1. Can we expect some improvement in the offensive trenches this season?
As spring practice commences, ASU begins the process of replacing three veterans along the offensive line. The 55 sacks given up by the line last season may serve as a scarlet letter reminder of some sorts until fall arrives but the substandard results have created an opportunity for some fresh faces.
Replacing Mike Pollak at center will be either Garth Gerhart or Thomas Altieri. The early money is on Gerhart, a redshirt freshman, to grab the starting spot this spring. Moving over from defensive tackle is Jon Hargis, a sophomore out of Mesa Red Mountain. Despite the recent move, Hargis is expected to make a push at left tackle this year while right tackle, at least at the start of spring drills, will be manned by junior Richard Tuitu'u.
Tom Njunge, a mid-year transfer from Pasadena City College, is also expected to contribute right away. Njunge has excelled in pass blocking, a skill ASU could use at tackle due to the recent lack of athleticism on the ends.
Returning at both guard spots are Shawn Lauvao and Paul Fanaika. Both are safe bets to retain their starting spots as two newcomers will back them up. Matt Hustad, Gatorade's Player of the Year in Montana in 2006, will be Fanaika's understudy at right guard while Wake Forest transfer Brent Good is behind Lauvao.
2. Will someone emerge from the pack at corner?
The loss of Justin Tryon, a Second Team All Pac-10 selection last season, creates a noticeable gap in the secondary. Three juniors will compete in the coming weeks for Tryon's vacant spot opposite sophomore Omar Bolden, who played as a true freshman last fall and soon found his way into the starting lineup when conference play began. Consequently, his solid cover skills earned him Freshman All-American honors. The emerging star is expected to hold down one spot while the competition heats up for the other.
Travis Smith, Grant Crunkleton, and Terell Carr will all compete over the next several weeks for the aforementioned role. Smith earned some time last season as a reserve and looked promising until an injury in the Oregon State game sidelined him for several weeks. Carr is a mid-year junior college transfer that has already begun informal workouts with the team. He's expected to push Smith for a starting role as early as this spring, but as we've seen with several other JC transfers, there's often a learning curve associated with a position like cornerback. At the very least, the competition should be intriguing with Grant Crunkleton in the mix as well.
3. Is the depth chart at running back in store for a change?
Time has seemingly flown by as it seems like it was just yesterday when we watched Keegan Herring break the school's freshman rushing record with 870 yards. Now, entering his final season in the maroon and gold, Herring is now atop the depth chart but will he be sharing more carries this year? There's no doubt the former Peoria, Ariz. standout brings a speed element to the field but the lack of a power threat remains a priority as the search for a suitable replacement for Ryan Torain continues.
Dimitri Nance will be a junior this season and adds an ability to catch well out of the backfield. He fits a little more into the power back role but he hasn't yet showcased the ability to be a feature back type of player. The other two options, Jarrell Woods and Shaun DeWitty, are relatively unproven but may have the upside to seriously push for playing time this season. DeWitty was named the Scout Team MVP on offense last year while taking a redshirt year. Woods came to Tempe a year ago but was with injuries and adjusting to the new offense, the JC transfer was buried beneath the logjam at the position until he finally saw some late action in the Holiday Bowl loss to Texas and showed some promising glimpses.
4. Can the depth at safety lessen the blow of losing veteran Josh Barrett?
The loss of Barrett's veteran experience cannot be understated but the hope is that someone else from the returning group is ready to emerge in his place. Barrett's injuries have given of a few them a number of "dress rehearsals" in the past, and luckily for ASU, there is a healthy amount of experience among the contenders.
Seniors Jeremy Payton and Rodney Cox are the top two returning contenders this spring. The two have battled back-and-forth with Cox slightly ahead at the moment. A wild card has been added to the mix, however, in the form of Glendale Community College transfer Max Tabach. Erickson anticipates Tabach being among those newcomers contributing this fall.
Senior Troy Nolan has virtually wrapped up the other starting spot after an impressive playing debut last fall. Nolan is already a key member of the secondary, as well as the defense as a whole. Angelo Fobbs-Valentino, Jarrell Holman, and Jonathan Clark appear to face a stiff challenge in trying to crack the rotation.
5. Tight End: Anybody to be excited about?
The tight ends are a group with a lot to prove this spring. The "trust factor" is somewhat low right now with Brent Miller, Tyrice Thompson, and Brady Conrad moving on and a relatively unproven cast waiting in the wings. Erickson recently decided to move Florida transfer Dane Guthrie back to tight end to help bolster the position. Guthrie, a senior, is a good bet to enter the starting lineup this fall with his blocking abilities.
The depth chart behind Guthrie may be restructured after spring depending on performances by a handful of others. Redshirt freshman Dan Knapp will get a look this spring and has the chance to leapfrog a few others if he's up to par. Andrew Pettes, Jovon Williams, and Lance Evbuomwan will also have the opportunity to move their way up the pecking order.
6. Is linebacker a bigger concern than we think with the departure of playmaker Robert James?
The good news is that four of the five players that logged extensive minutes at linebacker last season are back. The bad news is that Robert James, a First Team All Pac-10 selection with 107 tackles last season, has exhausted his eligibility. The last time Arizona State had to replace a linebacker that was an integral piece of the defense was in 2006 with Dale Robinson. The drop-off was noticeable but the Devils are hoping that a more experienced cast, coupled with some potential rising stars, will embrace the challenge.
