As spring drills approached, much of the excitement for the Sun Devil quarterback revolved around virtually each quarterback not named Danny Sullivan, however the senior and only passer on the roster with game experience turned in a relatively surprising string of consistency directing the ASU offense. Over the course of the month of practice, Sullivan exhibited the skills necessary to emerge from career backup to the front-running candidate to lead the Devils in 2009.
Despite modest numbers of 42 passing yards on eight-of-16 attempts in the annual spring game, Sullivan exited the series of practices unquestioned atop the quarterback depth chart, although not officially declared the starter for the 2009 season. Sullivan's first-string spot will continue to be challenged by sophomore Samson Szakacsy and true freshman Brock Osweiler, so he will need to remain sharp as the September approaches in order to remain in charge of the offense.
Will the final spring starter have a decisive edge over the competition?
Those who are surprised by Sullivan's ability to a have outlasted the competition to start at quarterback likely are additionally shocked at the distance which the Los Gatos, Calif., native was able to apply between him and his competitors. Szakacsy and Osweiler earned high marks for their overall play in the spring; however neither was able to unseat Sullivan on a regular basis. Despite not being able to capture sole control of the offensive reigns, both of Sullivan's backups have the talent to start at quarterback and will push the senior for time when fall camp arrives. Has Danny Sullivan developed athletically enough to utilize his seniority?
Although he Sullivan hasn't been a significant contributor over his first three years, he has spent time in the public eye among discussions whether he could successfully replace four-year starter Rudy Carpenter in 2009 or if a new candidate would need to emerge. The public confidence in Sullivan's talent has gone through hot and cold streaks; after unexpectedly being raised to second string behind Carpenter as a true freshman in 2006 in the wake of Sam Keller's transfer, Sullivan often had the "deer in headlights" look that season.
The next season, Sullivan showcased marked improvement, punctuated by his late-game performance against Texas in the Holiday Bowl, passing for 118 yards and a touchdown, motivating some critics to question whether he was ASU's best starting option in 2008 over Carpenter. Although there was no legitimate concern if Carpenter's job was in jeopardy, Sullivan's disappointing play in 2008 raised public concern as to if he would ever be a starting caliber quarterback, completing only 34.9-percent of his passes with two interceptions and one touchdown.
With his up-and-down first three college seasons behind him, Sullivan entered the spring with the ability to excel but also carried criticism of his ability to be a major college starting quarterback. By and large, Sullivan answered the challenges the spring provided and earned the majority of the first-team reps. The new task ahead of Sullivan is consistency – both in the remainder of offseason preparation and as the 2009 season begins – as there is talent in the Sun Devil quarterbacks stable that could replace Sullivan if the projected starter suffers a lapse in performance.
Can Samson Szakacsy overcome his injury history to battle to start?
Many observers have been intrigued by Szakacsy's athletic talent since his 2007 arrival to ASU, as he provides a mobile presence to the position and has a reputation as a highly accurate passer. Despite his athletic prowess and versatility, Szakacsy's overall development had been limited over his first two seasons on campus due to injury. A viable starting candidate entering the spring, there was uncertainty to whether Szakacsy's health would be a determining factor in his spring success.
Throughout spring drills, Szakacsy showed no ill effects of his prior injury history and saw extensive action, wrapped up with a spring game showing of nine-of-14 passes for 50 yards and one interception, while displaying threatening mobility during the length of spring drills.
Can freshman Brock Osweiler acclimate to college football quick enough to win the position?
"Brock-and-roll" began his college career early as a midyear high school graduate, but showed signs of a seasoned veteran in his intelligence, work ethic and during the majority of his play on the field. Bringing potential matching the size of his 6-8, 237-pound frame, Osweiler (pictured) began the spring at the bottom of the quarterback depth – largely due to a lack of seniority – but worked to the position's top three, even prior to the departures of reserves Jack Elway and Chasen Stangel.
Although he exited the spring as the third quarterback on the roster, having not won the starting position is not necessarily a product of the freshman's learning curve, rather the solid play of the veterans above him. If he remains the third option, it is essentially a crapshoot whether Osweiler will play or redshirt in 2009, however he maintains tremendous promise for his Sun Devil future.
Running Back Can Dimitri Nance hold on to first-string running back duties?
During the 2008 season it became apparent that the coaching staff was looking to exercise alternatives to steady use of Nance (pictured) in the running game, even with scattered availability of senior Keegan Herring last year. An athlete who seemingly hasn't substantially developed despite three years of consistent game action, another direction was necessary in order to bring some semblance of life at running back. To begin spring drills, Nance remained atop the depth chart and showed promise, albeit among overall inconsistency.
With one last chance as a senior in 2009, the Euless, Texas native may never be a game-changing feature back, but he will have to show greater consistency this season to avoid being part of a platoon lineup or, even worse, being demoted to a non-contributing role.
Has Ryan Bass developed enough to win the starting position?
