Not only is Head Coach Dirk Koetter pleased with his team's progression, but he realizes that his current squad is the most talented he has had in his Arizona State tenure. "Considering that we practiced nine or ten times we got a lot in on both sides of the ball," said Koetter. "I think you can see that we got some good football players. We have a lot of things that we need to iron out. We had too many penalties, too many turnovers…but turnovers are also a two-way street. Even though it's bad for the offense, it's great that our defense is making plays on the ball."
"This is the most skilled team we've had since I've been here and we're further along than any other team since I've been here," Koetter continued. "We are making progress everyday and we're going to keep getting better. We are not where we want to be but I think we're making good progress."
The Sun Devil skipper said that he saw the writing on the wall Friday night, and realized that Defensive Coordinator Bill Miller was about to have his players unleash an attack during the scrimmage. "I was sitting in the defensive meeting when Bill challenged the defense," Koetter recalled. "I wanted to sprint over and tell the offense ‘you better buckle it up because they're going to come out smoking.' I kept the head coach's creed and didn't tell anybody."
It's common to expect for the defense to be ahead of the offense in the early stages of camp. Koetter disagrees with that notion, and points to other factors that contributed to what happened on Saturday. "I think the hardest thing for the offense is that it is hard to get in a rhythm when you are going in three different groups," Koetter explained. "I think if we just played our 1 defense verses our 1 offense all day long it would be a heck of a football game. I think that when you get to the third offense verses the third defense the third defense is way ahead. So that puts kind of a drain over everything else. The third D was getting a turnover for a touchdown every time they were out there."
Some of those turnovers and defensive scores are credited to Jeremy Payton, who is quickly emerging as one of the best playmakers on defense. "Jeremy Payton is playing a lot for us in our nickel defense," Koetter remarked. "We think he has enough talent to be a wide receiver or a DB. He is just a real good player. He has a nose for the football. He's got great hands, he's tough, he's pretty smart on the field; so he was in the right place at the right time a couple of times today." On offense, Koetter praised Keegan Herring not only for his performance on Saturday, but his overall consistency.
It seemed that Jeremy Payton was feasting mainly on true freshman quarterback Derek Shaw. Koetter didn't seem worried about the signal caller, and expected him to see better days. "The hardest thing is the adjustment from high school football to college football," Koetter explained. "We have thrown a lot at Derek. Anyone who knows anything about quarterback play knows that that ball comes out of Derek Shaw's hand very pretty. He's just a little bit overwhelmed right now with all of the new stuff - it's like we are talking a foreign language to him, but he'll be fine. It was a rocky start but if he's half the competitor that I think he is, he'll bounce back."
Special team is an area that Koetter was going to follow closely during camp. He shared his impression of this unit following the Saturday scrimmage. "I would say the number one thing is that we have a lot of good return guys," he said. "We didn't do a great job of tackling and we still have to tackle in space with our punt team. Our kickoff team tackled really well in space. The guy that was probably the most impressive was (Chris) McGaha. He was going against the first group. Nate Kimbrough was going 2's against 2's while McGaha was up there against the 1's. Golden had one, T-Rich had one, Keegan is another good return guy. We are not even talking about Rudy (Burgess) because he didn't get his hands on the ball today."
It was probably only symbolic that Jamaal Lewis scored the only offensive touchdown in the game, since the tight end has started fall camp with a renewed and positive attitude. "This is the most focused and committed that Jamaal Lewis has been in quite some time," Koetter commented. "We told Jamaal that he can have it all. The guy's gifted and he showed it today. You'll never see a prettier play than the one down in the end zone. That is how he has been practicing. Guys that practice that way, that is usually how they play in the game."
Jeremy Payton was humble after his spectacular performance, and pointed more to the overall defensive showing as the impressive aspect of the scrimmage. "I am just trying to do what I can," he said. "I am still new to the defense and I was rotating between the 2's and the 3's. I think we (the defense) made a statement. I think everybody underestimates our defense. People know Arizona State as an offensive team so we are just out here to basically to make a statement." Some may have thought that defense's performance was surprising but Payton isn't among those who share that opinion. "It wasn't surprising to me because I play defense. The offense was talking a lot and everybody was getting in each other's head. So, it really wasn't surprising."
The consequences of playing well are obviously not limited to the scrimmage, but also determines one's fortune as the season progresses. "There are a lot of spots open so everybody is battling and doing their best to get on the field when the season starts," Payton explained. "You just want to let the coach know what you can do. You just have to be consistent and play well in the next scrimmage."
When Payton arrived at ASU he did so as a wide receiver, but his talents at defensive back were never forgotten. In the off-season he moved to safety, and overall it seems like he has found his place. "I actually like defense a lot better," he claimed. "On defense I feel that I can run around more and have impact on the game because at receiver you may or may not get the ball. But on defense you always have a chance to do something with the ball." He did downplay his background as wide receiver, as an element that greatly aids him at his safety position. He's comfortable with his niche at nickel safety, but is definitely trying to work his way up to a starting safety spot.
Jamaal Lewis was asked if his acrobatic flip into the end zone is a sign of things to come in the 2005 season? "Definitely," he replied. "I am looking forward to it (the season). I dropped a little weight (from 246 lbs. to 221 lbs.) and got a little faster. I'm just looking forward to what the season holds."
The tight end said that he liked the play that was drawn up for him, in light of the defense that was being played. "It feels good breaking the two-deep and not being worried if I would get held up or not," he explained. "I've been going up against Zach (Catanese) everyday and I know that he goes for the ankles. He's an ankle-biter (smile). So I just figured I am going to try and go up and over him."
All jokes aside, Lewis was full of respect to what the defense had done on Saturday, and through out fall camp. "They have been coming out everyday ready to compete," he commented. "They have a really good linebacker core. They're just bringing everybody up and bringing out a lot of intensity, and it just carried over into the scrimmage."
The rap on Lewis has always been that his receiving skills are much further ahead than his blocking ones. Koetter mentioned Lewis' increased commitment, and the tight end said that his mindset this season is very clear. "I came into camp knowing the receiving game is gonna be there and I'm just trying to get better in blocking everyday. Coach OZ (tight ends coach Tom Osborne) emphasizes that everyday and says that if I want to play more then I have to block more."
Quarterback Sam Keller was pleased with his performance but knows that there's always room for improvement. "I'm never satisfied. It can always be better for me," he said. "I give myself a solid B (grade). I have been fairly consistent and more consistent than I have ever been making plays, making checks, making reads. Every practice there is one or two or three (plays) that are just really stupid and if I can get over those then I can be a lot better." He added that he felt that his performance was far ahead than his spring one.
Keller's expectations of Saturday's scrimmage were high especially in light of the way the team practiced the day before. "I expected it to be a lot like all of our other practices," he explained. "Except we're live and we have someone going to the ground. We executed really well yesterday (Friday) and I expected us to carry that over today. We executed okay but at times our defense got us, but that's expected because they are a good defense. But we got them too a few times."
A reporter mistakenly asked about Lee Burghgraef's touchdown, and Keller quipped that the starting tight end couldn't score such a touchdown. He did say in regards to the true touchdown scorer, Jamaal Lewis, that he fully expects him to make such plays. "He is so athletic we are always looking for him to make plays," Keller commented. "If he can make plays consistently and work his way in that is so much better for our offense - a guy that big and that fast. He played well today."
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