Q&A with Chris Thomsen

It may have not incurred as many losses as the other side of the line of scrimmage, yet the Arizona State offensive line will have its own set of question marks going into 2014. What challenges await the front five and what players will need to step up for this unit to be effective this season? Devils Digest sat down with its position coach, Chris Thomsen, to discuss those topics and others.

Devils Digest: Let's start this by talking about the recruiting class and its Sam Jones and Quinn Bailey. Let's go start with Sam Jones, what position do you project him and does he bring to the table?

Chris Thomsen: "Sam is a big strong kid that is pretty well developed in terms of strength and size, not a guy that's way off in terms of his physical traits. He's a guy that I think can play tackle, he's probably the same height as a Evan Finkenberg pretty close to that. Ideally if you had longer guys at tackle he's a guy who could move in and be well suited at guard also, kind of like how Fink would've been had we had somebody. Smart guy, tough physical player, that's what we like about him, we think he fits our system real well. Most importantly a guy who wants to be here, whose attracted to what we have and I think he will work well with Grizz and his development down there."

"Quinn is a little bit different. A guy that this time last year when we had him start coming over last year, there was a question in my mind whether he could get big enough to play in the Pac 12 in terms of weight. He was coming out of basketball at about 250 maybe, his frame, you kind of looked at that and we said let's wait a little longer to see him some more before we offer. He went and got a personal trainer and was working out with his trainer and with the school, gained some weight over the spring. We had him at camp and just saw some of his movements and we said let's offer him, wasn't long after that Oregon offered him and he got some other offers that started to heat up.

"The neat thing about his recruitment was that he came to every single home game, every one of them, which showed that he was interested. As I saw him though out the season he started putting on more weight and started getting bigger and you're looking at this guy going "he's going to be big enough". He takes his trip to Oregon in December then commits shortly after that here. On his visit here we measured him at 6'6" and 302, so all those questions about size, I think he grew a little bit too in height from the first time I met him.

"He's a guy that is a little bit of a late bloomer which was, we were fortunate in the recruiting process the way that worked out, I think if this is a that's guy going into his senior year right now you're talking about a guy you're going to really have to fight a lot of people for, probably. He's a guy we envisioned can be a long term answer at the tackle position. Excited about him, again another guy who wanted to be here."

Devils Digest: Now obviously with recruiting you always have constraints with numbers and other events that take place. Todd Graham admitted that he would've liked to have at least one more offensive lineman, maybe even two, in this class. Therefore, due to the fact that you only got two offensive lineman in the 2014 class, how does that affect 2015, 2016 classes and beyond and do you think you're now ‘forced' in essence to go the junior college route, more so than you initially anticipated?

Chris Thomsen: "I don't know, we will see that once we get a look at Quinn and Sam in the fall and hopefully in bowl practices and things like that. We're always going to go recruit junior college players, I'm always going to call every Junior College in California, every one in Arizona, Kansas…we don't work the east quite as much; I think your odds of getting a guy who wants to be here diminishes. Whether we have that need or not were always going to look and see.

"We looked at a lot guys this year, some that we missed on that went other places, some that we decided not to pursue, in the Junior College ranks. We probably get at least one JC guy next year, and three, four high school players. This year with our losses on the defensive line, we had some other guys on the offensive line that were a little bit more projection guys, that were 260, 265 lbs. guys that we thought could grow, a couple guys that were pretty good players that had some academic question marks on if they could finish out the spring and get it done. We were prepared to go to that list but with the losses that we had on the defensive line through graduation, Coach Graham said let's take that other offensive line scholarship and give it to another defensive lineman. It's not ideal for us but when you look at the big picture of our team need, you got to do that. If we would've hit on some players, we would've gone that route but we didn't really want to go to that next group of guys."

Devils Digest: Is it also a matter of just not wanting to get a warm body for that position…

Chris Thomsen: "Well I did, because I thought there were some guys there that would develop in time, might be two years away. A guy like (Tyler) Sulka was coming out of high school...Jamil (Douglas), all of those guys were 240 guys, at most 250 coming out of high school. It took Jamil two years but now he's a three-year starter. Those were very valuable, so I wanted to do that. I've been a head coach so I understand, when you've got a deficit in another area you sometimes take from. So yes that will put more pressure on us next year. Realistically to say you're going to get four or five offensive lineman in a class that are beating top-tier schools on is difficult. So you're going to have to go into another list of more projection type players, which is fine. Evan Finkenberg, I don't know if he was even a three-star guy, but I know he was a projection. Most of the guys we went with this year are probably more projection type players, so definitely we got to get some of those guys."

Devils Digest: So as you look back at 2013, at the entirety of the season, how would you grade the offensive line? Did it meet your expectations and do some things better than others?

Chris Thomsen: "I think they met my expectations, because my expectation is to come to work every day with great focus. That's the minimum that's what we expect. I think they did that, because I think if you do that you'll maximize your potential. I think there are some areas we got to improve in going forward, and I think some of those I think maybe some of our guys coming through the program can help us address from an athletic stand point. They met my expectations, in terms of coming to work every day and improving as the season went along.

