Season in Review – ASU Offense

Devils Digest's Joe Healey takes an extensive look at the Sun Devil offense and its performance, position by position, in the 2009 season.

Quarterback

No position on the roster was more closely and critically analyzed to begin the season, and through all 12 games the intensity of observation on ASU's quarterbacks persisted as three players earned starting duties, each of which showcasing highs and lows towards a collective, overall conclusion of uncertainty.

Danny Sullivan collected nearly as much criticism as a one-year starter may ever receive as ASU's starting quarterback in nine of 10 games played, totaling 1,939 passing yards on 168-of-312 attempts (53.8 pct.), with 10 touchdowns and nine interceptions. In general, Sullivan gutted through a highly challenging season and nearly helped guide a vindicating victory over Arizona, however his decision making and lack of experience caused a lack of confidence and reliability in the passing game during the majority of the season.

If the cliché that ‘no player is as popular as the backup quarterback' is true, freshman Brock Osweiler was a regular Zack Morris in terms of popularity. Legions of fans and message board posters urged for him to be inserted into the starting lineup from the preseason until he earned substantial time in November.

Osweiler's first significant action game against USC on Nov. 9 and was good enough to earn him the starting nod the following week at Oregon, however he suffered an injury early in that game that would sideline him the remainder of the year.

In total, the true freshman completed 24-of-55 passes (43.6 pct.) for 249 yards with two touchdowns and two interceptions, but at times showed the moxie and athleticism to be a possible consistent starter as his career develops.

Over the course of the season, Samson Szakacsy went from third-string quarterback to the team's starter during the final two games, connecting on 32-of-50 passes (64.0 pct.) for 362 yards with four touchdowns and one interception. Highly impressive when inserted in place of the injured Osweiler at Oregon, Szakacsy earned starts against UCLA and Arizona, however his play in those two games fell below expectations and he was ultimately pulled in favor of Sullivan midway through the season's final game versus the Wildcats.

After transferring to ASU during the spring semester, former Michigan Wolverine Steven Threet sat out during the 2009 season and guided the scout team.

The Good

Though the position as a whole lacked consistency and reliability, the ability for both Osweiler and Szakacsy to earn time will prove helpful as a new full-time starter will be ushered in for the 2010 season. The challenges that lie in front of both quarterbacks is to be healthy and to learn from the trials and tribulations – experienced by them and their teammates – to become the next starting quarterback at ASU.

The Bad

For the Sun Devils, 2009 was the most inconsistent year at quarterback in roughly a decade. Having three different players earn starts certainly was not the initial game plan, and there was little fan support behind early season decisions to keep Sullivan as the starter, while injuries to all three quarterbacks made the process tremendously challenging for Head Coach Dennis Erickson and his staff.

The Future

With Sullivan concluding his senior year, there is no veteran option to take control of the offense entering 2010 – the advantage from which Sullivan benefitted after Rudy Carpenter departed the previous year.

By many accounts, the most intriguing option is Threet, who has starting experience from his redshirt freshman season at Michigan and has the physical tools and personality to handle the operation of the Sun Devil offense, though the competition is likely to be wide open between Threet, Osweiler and Szakacsy in the spring.

A key factor in the future success of the ASU passing game – and offense as a whole – is the direction which Erickson chooses to go with his yet-to-be-hired offensive coordinator, who may need to handle quarterbacks coaching duties as Rich Olson had during his three years on the Sun Devil staff. Additionally, Erickson has mentioned that the new coordinator will also hold play calling responsibilities in 2010.

If he does not opt to sign with another university – likely Colorado State, if any – four star prospect Peter Thomas an early graduate from Valhalla High School in El Cajon, will honor the verbal commitment to the Sun Devils that he made in mid-June and enter the quarterback competition this spring at ASU.

Running Back

Although there were few spectacular showings from the position as a whole, the running back contributions improved considerably in 2009 from the previous season, led by career-affirming efforts by Dimitri Nance.

After contributing but certainly not starring during his first three seasons at ASU, Nance totaled 795 yards on 188 carries (4.2 avg.) with six touchdowns as a starter in 11 of 12 games played, adding 28 catches for 216 yards and one touchdown through the air. Playing with urgency and an improved, refined overall skill set, Nance showed a more consistent dose of the abilities he flashed during his first three seasons, helping him gain Honorable Mention All-Pac-10 notoriety as a senior.

Physically, no back on the roster can stack up to Cameron Marshall (Pictured), who in spurts showed as a true freshman why so many Sun Devil supporters eagerly anticipated his arrival, gaining 280 yards on 64 carries (4.4 avg.) with two touchdowns in 11 games. An impressive ballcarrier with a fully loaded skill set, Marshall figures to be the running back of the future for the Sun Devils.

Ryan Bass finished third in rushing with 173 yards on 29 carries in six games before a season-ending suspension; however Bass will not return to ASU for his junior season and has opted to transfer.

James Morrison did not record a carry but saw action on special teams, while Shaun DeWitty and Jarrell Woods saw limited action in their final collegiate seasons as DeWitty tallied 66 yards on 15 carries and Woods chipped in 42 yards and one touchdown on nine total carries.

The Good

After an unspectacular three-year stretch, Sun Devil fans certainly were glad to see Nance play at a higher level of consistency as a senior, while Marshall's ability to elevate to a key role provided sparks of enthusiasm for the future quality of the Sun Devil rushing attack.

The Bad

Retrospectively, Bass appeared to be one of the team's future stars when he signed with ASU in 2008; however a lack of ball security, pass protection abilities and a troublesome disposition sabotaged any possibility for him to maximize his perceived potential as a Sun Devil. Additionally, many wished to have seen more of Morrison in a rushing capacity, especially for future reference as four scholarship tailbacks from the 2009 roster will not return for 2010.

The Future

Undoubtedly, Marshall will enter the spring as the starting tailback and will earn enough practice repetitions to possibly develop into an All-Pac-10 caliber runner, but little established depth will be found behind him.

Morrison, as well as Jamal Miles who moves from wide receiver, will likely see ample reps at tailback, while Marcus Washington, a signee from the 2009 class that grayshirted this season, is expected to join the team for spring practice at running back.

Perhaps the most exciting prospect expected to sign in February is Norco (Calif.) High School's Deantre Lewis, a deadly runner that had a sensational senior season and has the ability to make an immediate mark in the fall, while classmates Taylor Walstad of Chandler (Ariz.) High School and Damien Williams of Mira Mesa High School in San Diego have also verbally committed to ASU for this year's class.

Wide Receiver

Wide receiver was expected to be one of the deepest, most capable position groups on the entire roster and though there were some noteworthy individual performances, the unit as a whole did not quite reach the level of performance that preseason thoughts had predicted.

A pair of senior Arizona natives – Chris McGaha and Kyle Williams – contributed the most significant efforts among the unit. Williams, who earned Second-Team All-Pac-10 recognition as a punt returner, led the team and ranked fourth in the Pac-10 with 57 receptions while pacing the squad with 815 receiving yards – figures that surpassed his previous three year's combined total – while also scoring a team-high eight receiving touchdowns. Though his numbers were a marked improvement on his prior career efforts, there were quite a few receptions and touchdowns that remained uncaught due to periodic inconsistency.

McGaha trailed only Williams in all major receiving categories, rating fifth in the league with 56 catches to go along with 673 yards and career-high four touchdowns, earning him Second-Team All-Pac-10 honors.

Behind McGaha and Williams, reliability was not as abundant as predicted, as the third-most productive receiver, Gerell Robinson (pictured), hauled in 30 fewer passes than McGaha, totaling 26 receptions for 261 yards in 12 games with five starts.

An improvement from his true freshman season but still far from the level of his anticipated potential, Robinson may be called upon to fill one of the starting receiver roles in 2010 but will need to continue to improve to properly play the role. Kerry Taylor rated fourth among receivers with 23 catches for 276 yards as a starter in eight of nine games played, while T.J. Simpson was on the brink of emerging into a dynamic threat prior to a season-ending injury, catching five passes for 94 yards and two touchdowns in six games with three starts.

True freshman Jamal Miles had his redshirt season rescinded midway through the year and ultimately caught six passes for 58 yards in seven games with one start, while walk-on Brian Matsumoto appeared in seven games during his final year at ASU and caught two passes for 27 yards with one touchdown.

Redshirt freshman A.J. Pickens saw action in 2009 but did not record a reception, while cornerback LeQuan Lewis also participated briefly at wide receiver.

Freshmen Jarrid Bryant and J.J. Holliday – as well as junior Aaron Pflugrad who transferred from Oregon prior to the start of the season – all redshirted in 2009, while senior Brandon Smith missed the entire year due to injury and has been granted a sixth year of eligibility to use in 2010.

The Good

Seven different Sun Devil wide receivers caught a pass last season and though there were spots of inconsistency, there were also flashes of elite ability. McGaha and Williams were generally reliable, while the depth behind them serviceably contributed as well. With the vast majority of the position group returning for 2010, there will be a bounty of options to utilize in the passing attack and the depth chart battle likely will be a severe one during spring drills.

The Bad

Though the productivity increased from the previous season, Sun Devil fans still expected more. Health and consistency was an issue that remained from start to finish, as it was clear that despite respectable overall numbers, more was expected from the group as a whole. With the two most consistent pass catchers exhausting their eligibility, the position group includes several bodies but few true established threats to lead the unit into the future.

The Future

With McGaha and Williams moving on, two openings exist in the starting lineup for 2010, however their replacements may not necessarily be automatically predictable.

Rumors have surfaced regarding Taylor's questionable level of satisfaction with the team as he prepares to enter his senior season, while Robinson has the talent and size -- but also a need for refinement – in order to become a reliable, full-time starting target.

Pflugrad impressed with regularity during practices this year, while recent signee and midyear junior college transfer George Bell has the skill set to contribute immediately. When healthy, T.J. Simpson has tremendous upside and certainly will be a focal point as a junior in 2010, while Miles, Simpson's cousin and former Peoria (Ariz.) High School teammate, figures to see greater action in spring practice at running back than at receiver.

The enigmatic Smith, who has excelled on the practice field and been non-existent on game day, returns for a sixth season and has all the physical factors to succeed when healthy.

Youngsters such as Bryant, Holliday and Pickens – as well as expected signees Kevin Anderson, Randy Knust and JC transfer Mike Willie – will add depth to a unit that will likely have over 10 scholarship players when fall camp begins.

Tight End

With the way that productivity has tapered at tight end the past few seasons, it seems virtually inconceivable that ASU featured a John Mackey Award finalist just three years ago.

The tight end position for the Sun Devils was collectively a non-factor during the entire season, as only three players at the position caught a pass in 2009 for a tremendously modest collective total of 13 receptions for 90 yards and one touchdown.

Jovon Williams, who started three of 11 games played as a senior, paced the position with seven catches for 44 yards and his first – and only – career touchdown catch against California, while Dan Knapp led all tight ends with seven starts on the year but logged only two receptions for 11 yards before suffering a season-ending injury late in the year.

Due to injuries and overall instability, walk-on Trevor Kohl was brought into game action in six contests, catching four passes for 35 yards but counterproductively impacted games in some instances due to a lack of ball security.

Steven Figueroa saw action as a redshirt freshman but did not work his way into the stat books, as was the case with Stanley Malamala, who made appearances during the early portion of the season prior to an injury which sidelined him for the majority of the year.

True freshmen Christopher Coyle and Max Smith (pictured) both redshirted in 2009 and have the ability to become factors at tight end as redshirt freshmen in 2010 and beyond.

The Good

There is very little reason for optimism that derives from the performances by ASU's tight ends from the 2009 season; many were encouraged by Knapp's return from an injury which terminated his 2008 season, however his sophomore season ended in a similar fashion which places him back into rehabilitation mode for the next several months.

The main source of hope lies primarily in players who have yet to see game action at ASU – primarily members of this and last year's classes – though that productivity certainly remains to be seen.

