Sun Devil Spring Football Preview: Offense

Many question marks exist on this side of the ball for ASU. Here is a look at how the various offensive units shape up for the Sun Devils in the spring.

Quarterback

Jack Elway RS-Fr.
Brock Osweiler Fr.
Chasen Stangel So.
Danny Sullivan Sr.
Samson Szakacsy So.

Undeniably, all eyes will be on the quarterback battle as the Sun Devils look to replace Rudy Carpenter, the starter in 43 consecutive games dating back to the 2005 season. With only one player at the position to have seen prior game action for ASU, the position battle is likely to be one of the most intriguing on the greens at Kajikawa Field, and during the first week of practice several competitors have shown promise.

To the untrained eye, senior Danny Sullivan would seem to be a lock to take over control; he is the only Sun Devil passer with game experience and enters his fourth year at the college level after being Carpenter's back-up during the 2006-08 seasons. Perhaps if this were one year ago, more confidence would be given to Sullivan as he had an impressive late effort against Texas in the 2007 Holiday Bowl however that momentum halted with little productivity during minimal action last season, completing only 15-of-43 passes (34.9 pct.) for 151 yards with one touchdown and two interceptions.

Technically, Sullivan will enter the spring atop the depth chart and has the experience advantage over his competitors, however many believe he will need to provide a tremendous effort to main the starting edge into fall camp.

For his three-year career, the Los Gatos, Calif., native has posted modest numbers of 40-of-87 passing (46.0 pct.) for 409 yards with three touchdowns and three interceptions in 25 career games, many of which were spent primarily as kicker Thomas Weber's holder last season.

Sophomore Samson Szakacsy provides a compelling athletic presence that ASU hasn't seen at the quarterback position in quite some time, and after not being entirely healthy throughout his first two years on campus it has been recognized that Szakacsy enters spring drills close to 100-percent.

Rated as the No. 48 quarterback in the 2007 class by Scout.com as a senior at Camarillo (Calif.) High School, Szakacsy had originally committed to attend USC after an incredible junior season, however injuries derailed his senior season and he hadn't been able to shake that bug until recently.

While Szakacsy provides an unmatched presence with his scrambling abilities and history of being a highly accurate passer, the main question mark that has existed is the potential of his arm strength. Although he didn't see game action as a redshirt freshman behind Carpenter and Sullivan in 2008, Szakacsy is expected to have a viable chance to factor into the equation at quarterback.

Likely to be the most talked-about and most closely analyzed athlete at ASU's spring drills, true freshman Brock Osweiler has drawn rave reviews in his pre-spring training since arriving at the start of the semester and his combination of his 6-foot-8, near 240-pound frame, basketball athleticism, on and off-field intelligence and impressive throwing abilities have hordes of Sun Devil fans anxiously excited to see the Kalispell, Mont., product in practice and game action.

Perceived to be underrated as a recruit at Flathead High School largely due to Montana's small "market" status, Osweiler was rated by Scout.com as the No. 49 quarterback prospect in the country, but observers and coaches believe that he possesses elite talent for the position and is comparable in potential to many of the four and five-star prospects of the 2009 class.

Officially, Osweiler enters the spring at the bottom of the quarterback depth chart – due to a lack of seniority and nothing more – but he should be expected to be a main competitor to open the 2009 under center for the Devils.

Formerly rated a four-star prospect and the No. 29 quarterback recruit in the 2007 class, sophomore Chasen Stangel faces an uphill battle to become a plausible top reserve – let challenge for a starting role. It is likely that he will exit the spring on the bottom half of the depth chart after competing on the scout team in each of the past two seasons.

Few college athletes carry the same name value as ASU's redshirt freshman passer Jack Elway; however the son of one of the NFL's all-time greats is viewed more as a developmental project than a sure-fire difference maker.

The most likely case is that Elway and Stangel will compete with one another for reigns of the scout team offense with hopes of climbing a rung of the depth chart ladder when Sullivan graduates and if any other passers depart from the program prematurely; a possible scenario when a handful of young athletes are all vying for a starting spot.

Spring Questions

Who will emerge as the starting quarterback at the conclusion of the spring?

Will the final spring starter have a decisive edge over the competition?

Has Danny Sullivan developed athletically enough to utilize his seniority?

Can Samson Szakacsy overcome his injury history to battle to start?

Can freshman Brock Osweiler acclimate to college football quick enough to win the position?

Running Back

Ryan Bass So.
Shaun DeWitty Sr.
James Morrison RS-Fr.
Dimitri Nance Sr.
Jarrell Woods Sr.

Although the starting quarterback position is undetermined as spring drills begin, the depth chart at running back is likely the most unpredictable of any position on the Sun Devil roster.