"I think the competition level helped us a lot because early in the season we faced some real mature older veteran defensive front sevens that exposed some weaknesses for us. Sometimes when you're playing a weak non-conference schedule those don't get exposed till midseason. So I think it was good, I think our guys did a good job of where we were not pointing fingers and were looking at ourselves from a humility stand point, where do we have to improve to get us to a championship level and they were able to do that. So yes I was proud of the work ethic and leadership they were able to show."

Devils Digest: There are a lot of things that go into an effective run offense and giving up sacks; it's not all on the offensive line, they're a lot of moving parts. But when you look at run blocking and pass protection, how would you grade your group on each aspect in 2013?

Chris Thomsen: "Run blocking, like I said, I think we improved. I think some of the people that we faced early in the season gave us a barometer of things we need to do. With pad level, with physicality, with finish, with hat placement, with the different technical aspects of what you're doing.

"With pass protection that was something that to me that was a little inconsistent, just our drop back game in general. As a whole, as an offense, I think were a little inconsistent and those are things we have to address moving forward offensively. Stuff we're looking at right now as we have this lull between recruiting and spring ball that's the focus going into next season is how do we improve in some of those areas and still even in run game things we have to get better at but I'm pretty pleased overall."

Devils Digest: As we look into the challenges coming up in 2014 suffice to say that the biggest challenge is replacing left tackle Evan Finkenberg and center Kody Koebensky. What are your initial thoughts as you're going into that first spring practice? What's your thinking concerning the players guys you're plugging in?

Chris Thomsen: "I think with the two guys that we lost, those guys are veteran players, and I have great respect for what they did for this program. Their approach every day was just unbelievable. Having said that I think Nick Kelly has a chance to be a really, really good player in what we do. He's a much different player than Kody, he's a more athletic, more explosive type player. A guy that can get out and run a little but also do well in the pull stuff that we do. And a guy I'm excited about because he shows up with a great attitude every day also, he's got that mentality, he's going to show up and compete hard every day. We noticed that in mat drills and offseason when he first got here, we started getting excited about him because he's pretty athletic, he's really competitive and he's a smart guy. He just had to learn the system, Kody just had a leg up on him in knowing what we were doing, and that's really why he didn't play as much last year. Those things will get answered this year, he'll learn the system better with another year.

"Evan Goodman has a lot of talent, a guy who on paper has a little more athletic talent than Fink. Fink was a really strong guy, very experienced player, so he knew how to get it done. Evan is a little bigger, a little more athletic, so, I think he's maturing a little bit right now realizing he has a great opportunity in front of him. So I expect those two to have great springs, to really step up and help our line go to another level in terms of the athleticism that we can play with.

"Christian (Westerman) is another guy that on paper right now there are returning guys at guard so he has to go beat some people out. If he's really playing well there's some flexibility to move Jamil out, to left tackle. I think Jamil could make a really good left tackle, he's a little reluctant on that move, but I think he could really be good there too.

"Then you have Billy McGee who is a fourth year junior who did some really good things on the run game, got hurt which kind of set his season back. Jack Powers is a young guy, he's almost up to 290 already, probably needs another year but I want to see him compete. Stephon McCray is a guy that I'm real excited about, he's got to get better as a pass protector, but I like his run game, his presence in the run game, he's about 310. Stephon plays with good bend in his knees, he's pretty athletic and he's pretty physical and pretty tenacious player. Devin Goodman is another fourth-year guy that can step up and compete. I'm excited about those guys I really am, I think we can have some more quality depth this year, because all of those guys are older and then you bring in Sam and Quinn, add them to that mix. I'm excited about the group we have."

Devils Digest: We talked about Evan Goodman during fall camp last year, you said you wanted to see more from him than he went on to redshirt. It's probably disappointing for him being the caliber of player he was coming out of high school etc. Do you feel like that the redshirt year is really going to do some good and really manifest his improvement in 2014?

Chris Thomsen: "I think it'll be huge for him. You'd like for him to have gotten some reps but in reality he wasn't going to outplay Finkenberg last year and didn't show he can do that. So I do think it has helped him, he's already showed a better work ethic in offseason this year. He's showed some good things in the bowl practices. Everybody matures at a different rate and I think he's a guy who really is still only in his second year in college but he's starting to mature. It's also big when a left tackle graduates and there's that huge opportunity for you. I've seen players really mature quicker when that happens, obviously. I'm really excited about his potential, he's got a lot to prove to everybody but I think he's ready to do that and I think he's excited about it."

Devils Digest: When you talk about Jamil Douglas not only maybe being the best offensive lineman on the team along with Christian Westerman but also being versatile which is a huge asset. How much do you play around with that trait in spring practice? Do you anticipate Jamil bouncing between tackle and guard or do you want to have him line up in the same position come spring game as he did in the first spring practice?

