Season Preview – QB's and RB's

Over the next couple of weeks, Devils Digest will preview the Sun Devils' 2009 squad by position. In our first preview section, Joe Healey examines the ASU quarterbacks and running backs units.

Quarterback

15 Danny Sullivan Sr. 6-4 242 Los Gatos, Calif. (Los Gatos HS)

10 Samson Szakacsy RS-So. 6-4 205 Camarillo, Calif. (Camarillo HS)

17 Brock Osweiler Fr. 6-8 237 Kalispell, Mont. (Flathead HS)

*14 Steven Threet RS-So. 6-5 228 Adrian, Mich. (Adrian HS/ Univ. of Michigan)

*-required to sit out the 2009 season due to NCAA transfer rules

To many, the $1,000,000 question regarding any sort of predictions for the Sun Devils in 2009 hovers under center, with the departure of four-year starter Rudy Carpenter, statistically one of the most accomplished passers in ASU history.

In his wake stands a trio of scholarship quarterbacks, with 25 combined college games played between them, all by senior Danny Sullivan, with eight of those games producing action only at holder for placekicker Thomas Weber last season.

By some accounts, Sullivan was viewed to enter spring practice as a token incumbent at the position and was predicted to perhaps give way to one of his younger teammates with little resistance. To Sullivan's credit, he produced a largely consistent – although not spectacular – session in March and April, never allowing sophomore Samson Szakacsy or new arrival, true freshman Brock Osweiler, to unseat him.

Although Sullivan's spring performances certainly warranted his spot atop the depth chart, many fans and critics still question his track record and ability to guide a Pac-10 team back to a bowl game level of play. Teammates have commented that the Los Gatos, Calif., native is playing with a strict sense of urgency; an awareness that 2009 will be his one-and-only chance to guide a college football team.

In the sports world of "what have you done for me lately?" many have forgotten that last offseason, there was a strong contingent that emphatically voiced opinions for Sullivan to start over Carpenter in 2008, based on a strong late-game performance against Texas in the Holiday Bowl in December of 2007 in which Sullivan completed 7-of-14 passes for 118 yards and a touchdown in place of Carpenter in the fourth quarter. Of course, Carpenter's job was never in doubt, but even worse for Sullivan was the virus of offensive ineptitude suffered by the Sun Devil offense last season spread to his performances, completing barely over one-third of his passes (15-of-43) for 151 yards, two interceptions and one touchdown.

For the first time in nearly a decade, the Sun Devils face a virtual unknown at the starting quarterback position. Sun Devil fans essentially knew what to expect from Carpenter the past three years, as well as Andrew Walter years before him and even Sam Keller had an opportunity to prove himself on a large stage before fully adopting the starting role for one season.

Although Sullivan enters his fourth season in the program; no one can accurately predict what is to be expected of him – good or bad – if he receives consistent, first-team reps at quarterback. Intangibly, Sullivan provides a solid presence to a position in dire need of emotional stability and despite a lack of full-time activity; he has been in the program for three years and has seen action – albeit limited – in pressure situations.

Although Sullivan firmly exited the spring listed as the team's starting quarterback, that does not mean his competitors greatly faltered.

Sophomore Samson Szakacsy (pictured) finished spring drills second in line to Sullivan, and has captured the intrigue of many fans with his scrambling abilities, among other athletic tools. Having not been healthy for the majority of his first two years on campus, Szakacsy did not see the field as a redshirt freshman in 2008, but did impress in the spring, prompting one preseason preview magazine which lays claim to unparalleled annual accuracy to anoint Szakacsy as ASU's starter for the 2009 season.

Known for his record-setting passing accuracy at the high school level and ability to escape the pocket, Szakacsy's athleticism appeals to many, especially with predicted offensive line instability.

It would likely take a significant event to catapult Szakacsy over Sullivan, at least to begin the season, but with the aforementioned unpredictability of Sullivan's leadership skills, it is not out of the realm of sanity to believe that Szakacsy could have a noticeable role this season, which would create an impact not only in 2009, but also in 2010 when Sullivan graduates and ASU again holds auditions for starting quarterback.

It is virtually impossible not to be captivated by Brock Osweiler's (pictured) potential: a 6-8 quarterback with an elite basketball background and tremendous athleticism for his size, powerful cannon for an arm and the attitude, intelligence and work ethic to carry the Sun Devil team on his shoulders.

Only problem is, he's just over six months removed from an early high school graduation, with obviously no game experience at the collegiate level. Although he only arrived on campus in January, Osweiler has clearly shown that he takes college football very seriously and has exhibited maturity – on and off the field – far beyond his years.

His recruiting attention was relatively low due to a prior basketball commitment to Gonzaga, an early football commitment to ASU and a lack of national publicity playing in Montana.

