, and each rep must be cherished and treated with ultimate focus as the next few weeks will have a substantial effect on the impact Bell will have in 2011.

Since he enrolled at ASU in 2008, A.J. Pickens has always had dynamic traits but struggled with consistency and was unable to earn enough playing time to truly showcase his talents. Last season, however, Sun Devil fans caught a mild glimpse of what he can do and all ASU faithful hope that his junior season in 2011 will propel him to a level of play congruent to his capabilities.

As is the common denominator with all wide receivers at ASU this season, there is no lack of competition so consistency will need to be Pickens' main objective this spring to help the coaching staff maintain full confidence in his reliability. With Willie out for the spring, Pickens, much like Bell, likely will have the chance to see increased action.

In addition to the primary wide receivers, athletes Kyle Middlebrooks and Jamal Miles have the versatility to perform a number of duties, which likely will include pass-catching roles as well as reps in the run game. Miles is expected to be featured more at wide receiver than Middlebrooks though.

After seeing limited action as a redshirt freshman in 2010, Tucson native J.J. Holliday will continue to compete for time among a position group stockpiled with upperclassmen. Though his contributions were greatly limited during his rookie season, Holliday has normally shown a solid work ethic and a satisfactory overall skill set at wide receiver. However, he does need a solid spring to crave himself a bigger niche in a crowded position.

Jarrid Bryant, a developmental project since his arrival to ASU two years ago, remains near the bottom of the scholarship depth chart at wide receiver. Despite his impressive 6-5 frame, he has yet to make much of an impact and his window of opportunity may still be a year away when the Devils lose virtually the top half of its depth at receiver.

Kevin Anderson and Randy Knust, both redshirt members of the scout team in 2010, may be worth a close eye this spring as both athletes bring qualities that provide substantial intrigue for their future potential. Much like Bercovici Anderson has been turning some heads during informal workouts and spring will provide an excellent opportunity for him to build on that performance.

Walk-ons Angelo Magee, Chike Mbanefo, and Kevin Ozier round out the depth chart.

Spring Questions: Wide Receiver

• Will Gerell Robinson build on a solid junior year in preparation of his final college season?

• Can George Bell emerge with a greater level of consistency?

• Who among the underclassmen will emerge as viable candidates for playing time?

Who Needs It Most: George Bell and Gerell Robinson.

Last spring, it appeared as though Bell was going to be a key target in ASU's new receiver-friendly offense but he was plagued by inconsistency and had a drastically disappointing first season in Tempe. Nothing but urgency surrounds the preparation for Bell's final of two seasons at ASU, and a solid spring is crucial to him being more than just a fringe option in the pass game.

No longer can we consider Robinson as a potential bust, as his junior season was a solid advancement from the previous two years. However, he will need to make further improvements to prevent his ASU legacy from being one of nothing more than average play. With Mike Willie out of action this spring, Robinson will be among the most capable and involved receivers, if not the flat out go-to receiver and can use those distinctions to propel to perhaps an all-conference level this season.

Spring Will Be a Success If:

• The group as a whole, primarily the top-end contributors, is able to sync with Brock Osweiler and avoid much of a learning curve with a new full-time starter.

• Aaron Pflugrad, Gerell Robinson and T.J. Simpson make continued improvements and exhibit leadership abilities among the unit.

• George Bell performs to a level worthy of ample playing time and inclusion in the offensive game-planning.

Spring Questions: Tight End

It is hard to believe that the offensive productivity at tight end could decrease from 2009 to 2010, but shockingly it did, as Trevor Kohl and his two receptions for 30 yards were the only marks made by the entire position group a year ago.

Despite the fact that the unit was non-existent in terms of catches, yards and touchdowns, their collective role is felt in the less tangible blocking presence that certainly aided ASU's improved rushing attack.

As the spring arrives, the Devils will have four scholarship tight ends on the roster—just as they did last year—as Kohl and Christopher Coyle (pictured) return as the top two options with Max Smith back as well as the addition of local standout Josh Fulton, a member of ASU's 2010 signing class, who greyshirted last year after shoulder surgery in February. Essentially, Fulton replaces Steven Figueroa in the depth chart, who transferred to Northern Iowa shortly after the 2010 season concluded.

All things considered, the main issue of concern is whether the tight ends' talents will truly be utilized; both Coyle and Fulton were nationally ranked by Scout.com as top-20 tight ends as high school recruits and have the general ability to assist the offense if integrated into the passing attack.

Kohl and Smith, by comparison, are more known for their physicality, so in theory the group provides a decent sense of duality to be more than just sporadically-used undersized offensive linemen.

Depth-wise, Kohl and Coyle figure to remain the top two options, with Smith likely third behind them. The wild card in the equation is Fulton, who brings a high talent level to Tempe but has been away from organized football since the final stages of his senior season in 2009 and may need a redshirt season to regain his acclimation to the game.

Spring Questions: Tight End

• Will any strategic changes be made to utilize the tight ends to a greater level?

• Will Christopher Coyle be more of a focal point than he was as a redshirt freshman?

