Blue Ribbon Preview: Arizona State
Editor's Note: ESPN Insider has teamed with Blue Ribbon College Football Yearbook to provide a comprehensive look at all 120 FBS teams. To order the complete 2011 edition of Blue Ribbon College Football Yearbook, visit www.blueribbonyearbookonline.com or call 1-877-807-4857 Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Eastern. This information is up to date as of June 25, 2011.
Dennis Erickson revamped his coaching staff last season after winning just four games in 2009. The cornerstone of the makeover was new offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone, who installed the spread offense and to whom Erickson relinquished play-calling duties.
The move paid huge dividends. The Sun Devils, anemic offensively in 2009 (ninth in the Pac-10 in total offense, eighth in passing, eighth in scoring), suddenly became a juggernaut. The pass offense went from eighth in the conference to 15th in the country. ASU scored 10.0 more points per game, rising to third in the conference and 28th nationally.
A superb defense and Mazzone's spread attack ensured that ASU stayed within reach in nearly every game. Four of its six losses were by four points or less. ASU trailed No. 5 Oregon by four at the half only to lose by 11. Other than an inexplicable 50-17 blowout loss at California, the Sun Devils were a handful of plays going their way from being a nine- or 10-win team.
There are good reasons to believe a breakthrough season could be in store. ASU has 30 seniors, one of the largest senior classes in the country. Anywhere from 12-15 of them are starters. Twenty starters overall return. The schedule also is favorable, with seven home games.
Don't overlook the defense, either. Folks around Tempe believe that coordinator Craig Bray is one of the best in the nation, yet he somehow seems to be off the radar. ASU has led the conference in rushing defense the last two seasons.
The Sun Devils will don a new look come the fall. The school designed a new logo, replacing the slightly cheesy "Sparky." He'll remain as the mascot to roam the sidelines, but the logo now is the devil's pitchfork. Senior wide receiver Gerell Robinson likes the new look, calling it "more aggressive."
If only ASU can stick a fork in a few more opponents.
Head Coach: Dennis Erickson (Montana State '70)
Record at school: 25-24 (4 years)
Career record: 173-89-1 (22 years)
• Noel Mazzone (New Mexico '80) Offensive Coordinator/Quarterbacks
• Craig Bray (UNLV '75) Defensive Coordinator/Safeties
• Trent Bray (Oregon State '06) Linebackers
• Steve Broussard (Washington State) Wide Receivers
• Scott Brown (Adams State '74) Defensive Line
• Greg Burns (Washington State '95) Defensive Backs
• Jamie Christian (Central Washington '99) Tight Ends/Special Teams
• Bryce Erickson (New Mexico Highlands '06) Running Backs
• Gregg Smith (Idaho '69) Offensive Line
Junior Brock Osweiler (6-8, 235) enters the season as the unquestioned No. 1. He took over for Michigan transfer Steven Threet for the final two games last season and led the Sun Devils to victories over UCLA and archrival Arizona. In those contests Osweiler completed 49-of-85 passes for 647 yards and five touchdowns with no interceptions.
To that point Threet had put together a solid junior season, starting the first 11 games and passing for 2,534 yards and 18 TDs. But he suffered his second concussion of the season -- and fourth of his young career -- in the first quarter against the Bruins. Because of lingering symptoms he wisely decided that his playing career is over.
Osweiler, who at one time was headed to Gonzaga on a basketball scholarship, was spectacular against UCLA. ASU fell behind 17-0 in the first quarter before he came on to pass for 380 yards and four touchdowns. He also rushed for a TD as the Sun Devils rallied to win 55-34. His number weren't quite as impressive against the Wildcats, but winning in Tucson speaks volumes.
"I think he proved to everybody what kind of competitor he was in the last two games, in particular the Arizona game," Erickson said. "To me, you could kind of tell when he was on and when he was off, and yet he willed us to win, found a way to get it done, which to me is kind of what that position is all about."
Osweiler was sharp in the spring game, completing 17-of-22 for 237 yards and five touchdowns. Erickson called it "probably as good a performance offensively we've had since I've been the coach here."
