ASU Student-Athlete Review: Class of 2003

These are the true "Dog Days" of summer; spring football has come and gone, the NFL draft is a thing of the past and the start of fall camp seems so close, yet so far away. We as a nation of maroon and gold faithful are undoubtedly excited for the postseason of the various Sun Devil teams, however at our collective core, our eager anticipation of Aug. 30, kickoff to the 2008 football season.

As we spend our days biding our time and crossing days off the calendar (just under 15 weeks by my count,) when life seems complete again, let's pause from looking ahead to the future of Sun Devil football to take a moment and reflect on its recent past, specifically the recruiting class of 2003, ASU's most recent class to have all its members complete college football eligibility. Today I'll take a different angle of pursuit in analysis of "student-athletes" and focus primarily on the former of the two terms.

Despite the academic emphasis of this column, the athletes signed five years ago were far from a simply bevy of bookworms. ASU's 2003 signing class, consisting of 16 prep products and three junior college transfers, produced several key contributors.

Many of the Sun Devil signees that year made tremendous strides on the field at ASU, highlighted by center Mike Pollak, a second round selection by the Indianapolis Colts in the 2008 NFL Draft after earning first-team All-Pac-10 honors in 2007 and second-team recognition in 2006. Offensive tackle Brandon Rodd earned honorable mention All-Pac-10 notoriety following his sophomore, junior and senior seasons and signed a free agent contract with the Oakland Raiders, while wide receiver/kick returner Rudy Burgess netted honorable mention All-Pac-10 accolades in 2005 and 2007 and earned a free agent opportunity with the Indianapolis Colts.

Safety Josh Barrett, a seventh round selection of the Denver Broncos in 2008, gained honorable mention All-Pac-10 recognition as a junior, while kicker Jesse Ainsworth, who earned a free agent tryout with the Cleveland Browns after completing his career in 2006, was named honorable mention All-Pac-10 in 2004. Junior college linebacker Justin Burks was named honorable mention All-Pac-10 as a senior in 2004 and earned an opportunity to audition for the San Diego Chargers, while Scottsdale native and Sun Devil legacy Kyle Caldwell gained honorable mention All-Pac-10 esteem as a senior in 2006.

Also signed by the Devils in the Class of 2003 was junior college cornerback Chris McKenzie, who spent the 2005-07 seasons with the Houston Texans and is currently on the Arizona Rattlers' Arena Football League roster.

Although many members of the Class of 2003 will be highly-regarded in the annals of Sun Devil time for their play on the field, the achievements of the members of this class are far from limited to the gridiron, as several proud and prominent Sun Devil alumni began their careers in 2003.

Of the 19 signees, 14 played their entire careers at ASU, as Mike Affleck, Darnell Henderson, Sam Keller, Daniel Varvel and Mark Washington departed from Tempe before their eligibility expired. As a basis of comparison, that attrition rate measures favorably to other recent signing classes at ASU, as 13 players included in ASU's 2002 signing class did not compete their collegiate careers at ASU, while nine players among the 2004 class left the program before exhausting their eligibility and three players of the 2005 class and four in the 2006 class made early exits or did not gain NCAA academic qualification.

Among the remaining 14 to appear solely in maroon and gold, 10 have earned undergraduate degrees from ASU, highlighted by scholars such as Ainsworth, a CoSIDA Academic All-District VIII selection in 2006, a first-team Pac-10 All-Academic selection in 2005 and 2006 and honorable mention recipient in 2004. Also hitting the books as hard as opposing defenders was Rodd, a second-team Pac-10 All-Academic honoree in 2006 and 2007 and an honorable mention winner in 2004 and 2005. Barrett earned first-team Pac-10 All-Academic honors as a junior in 2006 while reserve defensive lineman Brett Palmer was listed as an honorable mention selection that year as well.

Also earning degrees from Arizona State University were wide Burgess, offensive lineman Robert Gustavis, tight end Brent Miller, offensive lineman Julius Orieukwu, Pollak and defensive lineman Gabe Reininger.

The only two remaining high school signees of this class to have spent their entire careers at ASU but have yet to earn a bachelors degree, Caldwell and cornerback Chad Green, are reportedly to be have nearly fulfilled their degree requirements and are pursuing graduation, an ASU official says. Green's progress was understandably sidetracked due to a career-ending and life-threatening automobile accident last spring; however he has been able to make a full physical recovery from the incident.

During the 2007 season – the senior season for all fifth-year players from the Class of 2003 – ASU boasted eight graduate students on its regular season roster (seven from the 2003 class), while after the fall semester had concluded, the Sun Devils added nine additional graduates to total 17 on ASU's 2007 Holiday Bowl roster.

Additionally, an incredible seven athletes to begin their careers as walk-ons remained in the program for the duration of their eligibility and earned degrees, including wide receiver Jeff Gray, cornerback Littrele Jones, running back Preston Jones, defensive tackle Tashaka Merriweather, defensive end Kellen Mills, defensive back Brett Nenaber and wide receiver/tight end Tyrice Thompson.

In terms of the contributions of these players and those to follow to the overall landscape of Sun Devil student-athlete academic success, the academic progress rate (APR) figures released on the NCAA's official website on May 2, 2008 and span from the 2003-04 to the 2006-07 school years, list ASU's multiyear football APR average reported at 933, ahead of the public institution average of 925 for football. In light of the ongoing intrastate feud, ASU's figures compare to a 902 rating for the University of Arizona's football program, listed as the lowest outcome by a football program in the Pac-10 Conference.

Perhaps the classroom achievements last season began a Sun Devil academic trend, as ASU will again feature eight graduates on the 2008 roster, including quarterback Rudy Carpenter, tight end Wes Evans, safety Angelo Fobbs-Valentino, wide receiver Michael   Jones, wide receiver Nate Kimbrough, safety Troy Nolan, safety Jeremy Payton and defensive lineman David Smith.

In a time where program APR results are all the rage and economic binds have provoked athletic program cuts, it is certainly reassuring that Arizona State's football program has made strides and continues to thrive on and off the field.

As always, not bad for a "junior college," right?

Joe Healey is a 2006 graduate of Arizona State University, has been featured in officially released ASU media guides, press releases and other publications and is a guest ASU and Pac-10 contributor to Devils Digest. He also is a feature writer each month in ASU's Maroon and Gold Illustrated magazine and can be contacted at

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