After totaling only 1,069 rushing yards as a team – ASU's lowest since 1946 – there is certainly room for exponential improvement and the team will be well served by opening the competition to the entire unit. Despite lackluster play along the offensive line, the team lacked a true playmaker at the tailback position – especially with now departed senior Keegan Herring in and out of the line-up last year.

A strange paradox seems to exist as perhaps the most encouraging and potentially capable backs are the least experienced as a trio of seniors seems not to be the immediate option for the coaching staff to utilize. In essence, ASU's crop of tailbacks is the known versus the unknown; a situation which may yield itself to a very competitive spring. Those who have seen stable game action haven't provided substantial results and a pair of underclassmen maintain high expectations and will look to scale the depth chart.

Senior Dimitri Nance came to ASU with a tremendous high school resume as one of the top backs in the history of Texas high school football, however he has not showcased noticeable progress during his three years on the field for the Sun Devils and saw his carries decrease during the later stages of the 2008 season.

Similar to Danny Sullivan at quarterback, on "paper" Nance appears to be the leading candidate but implications have been given that the staff is looking for other options, making the spring crucial for the Texan in his final season at ASU. Nance has been awarded first-team repetitions by head coach Dennis Erickson to begin spring drills, but there will be a slew of competitors nipping at his heels to earn the starting position. After leading ASU with 410 yards on 105 carries last year, Nance has accumulated career figures of 294 carries for 1,139 yards with 13 touchdowns, with a modest 3.9 yards-per-carry average, as a starter in seven of 33 career games played.

Shaun DeWitty earned increased action as 2008 progressed, ultimately starting four of 10 games, carrying 62 times for 270 yards with a 4.4-yard average per carry. Also a respectable receiver out of the backfield with 18 career receptions, DeWitty has been a serviceable back for the Devils but is best when used situationally and not as a starting option. A tall athlete with good size for his position, DeWitty will undoubtedly have a role during his final season, he may have to fight to remain among the upper half of the running back depth chart.

Potentially the "X" factor at running back, sophomore Ryan Bass is expected to receive a greater opportunity to perform than he did as a true freshman last year, when he utilized a season of eligibility to carry 26 times for 120 yards in seven games. Although he wasn't able to showcase his full skill set last year, he had flashes of excellence and also boasted the highest yards-per-carry average (4.6) of all Sun Devil running backs in 2008.

Coach Erickson insists that Bass will see increased action in the spring and the former four-star recruit from Corona (Calif.) Centennial High School could vault his elder competitors and earn ample action in 2009. With a solid spring session, Bass could very feasibly jump directly into the starting running back conversation for the Devils.

Despite not seeing game action as a true freshman last year, James Morrison was one of the more talked-about players in early-season camp as the lightly recruited back from Phoenix's St. Mary's High School walked-on for the Sun Devils last fall but immediate drew attention with his rugged running style.

A leg injury halted his participation on the scout team last year, but Morrison is expected to be back in action for the spring. Boasting a running style that ASU hasn't had since Ryan Torain was shelved for the second half of the 2007 season; expectations are high for Morrison, who secured his place on the roster with by recently earning a scholarship from Coach Erickson, to manage a way to contribute in 2009.

Jarrell Woods, a senior and an excellent physical specimen, simply hasn't been able to find a way on the field, only competing in three games during his two-year Sun Devil career, with only one carry for two yards last year after an intriguing late-game performance against Texas in the 2007 Holiday Bowl, his only game appearance that season, in which he collected 20 rushing yards on three carries and a touchdown. With a very limited career resume, the deck is certainly stacked against the Northville, Mich., native in 2009, and it would be surprising to see Woods higher than fourth or fifth on the depth chart at running back in the spring.

Spring Questions

Can Dimitri Nance hold on to first-string running back duties?

Has Ryan Bass developed enough to win the starting position?

What can be expected from James Morrison?

Will the depth chart at running back be clarified by the end of the spring or will the battle carry over into the fall?

Wide Receiver

Allante Battle RS-Fr.
Chris McGaha Sr.
A.J. Pickens RS-Fr.
Gerell Robinson So.
T.J. Simpson So.
Brandon Smith Sr.
Kerry Taylor Jr.
Kyle Williams Sr.

ASU's wide receivers unit was expected to be one of the Pac-10's – if not one of the nation's – best in 2008, however an inconsistent overall performance by the Sun Devil offense leaves the group looking to collectively redeem itself in 2009.

Bugged by injuries in 2008, senior Chris McGaha looks to bring back his combination of technical expertise and highlight-reel receptions. After hauling in 61 passes for 830 yards as a sophomore in 2007, the Phoenix native's numbers dipped to only 35 catches for 501 yards last year, despite starting all 12 games in 2008.

