WIDE RECEIVER: C
Even what was perceived to be the deepest of any position on offense had its share of struggles this season. Senior Michael Jones scored a team-leading 10 touchdowns last fall but scored just four times in 2008. Jones finished with 61 receptions, tops among all receivers. He did suffer from back spasms in fall camp, and was never fully healthy this year.
Although he added another couple of highlight catches to his growing resume, Chris McGaha didn't appear to be on the same footing this season, both figuratively and literally. The junior battled a toe injury, which slowed his production this fall. McGaha emerged as quarterback Rudy Carpenter's favorite target last season with 61 receptions but was held to 35 catches and one score as a follow-up. Ultimately, both McGaha and Jones having down years proved to be a blow that the Sun Devils could never recover from.
Kerry Taylor blossomed as a sophomore by catching 27 passes, third-most on the team, for 405 yards and three touchdowns. Junior Kyle Williams, who led the group with an average of 19.2 yards per catch, added 364 yards and four scores as well. Both Taylor and Williams figure to be among the top contributors next season, and with Jones' departure both stand to see the field at the same time rather than battling each other for the "H" wide receiver spot.
Rounding out the group were senior Nate Kimbrough, true freshman Gerell Robinson, and redshirt freshman T.J. Simpson. Kimbrough added ten receptions in his final season while Robinson and Simpson had a combined five catches. Kimbrough was another wideout battling injuries, albeit to a lesser extent than Jones and McGaha. Robinson and Simpson showed promise during fall camp, but in their limited game time opportunities failed to make an impact. Both newcomers would have to continue and improve to provide much needed depth, let alone earn a starting role in 2009.
OFFENSIVE LINE: D-
55 was the dubious distinction given to the offensive line coming into this season, 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 couldn't be excuses for a repeat pass protection season long blunder. To their credit, the unit's 34 sacks given up this year was an improvement over last season. However, issues remain with both the pass and run blocking.
The loss of junior 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, as he was ill-equipped to play that role and eventually lost his starting spot to junior college transfer Tom Njunge, who began the season at left tackle behind sophomore Jon Hargis.
Several combinations were tried out at ASU's front five. Eventually, the staff settled on a starting lineup of Hargis at left tackle, redshirt freshman Garth Gerhart at left guard, junior Thomas Altieri at center, senior Paul Fanaika at right guard, and junior Shawn Lauvao at right tackle.
A lack of consistency in the trenches noticeably took its toll as the offense, overall, wasn't able to move the chains with any regularity. Currently, there aren't enough tackle-types in the program to build around so the Devils have been forced to use players more suited for guard at the tackle spots.
Head coach Dennis Erickson hinted that Lauvao could move to the all important left tackle role, while Hargis will assume one of the guard roles. Gerhart is expected to continue and fiercely battle Altieri for the starting center role.
True freshman Zach Schlink and redshirt freshman Matt Hustad showed some flashes in limited duty before both suffered knee injuries which not only cut their season short, but also will hurt the depth of the group as the tandem isn't expected to be ready for spring practice and could be limited at best come fall camp.
TIGHT END: C
Five tight ends saw action in 2008, but none really emerged from the group as both a solid blocker and pass-catching offensive weapon that ASU fans have been accustomed to in recent history. However, in defense of this unit the blocking issues on offensive line forced the tight ends to stay at home to block which noticeably reduced their contributions in the passing game.
Redshirt freshman Dan Knapp showed some early promise in both roles. Unfortunately, a knee injury sidelined him for much of the season. Knapp, who started two games, finished the year with three catches and one touchdown. Senior Andrew Pettes ended up leading the group with 21 receptions and three scores as a senior.
Junior Jovon Williams, who caught three passes this fall, will return next season and is another player that needs to use the momentum of fall camp as a springboard for a successful fall season. Junior college transfer Stanley Malamala and senior Wes Evans rounded out the rotation mainly as blockers, but did see minimal involvement as receivers. If he noticeably improves Malamala stands to heavily contend for a starting role here.
RUNNING BACK: F
ASU's backfield struggled all season long to provide a much-needed balance to the offensive attack. The Sun Devils averaged just 89.1 yards on the ground this season, which marked the third-lowest output since 1946.
Expected to have a larger role this season, senior running back Keegan Herring never seemed to find a rhythm. After missing time early on with a hamstring injury, Herring rushed for 401 yards and three touchdowns. With Herring sidelined, Dimitri Nance was forced to carry a bulk of the load to begin the year. Nance finished with 410 yards and three scores on 105 carries this season. The junior's ineffective ground game and fumbling issues, albeit with an arm injury eventually led to him being used less often in the second half of the season.