What's unsettled is who will be No. 2. Redshirt freshman Taylor Kelly (6-1, 195) and true freshman Mike Bercovici (6-1, 205) battled in the spring (Bercovici enrolled early after graduating high school in December), but Erickson said he won't make a decision until fall camp is completed.
Kelly is more of a dual threat, while Bercovici is a pocket passer. Bercovici passed for 3,755 yards and 37 touchdowns with nine interceptions last year at Calabasas (Calif.) Taft High.
The Sun Devils are as deep in the backfield as any Pac-12 team, if not as talented. Two players who rushed for more than 500 yards last season return; the only other league foe that can make the same boast is Oregon.
Junior Cameron Marshall (5-11, 223) was the feature back in 2010. He led ASU in yards (787), carries (150) and touchdowns (10, including one receiving). He also caught 21 passes for 227 yards, helping make him the total package. Marshall is powerfully built, allowing him to gain plenty of yardage even after contact. He also has the necessary speed (4.4 40) to run away from defenders.
Sophomore Deantre Lewis (5-10, 189) gives the Sun Devils a significant 1-2 punch along with Marshall. Lewis rushed for 539 yards, the third-best single-season rushing effort by a freshman in school history. He also led the team with a 5.9-yards-per-carry average.
Like Marshall, Lewis also is a major threat in the passing game in ASU's spread offense. He averaged 16.1 yards per catch, second on the team to wide receiver T.J. Simpson. Lewis had 23 receptions for 370 yards and two touchdowns. In all, he registered three 100-yard rushing games and two 100-yard receiving games.
Lewis missed spring practice after being struck by a stray bullet in February while visiting his family in Norco, Calif. Doctors removed the bullet and said it had done no muscle damage, and Lewis is expected to be 100 percent for fall camp.
In Lewis' absence a couple of ball carriers saw increased reps in spring. Sophomore Kyle Middlebrooks (5-8, 175), who began his ASU career as a wide receiver, will play at his more natural position this year. The diminutive speedster contributed 82 rushing yards and 86 receiving yards last season and figures to improve dramatically upon those numbers. He led all rushers in the spring game with 66 yards on just four carries.
Junior James Morrison (5-11, 214) is a between-the-tackles type who got 18 carries in 2010.
If there's one thing you need to be when you run a spread offense it's deep at wide receiver, and the Sun Devils are deeper than Sartre. Gone is leading receiver Kerry Taylor (54 receptions, 699 yards), and the position suffered a major blow when senior T.J. Simpson (6-1, 188) tore an ACL in a scrimmage the week before the spring game. But there are plenty of candidates to fill the void.
Simpson was second on the team in receiving yards (481), tied for third in receptions (29) and led the Sun Devils in average yards per catch (16.6), yet he didn't scored a single touchdown. The leader in receiving TDs was Mike Willie (6-4, 215), a junior college transfer who had six touchdowns among his 36 receptions for 442 yards. With a season behind him, Willie, a senior, could be a breakout performer in 2011.
Willie, who missed spring practice after offseason shoulder surgery but is expected to be fine by fall, and senior Gerell Robinson (6-4, 222) are both candidates to post 1,000-yard seasons. It's just a matter of getting enough work; last season no less than eight Sun Devils caught at least 21 passes. Robinson emerged with 29 catches for 387 yards and five touchdowns, and like Willie he's a big, physical target.
"With a full healthy season the sky is the limit for [Robinson]," receivers coach Steve Broussard said. "He has the physical tools."
Senior Aaron Pflugrad (5-10, 180), a transfer from Oregon, stepped in last season and occupied one of the inside spots. He posted 29 receptions for 329 yards and two touchdowns, and he showed great hands and polished route running. The injuries to Willie and Simpson allowed Pflugrad to play some on the outside in the spring, so he could pop up anywhere when balls start flying in September.
"[Pflugrad is] a warrior," Broussard said. "If you can stack your team with a bunch of players like him, you give yourself a chance. He understands where his strengths and weaknesses are and he plays to them."
Junior Jamal Miles (5-10, 183) posted 25 receptions last season, but his primary threat is as a return man. Senior George Bell (6-3, 203), a highly- touted JUCO player, appeared in all 12 games last season but went without a catch in nine of them. The coaches would like to see the guy who had 54 receptions for 805 yards as a sophomore at Southwestern College in Chula Vista, Calif.