With 112 career receptions for 1,569 yards, McGaha stands as ASU's most seasoned and accomplished wide receiver and figures to be a frequent target for whichever quarterback emerges as the starter.

Kerry Taylor blasted to an excellent start to the 2008 season and totaled 27 catches for 405 yards and three scores. The Chandler Hamilton High School product was praised as one of ASU's hardest-working offensive players and perhaps the team's most improved athlete last year, leading to the belief that he will be a leading candidate to replace departed starter Michael   Jones as a junior in 2009. A very well-rounded option, Taylor and McGaha have the ability to bring reliability to the wide receiver position, a very useful tool for an inexperienced quarterback.

Senior Kyle Williams enters his final season of play at ASU, after catching 19 passes for 364 yards last year. While never lacking athleticism and game-changing explosiveness, Williams has had periods of lacking consistency. However, the Scottsdale native has scored 10 times on only 52 career catches and is also one of the Pac-10's most dangerous return men, making him a playmaking threat at any time.

The fourth wide receiver on ASU's depth chart may be selected from a field of candidates; however coaches insist that former mega-recruit and sophomore Gerell Robinson will be one of the team's most improved players in 2009. After joining the team as perhaps the most highly-acclaimed recruit in the 2008 class, rated by Scout.com as a four-star athlete at the No. 14 wide receiver prospect in the nation, Robinson appeared in 10 games as a true freshman but caught only three passes for 26 yards. An all-purpose athlete that saw time at quarterback and safety in addition to wide receiver in high school, the technical aspects of the position prevented his athletic prowess from showing on the field last year. With a year of college experience under his belt, Robinson is expected to shine as a sophomore, using his tremendous frame and athleticism to his advantage.

T.J Simpson worked his way into the rotation as a redshirt freshman last year, catching a pair of passes – including one touchdown – in 11 games on the season. A three-star recruit out of Peoria (Ariz.) High School, Simpson provides solid height and an intriguing track and field resume to the position group. Although he may struggle to break within the top five of the receivers depth chart, with two seniors ahead of him, Simpson will be well-served to use every opportunity to secure a future depth chart promotion.

One of the notable redshirt freshmen to watch in 2009 may prove to be A.J. Pickens, a player expected to potentially impact the offense and returns game this season. Rated by Scout.com as a three-star recruit as a member of ASU's 2008 class, Pickens has shown flashes of explosiveness in practice and the staff eagerly anticipates utilizing his abilities on the field this year.

A Sun Devil legacy and one of the state's top track and field athletes while at Desert Vista High School in Phoenix, Allante Battle came to ASU on a track scholarship and redshirted on the football team as a walk-on last season. Impressive in practice, Scout.com rated Battle as the No. 85 wide receiver in the nation for 2008 and his elite speed alone makes him a viable offensive threat.

Often times a stand-out in practice but rarely a factor in game action, the 2009 season will be Brandon Smith's final opportunity to actualize his incredible potential. After appearing in 11 games with two starts as a redshirt freshman in 2006, Smith saw action in only one game last year after not breaking into the lineup in 2007.

Spring Questions Will Gerell Robinson begin to become a game-changing receiver?

What will be provided by redshirt freshmen Allante Battle and A.J. Pickens?

Can Chris McGaha regain his form from 2007?

Will Brandon Smith become a factor?

Tight Ends

Steven Figueroa RS-Fr.
Dan Knapp So.*
Stanley Malamala Sr.
Jovon Williams Sr.

*-injured and will not participate in spring drills

With departures by the team's two top tight ends, starter Andrew Pettes and reserve Wes Evans, and an injury to Dan Knapp, expected by many to have tremendous potential as a starting candidate that will keep him out of spring drills, the depth at tight end for the spring is awfully thin and collectively lacks established experience. If nothing else, having only three scholarship tight ends available for service in the spring will enable those individuals to get ample opportunities to prove their worth.

Senior Jovon Williams hopes to follow the footsteps of Pettes and Tyrice Thompson, players who enjoyed excellent senior seasons at tight end after limited contributions their first three seasons at ASU. Williams has appeared in every game of the past two seasons with one start in 2008, but has reeled in only four catches for 44 yards. A hard worker and a versatile athlete, the coaches remain optimistic that he will emerge into a reliable target.

Backing up Williams in the spring will be senior Stanley Malamala, who appeared in every game last year with one reception, and redshirt Steven Figueroa, rated by Scout.com as the No. 25 tight end prospect in the nation in 2008. Malamala provides a noteworthy physical presence but is limited in receiving capabilities, while Figueroa was an excellent two-way option at Desert Vista High School in Phoenix but was held from action on the scout team last year due to injury.

