Devils seeking a solid spring practice

For some players, spring football provides a fresh start, while others view it as a final opportunity to make the impact that their early playing years did not feature. In part one of a two-part series, Devils Digest analyzes the Sun Devil offensive players who most noticeably need a standout session of spring drills to earn or maintain the ability to serve key roles in 2010.

Quarterback

Though he appeared in six games with one start as a true freshman last year, Brock Osweiler will be closely watched in the spring as, despite the fact that Osweiler holds an on-field edge at ASU, former Michigan transfer Steven Threet is the odds-on favorite to earn the majority of the first-team reps at quarterback.

Osweiler has no lack of physical talent and the overall moxie that coaches need from a starting quarterback, but he clearly has his work cut out for him to firmly clench the starting role. A mobile, 6-foot-8, 237-pounder, Osweiler clearly has the ‘wow' factor in his game. Yet, he has also shown his inexperience, placing him early on in the backseat to Threet, who arrived in Tempe a year ago after departing from the University of Michigan after leading the team in passing as a starter in eight of 11 games played as a redshirt freshman in 2008.

During his debut season at ASU, the Montana native completed 24-of-55 passes (43.6 pct.) for 249 yards with two touchdowns and two interceptions prior to suffering a shoulder injury at Oregon, his first career start, which sidelined him for the final two games of the season.

Helping Osweiler's cause are the ongoing health concerns of junior Samson Szakacsy, who has recently endured yet another physical setback (undergoing a shoulder scope), creating a greater window of opportunity in the spring for the sophomore Sun Devil.

Perhaps the greatest complexity of ASU's quarterback competition is that though Osweiler is not widely expected to be the starter, with Szakacsy's unreliable health and no other scholarship quarterbacks on the roster until true freshman Taylor Kelly arrives in the fall, Osweiler may not have the luxury of utilizing his available redshirt season to help enhance his development without absorbing further eligibility as he will clearly be the second-string passer until Szakacsy is cleared for duty.

Running Back

With four scholarship running backs gone from last year's roster, sophomore Cameron Marshall will undoubtedly enter spring drills atop the running back depth chart, but a question that remains to be answered is how the remaining rungs of the chart will shape up.

Hampered by injuries and buried behind veterans at the position last year, James Morrison (pictured) has a seemingly small yet golden opportunity this spring to emerge toward a key role in ASU's running back rotation.

Morrison, who started his ASU career as a walk-on in 2008 and impressed mightily in the early stages of fall camp before ultimately earning a scholarship last spring, boasts a tough, physical running style that intriguingly contrasts many of those at the position for the Sun Devils. Despite his athletic tools, the 5-foot-11, 219-pound Phoenix St. Mary's graduate was unable to supplant any of his veteran teammates last season while also battling nagging injuries. He appeared in seven games primarily on special teams without entering the scorebooks in any way.

The pendulum has quickly swung for Morrison as he quickly shifts from a raw walk-on to the longest-tenured back on the roster and will mainly compete with the 5-foot-10, 180-pound speedster Jamal Miles who moves from wide receiver as well as freshman Marcus Washington who signed with ASU in February of 2009 but delayed enrollment until this spring.

Morrison has a tremendous need to distance himself as a top option this spring as his greatest competition may not arrive until the fall as incoming freshman Deantre Lewis, one of the gems of ASU's 2010 signing class, has the skill set to instantly contribute, while classmate Taylor Walstad has a physical running style similar to that of Morrison and will look to make a quick mark upon his arrival.

Though Morrison has virtually no game experience as a tailback for the Sun Devils, Morrison's team experience, physical nature and perseverance give him the chance to maintain a top reserve slot behind Marshall. He will have to fend off highly talented though inexperienced teammates both in the spring and fall to accomplish that goal, but if his off-season workouts performance is any indication he is poised to make his mark in 2010.

Wide Receiver

It is strange to consider that the two most veteran receivers on the roster would have a tremendous amount to prove. However, with the departure of both Chris McGaha and Kyle Williams from last year's roster, senior Kerry Taylor and junior Gerell Robinson (pictured) still have yet to put all the pieces together in live duty. That Chandler Hamilton tandem has to remove all doubt that they are both ready to be the clear-cut primary targets in ASU's passing game, and that journey begin in this month's spring practice.

Robinson enters the season as ASU's leading returning receiver from 2009 after catching 26 passes for 261 yards in 12 games with five starts. Taylor is the team's second-leading pass-catcher from a year ago, having hauled in 23 receptions for 276 yards as a starter in eight of nine games played. Both Robinson and Taylor enrolled at ASU with the credentials to quickly become all-conference level contributors but—whether due to opportunities or level of performance—haven't actualized those expectations.

Despite their collective stance as the team's top two receivers in terms of statistics, neither player reached the end zone in 2009 and there seems to be a missing intangible factor common among the two that separates both Robinson and Taylor from being the decent players they are and emerging into renowned Pac-10 standouts that they have the physical tools to be.

Though it is unlikely that either player will be removed from the starting lineup, the greater issue at hand is that both athletes emerge as leaders on and off the field and earn the unwavering trust of ASU quarterbacks. The efforts that both players make this spring and on through the summer will likely dictate whether ASU's passing game will boast them as two primary focal points or if the distribution will be at a much more even level among a handful of receivers.