When the Sun Devils use formations that call for a tight end they turn to senior Trevor Kohl (6-1, 245), who prides himself on his blocking and physical style.
Only one Pac-12 team returns its entire starting five from last season, which gives the coaches and the quarterbacks a nice level of comfort. Senior center Garth Gerhart (6-2, 295) is the anchor; he has started 22 of the 26 games in which he has appeared.
Gerhart, the younger brother of former Stanford star Toby Gerhart, settled in at center for the whole season after splitting time at guard in 2009. It's not an easy transition to snapping in a spread offense, but he handled it well.
The left tackle is sophomore Evan Finkenberg (6-6, 292), who started 11 games last season as a redshirt freshman. The coaches put their faith in him after his hard work during his redshirt year, and he rewarded them by earning Pac-10 All-Freshman team honors. His counterpart on the right side is senior Dan Knapp (6-5, 277), a converted tight end who made six starts last season. Knapp's dedication in the weight room this spring earned him the coveted Hard Hat Program Champion award.
The guard spots are manned by senior Mike Marcisz (6-5, 300), who holds down the left side, and junior Andrew Sampson (6-3, 300).
The Sun Devils have quality depth, too. Senior Aderious Simmons (6-7, 310) is a tackle who made six starts last season. Seniors Adam Tello (6-3, 292) and Brice Schwab (6-7, 302) also have starting experience and can play multiple positions.
The Sun Devils lost starting defensive tackles Lawrence Guy and Saia Falahola, a couple of program mainstays. Guy declared early for the NFL draft and was taken in the seventh round by the world champion Green Bay Packers. Falahola played in 39 games in his four-year career, with 23 starts.
But there's hardly doom and gloom up front, mostly because ASU has an embarrassment of riches at end. In fact, this is the only Pac-12 program that can boast three returning linemen who posted at least four sacks last season, and all of them play end.
Junior Onyeali (5-11, 233) was the Pac-10 Defensive Freshman of the Year after posting 11.5 tackles for loss and 6.5 sacks. He led all league freshmen in both categories. The Denver native has quite a motor, and he picked up on the nuances of rushing the passer to improve throughout his first season.
"He has some skills a lot of players don't have," defensive coordinator Craig Bray said. "As he played more, like any other young player, he got to understand what it takes to play in our system, got more experience, and that's why he helped us more in the second part of the season. He was probably the player that showed the most improvement last year."
Senior Jamaar Jarrett (6-5, 260) also enjoyed a breakout season. He appeared in all 12 games and made six starts, and he established career highs in tackles (40), tackles for loss (10.5) and sacks (4.5). He ranked second on the team in the latter two categories.
"Jarrett finally turned it loose a little bit," Bray said. "He turned from a part-time player into a full-time player and another player who just got better as the season went."
The third member of the defensive end trio is senior James Brooks (6-5, 279), who has benefited from extra spring reps because of the absence of Onyeali. The sophomore underwent surgery on his right shoulder in January to repair a torn labrum, and he'll be 100 percent easily by fall camp.
Brooks has played in 32 career games and earned 16 starts. He posted career highs last season in tackles (25) and sacks (four). But his shining moments came against Arizona, when he blocked an extra point with 27 seconds to play to send the game into overtime and then blocked another extra point in the second overtime to give ASU the win.
So the ends will buy some time for the tackles to grow into their roles. Several of his teammates believe sophomore William Sutton (6-2, 285) will more than capably step into one of the inside spots. Academically ineligible last season, Sutton opened some eyes as a true freshman in 2009 when he played in all 12 games and posted 17 tackles, including three for loss.
Sutton is a product of Corona (Calif.) Centennial High, as are starting linebackers Vontaze Burfict and Brandon Magee.
Senior Bo Moos (6-0, 286) topped the depth chart at the other tackle spot coming out of spring. He's a bit undersized but makes up for it with grit and determination. He made 17 tackles last season in 12 games, four of them starts.
The other mainstay in the tackle rotation figures to be junior Corey Adams (6-3, 285). He registered two sacks last season in limited playing time, but he has all of the tools to be a factor.
