Steve Megargee Rivals.com College Football Staff Writer
Dennis Erickson hasn't coached his first game at Arizona State, but the Sun Devils' new coach already has delivered his most important pep talk of the season.
That came when Erickson sat down with Rudy Carpenter last December and discussed his expectations for the beleaguered quarterback.
"Coach Erickson just looked at me and said, 'I think you're good enough to take us to the Rose Bowl and national championship,' '' Carpenter said.
That's exactly what Carpenter needed to hear.
Carpenter had just finished perhaps the most tumultuous season of any quarterback in the nation. One year after leading the nation in passing efficiency, Carpenter struggled all season to deal with the pressure that came from winning a hotly contested quarterback competition.
He savors the chance for a fresh start.
"It's making football fun and enjoyable," Carpenter said. "Last year, I hated going to practice. I hated all that stuff. It was all so stressful."
The stress resulted from one of the most unusual quarterback controversies in recent memory.
Carpenter flourished two years ago after replacing an injured Sam Keller. He started the final five games of the year and ended the year with a 68.4 completion percentage that included 17 touchdown passes and only two interceptions.
That left former Sun Devils coach Dirk Koetter with a major dilemma when Keller returned to health for the 2006 season. Koetter declared Keller the starting quarterback last summer, then changed his mind 48 hours later and handed the job to Carpenter.
Keller transferred to Nebraska, where he likely will open the 2007 season as the Cornhuskers' starting quarterback. While Carpenter has declined to discuss the Keller situation this spring, he admitted all the off-field drama surrounding the team affected his performance last fall.
Carpenter completed just 55.4 percent of his passes with 23 touchdowns and 14 interceptions as Arizona State struggled through a 7-6 season. He threw four interceptions in a 49-21 loss to California and went 9-for-27 with two picks in a 44-10 setback at Oregon State.
Arizona State had an inexperienced and injury-riddled receiving corps, but Carpenter received the brunt of the criticism for the problems in the passing game.
"I kind of felt like I had the weight of the world on my shoulders," Carpenter said. "There was the whole quarterback controversy. Coach Koetter's job was in question. And on top of that we had so many injuries.''
READY FOR A COMEBACK
Arizona State quarterback Rudy Carpenter will attempt to regain his 2005 form this year after struggling through injuries and off-field drama last fall. Here's a comparison of Carpenter's production in 2005 and 2006.
Record as starter
Passing efficiency rating
* ? Led nation in that category
Carpenter wasn't immune from the injury bug.
He broke his right hand last September when it hit a helmet during his follow-through in practice. Later that month, he broke his left hand when it was stepped on during that ugly loss to California.
Even after breaking each of his hands in the first month of the season, Carpenter continued to pay through the pain. Keller's departure left the Sun Devils without any experienced alternatives.
His bruised psyche bothered him almost as much as his hands.
"It's one of those things where we started to stress a little bit," Carpenter said. "We started to press instead of relaxing and doing what we're good at. We kind of overanalyzed things too much. I think that hindered the way I played and the way my team played."
Koetter was fired one day after Arizona State ended the regular season with a 28-14 victory over Arizona. The Sun Devils introduced Erickson as their new coach two weeks later.
Shortly afterward, Erickson and Carpenter had their heart-to-heart chat.
Although Carpenter emphasizes he has nothing but praise for Koetter, he also acknowledged how much it helped to hear Erickson's words of encouragement.
"It made me feel really good," Carpenter said. "I think I was under a lot of heat in Tempe by our fans and just by a lot of people. He said, 'We'll do everything we can to make you the best player you can be.' ''
Carpenter is doing everything in his power to back up his coach's confidence.
He has worked harder than ever this offseason and made some minor mechanical adjustments, but the main change is in his mental approach. He finally is having fun again.
"Rudy's played really well," Erickson said. "He's a great decision maker. He's very accurate. He understands what we're doing. He's probably got as good a knowledge as anybody I've been around at that position. That makes a huge difference.''
Erickson definitely knows how to help college quarterbacks reach their potential.
In Erickson's first year at Miami, Craig Erickson (no relation) quarterbacked Miami to the 1989 national title. Gino Torretta helped the Hurricanes grab a share of the 1991 national championship and won the Heisman Trophy one year later.
Former Oregon State quarterback Jonathan Smith set school records for career passing yards and touchdown passes (since broken by Derek Anderson) while playing for Erickson.
Of course, Smith benefited from playing in an offense that featured future NFL wide receivers Chad Johnson and T.J. Houshmandzadeh. Arizona State lacks any receivers of that caliber.
Rivals.com second-team All-America tight end Zach Miller chose to enter the NFL Draft after collecting a team-high 50 receptions for 484 yards last year. Arizona State doesn't return anyone who caught more than 20 passes last season.
But the lack of depth in the receiving corps hasn't reduced Carpenter's optimism.
"Rudy always stays positive with us," sophomore wide receiver Brandon Smith said. "If we do something wrong or mess up or the timing isn't there, he doesn't get down on us. It's just, 'Let's get it right the next time' and go from there. Rudy makes it as easy as possible for us because he's always positive."
Carpenter is treating his receivers the same way the coaches are treating him. He knows first-hand how that positive attitude can affect a player's confidence.
"I love coming out here and love playing football," Carpenter said. "The coaches have a lot of faith in me, so I can throw the football and compete. If a bad play happens, go right back out there. If a good play happens, let's go celebrate."
Arizona State's new offense could give the Sun Devils plenty of chances to celebrate. The scheme includes a return to the shotgun formation that was generally absent from the Sun Devils' attack during the Koetter era.
Carpenter believes he does his best work out of the shotgun.
"I'm very comfortable in the shotgun," the 6-foot-2 junior said. "It's a great thing for me. I'm not 6-5 or 6-4. Being back in the shotgun allows me to see things a lot better and get the ball out a lot faster."
Carpenter's r?m?acks up his statement.
He threw for 2,705 yards and 36 touchdowns and led Westlake (Calif.) High to a 14-0 record as a senior while regularly working out of the shotgun. He also rushed for 626 yards and seven touchdowns that season.
"It gives him more of a chance to read the defense and concentrate on his throw rather than his footwork," Westlake coach Jim Benkert said. "If you ask any quarterback from the pros all the way down, they'll tell you that something they enjoy doing more than any part of the game is the shotgun. It (makes) Rudy more of a running threat, and he's an exceptional quarterback on the run.
"I just think most quarterbacks prefer to do the shotgun than any other system. He's no exception.''
Before anyone gets too carried away by the optimism surrounding Erickson's arrival and Carpenter's improvement, keep in mind that Arizona State often enters a season with big plans.
Only rarely have the Sun Devils lived up to those expectations.
Then again, Erickson has a knack for winning almost as soon as he arrives at a school. He posted a 9-3 record his second year at Washington State and won two national championship in his first three seasons at Miami. In his second season at Oregon State, the Beavers went 11-1 and won the Fiesta Bowl.
No wonder the Sun Devils enter this spring more confident than usual.
"I'm very optimistic," Carpenter said. "Our team has come into this spring with a great attitude, a new attitude and a whole new swagger."
Carpenter was describing his team's change in attitude, but he may as well have been referring to himself.