Arizona State Preview

The Oregon Ducks aren't the only team in the Pac-10 brimming with confidence these days. After a horrendous 2001 campaign, the Arizona State Sun Devils are 5-2 (2-0 in the Pac-10), and are proving that last year was a painful, but valuable learning experience. In this preview, DevilsDigest.com, home of TheInsiders.com ASU's website, will attempt to familiarize Ducks fans with their opponent this week.

At quarterback the Devils feature Andrew Walter. The sophomore didn't begin the season as a starter, but ever since he did take the reigns of Dirk Koetter's offense, he has been living up to the lofty accolades he came with as a freshman. Walter has so far passed for 1,452 yards, averaging 207 yards a game. He has thrown for 13 touchdowns, and has been picked off only five times. Walter has always been blessed with an NFL-type arm strength, and this year he has vastly improved the mental aspect of his game, as well as his mobility. This week, he will look to rebound from a sub par Oregon State game, and reclaim the national #1 pass efficiency ranking he enjoyed a couple of weeks ago.

ASU's running game has been inconsistent to say the least, thus being ranked fourth in the conference may be a bit deceiving. 4/5 of ASU's offense line consists of first year players and other linemen with limited experience, which is part of the reason for the woes in the Devils' running attack. For good or for bad, none of ASU's three feature backs has risen to grab the starting spot and hold on to it throughout the season. In the last couple of games, it seems that redshirt freshman Hakim Hill is starting to live up to the rave reviews he received as a recruit, as well as during his redshirt year. He has scored three touchdowns (two rushing ones) in the last two games, and his speed and strength combination make him a home-run threat every time he touches the ball. Fellow classman Cornell Canidate has been hobbled the last coupe of weeks, but with 361 yards and six rushing touchdowns he has proved that when healthy he may be the most consistent runner for ASU. Complementing this trio is junior Mike Williams, who started the season as the starter, and is now fighting for game minutes. Fullback Mike Karney plays with a punishing style, and is considered one of the best in his position not only in the Pac-10, but nation wide.

The Sun Devils' wide receiver unit may not have the pretty stats (seventh in pass offense), but it does feature some very capable players. Heading this group in last year's All Pac-10 selection Shaun McDonald. The junior is off to a good start in 2002 catching 43 passes for 737 yards and eight touchdowns. The Walter-McDonald combination is one that can cause opposing defensive coordinators quite a few headaches during a game. Sophomore Daryl Lightfoot has put his off field troubles aside, and is starting to come into his own. Just like McDonald, Lightfoot is a blazing quick player who possesses some nifty open field moves. Other receivers that have been playing well lately are true freshman Derek Hagan, and junior Skyler Fulton. Tight end Mike Pinkard is a player who has been successfully shaking off a less than average 2001 performance. His blocking abilities are second to none on the team, and his passing skills are quickly catching up. His stats are respectable for a tight end after seven games, 181 yards and two touchdowns, but if he ever fully realizes his potential and stays consistent he's capable of achieving much better numbers.

To say the ASU's defense was the team's Achilles heel last season (finishing eighth in the Pac-10) would be an understatement. Nevertheless, this year it is hardly a stretch to say that the Sun Devils' defense has carried the team. ASU is very capable of defending the run, as evident in their #3 conference ranking in this category (95.7 yards/game). Much credit to this feat has to be given to the front four – a unit that came into the season with significant question marks. Defensive end Terrell Suggs, who was All Pac-10 last year, and a pre-season All-American this year, is one once again one of the best pass rushers in the conference. The junior leads the Pac-10 in sacks with 13, and in tackles for loss with 16.5. 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, has contributed to the emergence of fellow end Jimmy Verdon. The sophomore is fifth on the team with tackles, and second in team sacks with three. Plugging up the middle are junior Brian Montesanto, who has successfully moved from his end position, and JC transfer Shane Jones who progression in the last few weeks has earned him his first start this weekend. This group has the capability of disrupting the running game and applying constant pressure on the opposing quarterbacks. Their ability to complete those two objectives will go a long way in determining how well the Devils' will fair in Eugene on Saturday.

