Spring Practice Answers Questions, Raises Others

Whenever a team's offense is pitted against its own defense for 15 practices, conclusions may be hard to come by. The ever-swinging pendulum of momentum will highlight one side of the ball, and in a matter of days cast a shadow of doubt on the group just applauded. Nevertheless, we believe that some pre-spring questions have been answered, while others are waiting for a solution in fall camp.

Q: Based on his performance in spring practice, does Andrew Walter look poised to have a strong senior year?

A: Yes he does. We're not only basing this on the spring ending scrimmage, but rather on his overall performance the last four weeks. Coach Koetter stated that the improvement in Walter's mechanics was quite evident during the fourth practice session. Walter was asked to be more mobile, and he displayed very encouraging sings in that area. Even his intangible qualities, such as leadership, have shined during spring. All in all, the senior gave no reason to think that his last year at ASU shouldn't be a memorable one.

Q: OK, so if Walter had such a great spring that means that other receivers other than Derek Hagan have emerged as prime arial targets, right?

A: Well, the jury is still out on that one. Hagan was certainly head and shoulders over the rest of the wide receiver group. However, the question of who will start at other wideout remains a mystery. Currently, Rudy Burgess seems like the prime candidate. Terry Richardson came on strong late in spring practice, and if Matt Miller can ever stay healthy his glimpses of brilliance in the past definitely don't preclude him from being considered a starter. A talented group of newcomers, headed by Michael Jones, could potentially contend and change the depth chart, if not challenge for a starting role.

Q: Last year the offensive line was arguably the best unit on the team. Will this feat repeat itself in 2004?

A: If you asked us this question at the beginning of spring, we would say it's a no brainer. Nonetheless, injuries took its toll on the maroon and gold hogs, and their performance has dropped considerably in the late stages of spring practice. This unit may have several first and second year players, but veterans such Drew Hodgdon and Grayling Love are proving to be effective leaders. If this unit shows up 100% (or at least very close to it) healthy in August, one can expect them to have their way on the line of scrimmage.

Q: The running backs core was another solid group in 2003. Based on the last few weeks, are they also primed for another good season?

A: Much like the offensive line, health will dictate the answer to this question. It wasn't unusual to see only two running backs running drills during spring, but what this group may have lacked in depth it more than compensated with sheer talent. Loren Wade and Hakim Hill battled injuries, but when given the chance both were solid on the field. It will be hard to call Randy Hill a dark horse anymore, since he has shown as much talent and skill as the other two. Cornell Canidate was held out of spring practice, and one cannot discount his prospective contribution. You don't have to wear rose-colored glasses to say that this group of running backs is clearly one of the best in the Pac-10.

Q: The offense switched to a two tight end set. Has this move been a successful one?

A: It definitely didn't seem to hamper the offense on run or pass plays. However, those who expected this alignment to result in more tight end involvement in the passing game, probably came away disappointed. The combination of a tight end who's blocking skills are as good as his receiving skills is quite rare in the world of football. ASU has a great blocking tight end in Lee Burghgraef, and to a lesser extent Kellen Mills. Jamaal Lewis, by far the best receiving tight end on the team, was the primary beneficiary when the pigskin was tossed to someone in this group. Tyrice Thompson, a converted wide receiver, was probably the most pleasant surprise on the whole offense. Once he can bring his solid receiving skills up to par (or at least very close) to his blocking skills, he could make a strong push for a starting position. Brent Miller was held out of contact drills, and along with brother Zach and Andrew Pettes will significantly upgrade the talent at this position.

Q: Some fans have been losing sleep over the prospects of the Sun Devil defense line. Did spring practice put those worries to rest?

A: To some extent, and this may come as surprise to some, this unit wasn't looking too shabby at all. With Jimmy Verdon recovering from surgery, the depth (or lack of) at defensive end looked a lot like the one at running back. But just like the running backs, those that were on the field did nothing to reflect the dwindling numbers. Kyle Caldwell was probably the most consistent defensive lineman through out spring, and at times Ishmael Thrower showed why he's one of the best pass rushers on the team. Converted fullback Mike Talbot showed some promise in his new position.

Many expected Gabe Reininger to step up as the veteran defensive tackle, and he generally didn't disappoint. Connor Banks, who moved from defensive end, was somewhat average. Jordan Hill, who converted from linebacker was a pleasant surprise at defensive tackle and could probably be more of factor than once believed. Brett Palmer had a very productive spring game, and is worth keeping an eye on up in the pines of Payson. If junior college transfers Quency Darley and DeWayne Hollyfield can come blazing out of the gates in the fall, suddenly the front line of the defense could easily exceed the low expectations some are putting on them.

Q: The defense moved to a 4-3-4 alignment. How did the three linebacker set look?

A: While Jamar Williams at "SAM" was for the most part quiet through out spring, Justin Burks has fitted very nicely into the "MIKE" (i.e. middle linebacker) role. Matt Fawley is one of several safeties to make the move to this unit, and as it stands now he will be the starter at the "DEVIL" spot. The depth here is real encouraging with Lamar Baker, DeAndre Johnson, Robert James, and Mark Washington who all showed good ability during different periods of spring practice. The purpose of the 4-3-4 was to simplify assignments, and judging by the success of the linebackers, suffice to say that mission has been accomplished.

Q: On the same token, how did the safeties look in light of the new defensive scheme?

A: We hate to sound like a broken record, but this position was another one that was razor thin in its depth due to various ailments. Ironically, the two players who were considered to best safeties on the team, Ricardo Stewart and Josh Barrett, were held out (Barrett for all of spring, and Stewart for long stretches). No one seized the opportunity better than Emmanuel Franklin, who made a very successful switch from cornerback. JC transfer Maurice London definitely showed enough skill to think that he would play significant minutes this season. Daniel Varvel is another player that couldn't show much in light of his physical condition. Things got so dire with this group that Mike Davis moved from cornerback for the last two practices, just to fill the gaping holes here. As luck would have it, he really shined in his limited opportunity and he could be a new face to toss into the mix here come fall.

Q: The cornerbacks were called the most underachieving group in 2003. How did they look in the spring?

A: They really didn't make a strong impression for good or bad. Each player had his good moments and not so good moments. R.J. Oliver is still entrenched a starter, and the starting role opposite him could come down to Chris McKenzie or Josh Golden. Before going on his short safety stint, Mike Davis showed glimpses of good play, and Chad Green did the best he could wearing a protective boot. We would say that we're undecided as to whether this group showed the ability to make 2004 a much better year for them. Camp T will undoubtedly determine if this unit can make a 180-degree turn.

Q: With very two young kickers, our special teams could be suspect. Did spring practice reaffirm that?

A: To some extent yes. Both kicker Jesse Ainsworth and punter Chris McDonald were shaky for the first couple of weeks, but came on strong towards the end. Once again, we'll have to defer to August to make a more educated projection on their chances of success this season.

Q: Have one or more players surface as dangerous kick and punt returners?

A: Absoultely. Burgess and Richardson had their own little duel in this area the last two scrimmages – something they can only enhance ASU's special teams. Golden may be the third best returner on the team, but by no means is he a distant third. Healed players and fall newcomers may shake up the mix at this position, and create even stiffer competition.

Q: Were the additions of Mark Carrier and Brent Myers to the coaching staff noticeable in their impact?

A: Very much so. Both coaches have found that coveted path between being a motivator and teacher. Both are enthusiastic, and contribute to the overall increase in the passion, competition, and attitude on this team. In 2004, Carrier's cornerbacks may have more to prove than Myers' offensive linemen, but we believe that their respective units should nothing to embarrass their skippers. Overall, two quality additions to Koetter's staff.

Q: Coming off a 5-7 season, the team entered spring practice with many clouds of doubt hanging over them. How should we feel now that they concluded the spring session?

A: Cautiously optimistic. The defense, which took the brunt of last year's criticism, may have found new life with their new and simplified scheme. As mentioned, the defense line played better than expected, and that can cause a positive trickle down effect through out the other defensive units. On offense, we believe that the offensive line will heal enough to become a dominant unit once again. If more wide receivers and tight ends can step up on a consistent basis in the passing game, the Sun Devils' offense can utilize a strong ground attack while punishing teams for double teaming Derek Hagan. Consistency is also required from the kickers in order to round up what appears to be a good special teams group.

Regular season success isn't solely determined by spring practice performance. More than anything, these last 15 practices serve as a collective team measuring stick entering fall camp. Therefore, we believe that there are more reasons to be excited than concerned for what we can expect come August.

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