No unit has been hit harder in the spring with injuries than the Hell Hogs, and this was a fairly inexperienced group to begin with. Thus, the work in progress continues with the front five but it hasn't been all gloom and doom.
"Because we were doing new things I think we started out a little bit slow," said offensive line coach Gregg Smith. "The implementation of the read zone put not only the offensive line, but the entire offense in a learning mode.
"But I think as the spring went on we made some progress. We shifted some guys around, playing new positions. In the third scrimmage, a week before the spring game, we could see a lot of improvement in the offensive line."
One of the more notable players adjusting to a new role was Shawn Lauvao (pictured). The senior had played exclusively at guard at Arizona State until the last four games in 2008 where he played right tackle. In the spring he made the move the ever important role of left tackle.
"I thought he worked extremely hard," Smith noted. "He really tried to work on being a sound technique payer, and it's hard when you never played on the edge there. But he did a good job and really improved every day in the spring."
Right tackle Tom Njunge, whom Lauvao replaced in those last four games, re-assumed the starting role at that position and had a rather good spring."He really worked on becoming a better player," Smith stated. "He still has work to do. Our biggest concern with him was his weight and getting it up. That's what we need to really concentrate on this off-season."
Smith indicated that the new read option scheme made the adjustment in the run blocking schemes to come along a bit slower pace, but was an area which showed some progress towards the end of spring. "In pass blocking some of the things we implemented actually improved," Smith commented.
It may have been inevitable that Garth Gerhart (pictured) would ultimately be the starting center on the team, however it was surprising that the job was given to him, after never starting at this role, from day one in spring practice.
"Going back and looking at our film from a year ago, we felt like we just needed to move Garth in there to give us more strength," Smith explained. "He is an extremely strong guy, works hard in the weight room. Obviously he is still working on becoming a stronger center, but the strength was probably the deciding factor."
Lauvao, Njunge and Gerhart appear to be the mainstays right now along the front five. The guard positions are unsettled with players such as Jon Hargis, Andrew Sampson and Mike Marcisz and others battling for starting roles.
Matt Hustad, Zach Schlink and Adam Tello are players who missed most or all of spring. When they return they will not only improve the overall talent in this unit but definitely throw their names into the competition hat at guard. "We're hoping those guys have a great summer," Smith said, "so when we go into fall camp they'll be ready to go."
Naturally no position on the team was followed closer this spring than the quarterbacks. Coaches and fans alike were eager to see how the beginning of the post-Rudy Carpenter era will look like, and at the end of spring practice, there is reason for cautious optimism.
It was brief rocky start to spring for Danny Sullivan (pictured), but once the senior settled down he showed signs of being a capable signal caller. In a simplified offensive scheme, Sullivan doesn't wow you with incredible throws but more often than not he accurately delivers the ball. Operating from the shotgun has been a benefit to him, and he has shown that his lack of mobility stigma may have been overstated to some extent.
Sullivan has quickly asserted himself as a leader, and often showing sound decision making skills. In interviews he expressed disappointment with the contingent of the maroon and gold followers who think that he's not up to the task of starting quarterback. He won't deny that he's playing with a chip on his shoulder, yet his disposition has never been affected by that.
Not that the other ASU quarterbacks had a dismal spring, but Sullivan has distanced himself enough from the competition to be the clear cut choice for the starter in the opening game of the 2009 season.
Samson Szakacsy has always been an intriguing possibility at this position. Even though he hasn't played a down on Saturdays, it was expected that the sophomore would capture and hold on to the second string quarterback job and that he has accomplished. Blessed with incredible agility and quickness, Szakacsy brings a unique dimension to this unit.
After undergoing surgery to remove cartilage from his elbow, Szakacsy had to naturally regain his arm strength while also perfecting his delivery. He may not be 100% healthy quite yet, and some of this throws did demonstrate that condition. Yet, after many ups and down in the first half of spring, Szakacsy like Sullivan has become more consistent with his throwing. In the Sun Devils' new read option scheme the quarterback has the freedom to scramble outside the pocket, and as expected the sophomore has shown his prowess in those situations.
