Leadership Defines ASU's 2004 Senior Class

ASU's head coach isn't only impressed with how the outgoing seniors have handled themselves on the field all year. According to Dirk Koetter, the intangible contributions are just as significant.

"It's the best leadership that we've had in my four years on the inside of the football team," said Koetter. "These guys have taken that role seriously, to the point that I have allowed them to set the team goals and mission statement. I have used those words against them, sort of, when I felt like we weren't answering the scratch. It has been a big part of our motivation this season, and those guys have been a big part of that. I'm real proud of them, plus there are some real good football players and some real good guys in there."

Fittingly enough, two seniors on defense, Jimmy Verdon and Justin Burks, received game balls following the Stanford game. On offense, it was two first-year players, Rudy Burgess and Zach Miller that enjoyed the same honor. Andrew Walter also got a game ball for breaking John Elway's Pac-10 career touchdown passes record. All of the teams' seniors will serve as the game captains this week. "With the honoring of Pat Tillman, it makes it that much more special for our seniors," Koetter remarked.

Before fielding any questions, Koetter sent out, on behalf of his team, condolences to the Al Onofrio family, who mourns the passing of the former ASU coach. "Coach Onofrio was at Missouri," Koetter commented. "I spent five years at Missouri; he is a legend there, as well as close to all the people here."

The thrilling 34-31 victory over Stanford has improved ASU's mark to 5-0 at home. A win on Saturday would make it the 10th time in the last 46 seasons that the Sun Devils haven't dropped a game at Sun Devil stadium. "That has been one of our goals every year," said Koetter. "We are 14-4 over the last 18 (home) games. A big part of any major program, if you're going to have a great team, you have to be tough to beat at home. We are always talking about that. I think our players realize the importance of that. It is an awesome opportunity to finish this year out."

The dramatic win last Saturday was in jeopardy due to poor special teams play, specifically two blocked punts. The Sun Devil skipper addressed this issue. "On both of those blocked punts, they were exactly the same rush and number 90 from Stanford (Udeme Udofia) made a great play. On both of those punts we had Jamar [Williams] playing the personal protector because Riccardo had been hurt last week and we didn't get a chance to use Riccardo in practice. On most blocked punts a guy runs around the edge and gets two hands on it. On both of these, Jamar was exactly square on him (Udofia) and (he) reached his hand right over Jamar's shoulder."

"Both punts were flat instead of a high trajectory and both times he just reached his hand up there and his hand hit the ball perfectly on both of them," continued Koetter. "When we looked at the tape yesterday and Coach Osborne was telling Jamar that he has to be a little big more aggressive, which he hadn't really been in that position before. His fit was fine, but you have to give a lot of credit to number 90 (Udofia) for Stanford for two nice blocked punts. Things are going to happen in the course of a game, we dropped a punt that they recovered, and they dropped a punt that we recovered. By far the most frustrating thing by our special teams were three 15-yard penalties. Instead of them starting at the 20, they start at the 35. And two other ones, we would have had the ball around midfield, but instead we started with the ball somewhere inside our 10. At this point in the season, you shouldn't have the same guys making the same mistakes."

Once again, Andrew Walter was clutch in the fourth quarter. Does the signal caller play his best with the team's back to the wall? "He has been the last two games, that's for sure," Koetter replied. "He said it the best last week (following the UCLA win), he played his worst game followed by his best game in the same week. The one thing that is amazing about him, no matter what situation he is in, he is a mature guy. He does not lose his composure if he is not particularly playing well and if the fans are getting on him. I think that is one of the big keys in a drive like that. That drive, 80-yards in two minutes and overcoming a second and 29 and his clock management was impressive."

