Part I: A conversation with Chris Thomsen

Recently we sat down with Arizona State offensive line coach Chris Thomsen for a lengthy conversation about last year's team and what his expectations are with the personnel he has to work with in 2015, and much more.

Chris Karpman: ...Obviously all along you're keeping track of all your player grades but what is the year end process like and how did this group do in a way that people can understand?

Chris Thomsen: "I don't know, every year is different in the dynamic with, you know, go back to 2013 we really on offense had no injuries, nothing changed as the year went along, that's a different dynamic than last year where your starting quarterback goes down in week three. I though coach (Mike) Norvell and (Mike) Bercovici did an unbelievable job in that. Because when you're in Colorado and you look over and Taylor (Kelly's) in a boot... I said it the next week, people asked me about the communication with Berc in practice leading up to the [UCLA Game].

"I said it's really kind of a seamless transition, it has been but you don't know what's about to happen. You don't know, offensively, and I've been through it before, where it didn't work out as well with quarterbacks. But that kind of changes everybody's dynamic, not just the line but the running backs, the receivers, but I thought that was a different variable this year and you know we had injuries this year that changed things and other people came in and so, I think all in all I always just look at it from a overall team perspective.

"I told our guys before the Duke game, I'll tell you this; Jamil (Douglas) and Tyler (Sulka), and the line but most of the two seniors the night before we really started bowl prep, really the night before the game, I said, 'If I would have told you that back in Camp T if I would have said we're gonna lose Taylor (Kelly) in that stretch of the season, we're gonna replace nine starters, and we're gonna have some injuries up front here and there. If I would have told all those things, would you think you could have equaled the same win total that Will Sutton's group and Marion Grice's group? If I would have told you all that preseason we're gonna equal last year's win total would you believe me?' Jamil was like, 'Man, that'd be a hard one to comprehend.'"

Karpman: Especially with the defense replacing nine starters.

Thomsen: "Well, that was the main thing, and even some of the offensive guys like Fink (Evan Finkenberg), great players man. The odd thing is overall I was real proud of what our group did, I was proud of what our team did, I was proud of what our coaches did. Man, what our defensive staff did, coach (Todd) Graham, wow, unbelievable. Then what coach Norvell did holding everything together with a quarterback change and then just the leadership that guys like Jamil, that's what I was proud of. There were a lot of things that I felt like we all came through and did a good job getting 10 wins. I was proud of it."

Karpman: So would you say about as happy as you've been with the (offensive line) group?

Thomsen: "Yeah but I mean the group that was here before I was real proud (too)."

Karpman: Yeah but for this group?

Thomsen: "Yeah yeah I was. Because I'll look at like Stanford for example, I really felt like the previous year that was the one team, I mean, they, there were things that we struggled with and I felt like our guys last year did a better job with some of that. Just some things that we set out preseason really try to accomplish, I think, I was proud of what they did. Sure was."

Karpman: How about just the evolution of Jamil (Douglas), I know you haven't been here his whole career but he kind of got in to some trouble with some stuff early on. From that to being one of the top leaders, really, on the whole team and being an all conference guy at tackle when he's really more of a guard. What does that say about him, how do you sum up what he was able to do?

Thomsen: "I think the biggest thing was just very unselfish, because you put yourself in his spot going into a third year playing guard, you're comfortable that he's going to go out there and dominate. He knows that. Then to be switched and have to go play, really, a totally different position in a lot of ways, to accept that and do that and then leadership-wise he just did a tremendous job. He's just glue, over every single day he just came in and went to work. He saw Fink do that the year before and Kody (Koebensky), so this time last year that's what we were talking about, are you ready to [do that]. He did a great job of that I was real proud of what he did and he truly is a great person to be around everyday, I miss him a lot, proud of him."

Karpman: Do you think he's a guy that'll get drafted and have a chance to have a career?

Thomsen: "Yeah, he'll get (drafted), I don't know where he'll get drafted.. Some scouts have told me they don't see him lasting past the third round, some scouts have said fifth or sixth, Ive learned that's just all over the map, that's just what a certain guy sees. That guy may not be even drafting or whatever, but what I do think, regardless of where he goes, I think he'll get on a team, he'll figure it out and he'll have a substantial career. Because I watch pro film in the offseason to study and some of the guards, I know he can do as good or better than what they're doing but his intangibles will keep him there. He's smart and tough and he wants to, he's got that want to, so I think he'll do well."

