Experience Shows on Sun Devils Team

Been there – done that. That's probably the hip way of describing the Arizona State football team in regards to their high number of returning players on both sides of the ball, as well as the high number of upperclassmen on the squad. This is a notion that Head Coach Dirk Koetter and quarterback Sam Keller highlighted during media day on Saturday.

"We're sure excited to get started," said Koetter. "We have a veteran team. They're listed as nine starters back on offense, but if you really look at the guys that have started: Sam (Keller) has started at quarterback, Mike Pollak started four games at center, Chaz White has started off and on in his career at tackle. So you really have more than a full team that has started on offense."

"Defensively, we have six guys back," Koetter continued. "You take guys like R.J. (Oliver) and Josh (Golden) for granted, those guys have a combined 53 starts in their careers at ASU. Having them out there has been really good the last couple of days. All of the specialists are back: our return guys, holders, kicker, punter – all back. We have a lot of guys that can also challenge for those return jobs."

Zach Miller, Josh Barrett, Preston Jones, and Stephen Berg aren't 100% healthy and thus are sporting orange non-contact jerseys. Team doctors will keep watchful eye on them and determine when they'll be fully cleared.

The six captains for the 2005 season, as voted by the team, are Derek Hagan, Grayling Love, Lee Burghgraef, Sam Keller, Jordan Hill and Jamar Williams. "Those guys did a nice job over the summer time taking leadership roles," Koetter stated. "We have some other good leaders on the team as well. That part has been nice. When the players take ownership of the little things that they know need to be done for us to be successful – that makes it easier on the coaches."

The only change in the coaching staff from last year was a significant one. Former University of Florida Bill Miller replaced Bent Guy who took the head coaching position at Utah State. The ASU skipper talked about the implications of this change. "I'm happy with what Bill Miller has done with the defense," he remarked. "We'll still play the 4-3, and play a little more nickel – we didn't really play much nickel last year, and our first few years we were nickel all the time. Bill has a little bit different style than Coach (Brent) Guy had. Sometimes a change just for the change sake is good. Bill is a good football coach and brings a little more edge to our defense that will show up four weeks down the road."

Miller and Guy were both tutored under former Dallas Cowboys and Miami Dolphins coach Jimmy Johnson and his 4-3 scheme. However, Miller was also under the tutelage of current Miami Dolphins coach Nick Saban, which helped him in his development as a coach. "In the past we played man, we played zone, we played blitz man and zone blitz…but Bill just has a lot of defense, a lot of terms. More personnel groups…just to give an example: a man-free coverage. Four-man rush, everybody is covered up, and then one or two extra guys floating on the field doubling on the receivers. Many teams will play that one way, but Bill has many variations on that. He has a lot of different zone pressures, different zone blitzes."

"When Bill coached under Nick Saban you can see that influence," Koetter continued. "It has really put him on the cutting edge of how defenses prepare. When you watch Bill teach our defense, it's a very elaborate Power Point presentation. Very detail-oriented with every position, and it's much more based in an NFL-type defense. Offenses in the Pac-10 are sophisticated offenses. This is a more sophisticate defense. The challenge is on the defensive players. They'll need to get into the playbook more. I was pleased in the spring, and I've been pleased so far with our top defensive guys and how they take to it."

On defense, Koetter mentioned linebacker Jamar Williams and Dale Robinson as "huge playmakers." He added that safety Jeremy Payton is the leading candidate to be inserted into the lineup in nickel coverage situations.

Out of all the positions on the team, there's probably not one position that lacks experience as the safety core does. Josh Barrett, who played in ten games, is back from injury, and is listed as starter along with the resurgent Maurice London.. London was recruited to start alongside Riccardo Stewart, but was ultimately loss that battle to Emmanuel Franklin. "Sometimes when a kid comes over from a junior college, he's not quite ready to make the transition into the Pac-10," Koetter explained. "Maurice London looks like a totally different guy out there. When you see the two JC guys Zach Catanese and Derron Ware – they look like Pac-10 football players. Zach did a nice job in spring ball. We're gonna have to see how Derron does – it looks like he can learn it pretty quick. When we start hitting people we'll see how that part goes. That safety thing will work itself out."

The defensive line has its own question marks, but just like the safety position Koetter is certain that this area won't be one of concern "We're all sitting fired up here about having Jordan Hill coming back at tackle, and a year ago we're moving Jordan from linebacker to defensive tackle, and we didn't know how that was gonna work," said Koetter. "There are question marks here, but I'm pretty confident that the guys will step up. We have two second-year junior college players in Quency Darley and Dewayne Hollyfield. You have two new junior college players in Shannon Jones and Will Kofe, and Will Kofe has looked excellent the last couple of days. And then you have some veterans like Mike Talbot. He's going into his senior year, and right now if we played a game he would be one of those (defensive) ends. When you look at our D-line group the depth is there. When it comes to who is going to actually win the spots, that is still a little unclear. I'm confident that it will take shape."