With Dan Knapp, who emerged into a reliable playmaker in 2008 before being shelved midway through the year, out due to injury, the spring will be crucial for the three scholarship tight ends who will be available as they jockey for position for 2009.

Spring Questions

Can Jovon Williams become a reliable starter?

How has Steven Figueroa developed and what can be expected from him in 2009?

Will Stanley Malamala emerge into anything more than a situational contributor?

How will Dan Knapp's inability to play in the spring impact his development as a potential starter?

Offensive Line

Thomas Altieri Sr.
Garth Gerhart So.
Brent Good Sr.
Jon Hargis Jr.
Matt Hustad So.*
Patrick Jamison RS-Fr.
Kyle Johnson RS-Fr.
Shawn Lauvao Sr.
Michael Marcisz So.
Trent Marsh So.
Tom Njunge Sr.
Andrew Sampson RS-Fr.
Zach Schlink So.
Adam Tello So.
Isaiah Williams So.

*-injured and will not participate in spring drills

Perhaps no position group in the Pac-10 has been berated the last two years as much as ASU's offensive line and coaches and fans keep their fingers crossed that the unit can avoid being a punch line in 2009.

With only one departed player, mammoth guard Paul Fanaika, gone from the 2008 lineup, the Sun Devils have the benefit of general continuity from last year's squad. However, continuity is basically meaningless if there is no improvement.

Senior Shawn Lauvao has seemingly gone berserk over the offseason, raising his bench press over the 500-pound mark and solidifying himself as ASU's starting left tackle after spending the majority of his career at guard before being relocated late last year. The Hawaii native will be counted on to anchor the line in 2009 and quickly become a force at tackle.

After moving from defensive tackle, Jon Hargis began the 2008 season at left tackle and will move to the right side as a junior in 2009. A gritty athlete with a commendable work ethic, Hargis is still working on the finer points of the position in order to become a solid blocker for the Devils.

Thomas Altieri returns for his senior season after starting all 12 games at center last year; however he will be pushed in the spring by sophomore Garth Gerhart who earned a starting spot at guard last year after Lauvao was moved to tackle.

Sophomore and former four-star recruit Zach Schlink worked his way into the starting lineup before suffering a season-ending injury, but the Peoria (Ariz.) Centennial High School product will be available – although limited – for spring drills and looks to secure a starting spot in 2009.

Other competitors to start at guard in place of the departed Fanaika are Gerhart, as well as Adam Tello, who was the early season starter at right tackle – essentially playing out of position there – before being replaced in the line-up. Powerful redshirt freshman Andrew Sampson, rated by Scout.com as the No. 33 offensive guard in the 2008 class, will also be in the mix to start at guard.

One of the most talked-about athletes on the line – for good and bad reasons – has been sophomore Matt Hustad, potentially the most exciting athlete on the line but a player who has been unable to remain healthy in his two years on campus at ASU. Likely out for the spring, if healthy in time for fall camp, Hustad can be a contributor at either tackle or guard and would be an athletic upgrade at either position.

Redshirt freshmen Patrick Jamison and Kyle Johnson figure to add quality depth at tackle, as will senior Tom Njunge, who had worked his way into the starting lineup last year before being demoted. In 2008, Jamison was rated as the nation's No. 40 offensive tackle recruit after an excellent career at Chandler Hamilton High School, while the 6-foot-7 inch Johnson was rated by Scout.com as the No. 69 prospect at his position in 2008 and may be the left tackle of the future for the Sun Devils.

Sophomore Mike Marcisz will compete for time at tackle despite not earning game action as a redshirt freshman in 2008.

Walk-on Brent Good, who saw action in every game last year on the field goal team, as well as fellow walk-ons Chris Scott, Trent Marsh and Isaiah Williams, will provide depth.

Spring Questions

Will the unit as a whole be improved from what has been seen the past two seasons?

Can Shawn Lauvao, a dominant athlete, be a difference maker at left tackle?

Who will emerge as the starting guard opposite Zach Schlink?

Can Thomas Altieri fend off Garth Gerhart to keep his starting position?

Has Adam Tello improved to the point of being a viable starting option?

What can be expected from the majority of ASU's offensive line depth which features several players with little to no playing experience?

Joe Healey is a 2006 graduate of Arizona State University and a guest contributor to Devils Digest. He is also a feature writer each month in Maroon and Gold Illustrated and has contributed to ASU media guides, press releases and other official athletic publications. He can be contacted by email at josephwhealey@hotmail.com.


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