The Bad

Simply put, the tight ends were not a factor in 2009. There were errors with dropped passes, fumbles as well as issues with injuries among several members of the unit. There was no playmaker or reliable target among the group so schematically, there were few options in the play calling, which in all likelihood would have been a godsend for ASU's trio of unseasoned quarterbacks.

The Future

With Malamala and Williams departing and Knapp likely facing a lengthy stint of rehab, Coyle, Figueroa and Smith – and essentially Kohl – are the only scholarship tight ends that will be available for spring practice, while Josh Fulton is expected to enter the fold as a member of the 2010 singing class, though it is unlikely that he will be expected to contribute as a true freshman.

If healthy, Knapp has the physical tools to be a solid two-way tight end, but unfortunately his three-year tenure thus far at ASU has been far from devoid of injuries. Coyle had an impressive prep resume while playing for one of the nation's premier programs at California's Oaks Christian School, while Smith is more of a bruising option, also from a high school powerhouse at nearby Scottsdale (Ariz.) Saguaro High School.

Regardless the combination, the tight end unit will be largely inexperienced entering 2009 and has no clear-cut perceivable depth chart at this point, especially if Knapp is unable to make a timely return.

Offensive Line

In total, the Sun Devil offensive line was arguably the most improved of all positions after a horrendous two-year stretch to begin Coach Erickson's tenure at ASU, the sacks allowed total decreased to 27 in 2009 while the running game and overall protection improved from the previous two seasons.

Shawn Lauvao, a recipient of Second-Team All-Pac-10 recognition, was the line's stalwart as starting left tackle in every game, while Jon Hargis (pictured) was a mainstay beside Lauvao at left guard, as both players started all 12 games on the year; the only two offensive linemen to do so.

Thomas Altieri started nine games at center, while Garth Gerhart filled in at center with three starts but also had four additional starts at right guard, a position at which Andrew Sampson, Matt Hustad and Brent Good earned first-team action.

Starting right tackle duties were split by Hustad and Tom Njunge, while Patrick Jamison, Kyle Johnson and Mike Marcisz earned game reps as reserves.

Zach Schlink, positioned to be the top option at right guard, suffered a preseason injury and ultimate redshirted – as did true freshmen Evan Finkenberg and Kody Koebensky – while sophomore Adam Tello did not see game action all year, despite being healthy and unable to redshirt.

The Good

Oddly, with as many question marks as the offensive line has provoked the past two years, the unit as a whole was one of the offense's most consistent groups. Despite the usual slew of injuries, the affected positions by-and-large were able to be serviceably filled. Though the offense's overall inconsistencies downgrade the efficiency of the entire lineup, the offensive line showed marked development from years one and two of the Erickson regime.

The Bad

Though the group performed at an acceptable level, the unit certainly suffered from a lack of continuity as Schlink missed the entire year due to injury, Marcisz missed the vast majority of the season while Altieri, Gerhart and Hustad all were shelved for varying amounts of time due to a lack of health.

The Future

Despite improvement in 2009, the offensive line could return to being a concern because three seniors – Altieri, Good and Lauvao – started several games last year, while Hustad and Schlink have been major health risks during their young ASU careers. In order for the 2010 Sun Devil line to experience success, the group will need to enjoy much greater health than years passed, while new junior college transfers may have to make an immediate impact.

Hargis will return at right guard while Gerhart likely will be the full-time center. If healthy, Schlink has the ability to start at right guard but will be rivaled by recent signee and midyear junior college transfer Chris DeArmas. Hustad will be the odds-on favorite to start at right tackle, while the likely replacement for Lauvao would be Aderious Simmons, currently committed to sign with ASU for the 2010 class.

Jamison, Johnson, Marcisz, Sampson and Tello will need to be top back-ups and, given the recent injury history, capable of filling in as starters, while Finkenberg and Koebensky will try to crack the two-deeps as redshirt freshmen.

High school products Sil Ajawara and Tyler Sulka are expected to sign in February and add depth in the fall, while the Sun Devils are still in pursuit of additional high school and/or junior college offensive line signees for the 2010 cycle.


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