ASU's 4-2-5 scheme calls for two linebackers to play each snap. As luck would have it, the Sun Devils feature a trio of talented senior linebackers. Josh Amobi, who was practically a non-factor until midway through his junior year, has been a man possessed since the season started. He leads the conference with four recovered fumbles, and his big hits rounds out his athleticism. Mason Unck tops the Pac-10 in fumbles forced with four, and as the second leading tackler on the team he has been more than just a complimentary player to Amobi. Solomon Bates had a less than memorable 2001 campaign, but he has showed flashes of brilliance last week against the Beavers. True freshman Jamar Williams has been making the most of his limited play, and is also a vital contributor on special teams.

Another byproduct of the ASU scheme is playing three safeties. As with the linebacker core, this position is blessed with quality players. Last season, free safety Jason Shivers turned in a sensational freshman campaign where he led the team in tackles, and to no one surprise he's still the leader so far this season. Senior Al Williams at one strong safety is not only one of the more talented defenders, but also a leader on the team. Against Oregon State he came up with two late fourth quarter sacks to seals the victory. Sophomore Riccardo Stewart returns to the lineup as the third safety. Stewart is a ferocious hitter, who has eight tackles for a loss on the year.

Depleted depth and injuries have marred the cornerback group, which is clearly the most troublesome part of the ASU defense. Despite its 7th place ranking in the conference defending the pass, sophomore R.J. Oliver has emerged as one of the best corners in the Pac-10. Oliver, the fastest Sun Devil on the team, has 13 pass breakups, and is tied for second in the conference with four interceptions. Filling the second starter position has been a revolving door, where players were tried by fire trying to make a positive impact. Currently, JC transfer Brett Hudson who's been playing at safety for the first few games, is starting opposite Oliver, and doing an admiral job. Fellow freshmen Josh Golden and Mike Davis Jr. have seen significant playing time, and are expected to play quite a bit on Saturday. So far the performance at the second corner position has been met with mixed reviews, but good pressure upfront can compensate for a rookie corner left on an "island"…

Special Teams coach Tom Osborne returns to his old stomping grounds this weekend. To no one's surprise, this ASU unit has shown remarkable improvement ever since his arrival last year. Junior punter Tim Parker is second in the conference with 42.9 yards a punt, and is coming off one of his best performances in the maroon and gold averaging 46.6 yards. Kicker Mike Barth is considered one the better kickers in the Pac-10, but his performance as of late has tarnished his reputation quite a bit. The senior has only scored twice out of his last eight attempts, and several of those kicks were in reasonable range. He has appeared to bounce back somewhat against Oregon State, but a strong showing at Oregon could erase any cloud doubts that still may linger over him. Hakim Hill and his 23 yards per kick return are a big reason why the Devils rank second in this category in the Pac-10. Hill has been also returning punts in the last few weeks, trying to bolster a unit that ranks eight in the conference. Daryl Lightfoot will back up Hill on punt returns, and join him on kick off returns. Cornell Canidate and Mike Williams could also figure in as additional kickoff returners. The Sun Devils are among the conference leaders in kickoff and punt coverage. Overall, this special teams unit has been for the most part very solid for Koetter's team, and has the ability to be a difference maker in a tight game.

Morgan Freeman once said in the movie "The Shawsank Redemption": "Hope is a dangerous thing." Nevertheless, hope and confidence are virtues that ASU and its followers have quite a bit of going into Eugene this weekend. The Sun Devils know the task of winning at Autzen Stadium is near impossible. Then again, not many expected ASU to have this kind of record in the midpoint of the season. This year has been spent erasing the memories of 2001. Defeating Oregon on its home turf would not only exhibit how far the maroon and gold have come from last season, but may put the horrors of last year to an eternal rest…

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