Another player on offense who turned in a superb performance was the wide receiver turned tailback Rudy Burgess. The redshirt freshman carried the ball 34 times for 186 yards – both career highs. "Rudy was pretty sore yesterday," said Koetter. "Rudy got off to a great start after running the ball so well in the first half. After looking at tape, I wish we would have used Preston [Jones] some there in the second half. Hakim (Hill) could have gone in an emergency. I felt like Hakim was about 85 percent in warm-ups. We decided if he looked 90 percent we would play him. I just thought he still looked a little bit tentative cutting on that ankle. I wish we would have used Preston more."

"What a huge heart," Koetter continued. "[Burgess] made some awesome plays for a guy that weighs 172 pounds. He took 66 snaps at running back, carried it 34 times, plus all of his special teams plays. He was playing on punt return, kick-off return and punt teams. I am not surprised that he can do the right thing with the ball in his hands. Rudy was a high-school tailback, wingback. A lot of guys at this level were the best player on their team so they touched the ball a lot. They want the ball a lot. The thing about Rudy, which has been awesome, is he will come right to you and say 'give me the ball', and when you do it he does something with it. A lot of guys say they want it and when they get it they don't do anything with it."

"Washington State is a pretty darn good football team," commented the ASU coach when previewing his next opponent. "When you put that film on and you see two returning starters (on defense) you're going 'that looks like the same Washington State football team from last year.' I think coach (Bill) Doba is kind of downplaying their defense. I think they're playing pretty darn well on defense. They have had some injuries in the tackle, tight end and tailback positions all year. They have been running the football a little bit more. They have their two huge offensive tackles back; those guys can play for anybody in this league. They have two big-play wide receivers, and of course the emergence of the game (Jerome) Harrison had last week. They are a good football team. I think they have won three on the road this year. They have beaten us three times in a row, plus they need two wins to become bowl eligible. Coach Doba's team always plays hard, so we are going to have our hands full."

Koetter reflected on this week's game being Walter's last ever home game: "(Walter has thrown for) 9,932 yards, 4,867 [at home], " he said. "Andrew had the choice to come out, he could be all done. Andrew means a ton to this program. He is one of the major reasons we are where we are. He could be making tons of money somewhere else, in a cold-weather city somewhere. For him to come back and lead us the way he has this year has been huge. The last two home games, I know we are going remember those forever. I know I will remember them forever. He is not done yet. Andrew has a chance to put that touchdown record so far out there so the only guy that has a chance to break it is the one that we recruit in this year's class (smile). I am so proud of the way Andrew has handled himself this season. We are going to miss him a lot, but we aren't going to miss him for three more games."

Needless to say that the most special aspect of this week's game, is retiring the jersey of former Sun Devil great Pat Tillman who was killed in the line of duty in Afghanistan last April. Koetter talked about the significance of this game. "Obviously we have honored Pat throughout the season with the patch that we wear, and I'm sure Pat wouldn't want it any other way than winning the game first. That will be our first concern, and we will pay our respects at the right time."

Koetter stated that he didn't know Tillman that well, but did share some memories of him when he did coach at another Pac-10 school. "My best memories of Pat are from when I was coaching at Oregon and we watched him on film and what a tremendous player he was," Koetter said. "When I saw him on the field during pre-game warm-ups, for that fierce of a player, his size was not intimidating. I was amazed that that guy who was making all those plays wasn't really that big in real life. When I met Pat when he was playing for the Cardinals and he would come back, I would see him in the training room. Just the charisma that he had, you meet certain players that come back that are very comfortable going in the locker room, the weight room and training room talking to the current players."

"Pat was very giving back to the program," Koetter continued. "Pat was always upbeat and talking to our players. The sacrifice he made as someone who was in the business of football, the sacrifice that he made giving up a NFL career to do what he did. When you talk to our players, we do our leadership meetings two-days a week. When I ask the players to give examples of almost any characteristic, whatever the lesson is, Pat Tillman's name always comes up. He is off the charts in our respect. The fact that his name is going up in the stadium with the likes of Danny White, Whizzer White, Al Pritchard, John Jefferson, I think that is a huge testament to his place in ASU football history, Arizona State and the whole university."

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