Closing Out Senior Year on a High Note

While quarterbacks usually receive most of the praise for engineering a successful, high-scoring offense, any honest signal caller will be quick to point out that he's only as good as his offensive line, and in particular, his left tackle. Fortunately for Taylor Kelly and the Sun Devils, they've got both, led by senior Evan Finkenberg, the man responsible for watching Kelly's blindside.

For four years now, Finkenberg has been a staple of the Arizona State offensive line. After redshirting as a freshman in 2009, the Coto de Caza, Calif. native has appeared in 48 games for the Sun Devils, including the last 47 as a starter. The former high school tight end-turned-offensive lineman began his college career at right guard, but after earning the trust of the coaching staff and, most importantly, his quarterback, he transitioned to left tackle, a position he admittedly takes great pride in holding down.

"It's huge," said Finkenberg after practice on Tuesday of his responsibility to protect Kelly and the Sun Devil quarterbacks. "Of course you want to limit the sacks and hits on your quarterback because those guys are making tons of decisions and keeping their eyes downfield. It's kind of a trust thing during practices; I'm trying to earn their trust so that during games they know that I got their backside and they don't need to worry about that guy coming off the edge."

"It also gives them confidence to know they can sit in that pocket an extra second longer and make that deep pass or make their reads a little more comfortably and not be so rushed. It's really something to kind of pride yourself on."

Under Head Coach Todd Graham and Offensive Coordinator Mike Norvell, the Arizona State offense has experienced a complete overhaul the last two years, both in terms of schemes and results. The Sun Devils currently rank 3rd in the Pac-12 in total offense (460.8 ypg) and 10th nationally in scoring (41.0 ppg). By comparison, they ranked 5th (445.8) and 28th (33.2), respectively, in each category in 2011.

Arizona State also welcomed first year Offensive Line Coach Chris Thomsen this season, the third position coach for Finkenberg since he arrived in Tempe. Thomsen, who was originally slated to join Graham's staff in 2012 before accepting a position at Texas Tech as the Running Backs Coach, has also brought a new mentality to Tempe, according to Finkenberg, helping mold and strengthen the unit's toughness and approach.

"Coach Thomsen has taught me a lot of different techniques and how to understand defenses better," the said. "It's like he tells me, it's like adding tools to your tool shed. You want to add different things and learn different techniques. So when we're out here at practice, sometimes it can be monotonous but I'm always trying to do different things with my hands, different footwork things, just trying to make sure my game improves each day.

"Even like today, we were doing tons of individual work. It's all those little steps and techniques. It's that muscle-memory; you've got to keep drilling and keep drilling so when you're out there on Saturday, you can just kind of go through it and not have to think about your footwork."

But while much has changed for ASU offensively, Finkenberg remains as one of the few constants.

Last season, while starting in all 13 games for the Sun Devils, he was named to the conference's All-Pac-12 Honorable Mention Team and the All-Pac-12 Bowl Team following Arizona State's convincing win over Navy in Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl.

But in 2013, the four year starter raised the bar even higher.

Not only was Finkenberg awarded the Randall McDaniel Offensive Lineman Award for a second consecutive season at the team's annual banquet ceremony last Saturday night, but he also earned All-Pac-12 First Team Offense honors after helping guide the Arizona State offense to one of its best statistical seasons in recent years and its first Pac-12 South division title.

"It's pretty exciting," remarked Finkenberg. "It just shows that all the hard work I've put in over the years was recognized. Also, I think it shows how much of an improvement our offensive line made this year. It's a group effort out there. It's not just one person doing one thing, but all of us working together.

"Our offensive line did a lot of great things this year. I think we were in the top ten in a lot of categories and it just shows that all the hard work and dedication we put in during the offseason and regular season paid off. It's a great award and I'm pretty honored."

Finkenberg credits much of the offensive line's success this season to the unit's budding chemistry. Not only have they grown together on the field, but off it as well. Regular, organized group outings, whether to the movies or out to dinner, have become the norm for the ASU offensive line this season, something he says has helped develop their on-field camaraderie.

Of course, the Sun Devils have also been the beneficiaries of remarkably good health too as they've featured the same straying five up front in all 13 games this season, a testament to the efforts of Strength and Conditioning Coach Shawn Griswold.

"We've been lifting pretty hard during the season but I think it's been great because our bodies have been feeling great throughout the year and we've been able to keep up our strength," said Finkenberg. "Sometimes you lose your strength during the season but we've really been amping up the workouts recently to make sure we hold that strength in and finish strong. It's something that he's been emphasizing all year, all thorough our workouts, just to finish strong.

"It's huge for chemistry when you have a guy next to you everyday at practice and in games. You have a creation trust level with those guys and understand how they play and how they view the defense and stuff like that. And then on game days, you just starting clicking and you don't have to communicate as much and just kind of get used to each other and just go out there firing."

With only one game left in his college career, Finkenberg hopes to go out on top once more when Arizona State (10-3, 8-2) takes on Texas Tech (7-5, 4-5) in the National University Holiday Bowl on December 30th in San Diego. Despite being upended in the Pac-12 Championship Game and falling just short of the team's first Rose Bowl appearance since 1997, Finkenberg and his Sun Devil teammates are aware of the opportunity at hand and the importance of earning that 11th win to close out the season.

"We're really excited," he said. "The Holiday Bowl is still a really great, prestigious bowl. It's one of the top ones so we're really excited to go down to San Diego, especially this senior class because we want to get that 11th win. I think it's only happened maybe four or five times in school history, so that's a huge goal for us. Unfortunately we're not going to the Rose Bowl, but it's still a great game to go to and as seniors, I think we're all starting to take it all in.

"It's our last game as Sun Devils and we're trying to go out on a high note."

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