"Here I go, playing the star again…There I go, turn the page…"
Bob Seger may have not been talking about the non-stop process of college football, but believe it or not, we're only a few short weeks away from turning the page to begin the early phases of the 2008 college football season, as Arizona State University's spring practices begin on Mar. 25.
As the seasons pass and student-athletes carry on, the spring is crucial for former reserves to prove their worth as potential starters and for incumbent first-stringers to continue to progress as team leaders. With the Sun Devils preparing to officially head onto the gridiron for the first time since late December, they will look to replace four full-time starters on offense, as well as sort out depth at virtually every position.
In ranking the top offensive position battles, the main criteria that were considered were the importance of the position and the returning depth and experience of that depth (or lack thereof); essentially competition to start is considered more intriguing than competition among reserves looking to earn increased action.
5. Wide Receiver
The position group as a whole is one of the top returning units in the Pac-10, with returning starters Chris McGaha, Michael Jones, who combined for 107 receptions and nearly 1,600 yards last season, while Kyle Williams fills the slot receiver role, after all three improved excellently in 2007.
The main departure of the group from last year is do-it-all threat Rudy Burgess, who caught 34 passes for 467 yards (13.7 avg.) and three touchdowns. Due to the fact that the Sun Devils aim to employ several multiple receiver sets, the fourth receiver can be expected to see quite a bit of the field in 2008, and the battle for that spot is likely to heat up in the spring and possibly carry over into the fall.
Among the main competitors that will be available for spring drills to fill the role are sophomore Kerry Taylor, senior Nate Kimbrough, redshirt freshman T.J. Simpson and junior Brandon Smith.
Taylor earned his way onto the field as a true freshman last season, and the Chandler Hamilton High School graduate caught eight passes for 53 yards and one touchdown. When he was thrown to, the former four-star prospect was a reliable target and he enters the spring as the top candidate to move up the depth chart.
Oft-injured Kimbrough was really beginning to make a name for himself in the latter half of the 2006 season when he suffered an injured ACL and missed the remainder of that season and the following spring, and appeared in ten games last year, catching five passes for 56 yards.
Smith was somewhat of an enigma last year, earning rave reviews for his performance on the field during last spring's workouts, however, for a combination of reasons, he never saw the field during the regular season.
Kimbrough has totaled 27 catches for 367 yards (13.6 avg.) with two scores in 24 games as a Sun Devil, while Smith averaged 27.8 yards on six catches with a pair of touchdowns in 11 games as a redshirt freshman in 2006. Simpson has an intriguing combination of size and speed, was rated as a three-star prospect out of Peoria (Ariz.) High School and redshirted last season.
Stirring the competition even further in the fall will be the arrivals of freshmen Gerell Robinson, Kemonte Bateman, Jarrell Barbour (assuming he can qualify) and A.J. Pickens. Most notable of that group is Chandler native Robinson, who was one of the Devils' top signings of the 2008 class, rated as the No. 14 wide receiver prospect in the country, and has already developed a personal rapport with Sun Devil quarterback Rudy Carpenter.
By the time the Devils are in the waning moments of preparation for the start of the 2008 season, the good money's on the two former Hamilton High School teammates (Taylor and Robinson) to duke it out for playing time among the top receivers.
4. Running Back
It's no secret that when senior Ryan Torain was shelved for the season, the power element of ASU's running game was sidelined with him. To combat the frustrations of settling for field goals when inside the opponent's five-yard line and inabilities to grind out first downs on third-and-short, the Sun Devils must find a reliable "big back" to plow through the line of scrimmage in times of need.
Entering the spring, the Sun Devils have two candidates that fit the physical mold of a running style to counter that of speedster Keegan Herring and well-rounded back Dimitri Nance, coming in the form of juniors Shawn DeWitty and Jarrell Woods. On paper, one might argue that Nance carries the body type and size to fill the "power" back role, but his play on the field – although solid – implies that the Devils should look elsewhere for a true "bruising" back.
Both players measure out well on paper as DeWitty (6-2, 217) and Woods (5-10, 210) are both athletic with great size, but neither has exhibited his full abilities on the field. With ASU's lone running back recruit, Ryan Bass, being more of a shifty, all-purpose back, if a player is going to emerge as the Sun Devils' short-yardage target; it will likely be either DeWitty or Woods.
After seeing limited action as a true freshman and greater playing time as a sophomore in 2006, in which he totaled 29 carries for 119 yards (4.1 avg.) and nine catches for 107 yards and two scores over the two seasons, DeWitty redshirted last year, earning the team's Scout Team Offensive Most Valuable Player of the Year Award.