Bass arrived to Tempe as one of the nation's elite prep running backs and a top signee among ASU's 2008 class, and although he proved too valuable to redshirt as a true freshman, he wasn't given enough opportunities to showcase his talents in live duty, however statistically he led all Sun Devil running backs in yards-per-carry average, an implication of the impact he can provide when given the opportunity. Likely the most athletically gifted back on the roster, Bass has shown signs of high talent; including a game-high 61 yards on 12 carries with a touchdown in ASU's spring game.
Bass missed some spring action due to injury but still generally enjoyed a solid session and figures to be a key factor on the ground in 2009. What can be expected from James Morrison?
Although his development stalled last fall after an injury while redshirting on the scout team, the former walk-on resumed raising eyebrows this spring. A power back to complement some of ASU's shiftier, quick runners, Morrison (pictured) benefitted from senior Shaun DeWitty sitting out during the spring and was a top back in all of ASU's practice sessions. With a noticeable absence of a powerful presence in the running game since Ryan Torain's season-ending injury as a senior in 2007, Morrison will undoubtedly have a role in the game planning this season and looks to use his solid spring as a catapult into significant snaps this fall.
Will the depth chart at running back be clarified by the end of the spring or will the battle carry over into the fall?
There's little questioning the fact that competition at running back will resume this fall to organize the depth chart; Nance, Bass and Morrison all earned ample time, while DeWitty is expected to return to the fold this fall and senior Jarrell Woods had flashes of talent in the spring, while true freshman Cameron Marshall, and possibly also classmate Jamal Miles may factor into the equation for playing time. With as many as seven scholarship candidates battling for action, the competition will spill over not only into fall camp, but possibly into early-season game action, before a true pecking order is established.
Wide Receiver Will Gerell Robinson begin to become a game-changing receiver?
The state of Arizona's top prospect for the 2008 class, Robinson (pictured) was too talented to redshirt last year, however it became evident that further acclimation to the wide receiver position was needed before he could be the impact athlete he was in high school and entered ASU with expectations to be.
Fewer Sun Devils earned higher praise for offseason work and development than Robinson, and he reinforced that during the majority of spring practices and scrimmages. With the departure of Michael Jones, ASU would be well-served for Robinson to utilize his athletic skill set combined with his 6-4, 230-pound frame as a dangerous red zone threat. Robinson will need to continue his offseason momentum this fall and maintain his focus on improvement to be a legitimate target behind veterans Chris McGaha, Kyle Williams and Kerry Taylor at wide receiver.
Battle remains a question mark for 2009, largely due to his spring involvement on ASU's track and field team; however Pickens emerged in the spring as a highly capable prospect both at receiver and in special teams returns. Likely ASU's top option at kickoff returner, Pickens had an excellent season on the scout team while redshirting last year and has a high ceiling as a slot receiver and all-purpose specialist.
Cut from a mold similar to former ASU do-it-all Rudy Burgess, Pickens likely will find some way to create an impact this year. From a talent perspective, the same could be said for Battle, however he likely faces a greater learning curve when practice resumes in the fall after his spring focus running track at ASU.
Can Chris McGaha regain his form from 2007?
After earning recognition as one of the most reliable, sure-handed receivers in college football after a stellar sophomore season, McGaha (pictured), due to injury and overall offensive inefficiency, was removed from the spotlight in 2008. Healthy in the spring and once again proving his talent as a top-notch, go-to receiver, if not slowed by injury the Phoenix native will be seen early and often on the receiving end in the ASU passing attack.
Will Brandon Smith become a factor?
Another year, another solid spring performance by Smith (pictured) – however the challenge the senior faces now is bucking another annual trend, his routine disappearances when live action resumes. As physically gifted as any receiver on the roster, Smith showed tremendous promise as a redshirt freshman in 2006 but has appeared in only one game over the past two seasons. Smith's ability to contribute, based on history, can't be judged by his preseason performances, creating a wait-and-see scenario for the impact be may be capable of providing in his final season at ASU.
Tight End Can Jovon Williams become a reliable starter?
In 2007 it was Tyrice Thompson. In 2008, Andrew Pettes followed suit. In 2009, can Williams (pictured) be the latest in a string of senior tight ends to once-and-for-all make an impact in their final seasons at ASU? With no athletic equal on the current roster at tight end, Jovon Williams saw extensive time last season but made no noticeable mark in the passing game, with only three catches for 33 yards. With Steven Figueroa limited due to injury and Dan Knapp unable to play during the spring for the same reason, Williams saw steady first-team action and showed improvement.
If Knapp, who has earned rave reviews from the staff despite a variety of injuries in less than two years on campus, is able to successfully return to form in the fall, he and Williams will likely be the top two options at tight end.
How has Steven Figueroa developed and what can be expected from him in 2009?
After missing substantial time on the scout team last season due to injury, Figueroa returned to action but suffered the same fate and was sidelined for the final week of spring drills. Regarded as a capable two-way tight end, Figueroa's true potential has yet to be established due to the limitations of health he's endured during his short collegiate tenure.