Battling injuries for what seems like his entire career here in Tempe, Shaun DeWitty had a "coming out" party of sorts at Oregon State. DeWitty carried the ball 16 times for 110 yards, which was ASU's first 100-yard rushing game by a Sun Devil in 2008. DeWitty compiled a total of 270 yards in four starts. Ryan Bass, a heralded recruit out of Southern California, showed the staff some big-play capabilities in camp. 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. In limited time this season, Bass picked up 120 yards on 26 carries.
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. A lack of big plays, combined with untimely fumbles, were a glaring wart for the offense. James Morrison, a walk-on who suffered a season ending ankle injury in fall camp figures to be that much needed bruiser back who can help ASU get the tough yards and win the time of possession battle.
Quarterback Rudy Carpenter probably envisioned a better senior campaign in 2008 but the offense struggled ever since the Sun Devils entered the meat of their schedule. Carpenter didn't get a whole lot of help around him but he was visibly off the mark for a four-year starter with a wealth of experience under his belt. Despite numerous issues and injuries that plagued this offense, the senior managed to finish fourth in the Pac-10 by averaging 207.8 yards per game. Carpenter tossed 16 touchdowns and nine interceptions.
Second-teamer junior Danny Sullivan saw limited action behind Carpenter. Sullivan completed 15 of his 43 attempts for one touchdown and two interceptions. The senior-to-be may be the current front runner to replace Carpenter next season but that's based mostly on his experience and not on performance. Redshirt freshman Samson Szakacsy figures to be Sullivan biggest competitor and many believe that in an offense which will preach more creativity and spread formations, that the nimble Szakacsy should win the job in the spring.
True freshman Jack Elway, sophomore Chasen Stangel and true freshman Brock Osweiler who will transfer to ASU in the spring, all figure to be on the outside looking in on this ASU signal caller battle, although Osweiler has the biggest chance to contribute early out of the three.
DEFENSIVE LINE: B-
Coach 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, for the most part, held their own while defending the run but wasn't quite consistent enough in applying pressure on opposing quarterbacks.
Defensive tackle Lawrence Guy flourished as one of ASU's top newcomers. The true freshman not only paced all first-year players but led all defensive linemen with 44 total tackles. The combination of Guy on the interior and Dexter Davis, one of the Pac-10's top pass rushers, gave the Sun Devils a formidable 1-2 punch up front. Davis, who will be back along with Guy next season, was second in the conference in sacks with 11 and continues to be one of the most underrated league players at his position.
Senior Luis Vasquez was expected to double with Davis as one of the league's top pass-rushing duos but just like 2007 was held in check for the first half of the season. Vasquez did eventually rebound to collect 10.5 tackles for a loss, including four sacks. James Brooks is materializing into a freakish athletic player who is not only the probable replacement for Vasquez, but stands to exceed the senior's performance. True freshman Jamaar Jarrett has shown some glimpses and stands to be a solid back up next season. Both Brooks and Jarrett combined for 19 tackles.
Other notable contributors on the line included defensive tackles David Smith, Saia Falahola, Jonathan English, and Paul ‘Unga. The senior Smith compiled 14 tackles as a regular starter, who had to miss a couple of games late in the season due to a stinger. Falahola and English will compete for the vacated starting spot left open by Smith although English won't return to the practice field before the fall due to torn ACL suffered in late November. Look out for Otis Jones who will be coming off a redshirt and stands to battle both players for playing time.
Quite possibly the defensive MVP this season, Mike Nixon was seen all over the field making plays on a regular basis. The 25-year old played like a veteran, and his 60 solo tackles were tops on the team, as were his 90 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, also collected five interceptions. Strong side linebacker Travis Goethel notched 71 stops and two interceptions opposite Nixon, and just like his teammate was consistent in his performance.
After learning the defense would be without junior Gerald Munns for the rest of the season (Munns collected 16 stops and one pick), senior Morris Wooten rose to the occasion after serving a three-game suspension to begin the year. The middle linebacker compiled 72 tackles and two sacks in only nine games played, and tallied 17 tackles in a late season game against UCLA. The loss of Wooten in the middle looks to be one of the bigger holes to fill as the Sun Devils continue to shore up their run defense.
True freshmen Shelly Lyons and Brandon Magee were bright spots this season and both look to increase their playing time in the coming years. Lyons finished among the top 10 tacklers on defense with 36 stops and right now stand to fill the void left by Wooten at the MIKE position. Magee, who missed over a month with a pectoral muscle injury, added 11 tackles and his potential is very intriguing going into next year.
Junior Ryan McFoy was another valued contributor off the bench with 18 tackles and a forced fumble, but after starting two games at WILL he was regulated to reserve and was actually shuttled back to his old role of safety when injuries hit that position. Time will tell if McFoy will remain at linebacker or end his Sun Devil tenure at the position where he started his ASU career and one that he was projected for a top-notch player.
A trio of redshirt freshmen saw varying amounts of game time snaps as reserves. The most surprising contributor was Colin Parker who missed part of his HS junior season, as well as all of his senior campaign but didn't look rusty coming off a redshirt year at ASU.
Oliver Aaron's impact was felt more on special teams, but he and Parker will battle for a higher depth seeding at the WILL position going into next year. Derrall Anderson stands to back up Goethel at SAM, and is another player with a lot of upside.
Injuries have prevented sophomore Jeff Bereuter from making any noticeable contributions this year and with an abundance of talent at this position he currently looks to be lost in the shuffle.
The staff will likely continue to look for more speed at linebacker in recruiting, since the group is still somewhat vulnerable when rushers reach the edges and turn the corner. Improved pursuit angles could also aid the cause. Nonetheless, this is undoubtedly the soundest unit on this side of the ball.
Hard-hitting senior safety Troy Nolan closed out his career in the maroon and gold in fine fashion as he led the secondary with 64 tackles and four interceptions. Nolan also finished among the top 10 scorers on the team with three touchdowns. Rodney Cox, also a senior, collected 37 stops and four pass break-ups as a regular starter opposite Nolan.
With both Nolan and Cox gone after this season, the Sun Devils will turn to a pair of young safeties, who both gained valuable playing time this season. Max Tabach, a sophomore transfer from Glendale Community College, had totaled 12 tackles, one pass break-up, and a forced fumble before a knee injury cut his season short. Clint Floyd, perhaps the biggest surprise among the true freshmen, steadily worked his way up the depth chart since his arrival in Tempe. Floyd sat out several weeks with a lacerated kidney suffered mid-season but managed to collect seven tackles and force one fumble. After struggling with injuries early on since arriving over a year ago, junior Jarrell Holman added 10 tackles in his first year of action and he did come on strong in the later stages of 2008 pushing Cox for playing time.
The player to keep an eye on here is Keelan Johnson, who had some very strong practices late in the season at safety, after moving from wide receiver. It was always believed that Johnson could make more of an impact on defense, and what he may lack in experience he more than makes up in athleticism. Mid-year HS transfer Matt Tucker is another raw and young player that could stage a strong battle for playing time.
Cornerback Omar Bolden, Arizona State's freshman sensation last fall, was seemingly in a sophomore slump in 2008. Bolden finished fifth overall in tackles with 49 stops, and also notched a team-high seven pass break-ups, but underperformed in a major way compared to his solid freshman campaign.
Juniors Pierre Singfield and Terrell Carr were sharing snaps at the other starting corner spot until Carr began to emerge midway through the season. With his solid play, Carr nailed down the starting spot opposite Bolden and finished with 46 tackles and three pass break-ups.
True freshman Josh Jordan took advantage of the early season defections by Grant Crunkleton and Travis Smith and showed some promise here. Deveron Carr is the most physical of the scholarship corners and could be the dark horse when the depth chart for position starts to shape up next year.
The uncertainty at this spot for half of the season, combined with Bolden's struggles, gave the Devils' pass defense a seventh-best ranking in the Pac-10 as they gave up an average of just over 208 yards through the air. This unit returns all of its key players, and stands to receive no more than two additions through recruiting. Thus, it's critical for this group to improve on its collective showing from 2008 especially in light of what's shaping up to be an inexperienced safety group.
SPECIAL TEAMS: C
2007 Lou Groza Award winner Thomas Weber converted on 19 of his 25 field goal attempts this fall after missing only one all of last season. While three of his kicks were blocked early, the sophomore and his teammates rebounded from a poor start to connect on 9 of his last 11 attempts. His longest make of the season was a 49-yarder against UNLV. It was probably unrealistic for Weber to live up to his epic freshman season, and expectedly or not that what eventually transpired.
Weber pulled double duty once again by booming 59 punts this past season. Weber averaged 41.4 yards on 59 punts, which ranked fifth-best in the conference. He had 10 punts over 50 yards and placed 23 of his punts inside the 20-yard line. So ironically in a year where she struggled at times with his field goal kicking he did improve on his punting. True freshman Thomas Ohmart usually did a good job for a first-year long snapper, as did Sullivan as the holder.
Speedy receiver Kyle Williams is capable of ripping off chunks of yardage in the return game as evidenced by his Pac-10 leading 17-yard average on punt returns. Williams also ranked among the conference's top five kick returners by averaging 23.3 yards. Nate Kimbrough improvised for Williams on punt returns later in the season with a very respectable performance. Kimbrough averaged 12.6 yards on 12 punt returns with his longest return of 58 yards.
Sloppy coverage teams along with three blocked kicks and one blocked punt in the first half of the season canceled out a better showing afterwards.
Overall, the return of Weber and Williams brings a lot of stability to this unit in 2009. Bolden, Simpson and Floyd could see more time as returners next year.