The offensive line is the deepest area on the team, and is headed by first team Al Pac-10 selection Grayling Love. "Having Grayling in the center of the line is going to be good for everybody," Koetter remarked. "Grayling is maybe the smartest guy out there and he is a natural center. If you look at all those giant guys we have and that Grayling made All-Pac-10 as a tackle it's kind of funny because he's one of the smallest linemen out there. He is so smart and along with the quarterback, the center makes all of the calls out there so this is good for our team. It's good for Grayling in the long run." Koetter also mentioned the benefit of having Chaz White and Brandon Rodd as players that both have started at left tackle in their careers and thus offer a lot of flexibility. Mike Pollak, who started four games at center in 2004 is going to be the new swingman on the line, due to the desire to leave Love at center.

Wide receiver Derek Hagan is the perfect example of how an under recruited player can quickly turn into one the best at his position in the Pac-10. There's much to admire about him according to the ASU head coach. "The three things I'd like to say about Derek (Hagan) are for one, Derek is very durable and a guy that's been able to last," Koetter stated. "He doesn't miss games and he certainly doesn't miss practice. The second thing about Derek is that he can take that 15-yard catch and turn it into a big play. He's done that a lot over his career. I don't how he does it. He either breaks a tackle, sometimes he makes the guy miss, and sometimes he just outruns the guy. Derek is much faster than people give him credit for. Third, Derek is a hard worker. Not all of our best players here have been great practice players. Terrell Suggs was a great practice player, and Derek Hagan is a great practice player and that sure sets a great example for the young guys."

No one is questioning the fact that Rudy Burgess needs to be on the field as many snaps as possible. Nevertheless, the manner in which he is used, specifically as a starting running back expected to carry the pigskin 25 plus times, still remains to be seen. "That's a good question," Koetter replied to an inquiry on this topic. "We'll have to see how Rudy holds up. He's around 185-186 (pounds). Will he keep that weight through camp? Some of that depends on the other tailbacks. I would say that it's nice to have Cornell (Canidate) and Randy Hill out there. Just having their maturity and confidence will help with the burden on Rudy. We have five or six other guys vying for playing time at tailback as well. Having some depth will help us. But Rudy has proved to us all of last year that we need to get the ball in his hands. It's just a matter of how many times he can have it in his hands and hold up for 11 games. I don't know the answer to that yet, and I may not know for a while."

The picture concerning the running backs as a group, is somewhat unclear as well. "We probably won't define the roles quite yet until we find out who's gonna hold up," Koetter remarked. "Every year it seems like those running back lines start out very long and dwindle down pretty quickly. Running back, on offense, is the hardest position to play physically because you're getting hit just about every play. We'll have to see how Rudy does, how will Randy and Cornell hold up. Saulsberry played for us a little. You have Dewitty, Herring, Price Wilks…Preston Jones is coming off shoulder surgery. The doctors told me that he'll probably never play football again, and here he is. Preston saved our bacon a couple of times at the end of the season last year. So I'm not gonna count any of those guys out." He added that the learning curve of true freshman Shaun Dewitty and Keegan Herring is obvious, but it's also quite evident that those guys posses talent.

There seems to be a sentiment among fans that Derek Shaw has a great chance to replace Rudy Carpenter as backup quarterback. Koetter came to the defense of the redshirt freshman signal caller. "Rudy is the backup quarterback today and will be until someone unseats him," said the Sun Devil skipper. "Rudy worked very hard this summer in the classroom (i.e. football classroom). Rudy knows that he has to get better fast. I'm a lot higher on Rudy Carpenter than most people are. I'll take my word over everybody else's (laughs). I like Rudy Carpenter a lot. He's gonna be one of those quarterbacks that's gonna look really bad on some plays. But he's also gonna make some plays that won't be exactly how you drew it up, and at the end you'll go ‘good job.' Playing quarterback is very important to him. I hope Sam doesn't get hurt, but when Rudy's time comes I think he'll be ready for that."

Regardless of Carpenter's status, Derek Shaw has been igniting the imagination with his displays in practice. Nonetheless, he does have some ground to make up. "When you watch practice, it takes you five minutes to realize that Derek Shaw has a gift throwing the football," Koetter explained. "He's totally lost right now, which pretty much all freshman quarterbacks are. He's swimming in terminology right now. The only freshman quarterback that hasn't been totally lost, that we had ever had, was Sam Keller. He (Shaw) turns the wrong way about half of the time but that guy can throw the ball. We can teach him how to turn the right way a lot easier than we can teach him how to throw. Derek will be in the mix sometime, someday. But for right now. Rudy is gonna be tough to beat at backup quarterback."

