There is no doubt that head coach Dirk Koetter is a driven individual who is bothered the most by what transpired last year. Since the season ended the players have been forced to work even harder to be ready for the 2004 slate.
Ahead is a position-by-position look at this year's Arizona State Football team:
This position is in capable hands with senior Andrew Walter under center. Walter should have a much better balance of being an accurate passer, along with a gunslinger with an NFL-like arm. The senior has added 15 lbs. of muscle (weighed in at 234) and plans on leaving ASU after obliterating most of the school's passing records. Some media sources have tabbed Walter the #1 quarterback in next year's NFL draft. However, the most important achievement to Walter is taking ASU back to the national stage and ending his storied Sun Devil career as a winner. The anticipated increased involvement of the tight ends in the passing game, would naturally go a long way as a contributor to Walter's success in particular and the offense as a whole.
The backup position appears to belong to Sam Keller. After the backup battle ended this spring, Keller's main competition, Michael Affleck transferred to BYU. This position has Chad Christensen to add depth and experience. A pair of talented freshmen, Rudy Carpenter and Max Hall, round out the depth chart. Carpenter will likely redshirt, while Hall is a virtual lock to sit out the season as he prepares to leave for his Mormon mission in January.
Heading into last season, this position was a dire concern. This year, the Devils have a stable of experienced and talented ball carriers who will fight for playing time. Sophomore Loren Wade appears to be the best of the bunch as he runs recklessly and aggressively. The main concern with Wade is his durability and his tendency to fumble. Koetter has stated recently that he expects to go with a primary back who will get 20 plus carries a game and that Wade is likely to be that guy.
Hakim Hill remains the best pass catching threat ASU has. He also has potent breakaway speed. It's hard for fans to imagine a player with such talent staying on the sidelines, which is a testament to the incredible depth here. Randy Hill is an exciting prospect who figures to continue to improve and be a special teams warrior. Cornell Canidate, arguably the team's best back in 2002, provides valuable depth, but doesn't appear to have the style necessary to succeed in this offense. Incoming freshman Price Wilks has real speed and could be one of Koetter's great finds. Nevertheless, with four quality players in front of him, he is destined to redshirt.
The ASU wideouts have an absolute proven stud and a bunch of studs in the making. Potential displayed on the practice field needs to be realized in game situations, and with several talented players here it is hoped that great competition will bring the desired results to the forefront.
Derek Hagan is more than efficient at making things happen as a receiver. He is a possession receiver with home run threat ability. His vision and knack for the big play transformed him to being Walter's favorite target. When he plays, Terry Richardson is usually the fastest player on the field. A reverse play against Arizona last season showed his natural running ability, his explosive speed, and his big play capability. Richardson is a player who makes you excited every time he touches the ball, but doesn't appear to have the coaches' confidence as of yet. At the same time, one must remember that T-Rich is just now a sophomore and could be on the verge of breaking out.
Matt Miller's career has been marred by injuries and inconsistency. He went into last season banged up but is now completely healthy to start this season. As a junior, he could be ready to come into his own as a nice target who has an ideal combination of speed and physical stature. Rudy Burgess should be making plays early and often, as coaches hope that a solid spring practice with valuable off-season work will push him over the top. Burgess seems to just make plays in practice and has many Devil fans excited about what he can bring to the table. It's very conceivable that Burgess would be a top three wideout this year.
Coaches and fans alike are very excited over the three newcomers at this position. It would hardly register as a surprise if two of those players saw the field as true freshmen. Nathan Kimbrough is the most natural receiver of the bunch. Jeremy Payton had great success for the California squad in the Cali-Florida game, and is thrilled to get into ASU's offense. Athlete Mike Jones has shined at both the quarterback and wide receiver spot. Initially he'll get a look at receiver, and with his great football mind and tall frame (6-3 192), Fans are already looking at him as a threat in the red zone.
This position was overhauled in the off-season to allow for mainly two tight end sets, as well as to take advantage of the addition of 2 touted recruits.
