Arizona State Preview

Over ambitious. Ridiculous. Money driven. Those were some of the adjectives used to describe Arizona State, when it was announced that they had agreed to play at Nebraska in their season opener. Fresh off a 4-7 season and with several unanswered questions marks; the Sun Devils march into the proverbial lion's den in Lincoln. In this preview, Devils Digest, the home of ASU's website, will attempt to familiarize Husker fans with their first opponent in 2002.

At quarterback ASU will feature redshirt freshman Chad Christensen. While some claim that he may be the lesser of three evils when it comes to choosing the Sun Devils' signal caller, Christensen has shown mobility and toughness on the field. He's an extremely intelligent player who has earned the respect of his teammates. His arm strength is somewhat suspect, and in Dirk Koetter's highflying offense, that can be a significant liability. If ASU has any aspirations of pulling an upset, the Sun Devil offensive machine has to be clicking on all cylinders, especially in the passing game against a questionable Husker defensive backfield. With Christensen's shortcomings, that may be asking the impossible. The game in Lincoln will be baptism by fire, and on Saturday some of the questions and doubts surrounding this first year player may be answered for good or for worse. Sophomore Andrew Walter is Christensen's back up. He has started in ASU's last two games in 2001 passing for 546 yards, including threes scores and two interceptions. While it's good to have an experienced (albeit limited) backup, if he were to be inserted into the game ASU's faith may have been sealed by then. Last season, the Sun Devils were ranked in the top 5 of every major Pac-10 offensive category. Nevertheless, that feat may be impossible to duplicate this year with an inexperienced signal caller.

The running back core is extremely talented, and is capable of not only adequately complementing the passing game but also controlling the ball and the game clock. ASU features a two head monster in junior Mike Williams and redshirt freshman Hakim Hill (who spurned the Huskers in favor of the Devils during his recruiting). Williams' experience, mostly in the passing game and blocking department, gives him a slight edge over Hill. Nevertheless, Hill's steamrolling style, blazing speed, and game breaking ability, will undoubtedly garner him some serious minutes against Nebraska. One can expect ASU's caries to be divided quite equally between those two. Redshirt freshman Cornell Canidate, a small sized elusive player, could see limited action in spelling the duo. The Sun Devils' 2001 ranking of fourth in rushing offense, is a feat that the current backs should feasibly achieve despite a green offensive line.

The Sun Devils' wide receiver unit is equally as talented and dangerous as the running backs. All Pac-10 Shaun McDonald, who had over a 1,100 yards receiving along with 10 touchdowns, is probably the biggest offensive weapon that ASU has. It is highly conceivable that he could have a big day against a Husker secondary that is not accustomed to playing receivers his caliber in the run-happy Big 12 conference. The other ASU receivers may be just a notch below the junior, and are staging fierce battle for capturing the #2 receiver slot. Senior Justin Taplin has a slight edge over sophomore Daryl Lightfoot is the front-runner as McDonald's tag team partner. Taplin is player who has shined more on special teams than the passing game. Lightfoot who had an injury riddled 2001 season, has shown more than a few of flashes of brilliance in pre-season camp. His playmaking abilities make him another dangerous weapon in the Sun Devil's deep and talented offensive arsenal. Junior Skyler Fulton and true freshman Derek Hagan have also had solid practices in the month of August, and should see extensive playing time in Lincoln. Tight end Mike Pinkard is a player who's been busy shaking off a less than average 2001 season performance. His blocking abilities are second to none on the team, and his passing skills are quickly catching up. There's not much quality depth behind him to speak of, and losing would-be JC transfer Aaron Austin to academics could deeply hurt the Sun Devils at this position. ASU's pass offense ranked third last year, and the 2002 receivers group have the ability to build on that fine performance. However, their success hinges on an inexperienced quarterback – an unattractive proposition to say the least.

It's hardly going a limb declaring that the line's play is vital for the overall success of the offense. Thus, ASU's inexperience in their front five could negate the fine stable of talented skill players on this side of the ball. Only one starter, Regis Crawford, has played in every game last season. The junior will play at the critical left tackle spot, when his abilities are better suited for guard play. Needless to say that this move was done out of necessity due to the group's overall lack of experience. At left guard the Devils will feature JC transfer Tim Fa'aita who's junior college won the national championship last year. All the other three line positions are rather unsettled, but nonetheless will all be manned by limited experience players. The ability of this unit to dispel the clouds of doubt hanging over their heads, will immensely contribute to a successful and efficient ASU offense.

