2003 Team Preview

With the season opener just a few days away, DevilsDigest analyzes the 2003 version of the ASU football team position by position.

Quarterbacks

What a difference a year makes. No quarterback controversies, as all everything Andrew Walter looked sharp in the fall, and poised to have even a better season than his record breaking one last year. He returns an experienced line, an arsenal of wideouts and has two new receiving tight ends to work with. The real battle in this position is at backup. The poise and accuracy of Sam Keller has really helped his case, as he opens the season no. 2 on the depth chart. If he falters, the experienced Chad Christensen will get the nod, and resume the spot he occupied for most of 2002. Mike Affleck appears to be just as talented, but a little less experienced with this style of offense. He has looked very impressive for a true freshmen signal caller, but is headed to a redshirt year as he improves his skills. Redshirt freshmen Kellen Bradley is swimming among the rest of the quarterbacks, and showing flashes of solid play. Yet, he's unlikely to improve on his fourth spot in the depth chart.

Running Backs

ASU has a stable of talented ball carriers, and are led by senior Mike Williams. Williams will look to build on his flashes of brilliance he has shown over his career. He looks faster than ever this fall, and will be the man to beat in this group. Loren Wade, a strong power runner, will back up Williams. The redshirt freshman has battled various injuries in his young career, but has shown lots of promise, and excels in short yardage work. Fellow redshirt freshman Randy Hill is a well-rounded back much like Williams. He has a fluid running style that has caught the coaches' eye this fall, and has helped him leap frog over some incumbents to the number three spot. Sophomore Cornell Canidate has started several games and was ASU's most consistent back last year. He has a very elusive style and has great hands in the receiving game. Nevertheless, in face of the stiff competition at this position he has dropped to the number four spot on the depth chart. Rounding up the group is another second year player - Hakim Hill. Many will argue that he is easily ASU's most talented back. He led the team in rushing in three games last year, including the Holiday Bowl. His electric speed and pass catching ability make him a true game breaker.

Fullbacks

For one more year, senior Mike Karney will handle this position. Karney, who was close to bolting to the NFL at the end of 2002, is considered not only one the best in the Pac-10 but also in the nation. There is a hope among the fans he will be a frequent target for some receiving yards. Backup Mike Talbot has received many praises from the coaching staff. He is a key player on special teams, and may actually be a more viable receiving option than Karney. Walk-on Kellen Mills has been one of the more astonishing surprises in the pre-season. He has been awarded a scholarship and is pushing Talbot for the backup spot.

Tight Ends

There may not be one complete player at this position, but a logjam of talented and diverse players definitely exists. The unit's starter is Lee Burghgraef. He gets continual praise for his hard work and punishing blocking, but has curiously been absent from the passing attack. JC transfer Aaron Austin continues to show the flashes of talent and potential that has him labeled a future NFL player. While he is still a little rusty from a year off, his ability as both a blocker and a receiver, leave him as the team's most rounded tight end. Redshirt freshman Jamaal Lewis made a lot of noise this spring with his multiple touchdown catches. ASU really struggled in the red zone last year, and this sure handed receiver may be just what the doctor ordered. What he lacks for in blocking, he surely makes up for with his athleticism and receiving ability. While Austin and Lewis battle for the no. 2 spot, senior Frank Maddox, despite his experience, is relatively buried on the depth chart at this point. True freshman Brent Miller will redshirt and rehabilitate his surgically repaired knee.

Wide Receivers

Many skeptics point to the loss of Shaun MacDonald as a reason for ASU's potential offensive regression. However, don't tell that to the current group of receivers. Junior Daryl Lightfoot, who is really starting to deliver on the tremendous potential he possesses, is slated to start at one of the spots. Few have endured what he has over the last two years, but he is going to be counted upon heavily to stretch the field and make the big plays that were McDonald's staple. Skyler Fulton, the other starter, has also come on strong, and appears to have a special chemistry with Walter. Fulton caught many 3rd down passes last year and is fearless going over the middle. Sophomore Derek Hagan is continuing to blossom. He is another possession receiver who finds the first down marker. Most are excited to see what all of the fuss is about Terry Richardson. He is ASU's most athletic receiver, and shows the ability to adjust well in the air to make the catch. Former walk-on Moey Mutz continues to just make plays, and will add valuable depth, speed, and size to this group. Incoming freshman Rudy Burgess has looked solid if not spectacular this fall. He displays a fluid style that flies right under the radar. Burgess' fine play, along with Matt Miller's injury, will allow him to play this year. Matt Miller is coming off of a good year, and if he can overcome a nagging injury, he is expected to be a big play receiver like last year. He didn't catch many passes, but all of them were impressive and for long yardage.