The battle at weak-side linebacker figures to be among the top position battles this spring. Redshirt freshman Oliver Aaron will compete with junior Ryan McFoy for a starting spot. Aaron comes in to the mix after garnering rave reviews for his play on the scout team last fall. The Florida product was eventually voted the Scout Team's Player of the Year on defense.
McFoy was moved from safety to linebacker last spring and is expected to make a bigger impact this season after having a year under his belt to learn the nuances of the position. Colin Parker, a redshirt freshman out of Chandler Hamilton, also made the switch from safety to linebacker and will round out the depth chart.
Juniors Mike Nixon and Gerald Munns, as well as Morris Wooten, a senior, all logged action in the middle last season. Nixon can play the position, albeit it at a small size disadvantage, in certain game situations. Munns is a popular pick to emerge as a starter if he can stay healthy while Wooten gives the staff another solid option.
Travis Goethel is a safe bet to remain atop the depth chart on the strong-side this spring and into fall camp. The depth chart behind Goethel will begin to take better shape after spring ball with Jeff Bereuter, Chad Lindsey, and Derrall Anderson competing for time.
7. Will there be another quarterback controversy?
The play of Danny Sullivan in the Holiday Bowl sparked several conversations as to whether or not incumbent starter Rudy Carpenter was still the man for the job. Despite some of Carpenter's faults, the smart money is still on Carpenter behind center in 2008. The senior has a wealth of experience under his belt and, simply put, is a winner. If anything, Sullivan showed that he may be a better reserve than previously anticipated, should anything happen to Carpenter.
Offensive coordinator Rich Olson still sees some room for improvement out of Carpenter, particularly as it relates to instincts. The signal-caller must learn to throw the ball away more often to help reduce some of the 55 sacks taken last season.
8. Are the spring participants along the defensive line simply "keeping the seat warm" for some of the new arrivals this fall?
Perhaps the biggest buzz that surrounded Dennis Erickson's nationally-ranked recruiting class was generated by the defensive line signees. ASU inked six linemen this past February, which was quite a coup considering some of them have the ability to contribute right away. Erickson won't hesitate to pull a redshirt if he feels someone can contribute right away, as was the case last season with Jonathan English. The fanfare will likely continue this fall when all six set foot on campus, however, there's plenty to look forward to from those already here.
For starters, Dexter Davis is entering his junior season and figures to be among the conference's top defensive ends. Davis and senior Luis Vasquez were a formidable tandem last season, combining for fifteen sacks. Both players are again penciled in as the starters.
Joining Davis and Vasquez at defensive end will be Jamarr Robinson, who previously spent the last two seasons at linebacker. The hope is that the sophomore can add some speed off the edge. Robinson was showing some flashes last spring before a knee injury sidelined him in the final scrimmage so let's hope the injury bug can stay away this spring.
James Brooks is another player to keep an eye on in spring drills. Brooks is coming off a redshirt year on the scout team and has one of the most impressive physical frames on the team. Eric Tanner, a junior college transfer last spring, is sidelined with a knee injury and is unable to participate.
At defensive tackle, several players will get a leg-up on the fall newcomers for the competition at one starting spot. English and Saia Falahola currently have the inside track to join David Smith in the starting lineup. English has dropped about 30 pounds and much closer to a playing weight of 300 pounds while Falahola is trying to rebound from an injury plagued 2007 campaign. Falahola is expected to be held out of contact drills for the first half of spring practices. Paul ‘Unga, Alex Asi, and Zach Niusulu round out the depth behind them. Bo Moos will also join the group after redshirting last fall on the scout team.
9. Is Thomas Weber still the answer at punter?
There's no doubt the sophomore has nailed down the place-kicking job after converting on 24 of his 25 field goal attempts last season. But the 2007 Lou Groza Award winner wasn't as successful when he was handed the punting duties as well last year. Weber averaged a modest 39.3 yards on 47 punts and remains atop the depth chart heading into spring drills. The 2008 recruiting class didn't include a punter so Weber is receiving the vote of confidence that his skills will eventually come around here as well. Walk-on Zach Richards is slated to back up Johnson at both positions.
10. What's next at receiver?
With no pun intended, the receivers appear to be in good hands despite the loss of utility man Rudy Burgess. His veteran experience will be missed but all signs point toward another fruitful year at wide receiver with the depth and talent of the returning cast. Michael Jones, Chris McGaha, and Kyle Williams form one of the top receiving trios in the West. The three combined for nearly 2,000 yards and seventeen touchdowns last season.
Erickson has alluded to using more four receiver sets this season so the competition among Kerry Taylor, Brandon Smith, Nate Kimbrough, and T.J. Simpson should be fun to watch. Taylor was too good not to play last season as a true freshman and his fluid pass-catching abilities will be tough to beat out.
Smith earned the praises of Erickson and his staff last spring and seemed poised for a spot in the rotation come September but injuries prevented him for seeing the field. Kimbrough has been relegated to a reserve role in spots but perhaps he can put it all together in his final season as a Sun Devil to earn more minutes. Redshirt freshman T.J. Simpson will get his first shot at cracking the two-deep this spring and brings an impressive prep resume from Peoria High, as well as a solid showing on the scout team.
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