Junior middle linebacker Vontaze Burfict (6-3, 252) is one of the most feared defenders in the country. The Sporting News chose him a first-team All-America in 2010 after he posted a team-leading 90 tackles, including 8.5 for loss, three pass breakups and two forced fumbles.
Burfict is a physical presence with great instincts. The problem ASU has run into is that he on occasion has been too physical after the whistle. In fact, he missed a start last season for disciplinary reasons after some nasty extracurricular activities against Oregon State.
The coaches believe they saw a different Burfict in the spring, one who understands personal fouls aren't a statistic in which you want to lead the team.
"In the offseason he didn't miss a workout, and he's really become a leader," Bray said. "He's focused, worked hard and really pushed a lot of people, too. It was almost looking at a completely different person than last year, and maturity has a lot to do with that."
Senior Brandon Magee (5-11, 230) occupies the starting spot at weak-side linebacker. A high school teammate of Burfict, Magee is a heady player with excellent speed who can make plays from sideline to sideline. Magee finished second to Burfict in tackles with 73, including five for loss.
"[Magee] was probably our most consistent linebacker," Bray said. "He's a guy that spends a tremendous amount of time off the field in the film room, asking questions."
Speaking of questions, the only real question among the linebacker corps is who will start on the strong side. The combatants are senior Shelly Lyons (6-2, 230), yet another former Centennial player, and senior Colin Parker (6-1, 228). Lyons started the first three games of 2010 and saw action in seven games before a broken foot against California on Oct. 23 prematurely ended his season. Parker started five of the final six games and was a revelation, ending up fifth on the team in tackles with 57.
Both players undoubtedly will contribute. Each saw first-team action in the spring as Magee continued as an outfielder on the nationally ranked Sun Devils baseball team. Senior Oliver Aaron (6-0, 208) provides some depth.
If there are any questions about the Sun Devils on the defensive side they are in the secondary. Senior Omar Bolden (5-10, 195), a first-team All-Pac-10 pick at corner after posting three interceptions and seven pass breakups, suffered a torn ACL in the spring and his return in 2011 is doubtful.
Bolden's injury is the most serious in the secondary, but three other Sun Devils who figure to play major roles this season were unavailable in the spring. The corner opposite Bolden at the start of last season, junior Deveron Carr (5-11, 193), suffered a shoulder injury against Oregon State on Oct. 2, missed the rest of the season and was held out in the spring.
Carr, one of the fastest players on the team, made five starts and showed plenty of promise. He's expected to be ready for the fall, so he should lock down his old starting spot.
With Carr out, Osahon Irabor (5-11, 180) stepped into the starting lineup and filled in admirably, especially for a redshirt freshman. He started the final seven games and finished the season with 40 tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss and an interception. Irabor also got all the first-team reps he could handle in the spring with Bolden and Carr both out.
The injuries also allowed other players to get important spring reps. Redshirt freshman Devan Spann (5-11, 175) emerged to join the first team in the spring. He's a former high school track standout who will push Carr and Irabor and at the very least be on the field in extra-DB situations.
Three safeties with starting experience return, but senior Eddie Elder (5-10, 186) and junior Keelan Johnson (6-0, 201) missed spring practice because of injuries. Elder played most of last season with an injured left shoulder and underwent surgery in January. Johnson was also limited by a shoulder injury.
Both players are expected to be fine by the fall. Elder started nine games last season and finished tied for third on the team in tackles with 64. He also had two interceptions, including one of Stanford's Andrew Luck. Johnson made two starts and had a stretch of three consecutive games in which he made at least four tackles.
If either of them falters, senior Clint Floyd (5-10, 198) brings a wealth of experience. He started seven games in 2010 and doubled his tackle total to 30 from 2009. Floyd has appeared in 31 games as a Sun Devil, with 12 starts.
Sophomore Alden Darby (5-10, 185) could be a factor at safety as well. He has impressed coaches and teammates alike with his focus and desire. He got first-team reps in the spring and will push to get on the field.
While new starters at kicker and punter will have to prove themselves, the Sun Devils still should have excellent special teams. They're as good in the return game as just about anybody in the country, and last year they got after opposing kickers and punters as though they were Virginia Tech.