• What can be expected of Josh Fulton after more than a year away from organized competition?

Who Needs It Most: Christopher Coyle

Based on recent trends and what was seen last year of ASU's offense under Noel Mazzone, little is to be expected of the offensive skill contributions from Sun Devil tight ends. Compared to others at his position, Coyle is a bit of a contrast – Trevor Kohl and Max Smith primarily exist to help blocking schemes, while Fulton's role is yet to be fully determined. Coyle's high school resume is an impressive one as a pass-catcher, but as a redshirt freshman those skills never surfaced. Theoretically, he has the talent to be a physical mismatch in the underneath passing game, if his performance and the coaching philosophies enable him to be.

Spring Will Be a Success If:

• The tight ends, as a unit, perform well within their collective role – as limited or thorough as that may be.

• If called upon, a receiving option—likely either Kohl or Coyle—performs to a satisfactory level of consistency.

• Josh Fulton does not show significant rust after his greyshirt season.

Offensive Line

One of the most silent surprises last season was the improved play of ASU's offensive line, which certainly has received a lion's share of criticism since Dennis Erickson arrived in Tempe in 2007.

All things considered, it was a solid group effort as opposed to star-studded individuals carrying all the weight—center Garth Gerhart (pictured), an Honorable Mention All-Pac-10 member, was the only player to earn postseason honors—and that effort can be considered astounding given the fact that linemen Matt Hustad, Patrick Jamison and Zach Schlink ended their careers before the season started and veteran leader Jon Hargis missed most of the year due to a preseason ACL injury.

With Gerhart at the forefront of the line, ASU saw then-redshirt freshman Evan Finkenberg earn baptism by fire and was definitely given passing marks for his play at left tackle, while former tight end Dan Knapp performed adequately in his debut season at right tackle.

Veterans Mike Marcisz and Andrew Sampson for the most part held their own at the two guard positions, while junior college transfers Brice Schwab and Aderious Simmons also saw time in both starting and reserve roles.

Kyle Johnson and Adam Tello also saw time at tackle and guard, respectively, while Kody Koebensky earned very limited action in 2010. Guards Sil Ajawara and Chris De Armas as well as tackles Jamil Douglas and Tyler Sulka redshirted. Douglas, suspended last season, returns this spring after some uncertainty regarding his future at ASU.

Throughout the season, the play was good—not great, but good—so there is definite room for improvement and a few positions that could host heated battles for starting rights.

With the 2011 season coming on the horizon, the depth chart—if the athletes remain healthy—has some measure of clarity as only Hargis is gone from the 2010 roster.

The sure things are Gerhart at center and Finkenberg at left tackle, while Knapp and Simmons figure to have a fierce battle for starting duties at right tackle. Marcisz and Sampson are penciled in at left and right guard, respectively, but Schwab has been applauded for his physical improvement and may be a factor at guard after originally attempting to play tackle when he joined the program last spring.

On the second-team, Kyle Johnson figures to stand at left tackle, but Douglas could certainly challenge him. Schwab and Tello are likely the backups at the two guard positions, Koebensky at center and either Knapp or Simmons at right tackle round out the second team.

Though many of the returning reserves have game experience and some starting history, there isn't much confidence in them as viable first-teamers, putting responsibility on the shoulders of the starters to not only remain generally healthy, but also perform consistently.

As spring progresses, the veteran reserves will have to hold off Ajawara, Douglas and Sulka, as each player boasts solid potential but all three likely bring a natural learning curve into the spring.

Walk-ons Nick Emanuele and Trent Marsh have both been in the program for several years and will battle for reps in the spring, as will fellow walk-on Chip Sarafin, who redshirted as a freshman in 2010.

Spring Questions: Offensive Line

• Who will emerge at the starting right tackle between Dan Knapp and Aderious Simmons?

• Will Brice Schwab play at a level worthy of being considered to start at guard?

• What will be seen from the three redshirt freshmen?

Who Needs It Most: Brice Schwab

When Pete Carroll left USC for the NFL and Schwab switched his commitment from the Trojans to the Sun Devils, ASU fans thought that the offensive line woes would immediately be solved and the brutish left tackle that had eluded the lineup was finally found.

After arriving on campus last spring in poor condition and physically unable to be a reliable tackle, Schwab was used in a part-time role during the season, bouncing between guard and tackle.

With his final college season ahead of him, Schwab has been given high praise for his work ethic this offseason and is expected to begin spring practice in substantially better physical condition than a year ago. The opportunity exists for him to pose a threat to start at guard, but without an excellent spring he may remain a reserve for the 2011 campaign instead of the star-studded starter he was expected to be.

Spring Will Be a Success If:

• The starters that emerge at positions of competition (right tackle and perhaps guard) stand out because of noticeably good play, not simply the best of multiple average or poor performances.

• The redshirt freshmen are able to legitimately challenge to be second-teamers.

• Former junior college transfers Brice Schwab and Aderious Simmons show marked improvement from their first years at ASU.


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