To say the ASU's defense was the team's Achilles heel last season (finishing eighth in the Pac-10) would be an understatement. Ironically, this year it is shaping up to be stronger than the offense, which was clearly the team's strength last year. Unfortunately, the weakest unit on this side of the ball is the ever so important defensive line. This foursome features some new faces, but one of its returning players, Terrell Suggs, is one of the best pass rushers in the Pac-10. The junior is a relentless warrior who can consistently rack havoc in the backfield. He's improved physically and mentally upon last year's performance, which weakened as the season wore down. Suggs' ability to occupy two offensive linemen, will free up his fellow line mates who will have to step up to the plate. At the other end spot sophomore Jimmy Verdon will start, with talented true freshman Nick Johnson lurking in the wings. The tackle position is an area of concern, and that may be a gross understatement. Junior Brian Montesanto moved here from his end position. Senior Khoa Nguyen will start at other tackle. A group of experience challenged players, such as JC transfer Shane Jones will see extensive time at the tackle spot. It's a virtual guarantee that the ASU tackles will be shuttling back and forth into the game. The shortcomings of this group were all too detrimental to the overall success of the defense in 2001, and a poor showing in Husker land could really put the game out of reach early.

The Sun Devils' 4-2-5 scheme allows only two linebackers to play each snap. As luck would have it, ASU features a trio of talented senior linebackers who will be fighting for those starting positions. The leader of the pack is Josh Amobi who was practically a non-factor until midway through his junior year. Solomon Bates is a player that has been catching the eye of more and more pro scouts, despite a horrible 2001 performance. Bates had dedicated himself and his body, and is poised to play at the high levels reminisced of his first two years at ASU. Mason Unck, a starter last year, rounds up this talented bunch. Currently, Amobi and Unck are slated to start. JC transfer Ishmael Thrower and true freshman Jamar Williams have been strutting their abilities in camp, and could see some playing time in Lincoln. As talented as the group may be, it still has to depend on a suspect defensive line to contain the lethal Nebraska running game.

Another byproduct of the ASU scheme are the three safeties that line up on each snap. As with the linebacker core, quality depth will necessitate a revolving door in this position. Free safety Jason Shivers turned in a sensational freshman year where he led the team in tackles. Senior Al Williams at one strong safety is not only one of the more talented defenders, but also a leader on the team. Sophomore Riccardo Stewart who started in a few games last year will be the third safety. JC transfer Brett Hudson along with sophomore Joey Smith and true freshmen Matt Fawley and J.W. Lucas stand to see some action as well on Saturday.

The Huskers have never been known for their strong passing ability, which is good news for the ASU corners. Battling the defensive line for the dubious title of the weakest defensive unit, are the Sun Devils' cornerbacks. Depleted depth and injuries have marred this group, which finished seventh in the conference last year. Sophomore R.J. Oliver emerged as the leading player on this group, after an average at best showing last season. Starting opposite him is fellow sophomore Lamar Baker who's been hobbled ever since the spring, although he's very close to 100% and should start against Nebraska. Sophomore Adrian Wilson, senior O.J. Hackett, and the freshmen duo of Josh Golden and Mike Davis Jr. stand a very good chance of seeing some action.

Led by Tom Osborne (who is frequently confused for the legendary Nebraska coach), one of the best special teams coaches in the nation, the Sun Devils should feature a solid group that will be heavily challenged by Nebraska's own outstanding units. Kicker Mike Barth is one the better kickers in the Pac-10, and his performance did nothing to tarnish the senior's status. The punter situation looked grave prior to fall camp, but junior Tim Parker much like Barth had a great showing earlier this month. Hakim Hill will be featured as the primary punt returner, as well as kick returner. Daryl Lightfoot will back up Hill on punt returns, and join him on kick off returns. Cornell Canidate and Mike Williams could figure in as additional kickoff returners. In 2001, ASU's kickoff return team was 2nd in the Pac-10 and its punt return team came in 5th. The Sun Devils also finished fifth is punt coverage, and ninth in kickoff coverage. Therefore, one can expect ASU's special teams to come up with some big plays that could be difference makers in the game's outcome.

The chants of 19-0 by ASU fans can be quickly answered by the Nebraska chants of 18-1, as in the record of the Huskers in home openers against unranked teams. That improbable ASU shut out victory in 1996 gives a much-needed glimmer of hope for the team and its fans in a game where no one give them a fighting chance. With critical question marks on both teams (especially on offense) the ASU-Nebraska matchup may turn out to be a closer contested game than anticipated. A lot of answers will be delivered in Lincoln this Saturday, and the Sun Devils hope they are music to their ears.

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