Nonetheless, the coaching staff essentially believes that Osweiler has the skill set to be a five-star quarterback with a three-star rating. As a senior at Flathead High School in Kalispell, Mont., Osweiler totaled 2,703 passing yards and 700 rushing yards with 42 total touchdowns for the Braves, earning Montana's Gatorade State Player of the Year award for 2008.

The question ringing through message boards this summer has been whether the Sun Devil staff should opt for predicted talent over team experience; should Osweiler be given a chance to prove himself this year on the field or should he sit – and potentially redshirt – to preserve eligibility as a starting candidate in 2010 and beyond?

This will be an interesting proposition to watch during fall practice and the early season games; it's intriguing to consider whether a veteran coaching staff with a sense of urgency will opt to demote a senior quarterback in favor of an inexperienced underclassman.

With the spring departures of sophomore Chasen Stangel and redshirt freshman Jack Elway and no other eligible scholarship quarterbacks on the roster, Osweiler is unquestionably the third option at quarterback, regardless if the staff opts to redshirt him in 2009.

In all likelihood, the capabilities or deficiencies of the starting quarterback will determine much of the offensive success in 2009. Although Danny Sullivan emerged as the undisputed starter in the spring, questions still loom whether he can maintain that status to begin, continue and complete the 2009 campaign, and he will unquestionably be pushed all season by both Szakacsy and Osweiler.

Joining the team shortly after spring drills was former University of Michigan starting signal caller Steven Threet, who left the Wolverine squad in February after passing for 1,105 yards with nine touchdowns as a starter in eight of 12 games last year.

A victim of schematic incompatibility in head coach Rich Rodriguez's spread offense at Michigan and formerly rated by Scout.com as a four-star prospect and the No. 13 quarterback recruit in the nation among the 2007 class, Threet is required to sit out during the 2009 season and will vie for starting duties next year as a junior with two years to play two at ASU.

Running Back

31 Dimitri Nance Sr. 5-10 218 Euless, Texas (Trinity HS)

36 Shaun DeWitty RS-Sr. 6-2 210 Colorado Springs, Colo. (Doherty HS)

1 Ryan Bass So. 5-9 205 Corona, Calif. (Centennial HS)

20 Jarrell Woods RS-Sr. 5-10 215 Northville, Mich. (Novi HS/Univ. of Utah/W. Los Angeles College)

22 James Morrison RS-Fr. 5-11 219 Phoenix, Ariz. (St. Mary's HS)

26 Cameron Marshall Fr. 5-11 210 San Jose, Calif. (Valley Christian HS)

32 Jamal Miles Fr. 5-10 180 Peoria, Ariz. (Peoria HS)

29 Marcus Washington Fr. 6-1 195 Phoenix, Ariz. (Desert Vista HS)

Similar to, if not more intense than the quarterback competition, ASU's running backs stable provides a compelling combination of seasoned but unspectacular veterans and inexperienced but greatly gifted youngsters.

Despite having three seniors among the eight scholarship backs, it is the underclassmen that have generated the most eager anticipation for the present and future of the Sun Devil running game. If anything is certain about this year's crop of running backs, it's that nothing is truly certain; feasibly one of up to four candidates could earn starting duties and/or be the primary runner for the Sun Devils.

With largely disappointing productivity at the position and the loss of Keegan Herring, one of only a handful of Sun Devils to surpass 2,000 career rushing yards, one of the primary pre-season objectives continues to be finding continuity and order among the ASU ball carriers in an attempt to balance the offense and ease the transition of a first-year starting quarterback.

Senior Dimitri Nance (pictured), a three-year contributor and spot starter, finished spring drills as the top running back on the depth chart, but by-and-large his Sun Devil career hasn't met expectations that accompanied his arrival in 2006. Nance was a record-setting, All-America senior year at Euless (Texas) Trinity High School, in which he ran for nearly 3,200 yards and over 40 touchdowns, joining former University of Texas star Cedric Benson as the only Texas prep players to rush for over 3,000 yards in a season.

After collecting 229 yards and three scores as a true freshman in 2006 behind Ryan Torain and Herring – a pair which tallied over 1,800 rushing yards that season – Nance increased his productivity in the wake of Torain's season-ending injury midway through the 2007 season, leading ASU with seven rushing touchdowns while carrying 133 times for 500 yards.

With the expectation to build upon solid freshman and sophomore seasons, Nance's production dipped remarkably, scoring only three times last season despite leading ASU with 410 rushing yards on 105 carries, while generally experiencing overall inconsistency. Additionally, the staff entertained alternatives during the final half of the 2008 season, as Nance totaled only 21 carries during the team's final six games of the year.

