Generally speaking, as long as a team has a solid quarterback and reasonably capable skill players, as the offensive line goes, so goes a team's overall capability on the offensive side of the ball.
Arizona State players know this. It's been stressed ad nauseam to them since Todd Graham arrived in Tempe three and a half years ago. The team's starting offensive line entering 2015 includes four seniors and a junior, each of whom has been with the program a majority of Graham's tenure at the school.
For this year's iteration of the Sun Devils, the onus is even more on the veteran offensive line this season. Their quarterback, fifth-year senior Mike Bercovici, is garnering some Heisman Trophy mentions as a sleeper pick, and sophomore running backs Demario Richard and Kalen Ballage form a potent one-two punch that may be as good as any in the Pac-12.
There's no substitute for experience and maturity and that's especially true with college football linemen who have had the time to get bigger, stronger and more battled tested. On the interior of ASU's offensive line, senior right guard Vi Teofilo is ASU's team-leader with 27 consecutive starts. At center, Nick Kelly enters his second year as starter and is a Rimington Trophy Watch List candidate. At left guard, Christian Westerman is also a returning starter and ASU's strongest offensive lineman.
At the point of attack, the Sun Devils want to wear on teams more physically in a way that allows them to establish the run game, provides a clean pocket for Bercovici to operate within, and opens up the play action capability at full throttle. That's how this ASU offense really goes.The Sun Devils averaged 36.9 points per game last season in the Pac-12, which was good but off their near-historic highs from the previous two seasons. At times, they struggled, particularly when then-quarterback Taylor Kelly wasn't fully healthy coming off a foot injury and the run game didn't release the pressure valve enough. ASU finished sixth in rushing offense in the league, at 168.8 yards with a 4.3 yard-per-carry average.
It isn't a coincidence that two of ASU's best teams in the Pac-12 era, the 1996 Rose Bowl squad and following year's team which combined to go 20-4, each led the league in rushing. More recently, Oregon has had its flag atop the Pac-12 mountain for a prolonged run of greatness that has been, at its foundation, enabled by its remarkable run game success.
The Ducks have also boasted what may be the league's biggest and best offensive line over that span, which also isn't a coincidence. ASU isn't as big or as long as it wants to be quite yet -- tough that's in the works given what ASU has with its young players in the group -- but it is trending in that direction, clearly. In addition to its veterans in the middle, first-year starting junior left tackle Evan Goodman and senior right tackle Billy McGehee are each bigger than the players they're replacing. McGehee, in particular, presents as a clearly more capable run blocker. ASU's overall capability should be improved to some degree int his regard, but may still not be ready to maul the best opponents they'll face at the point of attack.
With the transition from Kelly to Bercovici at quarterback, ASU will be less dynamic in the read option part of its run game capability. That makes it even more vital that the team's offensive line is able to open interior run lanes for its potential running backs.
Also of critical importance, of course, is how the line protects Bercovici in the pocket. This is an extreme focus of attention entering the season as Goodman and McGehee are totally devoid of experience in big game situations, and they'll get one of the biggest challenges any team could face in the opener with Texas A&M, which features a great pass rush duo. How they perform in this setting will be a great barometer of what can be expected the rest of the season, and ultimately what the team's offensive capability will be.
One of the strengths of ASU's offensive line is the capable depth that exists, especially on the interior, where junior Stephon McCray is able to play either guard or center. At tackle, redshirt freshman Sam Jones looked very solid in the spring when Goodman was out with a hamstring strain. He's able to play on either side and could still contend for a starting role at some point. Redshirt freshman Quinn Bailey has made tremendous strides in his first year and is likely the team's No. 8 offensive lineman. He's able to play right tackle or right guard.
Chris Thomsen on the evolution from Taylor Kelly to Mike Bercovici at quarterback, and in particular the read option: “It’s going to be interesting because in my time here we’ve always had a guy in Taylor (Kelly) who could pull it on the zone read and make you pay for it. Last year, not as much with the injury, but in 2013, we saw some of those pulls with 40-yard runs, so I don’t think you get that with Mike, to be realistic about that. Mike will still have the threat of the zone read where he pulls it and you get four or five yards, or if they don’t play it right get a bigger play, but that’s not going to be as much of a threat. Defenses know that, we know that, but also, when you pull the ball and you throw the ball on the perimeter, with Taylor the ball didn’t get there as quick, so those receivers were waiting and the defense has time to collapse. That ball now is on the perimeter quicker so now a guy like D.J. and Gump have a chance to make big plays.”
Thomsen on new senior starter Billy McGehee at right tackle: “Billy has had a really good spring, a really good camp, he was part of it at Camp (Tontozona) where we ran the ball really well. He’s just such a bigger, more physical player. That’ll be a big difference in down blocking and working at the backside of zones, and creating that space backside where Tyler who was 290 pounds, it was a little bit different whereas Billy is right at 315. That’s about 25 more pounds and he’s a stronger guy, he’s a “Dirty Dozen” (strength and conditioning honor) guy so I’m excited about that and then Evan (Goodman's) a bigger guy than Jamil was.”
Christian Westerman on ASU offensive line depth: depth “Every offensive line across the country will have bumps and bruises, which is essentially what we had, we had a guy miss a game or miss a practice, but at the end of the day, we’ve got guys who can step in and fill gaps and come in and play for us so we’re not really worried about depth but as a whole we want to stay healthy so we can get out there and perform at our best level.”
Westerman on the group's senior presence: “I think the main leadership right now is me, Nick and Vi. Being veterans back on this offensive line, we really take energy off each other, each of us are getting better every day and we’re helping these other young guys come in. We’ve got two other guys coming in at tackle and they’re sort of like veterans, they’re coming along and we’re coming along as a group and we’re getting better every day.”
Nick Kelly on his improvement: “I feel even though I started last year, I have so much more to offer now. I have so much more to work forward to, I can’t be complacent. I have to continue to get better and bring the freshmen along with me and get this whole team to become one unit and one family.”
Vi Teofilo on setting the tone: “We all know, we’re the older group, so we all know the whole gameplay starts and ends with us so if we have a bad day, we know the whole team is going to have a bad day but if we have a good day, we know the whole team is going to have a good day.”
Todd Graham on the group's depth and youth: “Zach Robertson is coming on, I feel really good with some depth, he’s probably further along as far as the freshmen. Steve’s (Miller) would be the next guy, he’s going to be a great player. Connor Humphreys, you take Conor and you take Stephon McCray and we’re solid with five guys inside. I think Quinn (Bailey) is coming along getting better too.”
Player CapsulesChristian Westerman Vi Teofilo Evan Goodman Billy McGehee Stephon McCray