If the Phoenix native can return to full health in the fall, he will likely compete behind Knapp, Williams and senior Stanley Malamala for duty, while implications have been made that incoming freshman Max Smith may have a role in the offense this season as well. While his role remains unclear as a redshirt freshman this season, with two seniors among the team's top three tight ends, Figueroa's development this season will be integral to the future of the position for the Sun Devils.
Will Stanley Malamala emerge into anything more than a situational contributor?
Malamala, a senior and former junior college transfer, was one of the surprise players on the offensive side of the ball this spring, serving as a reliable receiving option while making difficult receptions and running tough after catches. With multiple injuries at tight end, Malamala was thrust into routine action with the first-team offense and by and large did not disappoint and likely worked his way into the top three at tight end with Knapp and Williams. After limited contributions last season, Malamala showed the talent necessary to make his presence felt in 2009.
How will Dan Knapp's inability to play in the spring impact his development as a potential starter?
Although he has a wealth of potential and showed sparks of it as a redshirt freshman, Knapp missed the final half of the season due to injury and was not able to participate in spring drills. With limited experience in a starting capacity among his fellow tight ends, his spring absence likely did not ruin his opportunity to start this season, however he will need to regain the form he has briefly shown in two injury-plagued seasons on campus to overthrow Williams and Malamala, the top two tight ends this spring. That task is by no means insurmountable, but until Knapp returns to live action this fall, it can't be labeled a foregone conclusion.
Offensive Line Will the unit as a whole be improved from what has been seen the past two seasons?
A horrendous unit the past two years, ASU's offensive line seemingly can go nowhere but up – hopefully. There were flashes of solid play this spring, but also recurring mistakes. Additionally, injuries across the line caused multiple position shifts, leading to a lack of overall continuity. Depth remains a concern, with three redshirt freshmen – Patrick Jamison, Kyle Johnson and Andrew Sampson – and Mike Marcisz, a sophomore with no game experience, throughout the two-deeps. Matt Hustad remains an enigma, as coaches believe he is as athletically talented as any lineman but he hasn't been able to remain healthy enough to play, while Adam Tello, who struggled mightily at right tackle last year but may have promise at guard, also missed spring drills due to injury.
Jon Hargis moved from left tackle to right tackle to guard, while Garth Gerhart, a natural center that saw time at guard last year, moved back to his original position and has, thus far, overtaken last year's starter, senior Thomas Altieri. Left tackle Shawn Lauvao is a dominant athlete but has limited experience at the position after primarily playing guard his first three years, while Zach Schlink boasts tremendous talent but also hasn't fully shaken the injury bug. Senior Tom Njunge earned first-string action at right tackle but is questionable as a full-time solution at the position.
With a lack of overall talent and experience, as well as no immediate answers coming with fall enrollments of the 2009 signing class, health is a must for the offensive line to have any chance at improving, so hopefully the wounds can heal and the starters and backups can remain off the shelves as fall arrives.
Can Shawn Lauvao, a dominant athlete, be a difference maker at left tackle?
A weight room freak with a 500-plus pound bench press, Lauvao (pictured) has the physical make-up of an imposing, and possibly dominant, lineman. A recipient of honorable mention All-Pac-10 accolades last year while splitting time at guard and tackle, head coach Dennis Erickson admits his mistake in not starting Lauvao at left tackle from the opening of the 2008 season. Although height (6-3) may be a factor against his ability at tackle, Lauvao is an aggressive blocker and clearly the most talented lineman on the roster. Above all else, with the insertion of a first-year starter at quarterback, ASU is well served to place its most talented lineman in position to block the passer's blind side.
Who will emerge as the starting guard opposite Zach Schlink?
Largely due to injuries, a number of questions emerged as to the starter at left guard, opposite Schlink on the right side. Tello entered the spring as the likely top option, but was sidelined and Hargis was switched from right tackle, while redshirt freshman Andrew Sampson was also among the top competitors. Hargis will undoubtedly be a starter; the only question is whether he stays at guard or returns to tackle.
If guard does not remain his home, look for Tello and Sampson to duke it out in fall camp, however if health concerns or uninspired play keeps Hargis at guard, the two will add depth both at left and right guard.
Can Thomas Altieri fend off Garth Gerhart to keep his starting position?
Despite starting all 12 games at center last season, Altieri was replaced in the lineup by Gerhart (pictured) with relative ease this spring. A versatile athlete that saw starting action at guard last year, Gerhart enjoyed a solid spring and Altieri has a noticeable gap to cover to return to the starting lineup, despite having two years of seniority over Gerhart.
Has Adam Tello improved to the point of being a viable starting option?
After a lackluster stretch over four games as a starter at right tackle, Tello has returned to guard, his natural position, with expectations to be a more promising prospect than he showed early in the 2008 season. Although injuries prevented him from using the spring to work toward a potential starting spot, he will likely return to the competition for first-string action this fall in an attempt to be named starting left guard.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.