To say that true freshman Brock Osweiler was poised beyond his years in his first ever collegiate spring practice would be an understatement. As a rare mid-year enrollee out of high school, Osweiler had a fairly solid showing in the spring and justified the accolades he came with. As a former basketball commit to Gonzaga, one would expect the 6-7 Osweiler to possess a strong arm as well as mobility in the pocket, and he has shown both. Aside from his mature demeanor, another aspect of his game that surprised spectators was the soft touch he delivered his throws with.
He definitely showed his inexperience at times (especially in the spring game), but he clearly has the biggest upside of any of the ASU quarterbacks.
The emergence of Osweiler was naturally key in the decision of Chasen Stangel to transfer. That move, along with the departure of Jack Elway early in the spring, has currently left the Sun Devils with just three scholarship quarterbacks. Nonetheless, the hierarchy in this group seems to be clearly defined and likely to remain unchanged in the fall.
Even though he came into spring as the proverbial quarterback of the future, one cannot be blasé with the way Brock Osweiler (pictured) performed in the spring. For the most part, he looked anything but like a teenager who should be getting ready for his senior prom this time of year (and yes he will travel to Kalispell, Mont. for that occasion). The rate of his development will dictate how soon he will see the field on game day, but for now the buzz around this signal caller isn't about to go away anytime soon.
With the constant improvement by Sullivan it would be hard to see Szakacsy overtaking the starting position in fall camp. The bigger question mark seems to be if Osweiler can do enough in August to overtake the backup role from Szakacsy.
Cole Rarrick, who won a state championship with Scottsdale Saguaro will walk-on in the fall. As we speak ASU is pursuing ex-University of Miami quarterback Robert Marve and former Michigan and Georgia Tech signal caller Steven Threet. The maroon and gold would gladly welcome the transfer of one of those players to bolster the depth at quarterback. Neither of these players would be eligible to play until 2010.
In ASU's offensive scheme this group is figuring much more in the running game than the passing attack. Thus, their contributions in the spring tend to be less notable. Jovon Williams (pictured) may have the easiest task of any projected starter of retaining his position going into the fall, since this group, much like the O-Line, it's a unit that has suffered injuries and has a lot of inexperience in its ranks.
Even so, Williams has asserted himself as a leader and a more well-rounded player.
"Jovon had a really good spring," said tight ends coach Jamie Christian. "He's always been a really good pass catching tight end. He runs very good routes and has worked very hard this spring on getting open.
"But I thought where he did a really good job improving was in his blocking and footwork. That's something that we really stressed in the spring. We talked about him being more aggressive, having a good pad level and he did a great job with that and I hope he carries that over to the fall."
Last year Williams' backup, Stanley Malamala, went through the normal learning curve that junior college transfers go through. This spring, he has looked more comfortable and like Williams has developed all aspects of his play.
"Stanley is the opposite of Jovon," Christian explained. "He's not as a good as a receiver but is a better blocker. He also worked on weaknesses, and I've really been happy with his progression and how he was doing route running and catching. He's done a heck of a job there."
Two players who could certainly figure in the two-deep were sidelined with injuries. Dan Knapp is still recovering from an ACL injury suffered middle of last season, while Steven Figueroa strained his MCL the first week of spring and was out for the reminder of practices. Walk-on Trevor Kohl took advantage of his increased reps and had a solid performance.
"All the tight ends have been very coachable," Christian noted. "They really have been a pleasure so far to work with."
Jovon Williams wins this distinction by default, but again this doesn't take away from the way his contributions in the spring.
Knapp and Figueroa stand a good chance, if 100% healthy, challenging Williams and/or Malamala for their roles. We still think that Williams will get the nod on the first team duties. Incoming freshman Max Smith stands a good chance not to redshirt, with Chris Coyle probably needing to sit out his first year.
With only two upperclassmen participating in all of spring, this group is another one where youth is served in large portions. Like the rest of the offense, the running backs seemed to have hit their stride in the later portion of the 15-practice session, as they too adjust to the new offensive scheme.
"For the most part I thought they did a pretty good job," said running backs coach Bryce Erickson. "I'm pretty fortunate to have a lot of good guys at this position, that all put in a lot of work off the field watching film and critiquing themselves. In our new scheme everything is pretty much run from the (shot) gun and that's a lot different than what they have been accustomed to the last year. As a running back it's a lot harder to see things from the gun, and the footwork was also something very new.
