A 2009 Turnaround Will Have Its Challenges

Even the record heat in the valley cannot zap away the energy the Sun Devil nation and its team is feeling on the eve of fall camp. A 5-7 season, which was "embarrassing" according to Head Coach Dennis Erickson, served as a wake up call which should motivate the maroon and gold to make the 2008 campaign a distant memory.

It's been said time and time again this off-season that the strength of this year's Arizona State squad lies in its defense and we're pretty sure that by now that the other side of the ball has grown weary, if not frustrated, from hearing that statement.

Nonetheless, inexperience among the vast majority of the offensive starters, while not a sure recipe for failure, cannot be overlooked.

It seems that only USC is immune to the natural woes that accompany a first year starter at quarterback. Thus, a learning curve can be expected with ASU's Danny Sullivan who was seldom used in his Sun Devil tenure. The hope is that the senior's deep knowledge of the playbook, as well as his familiarity with his upperclassmen group of receivers will manifest itself early and often as the offense begins to dispel the underwhelming predictions of some prognosticators.

If Sullivan cannot fulfill his duties, Samson Szakacsy will step in. If Sullivan is considered an unknown then the uncertainty surrounding the sophomore, who has yet to take a snap in a game, is even greater. Szakacsy does bring the perquisite athleticism for the zone read/spread offense Erickson would like to employ this year. Time will tell if this green signal caller is up to the task.

It would be a vast understatement to state that the ASU offensive line has been a lightning rod for criticism the last two years. Truth be told, the front five is still in rebuilding mode as a result of poor recruiting under the Dirk Koetter regime. Yet, if for this offense to be productive this group may have to be constantly overachieving.

Center Garth Gerhart, right guard Zach Schlink, right tackle Tom Njunge, and left guard Jon Hargis all made their debut as starters last year. This year both Hargis, and the elder statesman of the group, left tackle Shawn Lauvao, will start in roles that are new to them. Cohesiveness and chemistry are not clichés when it comes to an offensive line, but rather a vital trait for efficiency. This group will have to come together in a New York minute in order to ease the breaking in of whichever quarterback lines up on Saturday.

Inexperience can also characterize the running back group. Sure, seniors Dimitri Nance and Shaun DeWitty are still in the fold, but both are coming off a rough 2008 season. Some expect sophomore Ryan Bass and redshirt freshman James Morrison to eventually carry the load at tailback. Furthermore, true freshmen Cameron Marshall and Jamal Miles are coming in not only with the expectation of not redshirting, but possibly being a fairly significant part of this unit.

It's been often said that a first year running back, in college or the pros, can make a bigger impact compared to other freshmen/rookies in other positions. That notion will probably have to ring true in Tempe for a successful ground attack.

In three and four wide receiver sets, the tight ends are likely to be less of a factor in the passing game. Therefore, this unit will have more chances to prove its worth in pass protection and run blocking assignments. Senior Jovon Williams heads a group that is not battle tested, but one that despite a somewhat reduced role will still need to execute at a high level for the offense to click.

The trio of starting wide receivers, seniors Chris McGaha and Kyle Williams and junior Kerry Taylor, is as good as any three of their counterparts in the Pac-10. These three, along with underclassmen Gerell Robinson, T.J. Simpson and A.J. Pickens are easily the brightest spot on this side of the ball and could pay hefty dividends on offense if the quarterback can accurately and consistency deliver the ball to these potent aerial targets.

The questions marks are smaller in number on defense, however issues such quality depth at defensive end, inexperience at safety, and sorting out the depth chart at linebacker and cornerback (albeit a good problem to have) are issues that need to be addressed and are just as imperative to be resolved in accomplishing a successful season.

Bouncing back from a losing season is hardly mission impossible. ASU last suffered its last back-to-back losing seasons in 1946-47 and Erickson never had consecutive sub .500 campaigns in his 21-year college head coaching career. The Pac-10 pre-season media poll slated the Sun Devils in 5th place which would assume a winning record.

On paper, ASU's schedule the first seven games is very manageable. Probably just what the doctor ordered for a squad that has to prove that it is capable of a 180 degree turn. Yet, the uncertainty concerning the aforementioned groups is probably a prelude to a bumpy ride rather than smooth sailing.

The beginning of fall camp is the perfect time for any team to radiate optimism. However, we feel that the hopefulness we feel now in August will be validated come the last week of November. We may experience a bumpy journey this fall for all the reasons we listed, but the end result will make it worthwhile.

And there's nothing sweeter than accomplishment in face of challenges.

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