Who’s Sleeping on Arizona State?
By Paul Myerberg // Feb 22, 2011
This guy, it seems. Or am I? There is something to be said of a team that returns such a high number of starters from last season, as do the Sun Devils, but let’s remember one thing: though a year younger than they’ll be in 2011, these Sun Devils did reach .500 last fall thanks in part to a pair of wins over F.C.S. competition. Not that the Sun Devils weren’t competitive; A.S.U. dropped close games in and out of conference play, including an early game against Wisconsin — had A.S.U. pulled that game out, in fact, perhaps the entire season could have turned out differently. So what’s to like about Arizona State in 2011? Is it time to get on the bandwagon?
Here’s the number that has people talking: 19. That’s the number of non-senior starters on Arizona State’s final 2010 depth chart, the one it fielded in a potentially momentum-changing win over rival Arizona in the season finale. The lone senior starter among the position players — or the lone clear senior starter, not one listed as a co-starter — was receiver Kerry Taylor, who led the Sun Devils with 54 receptions for 699 yards.
So a big loss, though far from a crippling one. There are far more important pieces returning on offense, such as a young, talented backfield, one headlined by rising junior Cameron Marshall, and an offensive line that will surely grow from last season’s experience.
Key linemen like Evan Finkenberg and Andrew Sampson developed into Pac-10 — make that Pac-12 — caliber performers over the second half of the 2010 season. This was largely due to finding concrete roles: Finkenberg found a home at left tackle after spending the first month of the season at right guard; Sampson was inserted into the starting lineup at that guard spot once A.S.U. entered the heart of conference play.
One thing the Sun Devils didn’t do well in 2010: protect the quarterback. Finkenberg, who was starting as a redshirt freshman in 2010, will help solidify A.S.U.’s pass protection. One thing A.S.U. did moderately well was run the football, particularly down the stretch. Part of this progression is surely due to Sampson’s presence in the lineup on the strong side of the line; from October on, once he cracked the starting rotation, A.S.U. rushed for at least 110 yards in six of eight games.
While there will be open competition for spots along the offensive front during the spring and in August, the starting line should look similar to the one put forth against Arizona: from left to right, it should be Finkenberg, Mike Marcisz — though a healthy Adam Tello could push for time — Garth Gerhart, Sampson and either Aderious Simmons or Dan Knapp. Again, there will be competition at left guard and right tackle, more than likely.
It’s not really about this offense, after all, but about a defense that may very well be the Pac-12′s best — or right near the top. We know about Vontaze Burfict, the shockingly ferocious junior middle linebacker who will challenge for all-American honors in 2011. As on the offense, the big news is that A.S.U. returns an overwhelming number of contributors: Burfict, for starters, but also cornerback Omar Bolden and fellow linebacker Brandon Magee.
The biggest losses are on special teams, where A.S.U. must replace former Lou Groza Award winner Thomas Weber and punter Trevor Hankins. These are significant losses, particularly at kicker, but survivable ones: Weber instilled confidence, but his last three seasons were plagued by the type of inconsistency not seen during his breakout freshman campaign.
So there’s talent returning; there’s experience returning, with the 19 — give or take — starters returning in 2010 now a year wiser and more seasoned. That never, ever hurts, even if A.S.U. had not ended the season with such a solid victory or played several more talented teams tough during conference play.
Just remember that we’ve been here before. We expected enormous things from A.S.U. in 2008, the program’s second season under Dennis Erickson, only to be bitterly disappointed in a 5-7 finish. That preceded a 4-8 2009 campaign and last fall’s 6-6 mark — the Sun Devils have gone 15-21 over the last three seasons.
In other words, temper some of the excitement with a dose of realism: A.S.U. should be better in 2011, perhaps be the Pac-12′s most improved team, but we’ve been here before — to a degree. Perhaps the Sun Devils will fare better when sneaking up on teams, such as they did in 2007.
On a side note: Should I have put A.S.U. among my early, early list of the top 40 teams heading into 2011? Yeah, I should have, probably in the mid-30s. Poor job on my part.
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