"We have four guys that are all different style runners. I know I can change up from the agile runner to the north-south runner, and all of them will run you over. They are all real downhill runners."
Erickson believes that senior Dimitri Nance (pictured) was the most consistent running back, and has had his best spring in an ASU uniform.
"He's really getting a good feel for what we are trying to do, as far as our run scheme and where we're supposed to be hitting the hole," Erickson stated. "He's done very well in his reads, pass protection and running routes too. I thought he really did a good job."
With his athletic ability and breakaway speed, the read option could be very advantageous for Ryan Bass. With his 35-yard touchdown run in the spring game, the sophomore showed how he could really shine when given an opportunity.
"Ryan had a great spring," Erickson noted. "He was favoring an ankle going into the third week (of spring) and had a sore ankle in the spring game. He's maturing a lot as a human being and as a football player. I think he has the ability and the intangibles to be one of the best at this position.
"He has still room for improvement just like the other running backs do. But his work ethic is good and he's a guy that gets stronger as the game goes on. I think giving him more reps would be beneficial for him. He's a very good agile, shifty cut back runner and our offense is very conducive to his style."
Speaking of ankle injuries, James Morrison suffered a serious one that required surgery, during a fall camp where he was simply outstanding. He wasn't at full strength in the spring, but did show that he could be the proverbial road grater runner in short yardage situations.
"I thought he did an absolutely wonderful job," said Erickson of Morrison. "He's one of the most coachable players I have been around. Anytime you come off an injury, regardless of what the doctors and trainers say, there's always that little voice in the back of your head wondering if you are really OK and you can be tentative.
"The biggest thing for James was getting his confidence back in his ankle. I think he's 85% back and he still had a great spring and ran hard. It was great for him to see how he battled adversity and what he has accomplished. Now he needs to continue and work hard in the weight room, strengthen that ankle so he will be a force to reckon with. He has done a great job physically and mentally."
Jarrell Woods may have been the forgotten man since arriving in Tempe, and injuries were the culprit for that status. In the spring, he was probably the healthiest he has been in a while and Erickson said that the senior was the biggest surprise among the running backs.
"For him to be just be healthy and get reps was great because he got an opportunity to show us what he can do," Erickson commented. "I always knew he had the ability, but I was happy to see that when he was given the opportunity he took advantage of it. He's a good physical runner and good with pass protection."
All the running backs had their moments, but for our money we're excited the most with James Morrison (pictured). In terms of speed and strength combination, Morrison is tops in that category. He's another player that if completely healthy come August, stands to have a stellar fall camp which could lead to a successful 2009 season.
Erickson noted that "When we go into the fall, we're going to open things back up." Thus, you can expect the fierce competition among all running backs to continue in a few months. Nance right now enjoys the starting status but he will need to hold off his pesky competitors.
The future of senior Shaun DeWitty with the team is currently very murky. He missed the last three weeks of spring due to personal and academic issues and his return in the fall is very much in question. Missing valuable time would naturally present him a tough uphill climb back into the fold.
By far the most experienced group on this side of the ball, and it definitely manifested itself in the spring. Granted, some of this unit's success hinges on a reliable passer and good pass protection in the trenches, but after the conclusion of spring practice there's little reason to believe that the Sun Devil wide receivers cannot deliver when given a chance.
In 2007 the talents of Kyle Williams (pictured) were on full display. Ten touchdown catches and an array of dazzling receptions ignited the imagination of the maroon and gold faithful. Last season, Williams and his fellow wide receivers struggled and obviously Williams is looking to reverse the fortunes of the group, as well as his own.
As a senior, Williams is determined to match his vocal leadership with his example. He won his first ever ‘Hard Hat' award for his standout work in the team's off-season strength and conditioning program. On the field, he demonstrated his knack for the tough catches and his quickness and speed to tack on several yards after the catch.
Williams knew there was a lot of growing up that needed to take place on his end, and so far he has exhibited that growth in an impressive manner in his slot receiver role.
With the departure of Mike Jones, a tandem of former Chandler Hamilton players have battled for his position. Kerry Taylor right now is getting the nod as the starter. His sure hands and game savvy are giving him the edge over Gerell Robinson. Nonetheless, Robinson has improved leaps and bounds from his freshman season and with one year under his belt is showing that he is ready to fulfill the lofty accolades he entered the ASU program with.