Chad Christensen will line up under center in an extreme situation, but for now he's the undisputed versatility kind on the team. "Watch Chad in the course of practice," said Koetter. "He'll be with (QB's Coach) Mark Helfrich ten minutes, then he'll go with Tom Osborne and work with the tight ends and H-Backs, then he'll be with Darryl Jackson working at receiver, then he's with special teams, then with Coach Nordquist playing running back…Chad can play any one of the skill position. He has a great attitude. He will help our football team."

When asked what concerns him regarding Sam Keller, Koetter replied: "When things don't go well for him personally, we just haven't seen in a game yet how he's gonna react. I've been around Sam for the last two years and I think he's gonna be fine. But if he throws a pick in the first play against Temple, and throws a pick in the second series against Temple – how will he react to that? How is he gonna react when he gets booed or knocked down a couple of times? We don't know that for sure. Sam has been trained to play quarterback from the time he was a kid. His dad's situation (Michael Keller was an All-American player at Michigan), having a personal quarterback tutor Roger Theder who coached in the NFL…I'm not really worried about Sam other than the normal: that he doesn't get hurt in practice…Sam's mental part will be fine."

The junior from Danville, Calif. may have exhibited much exuberance following his touchdown passes in the Sun Bowl, but displays quiet confidence in his abilities, as well as those of his teammates. After all, getting game reps at quarterback is something that he has yearned for a while. Thus, when this situation presented itself against Arizona in last regular season game, Sam Keller was up to the task. "It was a situation that you know going into every game, that I could be playing," said Keller. "In the Arizona game given the circumstances, down 14 with two minutes remaining, I didn't have time to think. I had to rely on our coaching, on my instincts and just go out there and play ball. Good things happened for us in that last stretch."

Experience (there's that word again) from that game has helped Keller take his skills to the next level. "It's done a lot for me," he explained, "as far as me knowing what I can do, I know that during crunch time I can make those plays. With the Sun Bowl, it gave me the opportunity to experience what it's like to prepare for a game as the starter. Not only has it given me a lot of confidence, it gave the whole team confidence. Every one who has come back this year is a proven player with experience. I was going to be the only one coming in as a starter this year who was not proven somewhat."

Keller didn't rest on his laurels, and put the last eight or so months to good use. "I've been working on watching more film and throwing more balanced," he remarked. "During the spring, I didn't feel that I was consistent. I had some good days, but about half the time I was just so-so and I wanted to work on that. That was the time of the year to work on that. Now, we're getting ready to play our games in the big time. I don't want to leave anything to chance so I have taken it more seriously working on the little things and getting ready. This is an exciting time."

His performance has naturally awarded him the trust of his teammates, something that Keller dearly cherishes. "It means a lot to me," he explained. "I have a lot of respect for these guys, they are my friends and my teammates. For me to be able to look into their eyes and know that they trust me, that just gives me a whole extra boost. When I can look right back at them and see how they've improved themselves already, looking at the Stanford game and the UCLA game, where they are battle-tested. Now that I know that I can do that same thing, I think we can make this a very special year, especially if our games are coming down to that (the wire in the fourth quarter)."

All season the inevitable comparisons to Andrew Walter are bound to take place. How will the Sun Devil signal caller deal with those expectations? "I have been putting a lot of pressure on myself to be as good as Andrew Walter," he commented. "Those are big shoes to fill and I am not going to be Andrew Walter. The thing that I have to realize is that I have to be myself. I am a good quarterback as well and there are things that I can bring to the table. What I had to realize was that I am going to make the plays. Seeing a game where I made those plays, like Purdue."

"Andrew and I are different quarterbacks, but I can get the job done just as well," Keller continued. "But frankly, any quarterback could come in here and drive this offense down the field because of the guys that are surrounding me and how the staff prepares me for the situations. Our athletes are so good that the sky is the limit for this team."

An effective ground attack can be a quarterback's best friend – a fact not overlooked by Keller who will head an attack that is more vertical in nature. "We're gonna throw the ball a lot – that's no secret," he said. "But if we can get a solid running game…get five yards here or break a big one…you saw in the Sun Bowl how well the running game was a factor. If we can get a guy that can do it like Rudy (Burgess)…the thing I see with our running game is that there are a lot of hungry guys that are ready to get out there and play. In these practices and Camp T we'll see how it all pans out and how much guys want it. We all know that Rudy can play, but there's questions about his size or whatever. It will be interesting to see what happens, but we all know that Rudy is a very good player."

With virtually all the offensive starters back in 2005, Sam Keller cannot help but feel comfortable going into the season. "It definitely makes me more comfortable knowing that those guys have my back," he remarked. "I know those guys feel like I am a returning starter and I feel like a returning starter. I know that I didn't play all those games that Andrew did, but I will be there and I will be ready for all those games. I think that the eight starters that are back know that. That's what is important, rather than anything else."

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