With his final collegiate season rapidly approaching, Nance faces the task of adding consistency and reliability to his skill set, which has shown promise since his college debut in 2006. However, the slack Nance will be afforded will likely be limited, with a handful of competitors looking to contribute at running back for the Sun Devils.

Although he did not participate in spring drills, Shaun DeWitty (pictured) is expected to return to the field for his senior year after being one of the top contributors at running back last season, starting four games and totaling 270 rushing yards with a solid 4.4-yard average on his carries.

Well-rounded although largely unspectacular ball carrier, DeWitty's role on the 2009 squad remains somewhat of a mystery – he could ride his senior status and game experience to extensive duty or he could be leapfrogged by one or many of his position mates.

If a top performer from the running backs had to be selected from spring drills, sophomore Ryan Bass (pictured) likely would have been the prime choice, peaking with a solid performance in the spring game. Many critics question the decision to forfeit a redshirt season in 2008 to provide limited time to the former four-star recruit; however marks of his high-ceiling talent surfaced despite sparse duty, as he led all Sun Devil backs with a 4.6-yard carrying average on the year. However, in defense of his appearances last year, an intangible quality that doesn't surface in box scores is simply gaining the field experience of college football, which can provide a formidable assistance during Bass' next three seasons.

Given his high school credentials, having rushed for 7,096 yards and 117 touchdowns in three years for Corona (Calif.) Centennial High School, Bass is one of the most eagerly observed players among the Sun Devil offense, and it is among the hopes of many that he earns ample action as a sophomore in 2009.

Combining his tremendous potential and the instability of the Sun Devil senior class at running back, it would come as little surprise to see Bass elevate to first string before long, much to the approval of many maroon and gold faithful.

Physically built like a thoroughbred but unable to leave the stable, senior Jarrell Woods (pictured)definitely passes the eyeball test but has been entirely unable to work his way into the rotation, appearing in only three games in two years at ASU.

With four other scholarship running backs returning from last year's team and a group of true freshmen which might impact the 2009 season, Woods is at his final fork in the road at which he will either anonymously conclude his Sun Devil career or provide a versatile, powerful presence in the running attack.

An inspiring story despite being only one year on campus, James Morrison (pictured) evolved in that span from a lightly recruited walk-on out of Phoenix St. Mary's High School to a scholarship athlete at ASU, primed to be a significant part of this unit as a redshirt freshman in 2009.

A bullish runner and the heaviest back on the roster, Morrison is a no-nonsense ball carrier with a much-needed straight-ahead, power running style that in and of itself could propel him into duty this year. Despite an ankle injury which caused him to miss scout team duty as a redshirt last year, Morrison is fully healed and earned high marks this spring and has quickly garnered fan support for his work ethic and determination.

Since the 2009 recruiting class signed letters of intent in early February, Sun Devil head coach Dennis Erickson has made no mistake about his intention to consider one – or multiple – of ASU's freshman running back additions to immediately contribute.

The most college-ready player among the freshman group likely is San Jose, Calif., product Cameron Marshall (pictured), a physically imposing specimen with exceptional power, speed and versatility. One of the finest running backs in the state of California and the No. 42 overall running back prospect by Scout.com, Marshall rushed for 1,904 yards and 24 TD's in 2008 while also boasting the ability to run a 4.32-second 40-yard dash, bench press 355 pounds and squat 525. Potentially comparable to Torain, Marshall clearly has the skills to quickly impact the field; however the concern might arise if his freshman year will mimic Bass' in 2008, in which he does not redshirt but also does not significantly be part of the offensive game plan.

A graduate of Peoria (Ariz.) High School, the same program to produce recently departed fan-favorite running back Keegan Herring, freshman Jamal Miles (pictured) provides a similar athletic toolkit as Herring, using his slight stature to his advantage as a shifty, quick runner.

Arguably the state's top running back last year, averaging a state-high 197.1 rushing yards per game and totaling 2,168 rushing yards and 29 touchdowns, Miles provides the potential home run threat that many other Sun Devil backs do not, giving him perhaps an outside chance of playing time as a true freshman. Although speculation exists whether his career will fully be spent on offense, it will at least begin at running back where he will look to complement his larger teammates with a speedy, change of pace presence out of the backfield.

Athletically gifted but a victim of injuries during portions of his prep career, Marcus Washington (pictured) of Phoenix Desert Vista High School appealed to the coaching staff with his toughness and versatility. Never a true feature running back for the Thunder while surrounded by a slew of FBS caliber offensive talent during his varsity career, Washington comes to ASU with solid upside, but unlikely will factor into the production on the field in 2009. Furthermore, he may ultimately find his niche on the other side of the ball in the Sun Devils' secondary.

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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