A backfield currently ranked last in the Pac-10, averaging just 83.7 rushing yards per game, has struggled all season to provide a much-needed balance to the offensive attack. Expected to have a bit of a larger role this season, senior running back Keegan Herring hasn't found a rhythm yet, largely due to a hamstring injury that has kept him out of three of the first six games. With Herring sidelined, Dimitri Nance was forced to carry a bulk of the load. Nance has rushed for 312 yards and three scores on 84 carries this season. The junior has also had fumbling issues as well, particularly over the last month or so.
Other options at running back include Shaun DeWitty, Ryan Bass, and Jarrell Woods. DeWitty has netted 63 yards on 22 carries and is an option on screen plays as well but the junior hasn't fared much better than any of his peers. Ryan Bass, a heralded recruit out of Corona, CA, has shown the staff some of his big-play capabilities since arriving on campus this summer. However, the true freshman is still learning to pick up blitzes and his ball-protection issues in practices have prevented him from earning more playing time through the first half of the season. Woods has been outperformed in practices, as well as being slowed with injuries since arriving a year ago, so playing time for him has been and will be hard to come by.
ASU's struggles running the ball are also tied to the inexperience and youth up front along the offensive line but it's clear that the Sun Devils are still in need of a talent infusion at the position. No Arizona State ball-carrier has a longer run than 20 yards so far this year. A lack of big plays, combined with untimely fumbles, have simply been a glaring wart for the offense.
OFFENSIVE LINE: D
55 was the dubious distinction given to the offensive line coming into this season. 55, as in sacks given up in 2007. Knowing they needed to improve upon last year's record-setting number, the "Hell Hogs" realized that the inexperience and youth of the unit cannot be excuses for a repeat. To their credit, the unit's 15 sacks given up this year doesn't put them on pace for a repeat but there are still issues with both the pass and run blocking.
The loss of Richard Tuitu'u stung a bit as camp opened up in August, which thrust redshirt freshman Adam Tello into a starter at right tackle. Tello struggled and eventually lost his starting spot to junior college transfer Tom Njunge, who began the season at left tackle behind Jon Hargis. The move appears to be a step in the right direction as Njunge is progressing at that role. As expected, guards Shawn Lauvao and Paul Fanaika have been two of the most consistent linemen while the staff continues to experiment around them.
A lack of consistency in the trenches has noticeably taken its toll as the offense, overall, hasn't been able to move the chains with any regularity. The necessary improvements won't come overnight but, with baby steps, the unit has shown some glimpses of moving in the right direction.
TIGHT END: C
Five tight ends have seen action in 2007 although none have emerged from the group as both a solid blocking and pass-catching weapon that ASU fans have seen in recent history. However, with the blocking issues a theme right now on offense, the tight ends have primarily stayed home up front as opposed to being featured more in the passing game.
Dan Knapp has shown some promise in both roles. Unfortunately, the redshirt freshman's recent knee injury will sideline him for the rest of the season. Knapp, who started two games, finished the year with three catches and one touchdown. Andrew Pettes and Jovon Williams are the two other tight ends with catches this season. Pettes has 51 yards and a score on eight catches while Williams has added 33 yards on three receptions. Stanley Malamala and Wes Evans round out the rotation mainly as blockers, but could see some involvement in the passing attack.
WIDE RECEIVER: C-
Even what was perceived to be the deepest of any position on offense has had its share of struggles this season. Senior Michael Jones has caught 30 passes for 427 yards in ASU's first six games. Jones, who is currently fourth in the Pac-10 with 71.2 receiving yards per game, led all receivers last fall with ten touchdowns but has scored only once in 2008.
Although he's added another couple of highlight catches to his growing resume, Chris McGaha doesn't appear to be on the same footing this season, both figuratively and literally. The junior has been battling a toe injury, which has slowed his production this fall. After emerging as quarterback Rudy Carpenter's favorite target last year with 61 receptions, McGaha has caught just 19 passes for 265 yards in 2008.
After debuting as a true freshman last fall, Kerry Taylor has begun to blossom in his sophomore season. Taylor has notched 275 yards and two touchdowns while already doubling his reception total from 2007. Junior Kyle Williams has added 252 yards, 14 catches and two scores. His average of 18 yards per catch tops all receivers on the team. Rounding out the group are Nate Kimbrough, Gerell Robinson, and T.J. Simpson. The three have a combined four receptions between them.
Quarterback Rudy Carpenter probably envisioned a better senior campaign in 2008 but the offense has struggled ever since the Sun Devils entered the meat of their schedule. Carpenter isn't getting a whole lot of help around him but he's been noticeably off the mark for a fourth-year signal-caller with a wealth of experience under his belt. Despite numerous issues and injuries plaguing this offense, the senior ranks third in the conference, averaging 245.7 passing yards per game. Carpenter has thrown for a total of 1,474 yards, 8 touchdowns and 5 interceptions in ASU's first six games.
At times, second-teamer Danny Sullivan has come on in relief of Carpenter and the early reviews are not favorable. The junior has completed 5 of 25 passing attempts for no touchdowns and two interceptions. Most of Sullivan's snaps were with second and third-teamers but it appears that, even with a bum ankle and all, Carpenter still gives the offense its best shot at winning right now.
DEFENSIVE LINE: C+
Head coach Dennis Erickson has begun a talent infusion in the defensive trenches and the dividends are starting to pay off. Despite the pleasant surprises, there is still plenty of work to be done, namely in the pass rush. The defensive line has, for the most part, held their own while defending the run but lacks a consistent punch when applying pressure on opposing quarterbacks.
Accounting for five of the defense's eight sacks, which ranks 8th fewest in the Pac-10, is Dexter Davis. The junior defensive end has been the lone bright spot in the pass rush despite attracting double teams. Davis is also tied for 5th in tackles for loss among his conference counterparts. Expected to double with Davis as one of the conference's top pass-rushing duos, Luis Vasquez has yet to record a sack this season. However, the junior has notched 18 tackles, including two for a loss, and a quarterback hurry. James Brooks, who has seven stops in relief duty, is looking like the favorite to replace Vasquez next season. Jamaar Jarrett, a true freshman, is also getting reps behind Davis at the opposite end spot and has three tackles to date.
Leading all defensive linemen is true freshman tackle Lawrence Guy. The defensive tackle quickly made his way to the starting rotation and hasn't looked back since. Guy, arguably the top contributing newcomer thus far, has totaled 23 tackles, 3.5 of which were for a loss, and one sack. The other starter at tackle, senior David Smith, has collected 13 stops, including 3.5 for a loss, in five games played.
Other notable contributors up front for the Devils are tackles Jonathan English, Saia Falahola, and Paul ‘Unga. Falahola leads the reserves with 11 stops while English and ‘Unga have combined for 14 tackles.
Quite possibly the defensive MVP through the first six games, Mike Nixon has been all over the place for the ASU defense. His 30 solo tackles are tops on the team, as is his 48 total stops. The versatile junior, whose leadership presence has been a valuable asset with the abundance of youth playing on the defensive side of the ball, has also collected two interceptions and three pass break ups. His eight tackles per game average is 4th in the conference.
After learning the defense would be without junior Gerald Munns for the rest of the season, senior Morris Wooten rose to the occasion after serving a three-game suspension to begin the year. The middle linebacker has 22 tackles in his first three games back. Junior Travis Goethel has notched 40 stops, which ranks second-best behind Nixon.
Shelly Lyons and Brandon Magee, both true freshmen, appear to be headed for bright careers in Tempe. The two have combined for 22 stops this season. Magee, who has been sidelined with an injury for about a month, is expected back in the next couple of weeks. Junior Ryan McFoy completes the rotation with 15 tackles and one forced fumble.
The staff will likely continue to look for more speed at linebacker in recruiting. The group is still vulnerable when rushers reach the edges and turn the corner. Improved pursuit angles would also help.
Hard-hitting safety Troy Nolan leads the secondary, which currently ranks 5th in the league in pass defense by allowing 193.2 yards per game. Nolan is third on the team in tackles with 29 stops and tied for the team-lead in interceptions with two. Another senior, Rodney Cox, has collected 18 tackles and three pass break-ups.
With Nolan and Cox gone after this season, the Sun Devils will turn to a pair of young safeties, who have both gained valuable playing time already this season, next year. Max Tabach, a sophomore transfer from Glendale Community College, finished the 2008 season with 12 tackles, one pass break-up, and a forced fumble. Tabach will sit out the rest of the season with a knee injury. Clint Floyd, another pleasant surprise among the true freshmen, has steadily worked his way up the depth chart since his arrival in Tempe. Floyd has seven tackles and one forced fumble in six games, but is out for at least three weeks with lacerated kidneys. Junior Jarrell Holman, who has struggled with injuries, has added four stops as a reserve.
Cornerback Omar Bolden, Arizona State's freshman sensation last fall, has appeared to be in a bit of a sophomore slump to begin 2008. Bolden's coverage hasn't met expectations but the former running back's sharp tackling keeps him on the field. Bolden is fourth overall in tackles with 25 stops. The speedster has also notched three pass break-ups and an interception.
Juniors Pierre Singfield and Terrell Carr have competed for the other starting spot opposite Bolden. The two have combined for 36 tackles and two pass break-ups. The Sun Devils haven't officially settled on one so both players figure to share snaps into the second half of the schedule. Reserves Travis Smith and Josh Jordan, another true freshman playing this fall, have two tackles each.
SPECIAL TEAMS: D
2007 Lou Groza Award winner Thomas Weber isn't likely to repeat this season as the sophomore has noticeably struggled to regain his form from a year ago. Weber has converted on 8 of his 12 field goal attempts this fall after missing only one all of last season. Three of his kicks have been blocked. His longest make of the season was a 49-yarder against UNLV. Weber has, however, been relatively solid punting the ball. He ranks 3rd in the conference with a 41.9 yard average. 10 of his 32 punts have been placed inside the opponent's 20-yard line.
Speedy receiver Kyle Williams is capable of ripping off big plays in the return game but needs a little more help from his teammates to spring him free. ASU is 8th in the Pac-10 in kickoff returns, averaging only 21.5 yards per return. Williams has sparked the punt return game, though, averaging 17 yards per return. True freshman safety Clint Floyd has gotten some work returning kicks, notching 21 yards on two kick returns, but Williams remains as ASU's main guy returning both kickoffs and punts. Sloppy coverage teams along with three blocked kicks and one blocked punt have taken the "special" out of special teams.