Erickson Encouraged as Devils Enter Spring

ASU head coach Dennis Erickson admitted that there wasn't a day that went by in the off-season that he didn't think of his team's 5-7 campaign in 2008. Having said that, the Sun Devil skipper is excited with the work that his players have put in the winter and is overall excited for the prospects of his squad which starts spring practice in a week from now.

"It's always exciting because you don't have to play anybody," quipped Erickson about his feelings towards spring practice. "You're assured of winning one game and that's the spring game.

"In my experience its' even more exciting maybe after you didn't have a great season. We all worked pretty hard. None of us were happy over what transpired last fall. We're excited for the opportunity to get back and see where we are at. We're a better team than we were a year ago."

Erickson reiterated that his goal is to establish Arizona State over time as a top flight program. He feels that the returning cast of players can make strides towards achieving that feat.

"I think we have awfully good young players in this program who played a lot last year," Erickson noted. "When you look at them physically right now from what they've done in the off-season, it's a group that has a chance to be very competitive next year."

The off-season efforts of the coaching staff weren't limited to just evaluating last season and discussing solutions among themselves, but also seeking new approaches by visiting the University of Texas football program. The process involved examining the Longhorns' schemes on offense, defense and special teams and deciding if they can fit the ASU personnel.

"We've had groups here that we've exchanged ideas with," Erickson stated. "We've done that every year that I've been coaching. Staying static thinking you got all the answers, will get your rear end kicked, and obviously we don't (have all the answers). We visited with NFL people, went to Texas, had defensive coaches out here…we've exchanged a lot of ideas. "You just examine where you are at and what you got to do. You look at your personnel and what you can and can't do. Where coaches make mistakes is being stubborn in what they do sometimes and it doesn't fit their personnel. You need to give your players to best opportunity to be successful."

Erickson added that this practice of exchanging ideas is something that was more prevalent in his early coaching years, and now it seems as if teams are more guarded in that regard and shy away from visiting with other programs. The exchange is Texas was possible in large part due to the close friendship Erickson has with Texas' head coach Mack Brown.

With the departure of three-year starter Rudy Carpenter, time will tell who will be the starting quarterback for the maroon and gold when they begin play September 5th. Yet, it's a given that it will be a relatively inexperienced signal caller taking the helm, a fact that will obviously dictate the type and complexity of the scheme that the Sun Devils will ultimately run on offense.

"We have a pretty good plan of what we're going to do in the spring," Erickson remarked. "We investigated a lot of different things. Aspects of that stuff will fit different guys, the basics everybody can do. The aspects of what we do probably depends a little on the quarterback but not very much."

The ASU head coach was looking forward to the position battle at quarterback, and offered his opinion on the cast of characters at this role.

"Watching Danny Sullivan everyday for two years, I think he's very underrated," Erickson commented. "I see people saying ‘he can't do this, he can't do that.' How does anybody know? Nobody has ever seen him. I've seen him every day and he has an extremely strong arm and he's big. Is he going to run the option? No. but he does some things really well. He's a hard worker and right now going into spring he's No. 1.

"Samson (Szakacsy) can really run. His elbow is better and a lot stronger. The doctors told me that he's getting pretty close to 100%. He was 50% last fall. Athletically that kid can fly. He's under 4.6 and one of the fastest guys on the team. He's just a good athlete. He could play somewhere else, but the only way I would do that if he could flat out not throw."

"Jack (Elway) is very competitive, very strong. Chasen Stangel can physically throw the ball as well as anybody."

"I haven't seen him in action on the field," said Erickson of Brock Osweiler. "I just know he's very mature, spends a lot of time studying the game – he's up here by himself quite often watching tape. I know he's 6-7 and he can post me up very easily. They're getting bigger in every sport. He's very athletic and has a chance. I'll have a better answer in a couple of weeks after I watched him.

"If he wouldn't have been in Kalispell, Montana…not a lot of people go up there to recruit. Especially in the winter time. He doesn't say (that he can win the starting job) but he has a lot of confidence. He has a very good composure about him."

Erickson acknowledged that there will be a process that will whittle out the number of quarterbacks taking snaps, because it would be impossible to give all five signal callers reps on a consistent basis. He added that he expects the pairing down at this position to take place midway through the spring, and since all players have little to no experience there will be no preference given to older quarterbacks.

"I have no problem carrying (the position battle) into the fall," Erickson stated. "I want to get it down to two and hopefully after a couple of weeks make a decision. But if somebody jumps out in the spring we'll make that decision earlier."

Erickson added that he's hasn't made it a habit during his career employing a two-quarterback system, but is also not opposed to it. "Bottom line I just want to win," said Erickson. "Whatever it takes."

Lack of big plays, according to Erickson, plagued the offense in 2008. This is an area that will obviously have to improve, but at the same time a new quarterback will cause the offense to go back to basics.

"Offensively we have to go back to the beginning," Erickson noted. "When you do that it makes you realize what you have to do. Sometimes in spring when you have a veteran quarterback that knows a lot of things, but you forget that these other ten guys have to know it too, and sometimes you get ahead of yourself. Sometime I think that was our problem.

"So we're going to try and keep it a little simpler as far as number of plays. It's still about execution."

Even though the development of the passing game will garner much of the attention on offense in the spring because of the quarterback battle, Erickson is well aware that his offense won't be successful in any system if the team will struggle to run the football as it did last year.

"It doesn't make any difference what offense you are in," Erickson said, "I don't want to get into four-wides (offensive formation) if we can't run the ball. You have to be able to run the football and block. You look at the offensive front and we are way better than we were. We got guys coming back and we'll be very young. But physically we have guys in better shape."

The ASU head coach said that the team's strength and conditioning staff noted that this off-season was the best one the team has had in the last three years, in terms of players improving physically and overall competitiveness during strength and conditioning sessions.

"Bottom line is – where does it carry you to?" Erickson stated. "You win games in the weight room when you prepare yourself, but you don't win games in the weight room. You have to play football and that's what it is all about. I like some of the improvements, like Derrall Anderson putting on 14 pounds, gaining 25 pounds in bench press. Matt Hustad has put on 20 pounds. Otis Jones is a freshman and benches over 400 pounds. It goes on and on, those guys have worked very hard, but it has to carry over."

Shaun Lauvao, who will be moved to left tackle, is one offensive lineman that Erickson is especially excited about. "He's up to 310 (pounds), power cleans 350, squatted 675, benches 500 and he's very athletic," Erickson remarked. "Probably the biggest mistake I made last year is not moving him to tackle."

Jon Hargis will move from left to right tackle, but can also play guard if needed. Patrick Jamison, Tom Nujunge, Kyle Johnson and Mike Marcisz will line up at tackle. Thomas Altieri and Garth Gerhart will continue their fierce battle at center, and Gerhart could see some time at guard as well.

At right guard Zach Schlink, who will be out in the spring, will battle with Andrew Sampson. Adam Tello will play at guard. Matt Hustad can play both tackle and guard, but will play the former once he heals.

At tight end Erickson is looking for players to step up such as Jovon Williams and Steven Figueroa. Dan Knapp will be out with an injury but is a player that Erickson has touted for a while.

In regards to wide receiver Erickson is pleased with the returning cast. He's looking forward to having a healthy Chris McGaha who was hobbled all fall due to a foot injury he suffered last spring, and believes he can play at the high level he did in 2007 at the ‘Y' spot. Kerry Taylor will take over at the ‘X' receiver starter spot vacated outgoing senior Mike Jones, but could also play the other two WR roles. Kyle Williams will start at the ‘H' spot.

Gerell Robinson came into to the program with a lot of accolades, but had to endure the typical learning curve that occurs due to the transition from high school to college. During this off-season Erickson has seen that curve become less steep with the wide receiver, who has worked hard and is emerging as a leader.

"He has already made a significant jump physically," Erickson said of the 6-4 225 Robinson. "He came in and never really played receiver. He lost weight and is in much better shape. He's just night and day (from last season). I look for him to have a heck of a spring."

Running back is another unit that will have a lot of experience coming back. Shawn DeWitty is a player that Erickson said was in good shape and poised to have a better season. James Morrison, who was awarded a scholarship in the off-season, is coming back from an ankle injury that sidelined him in 2008 and is up to 220 lbs. Erickson is also looking forward to see Ryan Bass in the spring.

On the other side of the ball, Erickson acknowledged that the defense is the stronger part of this team and is returning a lot of quality proven players. He noted that Dexter Davis is as good as the best defensive ends in the Pac-10. At other defensive end James Brooks and JC transfer Dean DeLeone will battle for a starting position.

At defensive tackle the depth chart is obviously anchored by Lawrence Guy who had a sensational freshman year. Erickson is especially excited about Otis Jones who redshirted in 2008, and overall liked the depth the team has at defensive tackle.

The linebacker corps will be deeper and faster than it has ever been at ASU under Erickson. Travis Goethel will move from SAM to MIKE. Shelly Lyons will move to the SAM position. Mike Nixon and Brandon Magee will play at WILL. Derrall Anderson will be at MIKE, but could play at SAM as well. Colin Parker is in the mix for the WILL role.

Gerald Munns, who had to leave the team early last season due to personal matters, is back in the fold and will play at MIKE. "He's excited to be back," Erickson said. "He's a new man. He's has a smile, he works hard…I'm excited for him. We all go through some things in our lives and he came out of it. He's a happy camper and doing well academically."

There will be a question mark at safety with the departure of two senior starters. Clint Floyd started a few games here and along with Jarrell Holman and Ryan McFoy are the most experienced players at this position. Keelan Johnson who redshirted last year brings a lot of athleticism to the table, as does mid-year signee freshman Matt Tucker who figures not to redshirt in 2009. Max Tabach is out with a knee injury.

At corner depth has also improved and Erickson noted that now the team has better equipped personnel to play the nickel and dime formations. Omar Bolden, Terell Carr and Pierre Singfield are the notable returners and are joined by a very talented JC transfer in LeQuan Lewis. Overall improved speed on this side of the ball will create more blitz opportunities for the ASU defense.

Looking ahead to the fall arrivals of the 2009 recruiting class, Erickson believes that LB Vontaze Burfict, DT Corey Adams, and RB Cameron Marshall can contribute this year. Jamal Miles is another player that has a good chance not to redshirt since he can play RB, WR or CB, as well as CB Osahon Irabor. Erickson also noted that Physically TE Max Smith could play as a freshman.

Part of a team's success, like USC, is that their practices are highly competitive, with a high level of intensity "You go to practice every day you got to to fight for your job."

Consequently, Erickson stated that "It's going to be a very physical spring, more so than the last two years because we have a lot of competition out there. Every position is open. I know it's the canned answer going into spring, but it really is the frost time we're going into spring that I really think we had this going for us."

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