Offensive Line

This group was heavily maligned last year for giving up too many sacks, and not producing enough lanes for the ball carriers. All five starters return, albeit in different capacities. Tim Fa'aita will again man the left guard position and will be continuously pushed by former center Tony Aguilar. Stepping in for Aguilar at center is junior standout Drew Hodgdon who impressed last year at right guard. Senior Regis Crawford moves back to his natural guard position and will play on the right side, greatly solidifying the interior of the line. The backups are Adrian Ayala at left guard, who appears to be recovered from a nasty ankle injury and mammoth redshirt freshman Zach Krula at right guard. As we speak, the left tackle spot is being fiercely competed for. Sophomore Chaz White, a freshman All-American last year at right tackle is battling out star redshirt freshman Andrew Carnahan. Carnahan, who will probably get the nod as a starter, has the size and athleticism coaches love, but White continues to lurk around the corner and fight for his job. Grayling Love, the line's renaissance man, will man right tackle. Love can play all five positions well, but appears to have found a home for now here, much to the coaches' delight.

The Sun Devils' defense is the team's unit, which most experts predict as the weakness of the 2003 squad. Coach Koetter has continually sang the praises of this side of the ball, and with its best depth, speed and talent in recent memory, the Sun Devils defenders will aim to prove the so-called experts wrong.

Defensive Line

Pundits immediately point to the loss of Terrell Suggs as one of the biggest reasons the ASU defense won't improve this season. However, the defensive line never produced a consistent pass rush from all positions, meaning there was room for everyone to step up their game. At the end spots, sophomore sensation Nick Johnson returns after an excellent freshman campaign. He is a bigger, faster and stronger version of Suggs, and whether this translates into a Suggs-like season remains to be seen. Nonetheless, there is little doubt he will be bringing the pressure from one of the end spots. Junior Jimmy Verdon, a starter for each of the last two seasons, currently occupies the other end position. He is a big and strong weak side end, who plays the run well, and often gets double-teamed freeing up lanes for other players. Verdon appears to be coming into his own, and his sack production will need to increase along with his pass rush pressure to keep the defense effective. Connor Banks and Ishmael Thrower, the two backups, will see a lot of time at the end spots providing valuable depth and playmaking abilities. True freshman Kyle Caldwell was dominating camp until an injury in the third week. While the injury isn't serious, it was enough to slow him down for several days and keep him from getting serious minutes that are vital to prepare him for the upcoming season. A lot is expected of the local star, and his training and breeding have led him to become a very polished player despite his young age.

At defensive tackle the Sun Devils have two senior starters and two new backups. Shane Jones is the most complete tackle who posses some pass rush ability, but excellent run stuffing technique. As last season progressed, he became a steady force that made it tough to run on. Brian Montesanto is the other starter. While he is better suited for the end spot, (and may see some time there) his strength and constant motor get him a lot of playing time on the interior. JC transfer Gabe Reininger has made tremendous progress early in camp, to the point that he may get as many snaps as the starters. In addition, his presence may allow Montesanto to split outside at times. The other backup is red shirt freshman Ali Likio. Likio was going to play last year before an injury shut him down. In addition, he missed most of spring ball grieving for the loss of his mother. He is starting to turn the corner, and has a great physique and drive to play this position. Josh Kirkwood will provide depth, and true freshman Brett Palmer is likely destined to redshirt in 2003.

Linebackers

Outsiders will tell you that this unit lost its top three players and will have a tough time compensating for it. Insiders will tell you that the new players fit the scheme much better than the old ones did, as speed and coverage is the name of the game in the 4-2-5 scheme. Sophomore Jamar Williams is the unit's leader and saw the field plenty last year. He is a play making linebacker, who relentlessly pursues the ball carrier. JC transfer Justin Burks has lived up to his lofty billing and has entrenched himself as the other starter. Burks is a massive linebacker with impressive speed, and has NFL prospect written all over him. When the Devils occasionally switch to a 4-3 alignment up front, there is little doubt about who will play the middle linebacker. Redshirt freshman Jordan Hill gets the nod, as he is a nasty player who stuffs the run with ease. He also has showed fans his surprising quickness and will challenge for playing time in the regular base alignment as well. Barton Hammit knows the system better than anyone seeing that he has been on the team the longest. He provides valuable depth and also is a special teams warrior. He seemingly fully rehabbed from his knee injury and along with Hill will be slated at backup. Freshmen De'Andre Johnson and Mark Washington have both showed great potential and have the size and speed to do exactly what the system calls for. They continue to impress the coaches and as a result both won't redshirt in 2003.

Safeties

ASU's deepest position on the team carries six players who have started a game sometime in their career. The starters aren't only the most talented players in their position, but perhaps also on the entire defense. Junior Jason Shivers has the led the team in tackles in each of his first two years. Often times he has made the tackle that kept the other player from scoring. He is the quarterback of the defense and also its backbone. Junior Riccardo Stewart, one of the team's co-captains is the other cornerstone of the defense. He is a fiery undersized player who must be dragged off of the field. He played some of last year with a badly injured shoulder, and finally succumbed to it when the pain was unbearable event for even him. Up until his injury he led the conference in tackles. The other starter is freak athlete Brett Hudson. He spent much of last season playing stellar at cornerback for the Devils. This year he resumes his natural position and the sky is the limit as to his prospects. He is the biggest and the fastest of the bunch. Combined with his coverage skills, one can expect many big plays from his end.

Matt Fawley, who was tremendous last year as a true freshman, leads the second unit. He missed several games with a broken arm, but when he was on the field he was getting the job done. Joey Smith and former corner Lamar Baker bring great coverage skills and strong tackling to the safety spot. Nevertheless, they have been slowed by injuries for quite a while, and their impact this season is seriously in doubt. Consequently, three young players are starting to make a push to play early. Daniel Varvel has impressed the coaches quite a bit and has already been mentioned as a guy who will play against NAU. Varvel is a rangy safety with plenty of room to grow, and has a knack for the game that can't be taught. Josh Barrett is a special athlete who if the coaches would let him, would also see time at various other positions. Redshirt freshman J.W. Lucas had improved leaps and bounds, and has also grown physically and mentally. Darnel Henderson may not be ready yet for prime time, but he is a fearless hitter who reminds some of Riccardo Stewart. Lucas and Barrett are slated as the other two backups.

Cornerback

One spot has been locked up for a couple of years now in junior R.J. Oliver. He is a shutdown corner who led the Pac-10 in pass breakups last year. The spot opposite him has been hotly contested. Sophomores Josh Golden and Emmanuel Franklin are neck in neck, and are making Devil fans feel better about the abilities of the team's pass defense. Golden is a speedy and strong player while Franklin is pure cover guy. Both will see plenty of playing time. Backing Oliver is sophomore Mike Davis Jr., who has made plays all camp long. Despite the rumblings that he might redshirt, he has been one of the many bright spots singled out by the coaches. JC transfer Chris McKenzie is coming on strong, but is still adjusting to the game at this level and learning the style of play. His blinding speed will make up for any adjustments he has to make. Frosh Chad Green has shown a lot of promise, but may redshirt to gain some more experience.

Special Teams

Double duty seems to be quite common on this unit. Tim Parker will handle the rare reasonability of both punter and field goal kicker, while Josh Golden in the main punt and kickoff return specialist. Freshman kicker Jesse Ainsworth is handling kickoffs, and still could edge out Parker for the filed goal assignment. Lightfoot is the main backup at both returner spots, and will undoubtedly want to shake off his inconsistent play from 2002. Shivers at kickoff return and Richardson at punt return could also get some looks on Saturdays. Redshirt freshman Jason Burke has nailed down the snapper position, and is impressing special teams guru Coach Tom Osborne. Talbot will act as Burke's backup. Signal callers Christensen and Bradley will manage the holding duties on the field goal unit.

While the consensus seems to be that ASU will greatly improve on its 8-6 record from last year, several questions on both sides of the ball need to be answered. The schedule after the first two games is very formidable, and midway thru the season it could be crystal clear as to where the chips will fall for the Sun Devils. The talent and experience is abundant at the vast majority of the positions on the squad. The ability to put it all together each and every week, will determine if ASU is indeed ready to be a force in the Pac-10, let alone on the national scene.

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