Karpman: Yeah it seems like a lot of the guards it's not really about how athletic maybe they are it's more about knowing their job, doing their job, being tough, and staying healthy.

Thomsen: "It is, I can show you some film of some NFL guys and you're just like, 'that guy doesn't look that athletic,' but I guarantee you that dude is tough, and smart. You know, (former ASU player and current NFL player) Shawn Lauvao comes back, we see him all the time. The guys will talk to him, but I hear him tell them, 'smart and tough, smart and tough.' Shawn I think played some left tackle here but he probably should have been at guard. But I think Jamil will end up fine, he's smart, he'll get in there and figure out how to...whatever team that gets him will want to keep him because he understands how to keep that locker room together. The thing that was interesting this year with him, you know he lost his grandmother early in camp, right before camp started, I can't remember [when exactly]."

Karpman: First week.

Thomsen: "First week. His sister got cancer, and had to have surgery. T.K., thats his best friend and his roommate, T.K. gets hurt and then the change of position... All this change all this adversity and I told him, I said, man, because there was a point in there where he's like 'Wow this is a little overwhelming,' and I said 'Man, this is what leadership is. If you can, through all this stuff, if you can keep it together and keep this group together and help keep this team together, now when you go to the NFL and once you establish yourself in the NFL or whatever is after this, you got those experiences to draw upon and they just make you a better leader.' He gets all that. You know, some guys are like, 'Oh man why is this happening to me?' and they don't fight. He just progressed through that really well and he'll do real well. I'm really proud of him."

Karpman: I've always thought Tyler Sulka was maybe one of the more under-appreciated guys on the roster and obviously just like anybody else he has his limitations but just what he brought to the table also from a toughness and dogged approach, sort of quotient.

Thomsen: "Yeah, he was kind of, if Jamil was the pilot he was kind of the co-pilot and he worked hard. We were talking about him, we were talking about a couple of our guys right now that are going into their redshirt junior season. Two years ago that's when I got here and Tyler was going into that redshirt junior season and he was 278 pounds, we took Jamil and moved him to right tackle if you remembered for the first part of spring and Tyler was the back up right tackle the year before I got here, we just assumed that was gonna be a spot. Well we put Sil (Ajawara) at left guard and Tyler didn't respond all that well to that at first, he really got down and I said, 'I'm not playing with a tackle in the PAC 12 that's 278 pounds. I'm not going to do that. You gotta get a little more committed,' and he did all that in two years of working his butt off. By game time you gotta be 290, so Friday night in the hotel or Saturday morning he'd just be eating like crazy and he'd be 290 man. We'd be in the locker room [and weigh him], he'd be 290 and I'd be like, 'Alright let's go.' You know that's a guy that was a two star recruit maybe, San Diego State was the only offer."

Karpman: Yeah, I remember when he got to ASU he only weighed 250 maybe.

Thomsen: "Right, and one of my favorite things to do was to listen to him and Jamil talk about how it was when they got here and the stories they told. Of course, it was a different culture with coach (Dennis) Erickson but I could sit and listen to those stories all the time because those guys persevered and came through that. It's what I told them the night before the (bowl) game I said 'Man, back to back 10 wins, and you two seniors can walk out of here saying that. How many players come through this program, can say that?' That was kind of our motivation for the bowl game. Back to back 10 wins, that is significant, that's a significant mark so Tyler, was a big part of that."

Karpman: So that's something that you guys talked about a lot towards the end?

Thomsen: "You gotta realize that the season at this level is so long you gotta find ways each week to motivate guys. When it gets to bowl season those guys are tired and beaten up, and they don't want to practice. It's just long and it gets monotonous so that and I'll think, alright this last stretch here and back to back 10 win seasons as a senior and to go out and leave your mark like that? Because what that does is, it gives you confidence for whatever you go into next and you did something that hasn't been done in a long time. I think since we've been in the Pac-10/Pac-12 I don't think that's happened."

Karpman: Yeah, they did it in the early 70s and they did a 10 (plus) win and a 9 win season back to back in the Rose Bowl in '96 (and year after).

Thomsen: "Not to diminish what they did in the 70s but it's different. I tell my guys, that everybody says in the old days they were tough, you know the 60s because I always heard that. So I tell my guys they were like 8-1 that year or 6-2, they only played 8 games, TV wasn't around, and there wasn't all the... So you gotta be tough now because their asking you to play 12 maybe 13, and the (conference) championship game, 14 games."

Karpman: And everybody weighed 50 pounds less then they would (today).

Thomsen: "Yeah. What did Oregon play? 15 games? You gotta be tough to play 13, 14, 15 games. That was the deal man, let's just get this 10th win, that's our only focus, let's leave a legacy here. I told them as a coach, I want to be part of that, you know, Arizona State history to say I was apart of that. That was kind of our motivation for the football game up front."

Karpman: Nick Kelly, maybe save for a couple people, we thought he was going to be a good player even from the beginning when he got to ASU. He kind of maybe upgraded you athletically, it gave you a little more stuff that you guys can do with him there. Review his season and what's possible for him now moving forward.

Thomsen: "He exceeded my expectations a little bit, because the only fear I had with him, was his lack of size going against No. 55 for Washington."

Karpman: (Danny) Shelton?

Thomsen: "Yeah, Danny Shelton."

Karpman: Who is an absolute beast, I think he (was) underrated (in the Pac-12).

Thomsen: "Well he didn't have as great as a junior year that's why, he came on a lot this (past) year."

Karpman: He just throws guys around.

Thomsen: "Yeah, the kid from Stanford, Parry."

Karpman: David Parry.

Thomsen: "Yeah."

Karpman: Leonard Williams, the kid from UCLA that I think is really good.

Thomsen: "(Eddie) Vanderdoes and the other one, Kenny Clarke."

Karpman: They're really, really good defensive tackles (especially Clarke).

Thomsen: "Yeah, I was looking at the mock draft the other day and Shelton and Leonard are right there, top five or ten. So I knew Nick would do well, get out and pull and do stuff in space. But I wondered a little bit about when he's sliding over and the guard's sliding and here comes, you know... We put him in zero (technique) and that was a lot with Shelton and a lot of those guys and he did it (his job) well. I mean, there was one time against Utah that he probably got overpowered a little bit, but that happens to anybody. He surprised me, I knew he would do well but he exceeded my expectation a little bit. Tough, I can't even go on record and tell you what he played with this year."

Karpman: Yeah, he was going through some pretty legitimate injuries.

Thomsen: "And there was even a point after the Arizona game with his ankle [sprain], where he was like, 'Coach I don't think I'm playing the bowl game,' this was like three weeks out. 'Why don't I just get my knee [operated on]?' I said, 'Dude what's got you here, to this point is just tough and don't give up on it,' and literally the only day he really practiced was the Wednesday before the bowl game."

Karpman: I didn't think he was going to be able to go just based on how he was doing (in practice).

Thomsen: "And he went out there and played the best game, of those five guys he played the best. He played really well against Duke. That guy, he's really smart, and really tough. I can't say enough about what he did, he'll anchor us next year, I'm proud of him."

Karpman: With Vi (Teofilo), I know he got hurt in the bowl game and he got his surgery, his length is maybe a limiting thing but he's a good run blocker and he's improved as a pass pro guy...

Thomsen: "He did. Interestingly, Scott Peters (ASU alumni, and 2002 fourth round pick) up here, I talked to him this summer about some different techniques, some stuff Scott uses and teaches and a couple things he was talking about clicked. Vi started implementing some of these things that helped and he did better in pass pro, I thought he had improved from his sophomore year to his junior year. He does good in the run and pulling and all that, it's just all strength but I thought he did a lot better. He and Leonard (Williams, USC defensive lineman), last year Leonard was on Jamil's side against USC, a lot. This year he was on Vi's side a lot, as that game started unfolding and we got behind and throwing the ball, he had some really good reps against Leonard. Now Leonard got him with a couple [plays]..."

Karpman: Sure, he's gonna get anyone.

Thomsen: "And we started working Nick to his side to help him a little more because the other match up was Christian was handling his guy... But Vi I was really proud of. He's just tough and very smart. Vi and Nick are really, really smart players, I always tell Vi he's gonna be the next o-line coach here. Once coach Graham gets rid of me I say (to Vi), 'You need to be ready to take over,' because he understands it all, he sees it all, and he's just tough, Sun Devil tough."

Karpman: Christian (Westerman) is one of your strongest, most violent guys, what are the things that will help take him to an even higher level?

Thomsen: "I think just having played a full season. That was the thing going into last year, was, I think ESPN or somebody, was talking about how he's going to be this. I said, 'The guy just needs to play a season.' I mean he didn't play at Auburn and redshirted here, three years where, well he played a little bit at Auburn."

