Ex-Sun Devil center Mike Pollak was about to get drafted in the second round by the Indianapolis Colts and his position was up for grabs. One of two unknowns was set to be Pollak's replacement; either junior Thomas Altieri or freshman Garth Gerhart was going to win the job.
Gerhart struggled with injuries and the more experienced Altieri got the nod. Altieri maintained his position throughout most of the year. The season was not a total bust for Gerhart though. He played well enough in practice to earn three starts at left guard. Although that role is not his natural position, the playing time was key for the Norco, Calif. native.
"The three games helped me a lot because I had never played in a game," said Gerhart, "and the speed is so much faster than in high school. It helped me mentally to just get used to everything. My first game was against Washington State and it helped me build confidence in my game."
Now a sophomore and a year older, Gerhart improved enough in the offseason to beat out Altieri for the starting center job.
"I'm happy (to be starting)," remarked Gerhart. "I worked hard over winter break and last year I got to start in those three games at guard. I kept working hard so I guess it all paid off. We're just out here trying to get better and better and better."
Although the competition is fierce and the results varied, Gerhart says the position battle hasn't hurt his relationship with Altieri or the chemistry of the unit.
"We're friends off the field," stated Gerhart. "The whole offensive line is really close. We're like a family. That's one thing that's way better this year because last year I didn't think we were very close.
"We have better leadership this year. Shaun Lauvao is a great leader. He's keeping all of our heads up, not putting us down or anything. It's a competition but off the field we're friends,"
The offensive line has been a unit that has received a surprising and unwanted amount of attention the first two years of Dennis Erickson's tenure. In 2007, the unit surrendered an alarming 55 sacks despite the team's 10-2 record. Last year was an improvement, but overall not much better. The running game never took off in 2008 and while the sack numbers decreased, the passing game never found its rhythm either.
The negative press and criticism was laid on thick over that time but it may have ultimately served as a positive for the group.
"We use the criticism as motivation," said Gerhart. "The year before we gave up 55 sacks so we used that as a measuring stick for improvement. This year we're just trying to get better. It's a better situation this year with the offensive line. We have more experience and we're a much more athletic group."
For this team to succeed in 2009 the offensive line is going to need to make a big leap forward and become a strength rather than a detriment. With spring ball almost in the rear view mirror, it appears that the front five are moving in the right direction.
"Overall I think it went pretty good," claimed Gerhart. "Personally, I got a lot better. We're using a new offense so all the technique has changed. For the centers it was a big change. We had never really run blocked out of shotgun so we had to get used to that."
"Offensively we have improved dramatically. In the beginning we couldn't move the ball on the defense at all and last scrimmage we had five touchdowns, 300 something yards so hopefully we can carry that over to this week."