Overall, the tight ends were largely silent in the team's passing game, but started to show some life in the last few weeks. Sophomore Jamaal Lewis emerged as the team's best receiving target at this role, and has also gained the trust of fellow Coloradoan Andrew Walter. Lewis is all but assured extensive playing time, and might be the answer to the red zone woes on offense. Junior Lee Burghgraef continues to be a devastating blocker and an integral key to the running game. He can catch, but it's unclear how often he'll be asked to perform that task. Aaron Austin pulled a disappearing act last season and one has to wonder what he will bring to the table in 2004. Redshirt Brent Miller will be recovering from knee surgery and it's not known how close he really is to 100%. Kellen Mills went from a walk-on to a scholarship player last fall. This year he'll continue the transition from fullback to H-back. He is a determined player and should be a key component to the run blocking.
It seemed like last season's recruiting success hinged on ASU signing Brent's younger brother Zach Miller. Not only did Zach pledge to ASU, but another valley blue chipper, Andrew Pettes ignored the competition and decided to don the maroon and gold as well. These two locals have Devil fans eager to see what Koetter envisions for his ace sets.
It is no secret that ASU could really open up the offense with the emergence of consistent tight end threats. The running game appears to be in place, and Walter has never had trouble passing the ball. Opposing defensive coordinators would get a lot less sleep if the Sun Devils effectively utilized this position in their offense.
ASU was pleased to see its running game turn around. Much of that credit should be given to the hogs up front. Last season, the team started a sophomore and a redshirt freshman at the tackle positions. Going into this year, they have four players playing their most natural positions who all return with good starting experience.
Andrew Carnahan appears set to man the right tackle position for the next three years. He is a mountain of a man and is quickly learning the tricks of the trade. Grayling Love did a great job at right tackle last year, and should really evolve at his natural left guard position. Love is a team leader and looks to anchor the interior of the line with center Drew Hodgdon, who will finish his Sun Devil career as a three-year starter. His steady play goes unsung, but is the key to ASU running up the gut. Drew is second only to Walter as the senior with the best prospects of playing on Sundays. Chaz White spent last season as a backup, but following spring ball he was running as the first string left tackle. New position coach Brent Meyers likes White's athletic ability in protecting the signal caller's blind side. The lone unsettled starting spot is right guard. Zach Krula parlayed his opportunity in spring into the leading candidate for the job. Picturing him at 6-7 next to Carnahan at 6-8 is an exciting prospect. Another player expected to compete is the mammoth Julius Orieukwu (6-6 311). Similar in build to Carnahan, Orieukwu has the size, wingspan and athleticism to push his way into the lineup.
There are some other young players who are hoping to fight for a chance at starting. Stephen Berg had a solid spring and is only going to be a sophomore this year. He is one of the strongest players on the team, and if he doesn't win the right guard job, he might be the top backup at both guard positions. Last year's redshirts Robert Gustavis, Brandon Rodd and Mike Pollak will all be given a chance to compete this fall and the coaching staff has never been shy about playing first year players. At the very worst, many of them will be rounding up the two-deep. Rodd is the backup at left tackle, while Pollak and Gustavis will back up all three interior positions and drew a lot of praise from the staff during spring ball.
The coaching staff again did very well in recruiting at this position. Headlining the group are Bradis McGriff and Leo Talavou. Both players were the top linemen for California in the CaliFlorida bowl. Not to be ignored are Brent Russum and Jonathan Lehman. Both young players are in the middle of growing and have the athleticism the coaches crave. All four are virtual locks to redshirt, and could be joined by another great California lineman – Ryan Sorenson. With all its newcomers ASU has a full-blown three-deep roster that has a lone senior.
To say this position concerns the coaching staff, the team, and every Sun Devil fan around, would be a gross understatement. The depth, or lack there of, is the team's overall most pressing issue. However, the starting four are pretty well set and have experience. Jimmy Verdon was solid last season, but didn't make as many spectacular plays as anticipated. He will be a senior next season with three years of starts under his belt. He also is taking his growth and strength and moving inside to defensive tackle. That is great news for the interior of the line but it also makes the outside weaker. Verdon's tag team partner will be Gabe Reininger. Gabe is formidable against the run, and will look to add some pass rush at times.