Karpman: But he got hurt.

Thomsen: "Yeah, but your first full year doing what you do, that second year, hey I know what I'm doing now, I know what to ask. It's the same thing for him, he did some great things. Notre Dame, he played a phenomenal game. He had some great games but he also had some times where, 'this is a little bit new to me on what I'm doing.' So I think that experience level, you know, I love the way he plays. He's a tough guy too, he missed the Utah game because he got hurt in Washington and even as late as Wednesday we didn't think he was going to play against Notre Dame. Then about that Wednesday he said everything started feeling better, he said 'Coach I think I can do this,' and he played his best game. But I do think he learned as the season progressed how hard it is to maintain [his health]. Any player that hasn't been through a full year, thats just the toughest part is how you stay focused through this grind, that's why he's gonna be better, he knows what to expect.

Karpman: So Stephon (McCray), he filled in pretty admirably he's got versatility, you probably want to see him get stronger and bigger but what do you see from him now in terms of usage?

Thomsen: "With Vi being out for the spring, Stephon will be that right guard for us which will be great for him, working with Nick and being in there every down. I think he's one of those guys like Sulka that the development [improves], it was great for him to get in the game, get the feel for it, see what it's like. Because now, oh ok now I know what I really need to do to get better. It's all just speculation until you get in the game, it just is, and he did some great things.

"The way he run blocked against Utah, he did a great job he's probably, in the lower body, our most flexible guy, able to bend and gain leverage, but pass pro is where he got beat some. Whether it was Utah, they put No. 8 (Nate) Orchard and he didn't have a whole lot of success against Jamil and they bumped him down to Stephon later in the game and got to us. We tried to do some double team stuff and they starting blitzing, they did a good job to get him one on one and they got after him a couple times. Then Arizona, once Nick went out they got Scooby Wright on him a couple times, you know, at this level they're going to figure out how to expose you.

" He did do some good things at pass pro, but that's where he's gotta get stronger and be able to handle himself. He's got really long arms which helps him a lot because he can fend him off but he's gotta have a little more pop with it. But I'm excited that he's able to go through the spring. I tell you what he did against Arizona, that's the first time he snapped a ball in a game, he's done it in practice but to go in to that type of environment, that kind of pressure."

Karpman: Yeah, it was pretty seamless.

Thomsen: "Oh his snaps were great and I was nervous about that. He did a great job at that. But he knows right now, he's got enough of a taste that he knows, 'okay this is what I've got to do.' I'm excited, and he's going to have to play a bigger role for us. I'm excited about Stephon."

Karpman: We know Evan Goodman is really talented and it all comes down to if he's going to have the motor and the determination. He's probably no less athletic than Jamil.

Thomsen: "He's more athletic."

Karpman: Ok, yeah.

Thomsen: "He's the best athlete we've got, now some of those guys will argue that. If you tell Christian that, or Vi they'll, 'oh no he's not,' and I told Jamil that."

Karpman: That his size and length and everything.

Thomsen: "Well the way he bends and his movements and the fluidity by which he moves and his feet turn over, like Jamil as a tackle his kick slide was long and it kind of had to unfold and those quicker rushes will get to that, they'll be on you. Well Evan's feet are real smooth and efficient, he's got some movements that only God will give you. You can't teach that, you can't coach that, you can't buy that, and I think he's a little bit like Sulka was, it's that same stage, you gotta grow up. Because when I got here Sulka was, I was not pleased with him at first and Evan's on the same track he's just gotta grow up. That's typical for lineman, they're the last ones to develop."

Karpman: Is part of it also maybe with some guys, "Hey I'm not going to be starting this year so I maybe don't have to practice as hard or with the same sense of urgency?"

Thomsen: "No doubt, I think so and when we go to spring you should see it. But he does some great things in practice that get me really excited. But just like Tyler man, be consistent."

Karpman: Right, so he probably wows you and then he has moment where you're like what are you doing?

Thomsen: "No doubt, he's just got to develop that consistency and that's what spring ball is for. Stuff like that, I mean everybody is like, 'why do I have to go through spring ball?' Well because you gotta go work those problems out on the grass and all the communication and perseverance. You know, I think he'll come along and do fine.

Look for Part II of our conversation with ASU offensive line coach Chris Thomsen this weekend, when we get into more depth with the rest of his personnel and talk about the 2015 recruits he signed.


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