Chris Thomsen: "I want to go day one with Evan Goodman at left tackle and Jamil at left guard where he's used to playing and let that play out. I also want there to be some series in there where I'd like to bump Jamil to left tackle and let him rep that. He played right tackle this year against Washington when Sulka got hurt and he did a nice job. I think he's more comfortable on the left side anyways because he plays that, obviously at guard. I want him to get some reps there when we do that.

"Stephon or Christian now get to work with the ones and show what they can do. One of the best things about bowl practices was Stephon got to play center and he did a nice job snapping the ball, he looked really good. We have to develop some depth at center whether that's Steffon or Vi (Teofilo) or Devin Goodman, somebody's got to step up. Either beat Nick Kelly out or provide depth there and flexibility. Jamil will definitely get some reps at left tackle just to see how he does there to get him a good feel for it and provide some flexibility there in case we have some injuries."

Devils Digest: Christian Westerman is a player a lot of fans are excited about and they finally got to see him in the bowl game. Even though the bowl game didn't go as well as you wanted it to, how would you grade him not only what he did on the offensive line but also what he did on the special teams?

Chris Thomsen: "I didn't watch the special teams till afterward, and he didn't really play offensive line. I think we might've put him in there at tight end on short yardage, but he didn't play any offensive line. What I did get to see was bowl practices and I liked what I saw. The thing that he struggled with back during training camp last year was just assignment. Just the offense moving fast, where do I go...he was just new to it. It looked like over the course of the season he developed more in terms of his knowledge of the system and he did a good job in the bowl practices. So I saw a lot of positives from him in the bowl practices.

"He's still going to have to come in and prove himself, he's going to have a lot to prove. Everybody's talking about him but he's coming in as a backup and he's got to. There are two guys there that have played a lot of football for us, he's got to show that he can...it might be a deal where we can roll (rotate). We couldn't roll last year, some of those guys weren't ready, and we had to play the same five guys all the time, in reality that beats you down physically and mentality over the course of the season. We may not have as many blow out games this year where guys can rest a little bit, we had a few last year, we need to develop where other guys to play in critical situations and he can do it and get it done for us."

Devils Digest: So aide room the challenges tied into replacing Finkenberg and Kobensky what other challenges do you feel this offensive line is looking at going into 2014?

Chris Thomsen: "The biggest one is just developing a chemistry and new leadership stepping up. We were eating up on the fifth floor yesterday, I was eating with the offensive line guys, and I looked at Jamil and said man it's kind of weird without Kody and Fink sitting here and he said man it is, even in workouts it's just weird not having those guys around. And that's what you realize when you're a Jamil Douglas when you're a Tyler Sulka, who else can step in, is it Nick Kelly, is it Christian? is it Stephon? Is it some of those guys? Evan Goodman? Can somebody else step up?

"Everybody's got to lead themselves every day but you also have older guys you look to. That leadership and that chemistry is important on the offensive line so that's the thing that's got to develop the most in addition to all the football stuff."

Devils Digest: I know you touched on it earlier on playing mature teams like Wisconsin, Notre and Stanford twice. Did you feel that the physicality factor of the offensive line is not where you wanted it to be and is that a goal to improve on in 2014?

Chris Thomsen: "When you're playing the best of the best, that's where you've got to get better. You're going against Stanford who is arguably the best front seven in the country. Part of that is recruiting, part of that is getting guys who are already bigger and stronger. You're talking about guys we played with this year we averaged about 290 across the board. Sulka is probably truly 6'4.5", the rest of the guys are under 6'4" in reality I think they played physical to the level that they could play. We have to address some of that. When you walk on the field and you watch a Notre Dame warm up there's a different level of size that I saw this year. Stanford has a different level in the league, Wisconsin has some of that. Those teams that you feel like you didn't get the best of in those situations. As a coach you're like how do we address that? How do we not let that happen in the future? Some of that is just continually in the system with the physicality in the run game some of it is addressed in the recruiting."

Devils Digest: For you personally being here now for a second year, even though you lost two really good players you also have a lot of players coming back. Does all of this create more of a sense of comfort for you? With more familiarity do you think it will go even smoother in 2014 than they did last year?

Chris Thomsen: "I really do. I think it went pretty smooth for me in 2013 mostly in part because of those two seniors and the leadership they provided but I do feel like I have a better feel for what we're doing with the offense. When you take a new coaching job you underestimate how long it will take. You go in and you know the base stuff, it takes you a little while to learn the intricacies that you face when you go against defenses and what they do. It takes you a little time to learn your own players and what they're capable of, what their buttons are to push to motivate them. It will be a lot easier for me this year knowing these guys and knowing the Pac-12. The Pac-12 is different than the Big 12, it really is. It's a more diverse league. The Big 12 is a little bit more simple in my opinion, the Pac-12 has a little more diversity and your players have to be ready for and those are some things that will be a little easier of an adjustment over the next year or two."

Becca Winn contributed to this article

Sun Devil Source Top Stories