Ishmael Thrower started to make his impact in the second half of the season. He brings a lot of speed to the position and should be a strong contributor next season. He is lighter than some of the other defensive ends and may have to prove that he can effectively stop the run. Sophomore Kyle Caldwell is the most talented player of the bunch. Regrettably, he was slowed by an injury in camp and wasn't able to get to full speed until the later part of the season. However, what the coaches and fans saw was tantalizing. Caldwell was able to beat tackles with speed or strength, something that is rare to find in a freshman player. He is set to start this season and has been identified as a player who could make a huge leap.
Connor Banks spent the spring fighting for a starting defensive tackle job, until he found some off the field trouble, which will cause him to miss fall camp, as well as the season opener. How much he can contribute from that point on is anybody's guess. Jordan Hill was a pleasant surprise at defensive tackle this spring. A player with a reputation for hitting and hitting hard, Hill will get to strike more than ever. BAM, as he is called by his teammates, will probably be entrenched in the two-deep and will learn the nuances of the position as the season grows. Another player who made a position change was Mike Talbot. With the deletion of the fullback spot, Talbot was asked to take his speed and defensive talents to the defensive end position. He has a red shirt at his disposal and it is not sure if it will be used at this point.
Tempe's Marcos de Niza's Brett Palmer redshirted last year and is another big body to plug up the middle. Since he is the only other scholarship player at the position, he will be counted on to provide valuable depth.
The Sun Devils signed four defensive linemen last season and still felt as though they didn't hit their desired numbers. Expected and probably needed to make an immediate impact are junior college transfers Quency Darley and DeWayne Hollyfield. Darley was the subject of a heavy recruiting battle between ASU and Iowa. Hollyfield snuck under the radar during recruiting season, but has all the right tools on paper. The quicker this duo can contribute, the quicker the concerns of this position can vanish. The two weren't able to make it for spring ball, so the transition will have to be made rather quickly. Nevertheless, the little quality depth ahead of them should motivate both.
The team signed two high school linemen in Wes Evans and David Smith. It's assumed both would redshirt and add some weight, although the depth at DL isn't significant enough to rule out that one of them might be needed at some point.
With the announcement that the defensive unit is going to switch to a 4-3 to toughen up against the run, several players in the current linebacker core were affected. Justin Burks will play the middle line backer role for the defense, while Jamar Williams will now get the initial look as the new "Devil" linebacker. To do this the coaches will have to rely on junior college transfer Dale Robinson to man the "Backer" strong side spot that Williams was going to be playing at. Robinson is a pass rushing player who might get some looks at defensive end during obvious passing downs.
The Sun Devil nation should see improvement from an unspectacular performance this past season. Last year's starters were learning on the fly and were unable to play the position with reckless abandon. While they all made many plays, their newness to the position was obvious.
Mark Washington saw the field plenty in his first year and will fight his way into the lineup for sure. He is a physically capable player who appears to grasp the style of play quickly. De'Andre Johnson should be up to full speed by this spring and be given a chance to see what he can do. He redshirted last year after sitting out the year before to get his grades ready for college. In high school he had the sideline-to-sideline coverage that coaches love. Not only will he be in the mix here, but he'll also be a bonus to the special teams.
Following spring practice, the "Devil" backer was all set to be manned by junior Matt Fawley. Unfortunately, he was suspended for violation of team rules and will be sidelined for the season. His primary backups were Lamar Baker, Robert James and J.W. Lucas. Baker's journey is an interesting one. He played cornerback as a true freshman, redshirted, and then played safety as a sophomore. James was a redshirt last year and is a well-rounded athlete. Lucas was recruited to ASU as an athlete and has now settled in at the linebacker spot. In addition to them, true freshman Antone Saulsberry was a player talked about by the staff as someone they envision for the "Devil" position. He is labeled as being very fast, although his proving ground will come in fall practice to see if he is ready to play right away. The Sun Devils also brought in local product Adam Vincent. Vincent is a homegrown kid who always wanted to go to ASU. This young man is still growing and should become a solid contributor early on in his career.
The much-famed trio is no longer. Not only are the Devils not running out three safeties anymore, but two of its staples, Jason Shivers and Brett Hudson, have both moved on. Riccardo Stewart returns to lead the defensive unit. He is a warrior on the field, but has a frame that gets him easily injured far too often. Beyond that he is exposed in the passing game unless he is covering a tight end or running back. Stewart continues to be the emotional leader of the team and may find out that he stands to take less of a pounding with three linebackers in front of him. Daniel Varvel and Josh Barrett are players who should get long looks at the safety spot as well. At the very least they are the future of Sun Devil football at this role. In addition, spring junior college transfer Maurice London threw his name into the fold as a player to count on. London moved really well and was seen making big plays frequently in the spring. He will battle Emmanuel Franklin for playing time. Franklin had a stellar spring and really gave himself a great chance to be the starter this year. The former cornerback has come all the way back from his serious head injury and now is looking to be a starter as a senior. Recruiting also brought in local star Myrio Davis, and Angelo Fobbs-Valentino. Both are likely to redshirt this year with 5-6 players in front of them.
R.J. Oliver and Chris McKenzie are entrenched as the starters this year. A more experienced McKenzie should be more of an athlete and less of a thinker, as he lets his speed to take over. Oliver is 100% healthy and could get back to the lock down corner from he was in his sophomore season. Josh Golden and Mike Davis Jr. add experienced depth and seemed to thrive under the tutelage of new corners' coach Mark Carrier. Both of these players have special physical gifts, but haven't been able to translate that onto the field
Redshirt freshman Chad Green was the defensive scout team player of the year and will be in the mix for the nickel back spot. Green might be the most talented corner on the team. After battling a nagging injury during the spring, it wouldn't surprise anyone to see him on the field early and often. Josh Barrett may get a look at this position also. The Sun Devils were excited to add home grown Uriah Marshall on letter of intent day. Uriah has a great deal of upside and while he may redshirt this season, he should quickly be a contributor following this season.
Sun Devil fans on all sides of the argument realize that the defense must turn it around for this year's team to be successful. Even if the offense is hitting on all cylinders they can't be expected to always outscore the prolific offenses of the Pac-10. The biggest scrutiny falls on defensive coordinator Brent Guy. Time will tell if the alignment change will bring different results than 2003. ASU has shown the ability to play great defense at times, but a consistent effort will do more for the overall chances of success for the team than anything else this year.
Special teams were solid last year, but not spectacular, which is what Sun Devil fans expect out of a coach with the reputation of Coach Osborne. The kicking game was inconsistent as expected with then true freshman kicker Jesse Ainsworth. Ainsworth has the leg strength and the toughness few kickers can claim. He will be a valuable weapon this year now that he has experience under his belt. The kickoff coverage may also get a reprieve if Ainsworth is allowed to boot the ball out of the end zone with regularity.
Walk-on Chris MacDonald was impressive last fall and in the spring and is expected to start. Efforts to bring in a punter through recruiting were unsuccessful and the team followers are nervous as an unproven commodity will handle a very important part of the game. Jason Burke is a sure snapper, and will continue in that role in 2004. Burgess and Richardson are currently the team's top return guys.
Going on the road for the second game of the season could prove to be a tough learning ground for MacDonald. Ainsworth, however, should really step up to another level and may even be an added weapon in the devil offense.
The schedule sets up favorably for the Sun Devils. They have some tough games on the road with USC, Oregon and Cal. However, they get Washington State and Iowa at home as well as Stanford, Oregon State and UCLA.
Devils Digest identifies the following as the keys to an 8 win season: -Winning five games at home. -The absolute switch to a 4-3 defense. ASU will run 3 LB's that are 240+ lbs. -Avoiding the big play on defense -Having an established back as the focal point of the offense -The emergence of the tight end in the passing game -A healthy Andrew Walter