ASU led the Pac-10 in kickoff returns last season, averaging 27.5 yards, and returned three kickoffs for touchdowns. No other Pac-10 team had more than one. Moreover, each of the TDs were scored by a different player.
ASU has returned five kickoffs for a touchdown under Dennis Erickson in his four seasons. ASU had returned five kickoffs for touchdowns in the previous 20 seasons (1987-2006) before his arrival.
Wide receiver Jamal Miles returned a kickoff 99 yards for a touchdown against UCLA. He also led the Sun Devils in punt returns, and he's listed as the primary kickoff returner and punt returner on the depth chart. Running back Kyle Middlebrooks is the more experienced kick returner; he had 16 for a 26.4-yard average in 2010, including a long of 95 (no TD) against Wisconsin.
Arizona State also blocked six kicks in 2010 -- three punts and three extra points. The six blocks tied a school record set in 1992.
ASU lost one of the best in school history when four-year starter Thomas Weber graduated. He was a first-team All-American and the Lou Groza Award winner during his career; it's always nice to know your team is virtually guaranteed points when it crosses the opponent's 35.
Five other Pac-12 teams are looking to replace kickers this season. It appears the Sun Devils will turn to redshirt freshman Alex Garoutte (6-1, 190). The Phoenix product has a powerful leg, and the coaches like his mental makeup.
Garoutte was outstanding in the spring game, nailing field goals of 43, 47 and 49 yards without a miss. He also converted all five PATs.
Trevor Hankins had his best season last year, ranking fourth in the Pac-10 with a 44.6-yard average. His departure, along with that of four-year starting kicker Thomas Weber, leaves with Sun Devils in the uncomfortable position of replacing both of their specialists in the same season.
Junior Josh Hubner (6-4, 230) is a JUCO transfer who enrolled early and took part in spring practice. He has linebacker size and a big leg and had punts of 59 and 54 yards in the spring game.
Hubner also replaces Hankins as the primary holder for placekicking attempts.
The incoming class was lightly regarded among recruiting analysts, but it was small because ASU has 30 seniors. If there's a year in which the Sun Devils need to rank high on all of the recruiting lists, it's next year.
The most highly regarded prospects in this class are at quarterback and in the trenches on both sides.
Mike Bercovici (see above) will have competition for the No. 2 quarterback spot from another true freshman. Michael Eubank (6-5, 232) is an impressive physical specimen who carries on the tradition of standouts from Corona (Calif.) Centennial to migrate to ASU. He's a four-star prospect by ESPN.com who has a big arm and can create in the ground game as well. But Bercovici has a leg up after participating in the spring.
One of the most intriguing and physically imposing prospects up front is Mo Latu (6-3, 306). Regarded among the top offensive line prospects in the country, the Sun Devils have put Latu at defensive tackle. A powerful athlete, Latu bench presses more than 400 pounds and earned first-team All-State honors after a stellar senior season in 2010 at Perry High School in Gilbert, Ariz.
BLUE RIBBON ANALYSIS
All of the earmarks are there for a special season for the Sun Devils -- 20 returning starters, 30 seniors, explosive special teams and more familiarity with the spread offense. ESPN.com and CBSSports.com both ranked Arizona State in their preseason top 25.
The chief question is the secondary. The Pac-12 will be a pass-happy league in 2011, so everyone will have to be healthy for ASU to win its division. The loss of Bolden can't be underestimated, but a fast, physical front seven may be able to mask some of the problems.
Erickson won 10 games in his debut season in the desert, and expectations will be high this season. Maybe it's unreasonable to believe a 6-6 team can follow up with 10 or 11 wins this season and even the Pac-12 South division crown. But the schedule calls for seven home games, all of which any reasonable analyst would deem winnable.
The story of the Sun Devils probably will be told in early October when they go on the road in consecutive weeks to face Utah and Oregon. Those games could be the difference between being a bowl team and a BCS bowl team.
BLUE RIBBON: PAC-12 PREVIEWS
"Blue Ribbon College Football Yearbook" previews the 2011 season for each Pac-12 school. Take a look: