Optimism, Question Marks Surround Sun Devils

Like any other team, the maroon and gold are a bag of mixed goods. Head coach Dirk Koetter talked about the strengths and shortcomings of his squad during Saturday's media day.

"I'm real excited about this football team," said Koetter. "This is easily the most athletic team from number 1 to number 105 that we've had. This is the best conditioned team, and it was very evident to me last night (the team's first practice) how well conditioned this team was. These guys stayed here this summer and were dedicated to getting better."

It is very apparent which side of the ball can make coaches and fans sleep better at night, and which one can keep them up until the wee hours of the morning. They are however, other issues that need to be resolved. "The big question is how we jell as a team?" stated Koetter. "We're very proven on offense and very unproven on defense. Another question is how this team's leadership emerges? I think we have good individual leaders on the team, but within every team its own leadership style will come about. I can't manufacture that, it all has to come from the players."

"What is this team's identity gonna be?" continued Koetter. "No matter what your program is like. Each team takes on its own identity. You have to remember that we're turning over 25% of our team every year."

There are many factors that cam motivate a team, and the desire to play at a higher level following a disappointing campaign, is an aspect that will drive the Arizona State defense in 2006. "I think there's a certain amount of hunger in that group," commented Koetter. "I know there is with the coaching staff. No one likes to have their name attached to a defense, that statistically at least, was ranked where our defense was ranked. We have a ‘something to prove' attitude with the coaches and players, and I think that's a good thing."

Returning an offense that lost very little firepower from last season naturally provides the belief that this unit can duplicate their ytop-5 nationwide ranking. "It's almost the opposite of that (defense). Almost an embarrassment of the riches on that side of the ball," admitted the Sun Devil skipper. "13 guys coming back who started games – at this level of football that's unheard of. Seven guys on the offensive line that combine for 86 starts." Koetter added that he isn't worried about success causing the offense to be over confident and added "If those guys get too big of a head, I'll have a foot up their (behind) most of the time, and that will be the end of that."

Koetter mentioned how surprised he is that is many of his media interviews so far, he fields questions over every position on the team, except the tight ends and what he called as the squad's best player on offense – Zach Miller. "We have the best tight end in the country," he said. "The guy is fantastic. I hear about his numbers going down, and I tell several people that Zach played on one leg a year ago. Zach's injuries to his ankles would have kept a lot of men out."

They were a few tight ends that left the Pac-10 and got drafted by the NFL earlier this year. In comparison to that group, Koetter strongly believes that Miller is by far the best blocking tight end. "That's even not what he gets credit for," he explained. "He's credited for his acrobatic, over the middle, twisting and turning catches, and perhaps having the best hands on the team. Watch that guy during the game block. It's a luxury many teams don't have."

On the other hand, ASU can't claim to have many capable players at this position behind Zach and brother Brent Miller. The depth chart here is certainly a concern. "Our younger guys haven't progressed as fast as we would like,' admitted Koetter. "I think the combination of Zach and Brent Miller right now is strong. We have an interesting character in Jamaal Lewis, because he's the ‘slash' player. Part tight end, part slot back, part split end. Jamaal can help us fill that void (depth at tight end)."

"A key player in the depth chart is Dane Guthrie," continued Koetter. "He's a very talented and inconsistent player. If Dane can elevate his game to his talent level – watch out. One guy that nobody knows is Brady Conrad. He walked-on from Scottsdale Community College. This guy can help us and he's ascending up that depth chart very fast. The freshman that we signed, Lane Evbuomwan, I liked him a lot last night (in practice). He has soft hands."

In sharp contrast to the tight ends, Koetter believes that the tailback position posses the most talent since he arrived at ASU in 2001. "Keegan (herring) sets the tone – returning starter, freshman record holder," stated Koetter. "We're all excited about what Shaun DeWitty did in the spring. You're gonna like those three newcomers. (Rodney) Glass – the fastest 100-meter time in the country this year. (Dimitri) Nance the - 5A player of the year in Texas. He gained the respect of our team. He was here in the summer, and our players were coming to me saying ‘you won't believe what Dimitri did last night.'

The wide receivers unit is a mixture of the two aforementioned groups, as they may be an unproven position on offense, but yet one that is hardly short on talent. "Terry Richardson has a very well chronicled history at ASU, and Terry is a great kid and a great competitor," said Koetter regarding the senior who served a suspension during the spring. "If Terry can be consistent on and off the field, there's no reason to expect that he won't be the next 1000-yard receiver at Arizona State."

"Mike Jones was our most consistent wide receiver in the spring. Rudy Burgess will spend most of his time at wide receiver. Jamaal Lewis will spend half the time at wide receiver and his he's on the Mackey (award) list as a tight end. It's a talented group, and there are plenty of names I'm not mentioning."

2006 marks the first time the Pac-10 teams will all play each other, and have a total of nine conference games. Koetter favors the round robin schedule, even though this season the Sun Devils are a bit unlucky as they play four conference home games. They will however host five pac-10 contests in 2007. "We have a very difficult stretch in our schedule," said Koetter. "It's important that we get off to a fast start against NAU and Nevada. The game in Boulder (against Colorado) will be a really good early test for us. We open conference play with the three teams that were picked ahead of us in the pre-season, and that will be a good challenge for this team."

One factor that should change the fortunes of the defense, are the three defensive linemen who transferred to ASU last season, and are now eligible to play. The ASU head coach talked about each of them during his media day press conference. "Loren Howard is legit," commented Koetter, "and is the best defensive football player that we've had at Arizona State, that hasn't taken any plays yet, since Terrell Suggs, if he's healthy. All you have to do is watch his film at Northwestern. If the guy stays healthy, he'll be one of the best defensive players in this league."

"Tranell Morant has shown flashes of being a dominant player, and has shown flashes of being an average player. Anytime a player sits out a year, he has a little rust on him. He has to just develop some consistency. He has a burst, some quick hands, he's powerful, but he's inconsistent right now. That's gonna have to change, if he will be the type of player we all want him to be."

"Michael Marquardt has been the most consistent, because he's been the healthiest and has played on the scout team all year. He won't be as flashy as a player as Loren or Tranell, because he plays at the inside of the defense. He can be a very productive defensive tackle for us. The main thing for all those three guys is that they had some injury issues that have kept them out. The most valuable players are the ones that are there everyday."

One glaring stat that describes quite clearly the poor play of the ASU defense in 2005, are the 22 sacks generated by this side of the ball. Incorporating more blitzes during a game isn't the answer, according to Koetter, to improve on this glaring deficiency. "You can't have 22 sacks and get it done on defense," he said. "But you show me a team that can get the pressure with the four-man rush, and I'll show you a team that's got a chance. Last year we were a team that couldn't get pressure with the four-man rush. Even USC, it's not like they were killing guys with the four-man rush. They're not a lot of great pass-rushers out there. So now you get into whether you'll man blitz, zone blitz…we're gonna have a combination of all. But first and foremost, you can't get into a blitz situation all the time. If we had a healthy Kyle Caldwell, a consistent Tranell Morant, and a healthy Loren Howard, we'll have more than 22 sacks – I promise you that."

One factor that plagued both sides of the ball last year, was the high number of penalties (114 for 982 yards to be exact). Koetter sees the reasons for that as being attributed to a couple of reasons. "Many times it comes back to discipline, and we were an undisciplined team and that cost us some games last year," admitted Koetter. "That's what takes you from being a 10-2 team to a 7-5 team. There's penalties where a guy is trying to do his job, being overaggressive and he gets caught. The Pac-10 as a conference leads the nation every year in holding penalties – you're gonna get some holding penalties when you throw the ball."

"They're penalties that are preventable," continued Koetter. "False start by the offense, defense jumping offsides. But let's put that in context – Dale Robinson probably led the nation in offside penalties, but he was co-Pac 10 defensive player of the year. We have to become a better disciplined team. You also have to try and divide that fine line between the penalties that you can live with and can't. We had some penalties that weren't good and we have to narrow that. Last year was last year, and we'll try to get it right this year."

While a top-5 offense has obviously much to hang its hat on, there was one blemish on their performance - 3rd down and short yardage conversion. Lack of physical backs didn't help the situation, but the remedy for this shortcoming lies with other factors as well. "We finished second in the Pac-10 in 3rd down conversions," said Koetter. "3rd and one should be your best (conversion percentage), and as you get longer yardage it (conversion percentage) should go down. Well, the 3rd and one was our worst. The short yardage film makes you sick."

"We have two bigger backs in DeWitty and Torain, so that's part of it," continued Koetter. "We totally had to go back and re-examine our scheme and say ‘are we putting our players in the right situations?' We're a huge play-action team and we probably didn't play-action enough. A championship team has to run; when every person in the stands knows that you're gonna run. We're gonna have a little different mentality on 3rd and one this year, and that will start with the head coach, down to the offensive coordinator, down to the running backs coach. We don't practice that until later in fall camp, and we will change what we do on that down."

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