Despite an inability to redshirt, Woods did not see action until late in the Holiday Bowl versus Texas, carrying three times for 20 yards and a touchdown. Both players have shown flashes of ability in practice and scattered game appearances, but the spring will be the proving ground for perhaps one of the two to rise up the ladder to make greater contributions in '08.
There has previously been speculation of a late JC signee, Palomar's Leilyon Myers; to join the team in the fall that would potentially fill this void, however nothing substantial has come of that rumor to date.
3. Offensive Tackle
Say what you will about the performance of the 2007 Sun Devil offensive line, but the loss of three seniors with starting experience at offensive tackle will be a challenge for Coach Erickson and staff to overcome.
In an attempt to help thwart that adversity, Erickson moved sophomore Jon Hargis to the o-line (again), and is poised to take over for three-year starter Brandon Rodd at left tackle, while junior Richard Tuitu'u expects to replace the combination of Zach Krula and Julius Orieukwu at right tackle.
Hargis is similar in size (6-4, 310) to Rodd and is considered exceptionally athletic for his new position; however the trick to the spring will be decreasing the learning curve for the Mesa native and former defensive tackle.
Tuitu'u has performed well when called upon, however he has only one start to his credit, albeit in hostile conditions, playing in Tucson versus Arizona at the end of his redshirt freshman season in 2006.
Nipping at the heels of the first-stringers in the spring will be junior college transfer Tom Njunge, who starred at left tackle for Pasadena City College the past two seasons, as well as freshman Michael Marcisz, who improved over his redshirt season last year.
Redshirt freshman Adam Tello will compete for time at right tackle, and in the fall ASU will welcome true freshmen Patrick Jamison and Kyle Johnson to the fold as well.
2. Tight End
Remember this time last year how we all wondered how the Devils could possibly fare without Zach Miller? Well the hole at tight end has become a little more gaping with the departure of the elder Miller brother, Brent, as well as Tyrice Thompson and Brady Conrad.
The trio combined for 44 catches for 437 yards and three touchdowns last season and Miller, Thompson and Conrad were 1-2-3 on the tight end depth chart for the entire 2007 season. Consequently, the depth at this position for the Devils in 2008 is runway model-thin, at least on paper, as the returning players at the position combined for only two receptions in 2007.
After moving from the position to defensive end last year, senior Dane Guthrie now moves back to the offense and enters the spring as the starting tight end. Formerly rated as the No. 39 tight end recruit in the country in 2004, the former University of Florida transfer saw very limited action in 2006, catching just four passes for 15 yards. A solid athlete with good size, Guthrie will be expected to catch on quickly – the trick is whether can do so and make an impact.
Backing up the former Gator are senior Andrew Pettes and redshirt freshman Dan Knapp. Pettes, a former Phoenix Moon Valley standout, was rated as the No. 31 tight end recruit in the nation in 2004, has been greatly unable to make a mark at the college level, making only one reception in 15 games during his three years for the Devils.
Long-term expectations remain high for Knapp and he's seen as a potential sleeper candidate out of the 2007 class; however an injury limited his practice time on the scout team last season and at the end of the day he hasn't seen game action since high school, so it's a "wait-and-see" process with him.
Rounding out the depth are junior Jovon Williams who appeared primarily on special teams in all 13 games last year, and incoming freshman Steven Figueroa, and possibly also freshman Toa Tuitea, who will compete for time at both tight end and defensive end to begin his Sun Devil career.
Mike Pollak is sure to make us proud on Sundays playing in the NFL, however the void he's left at center for the Sun Devils will certain make fans a little grumpy.
As a full-time starter during the 2006 and 2007 seasons, the Tempe native hauled in Second-Team and First-Team All-Pac-10 honors, respectively, and has proved his worth as one of the most versatile interior offensive linemen in college football.
To boot, Pollak was the starting center in all 31 games that Sun Devil quarterback Rudy Carpenter has started, and that camaraderie will be challenging for a newbie to emulate prior to the start of the 2008 season.
The Devils field two main candidates in the middle of the line, including junior Thomas Altieri and redshirt freshman Garth Gerhart.
Altieri has seen very limited action as Pollak's back-up during his two-year Sun Devil career, while Gerhart, the former No. 7 center recruit in the nation for 2007, has earned praise for his technique and intensity. This competition figures to last throughout the spring, but most indications point toward Gerhart to claim the position.
All in all, the Sun Devils return some very dangerous skill position targets as well as a very experienced backfield, but some fresh faces up front will need to pull their heavy weight to help make 2008 a success, beginning by earning their spots among the depth chart during spring practice.
Joe Healey is a 2006 graduate of Arizona State University and will be a guest contributor to Devils Digest during the 2007 football season. He currently writes for ASU's Maroon and Gold Illustrated and his work has also been featured in Sun Devil football media guides and other official team publications.
Pre-Spring Depth Chart Battles: Offense
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