Senior Chris McGaha has been riddled with various slow healing injuries since last spring. However, when he did come back for the last few spring practices, he showed onlookers, much like Williams, that he too can regain his fine from form 2007.
Reserves such as T.J. Simpson, Brandon Smith and A.J. Pickens give ASU solid depth at this position. Simpson and Smith possess an ideal combination of physicality and speed, while Pickens is being successfully groomed to replace Williams in the slot. Walk-on Tony Simmons may have a hard time cracking the two-deep, but he's another wide receiver that has been very impressive in the spring.
Kyle Williams for all the reasons mentioned above, is our pick here.
Williams and McGaha look to hold down their starting positions, and we feel that just based on experience Taylor ultimately will edge Robison for the third wide receiver role. Yet, in this type of offense we can expect to see a lot of ASU wideouts getting quality number of reps which will just further accentuate this team strength.
Incoming freshmen J.J. Holliday and Jarrid Bryant will have a hard time making an imprint in their first year, but will surely get a better chance in 2010 with three scholarship seniors on the roster.
Clearly this is ASU's best group of players. The linebacker unit is at a stage right now where it can just roll out one group of players after another at you, without missing a beat in their level of play.
Linebackers coach and defensive coordinator Craig Bray commented that the wealth of returning experience gives the linebacker corps improved depth and increased competition, as well as the ability to be more aggressive.
"If you become more aggressive you can put yourself in situations where you can create weaknesses across your defense," said Bray. "You have to feel like the guys you're going to be more aggressive with are going to be able to do it: have the speed to get there in time, have the speed to run someone down if there's a mistake made.
"Over the last two years because of our personnel we have been a lot more conservative. We'll always base what we do on who's playing and how well they learn and function with multiple things. We're excited because we know we have the ability now to be a better attacking defense."
He may have made rare appearances on the first team, but the play of senior Gerald Munns, who missed the lion share of the 2008 season due to personal issues, was very impressive.
"Gerald had a real good spring," Bray stated. "He's a solid MIKE linebacker that knows our system very well. He has good instincts at the position.
"But we also need to put someone there that does some things better than what Gerald does, like run blitz. We're always looking for something better than what we got. Gerald had a great spring and we are really happy with that."
Another linebacker who stood out just a bit over the rest was Brandon Magee. Alas, the sophomore once again had to submit to a serious injury, this time to his rib cage.
"About the time he really started to shine in spring ball he had another setback," Bray said. "That's disappointing and also alarming because he hasn't shown yet that he is durable to play at this level."
Magee's former Corona (Calif.) Centennial teammate Shelly Lyons (pictured) was a backup at SAM linebacker last year, but after the spring looks to be a shoe-in starter for that role.
"Shelly is really tough mentally," Bray noted. "The last two weeks according to the injury report he wasn't supposed to be able to go and Shelly didn't miss a step. Sometimes players know more than the trainers about what they can and can't do."
With Mike Nixon being the proven returning starter at WILL, Oliver Aaron was given a chance at the first team duties at this role and didn't disappoint.
"Ollie has put himself in the mix for playing time," Bray acknowledged. "He hasn't done much until now because mentally he hasn't progressed that fast. but he has really matured a lot this spring and I'm excited for him because he's going to be big for what we are trying to do at linebacker."
This may be as much a sentimental choice, as it is one based on football ability, but Gerald Munns is the linebacker we thought stood out the most among a group of several talented players at his position.
Even though Travis Goethel played well at MIKE in the spring, everyone seems to expect that incoming freshman and blue chip prospect Vontaze Burfict will unseat him. If nothing else, it is setting up to be one of many intriguing battles at this position.
If Goethel is unseated at MIKE he could combat Lyons for the starting SAM role. Goethel started all 12 games last year in that spot. Nixon and Oliver could face off over the starting WILL position. Talented players such as Colin Parker and Derrall Anderson will battle just to be part of the two-deep. Newcomers Anthony Jones and Kipeli Koniseti are destined to be redshirted due to this crowded group.