In new offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone's scheme, multiple receivers will see action on every down. However, with the availability of former Oregon transfer Aaron Pflugrad and February's signing of two junior college receivers in George Bell, who is already on campus and has star qualities, as well as Mike Willie, a physical player who will enter the mix in the fall, it is not quite automatic in any regard that Robinson and Taylor will be the clear-cut number one and two options in the passing game's pecking order.

As is well known in the college football world, junior college transfers are rarely brought to a team to sit at the end of the bench, making the Bell and Willie additions speak volumes for the need for an immediate talent infusion at receiver.

Also factoring into the competition in the fall will be junior T.J. Simpson, who had begun to play at a very high level before suffering an injury which both ended his season and will hold him out of spring drills, as well as sixth-year senior Brandon Smith, sophomore A.J. Pickens, redshirt freshmen Jarrid Bryant and J.J. Holliday and true freshmen Kevin Anderson, Randy Knust and Kyle Middlebrooks.

With as many as 13 scholarship wide receivers available this fall, there will be absolutely no shortage of bodies for the coaching staff to work with and the performances Robinson and Taylor submit this spring will likely serve as a sturdy preface to what can be expected of the seasoned duo in 2010.

Tight End

When Trevor Kohl, a walk-on until about two months ago, is the most productive returning tight end with four catches for 35 yards, needless to say that the entire unit has a great deal to prove. The tight end position at ASU shows a combination of inexperience and lack of productivity, creating a wide range of opportunities for new competitors to quickly establish themselves.

Jovon Williams and Dan Knapp saw the majority of action at tight end for most of the 2009 season and combined for a measly nine receptions. Entering the spring Williams has exhausted his eligibility while a late-season ACL injury suffered by Knapp will yet again set him at a marked physical setback as he enters his junior year.

Undersized at 6-foot-1, 248-pounds, Kohl provides a decent blocking presence and should be applauded for working his way to earn a scholarship, but the Gilbert, Ariz., native is far from the long term answer at the position.

Perhaps the only cause for excitement at tight end is redshirt freshman Christopher Coyle (pictured), who has the ability to add a receiving dimension that has been steadily on the decline at ASU since All-American Zach Miller's departure after the 2006 season.

At 6-foot-2, 235-pounds Coyle won't overpower defenders at the line of scrimmage, but he has the necessary tools to emerge as the top pass-catching option among ASU's tight ends stable. One of the top recruits at his position as a high school senior, Coyle was rated by Scout.com as the No. 19 tight end prospect in the country while a member of the prominent Westlake Village (Calif.) Oaks Christian program.

Despite missing ample practice time while redshirting last year due to a foot injury, head coach Dennis Erickson and staff briefly entertained the option of pulling Coyle's redshirt very late in the season. Though that never occurred, it dually acknowledges Coyle's talents as well as the lack thereof among many of the other tight ends.

At 6-foot-2, 258-pounds, fellow redshirt freshman Max Smith is considered a bruiser at the line of scrimmage and could serve as a solid complement to Coyle's athleticism, while sophomore Steven Figueroa boasts an interesting combination of size and ball skills but health and depth issues have prevented him from showing much during his first two years on campus.

The expectations for ASU's tight ends have gotten progressively lower during the past few seasons and early indications imply that the new Sun Devil offense will be more receiver-heavy, possibly further de-emphasizing the use of multiple tight end sets, creating a higher demand on players earning a top slot on the depth chart.

Among the available roster for the spring, Coyle appears to be head-and-shoulders above his peers in terms of athleticism and receiver skills, while much of the remainder of the unit is more grounded in thriving in line-of-scrimmage responsibilities.

Offensive Line

For the first time in several years, ASU will feature the services of a fully-stocked offensive line as the spring roster will feature 13 scholarship linemen, with four more to arrive in the fall.

Though the Devils lose Shawn Lauvao, the team's top lineman last year, as well as Thomas Altieri, Brent Good and Tom Njunje, all of whom started in 2009, talent is present to sufficiently fill their collective void.

Senior left guard Jon Hargis and junior center Garth Gerhart figure to return to the starting lineup, while blue-chip midyear junior college transfer Brice Schwab figures to lock down the left tackle spot in place of Lauvao.

The main positions up for debate along the line are the right guard and tackle spots, as senior departures and injuries to returning letter winners have created first string openings at both positions.

After missing all of 2009 due to injury, Zach Schlink will be closely watched this spring as he is expected to return to duty after his year-long hiatus. Rated in high school as the top lineman in the state of Arizona while at Peoria Centennial High School, his progress has been greatly impeded due to physical obstacles but the 6-foot-4, 331-pounder is reportedly as healthy as he has been since arriving to ASU.

Though the team is happy to welcome him back to active duty, Schlink will need to compete at a high level because scholarship depth at offensive guard has become increasingly abundant and a handful of linemen will be hungry to earn first-team action.

Junior college transfer Chris DeArmas was brought in this spring to compete for time at right guard and can fill the void if Schlink is unable to remain healthy, while junior Adam Tello has made advancements and is expected to add quality depth at guard. Junior Mike Marcisz showed marked improvement during the early portion of last season before being sidelined by injury and when healthy he will be one of the team's primary backups at either guard position.

At right tackle, Matt Hustad will be expected to compete to return to the starting lineup once he recovers from a late-season injury which likely will prevent him from participating in spring drills.

In his absence, sophomore Patrick Jamison may have the opportunity to see substantial action at right tackle in the spring. Those added repetitions will be integral for the Chandler native, as in the fall Hustad will be expected back while junior college transfer Aderious Simmons will arrive on campus to vie for time at that position.


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