Arizona State assistant coach Chris Thomsen wants the players in his unit to believe that's anything's possible.
To that end, Thomsen recently told his group about Clemson's success last season. The Tigers reached the national championship game despite having essentially five new starters including a true freshman at left tackle.
The reason for the story is obvious: ASU is the most inexperienced offensive line in the Pac-12 in terms of starts, with just one regular player back from last season, senior left tackle Evan Goodman. And to be perfectly blunt, even Goodman is somewhat of an unpredictable player. He has been prone to procedural penalties and beaten at times by speed rushes on the edge.
But Goodman is probably also ASU's most known entity as an offensive linemen, an indication of the team's challenge at the position group.
There's good news too though. The Sun Devils' talent level is actually improving at the position overall. That's because some of the biggest players and best athletes are youngsters. In sophomores Sam Jones and Quinn Bailey, redshirt freshmen Zach Robertson and Steve Miller, and true freshmen Cohl Cabral, Thomsen has five players who all stand at about 6-foot-5 or taller.
These players are longer-armed and bigger framed -- what Thomsen has called "big-boned, big people" -- and that's the direction the coach wants to go. He actually wants to get even bigger, still, though these guys will do just fine. It's a question of whether they'll be able to it right now.
Besides Goodman, only senior center/guard Stephon McCray and Jones have any real experience.
In the last couple years McCray has plugged in at guard and to a lesser degree center when ASU's had some injuries. He's flexible and good position run blocker who has to take another step forward in terms of endurance and as a pass protector, where speed attacks and difficult to pick up twist games -- linebacker pops and stunts -- into his gap have tested him at times.
Jones worked at right and left tackle in a few games last season when needed due to injuries but has settled in now at left guard where he's locked on a starting job. He's a better fit on the interior, where his foot quickness is more functional. With nice length for a guard at 6-foot-5, Jones still plays with leverage and is smart, with a good approach to angles and a seamless ability to work with the player next to him.
While the left side of the ASU line is quite solidified, the center and right side could still be tweaked a little early in the season. The battle is for the team's fifth starting position. It's going to either go to Bailey at right guard, or junior college transfer A.J. McCollum at center. If Thomsen calls on Bailey it very likely means McCray will start at center. If McCollum gets the nod, McCray will slide over to guard. Coaches would probably rather have McCray at guard because it's where he's played and practiced more and his snaps aren't consistently great.
McCollum was supposed to be practicing at ASU in the spring but the San Francisco City College transfer didn't get everything accomplished academically to enable it. As a result he was in Tempe for much of the spring but not able to practice until the start of August. He was out of shape at the outset of camp, probably 20-30 pounds overweight and with hamstring issues that he's had to work through. In the last few weeks McCollum has worked on losing weight and getting better conditioned. But when he's gotten opportunities he's apparently done well in practices according to onlookers.
Bailey started camp at right tackle with Robertson inside at guard, but they flip-flopped after two weeks with Robertson shifting to right tackle. This followed some practices in which Bailey had some issues handling speed on the outside, with lighter, quicker defensive players like junior Koron Crump and redshirt freshman Malik Lawal presenting a challenge. But Bailey is one of the most improved players on the ASU roster in the last couple years. He's another long and big-framed player at 6-foot-5, but is a really good down blocker with pop behind his pads and good technique.
The Sun Devils have a player who looks like a future star in Robertson, a massive 6-foot-5 and 325 pounds or so. He's an SEC type looking offensive linemen from a frame standpoint. The powerful Robertson has heavy hands and is first to say that his strength is as a guard in pass pro. But the Sun Devils likely need him to man the right tackle spot, where he's going to be more contested with his quick step and range. How well ASU handles upper tier pass rushers at right tackle will be one of the biggest things to watch with this group.
The No. 7 offensive linemen in the group -- likely the second man off the bench -- is Miller, a great athlete who can really get out and run and has versatility as one of his best assets. He's practiced at left guard, left tackle and right tackle. He and Robertson were the best looking true freshman duo we've seen in years upon arrival at ASU in 2015, and they may be asked to show it early in their careers.
In Cabral, the Sun Devils appeared to strike gold. They'd love to be able to redshirt him this year, because the 6-foot-5, 286-pounder has a huge upside. He has practiced at center with the second-team and more recently at left tackle. His combination of flexibility and foot speed is very rare in new arrival offensive linemen at ASU.
This is going to be a very good group in another year or two. Whether they'll get there this year or not remains to be seen.
If there happens to be a rash of injuries, several others could be relied upon, including walk-on junior center Tyler McClure and junior college transfer guard Alex Losoya. A handful of others remain developmental players who likely won't see the field.
Chris Thomsen: “I told them the other day, (in 2015 before reaching the national title game) Clemson replaced four starters last year. Their left tackle was the only returner, he got hurt in training camp, so they really replaced five starters. True freshman left tackle. So I mean, let’s go, let’s put the best five out there and let’s go.”
Chris Thomsen: “If you look at Steve (Miller), Zach (Robertson), and Quinn (Bailey), those are big-boned, big people. We’re still not as big and long as I want to be. My left tackle at Texas Tech was massive, he’s still playing for New England. 6-foot-6 and 325 (pounds). I want to continue to get those kind of guys, and that’s what we’re looking for. I mean I’m excited, really excited, about those young guys.”
Chris Thomsen: "[Sam Jones is] at least the same height and similar dimensions as Christian (Westerman). He's not as strong as Christian yet, but nobody is. But I feel really good about where he's at. He's got some experience now under his belt and he can play guard or tackle. I like him inside and how he's been doing there at left guard. He's worked real hard on just continuing to [hone his] craft and is a smart guy who is all in with everything we're doing and has been since he committed to us."
Shawn Griswold: "Evan Goodman had an unbelievable winter. That guy's got a chance (at the NFL). He's 315 (pounds) right now and looks like he's 290. He's been really good this winter, like a totally different kid. I guess he sees it as his senior year, he's leading it in here, he's talking, he led all the runs for the o-line. That's not the old Evan. You put the card out, this is what you've got to do, and he's the first guy to go. I think he's going to have an unbelievable year."
Chris Thomsen "[Stephon McCray is] probably, in the lower body, our most flexible guy, able to bend and gain leverage, but pass pro is where he got beat some...."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.
Evan Goodman on group's overall weight loss: “We just wanted to be in shape, we just wanted to get in shape and really be consistent in every play. That was one of the problems last year was being consistent.”
Chris Thomsen: “[Quinn Bailey's] improved a lot and he got down to about 300 pounds this summer, he was about 318 in the spring and I asked him to lean up and get a little quicker and he’s done that. Quinn plays his butt off and he’s going to be, he’s another one that just plays hard and just knows what he’s doing."
Zach Robertson: “My best attribute right now is in pass pro at guard. I have long arms and once I get into a defender, it’s hard for them to get away. I try to use my upper body strength and my lower body strength as much as I can.”