Overall, the increased speed and athleticism of this unit will spearhead an opportunistic defense which may have to carry this entire Sun Devil squad this season.
The solid play of ASU's defense is certainly in part to the improvement that front four has shown in the spring. Returning stars such as Dexter Davis and Lawrence Guy anchor a unit that could easily be the best one this decade for the Sun Devils.
"It's been a good spring" said defensive line coach Grady Stretz. "They're a great, young group of kids. They do have a lot of maturing to do, but they also have a great work ethic and are very passionate about playing. We have good stable of players at the two-deep, and we have a great group of athletic guys."
"We are real excited with the defensive line," Bray said, "but also very disappointed with losing a really quality young player in Otis Jones. As far as defensive end play, James Brooks is starting to show the ability that he has. He really can be a beast.
"Dean DeLeone, for a junior college transfer to come in and learn the system as well as he has and become a playmaker is very exciting. So those two guys along with Dexter are players that we feel we can go to war with right now."
Bray added that Jamaar Jarrett, who currently plays at defensive end is a player that could move down the road to tackle, but either way could be a quality player for this group.
At defensive tackle Stretz was very pleased not only with the continued improvement of freshman All-American Lawrence Guy (pictured), but also with junior Saia Falahola who is coming off two tricep surgeries.
"He really has made some great strides," Stretz noted. "He has come back and really grown in his confidence, technique and work ethic."
The speed in which Dean DeLeone (pictured) picked up the scheme has been nothing short than impressive and he will undoubtedly be one the best additions from the 2009 recruiting class.
With thin depth now at defensive tackle, it is a given that incoming freshmen Corey Adams and Will Sutton won't redshirt in order to bolster the numbers. Nonetheless, it's hard right now to see any of them unseat Falahola.
Brooks is battling Jarrett for the defensive end spot opposite Davis, but that can change in the fall in case the staff would want to see DeLeone get meaningful reps as he battles Brooks.
Aside from quarterback safety was the only other position on the team that going into the spring had no returning starters. However, a reason for concern before the spring, is practically now a non-issue. This is in large part to senior Ryan McFoy, who has shuttled between safety and linebacker throughout his Sun Devil career, and is now settled in his role and performing at a high level.
"Ryan had a really good spring," Bray commented. "His biggest problem was his lack of consistency and reliability. Throughout the spring he was pretty darn good for us. One thing about this position, and they are evaluated everyday, is that when they make a mistake is can be a six-point mistake.
"So Ryan needs to continue and maintain his focus and stay away from the big mistakes."
Bray indicated that he very pleased with the play of the other starter Clint Floyd (pictured), and that the most exciting player in this group is Keelan Johnson. "Athletically and instinctively he's very very special," said Bray of Johnson. "So if he can learn it and execute well we'll have three good safeties right there."
Ryan McFoy was arguably the biggest surprise of spring practice according to Erickson, and may have been one of the best players on the defense as a whole in the last few weeks.
The way Floyd and McFoy performed in the spring, this tandem should feel fairly secure in their starting roles. Johnson is the X-factor in the two-deep and would pose the biggest threat as far as unseating a starter, in this case McFoy.
Tucker is showing a lot of promise and would be a mild surprise if he did redshirt. Holman will need to work on his consistency to have a decent place on the depth chart. Tabach will have to successfully heal from his torn ACL to make his presence known. Incoming freshman Shane McCullen will find a crowded safety group when he arrives in the fall, but his athleticism and skill set may just give him a chance to avoid a redshirt.
They may not be as deep as the linebacker group, but the cornerbacks unit doesn't trail by that much in regards to the number of quality players on the roster. A shoulder injury sidelined Omar Bolden for the spring and opened the door for others here to showcase their skills.
Bolden's backup, Pierre Singfield (pictured), run away with the opportunity given to him and was one of the defensive standouts in the spring. At the other corner position, Terell Carr and Josh Jordan waged a tremendous battle for the starting role and we feel that Jordan may be just slightly ahead in that competition.
JC transfer LeQuan Lewis had a strong second half to the spring, and in terms of size and speed he possess the best combination in this group, and could be the proverbial dark horse to leapfrog into a starting role. Deveron Carr showed some flashes in the spring, but does need more seasoning.
"We feel that for the first time since we've been here we can line up with two corners that we really trust," claimed Bray. "We've always had one good corner and last year the most consistent one was Terell Carr. He had a solid spring. Pierre Singfield has grown a great deal and also had a great spring.
"We know we have Omar coming back, but now it's going to be a competitive situation for Omar to crack the lineup. So with the players we have returning and some young guys coming in the fall, we think that we're gonna come up with a group that's pretty good."
We'll go with Josh Jordan (pictured). Compared to the other returning players who didn't redshirt, Jordan showed the greatest improvement from last year. His play in the last two weeks of spring was as solid as any other member of the ASU defense. With his impressive ball hawking skills he stands a great chance to be starter when the 2009 season opens.
At this point it would be anybody's guess who the two starting corners will be, because the competition here is that tight. Bolden who isn't coming off a great sophomore season by any means, may be in somewhat of a hole as he was held out of contact in the spring. So it wouldn't surprise us if Singfield is going to replace him as a starter.
Across from him on the other end of the field, if Jordan continues to improve he may just be a first-teamer on September 5th, but again we expect Terell Carr to battle hard to retain his starting role.
Incoming freshman Osahon Irabor is being pegged as a newcomer who likely won't redshirt, but he will really have to have a sensational fall camp to make his way into the two-deep.
After capturing the highest honor given to a college place kicker, the Lou Groza Award, Thomas Weber knew it would be near impossible to follow up his incredible freshman campaign. Nonetheless, he didn't expect to struggle as much as he did in 2008, albeit being injured for a good portion of the season.
This spring, in limited opportunities, Weber has looked pretty solid in his field goal kicking. Ironically, he is seeing competition from Zach Richards (who wasn't on the team last year), who almost wrestled the job away from him the same year Weber captured the aforementioned honor. Who knows if Richards' presence may be a good omen for Weber to repeat his 2007 exploits?
The only question mark concerning this unit is whether coach Dennis Erickson will get his wish and have Weber not perform double duty as a punter. This will only be figured out in fall camp, and Trevor Hankins will provide the answer. The senior wasn't able to achieve starting punter status last season, but has shown some flashes in the spring.
"I think Hankins is getting better and trying to push Weber," said coach Christian who is also in charge of the special teams unit. "but right now Weber is still our punter. We might have some (walk-ons) come in the fall that will have an opportunity, and we'll see what happens."
Like any punter, consistency is key and Hankins will need to improve in that department according to Christian. "If he can be more consistent, he can take it (the starting job) away from Weber," Christian remarked. "If he can do that and get more distance on his punts he'll have a better chance."
To Hankins' credit, he has done well in the holder role, a position that Sullivan held last year.
Due to injury, Thomas Ohmart wasn't able to perform his long snapping duties in the spring and walk-on Cameron Kastl has done very well in relief. "Cameron has been doing a heck of a job," Christian claimed. "He proved that he could be a starter. It's nice to have two guys that can both long snap very well."
The return game is another aspect that will get more looks in the fall compared to spring, but in the limited reps Christian was pleased with the results.
"For the last two years we've been first or second in punt return," Christian said, "and having Kyle Williams as the punt returner is a big part of that, so we're obviously not going to change there. "In kickoff return (Cornerbacks coach Greg) coach Burns is overseeing that and is working in some exciting schemes that will make us better there. We have pretty good athletes that can do the job and we're going to give a lot of players chances. Kyle did that last year. Clint Floyd, Keelan Johnson, LeQuan Lewis are some of the guys that we're going to take a look at and I think we'll see very good competition."
In this group, it is hard to pick anyone else but Weber (pictured) who continues to perform both jobs and does so very well.
We predict that Weber may still be doing double duty as a kicker and punter, but will improve his numbers in both areas compared to 2008.
It may seem weird to say that it will be a dogfight battle for long snapping duties, but with Kastl's spring performance and Ohmart returning as a proven long snapper from last year, this could be a very interesting competition. Hankins on the other hand seems to be secure as the first team holder.
In the return game, it's a given that Kyle Williams will be assuming the punt return role. As mentioned, the picture at kick returner is not as clear, but we predict that Keelan Johnson and LeQuan Lewis will eventually be the new faces assuming this task.