March 10, 2010

Mazzone asked to breathe life into Sun Devils offense

RELATED: Triple Threet: QB hopes third time's the charm

TEMPE, Ariz. - New Arizona State offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone is asking questions. He's always asking questions.

He is playing host to a clinic about the one-back offense featuring coaches from some schools whose offenses are devoted to that offensive scheme.

New Houston co-offensive coordinator Kliff Kingsbury is lecturing in a meeting room in the Arizona State football offices. Behind him are images of Cougars quarterback Case Keenum executing a series of drills.

"Which way do you have Case's feet pointing?" Mazzone asks.

And so it goes for almost two days, and Mazzone soaks it all in, asking all sorts of questions.

Few coordinators can match his resume, which includes stints running offenses at five schools: Minnesota (1992-94); Ole Miss, twice (1995-98 and 2004-05); Auburn (1999-2001); Oregon State (2002); and N.C. State (2003-04). And few coordinators are facing more pressure to produce right now.

Mazzone is preparing for his first spring running the Sun Devils' offense. And he's looking for ideas - any ideas - to help jump-start what has been a moribund attack the past two seasons under Dennis Erickson.

Mazzone, 52, coached receivers with the New York Jets from 2006-08. He was under consideration to be offensive coordinator at Miami and Pittsburgh, but he ended up serving as offensive coordinator at Panther Creek High School in Cary, N.C., in '09.

"I'm excited to be here," Mazzone says. "This is a great opportunity. There is talent here."

Erickson, 62, knows that. He also knows he can win at Arizona State. He hit Tempe with a gale force in his debut season in 2007. He led the Sun Devils to a 10-3 record, a share of the Pac-10 championship and a trip to the Holiday Bowl. Erickson also was named the league coach of the year. But the past two seasons have seen ASU slide back.

The Sun Devils went 5-7 in 2008 and 4-8 last season. It marked the first time in Erickson's 21-year college career that he had posted consecutive losing seasons.

That brings us here, to a season that some are characterizing as "make-or-break." Is Erickson feeling the pressure?

"I feel pressure every year," Erickson says. "We have to get better. Do I feel pressure? I don't know if I feel pressure. But I have a lot of pride in what I do. We are better than what we have played. Pride and accountability are things I can control as a head coach."

Out of the ordinary
Dennis Erickson isn't used to losing.

Arizona State's back-to-back sub-.500 records in 2008 and '09 were the first consecutive losing campaigns of his 21-year college career. Factor in his 4-8 mark in 2006 at Idaho, and Erickson has posted losing marks in three of the past four seasons. He led Arizona State to a 10-3 mark in 2007.

"It has been frustrating," says Erickson, who won national titles at Miami in 1989 and '91 and was a coach in the NFL with the Seattle Seahawks (1995-98) and San Francisco 49ers (2003-04). "But we know how to win and get it done. We have great support here."

Before the three recent losing seasons, Erickson had had just two losing records as a college head coach: in 1987 at Washington State (3-7-1) and in 2001 at Oregon State (5-6).
Erickson may have shown a sense of urgency by signing six junior-college transfers this past February. Making matters stickier is that Mike Stoops' Arizona program down Interstate 10 in Tucson has a full head of momentum after consecutive 8-5 seasons.

"We know the situation," Erickson says. "We know what we have to do."

The root of Arizona State's problems the past two seasons has been the offense. And that's why Mazzone is here.

"I have known Noel for a long time," says Erickson, the only man to win Pac-10 coach of the year honors at three schools (Washington State, Oregon State and Arizona State). "I hired him back in 2002 [at Oregon State]. He's a smart coach.

"We had a lot of injuries along the line. It was difficult for us to establish much consistency and continuity."

Before last season, Erickson tried to jump-start the offense after it ranked No. 7 in the Pac-10 (309.4 ypg) in 2008 by taking play-calling duties away from offensive coordinator Rich Olson and putting himself in charge. It had little impact, as ASU wasted the efforts of the Pac-10's best defense (297.6 ypg, 13th in the nation).

"We didn't have any consistency at quarterback," Erickson says. "We have three of them we like on the roster. We have some skill coming back and a couple of junior college offensive linemen who will help. And then Noel.

"We are going to do some different things. We had some meetings recently and are coming up with a pretty good plan for our personnel."

Danny Sullivan opened the season as the starting quarterback and finished as the ninth-rated passer in the Pac-10 last season, hitting just 53.9 percent of his passes (168-of-312) for 1,939 yards, with 10 touchdowns and nine interceptions. Late in the season, 6-foot-8 true freshman Brock Osweiler and sophomore Samson Szakacsy each made a start. But the results were the same.

Sullivan is gone, leaving Osweiler and Szakacsy to battle Michigan transfer Steven Threet for the starting job.

Threet, who began his career at Georgia Tech, has drawn comparisons to Arizona quarterback Nick Foles. Threet is a hard worker with a high football IQ. He is good with his feet and has an underrated arm. And of all the quarterbacks, Threet's skills may be best-suited for what will be an offense that has been tweaked by Mazzone.

ASU wants to run a one-back, multiple-receiver set that will feature the quarterback taking abbreviated drops and delivering the ball in a short passing game. The pass will be emphasized over the run.

"We think thick the quick passes and screens can act like a running game for us," Mazzone says. "And we expect our quarterback to hit a very percentage of his passes."

Running the ball has been an issue the past two seasons. In 2008, the Sun Devils had the No. 9 rushing attack in the Pac-10 (89.1 ypg), with only seven rushing scores and an average of 2.9 yards per carry. Things got just a bit better in 2009, as ASU finished eighth in the Pac-10 (119.3 ypg) with 14 rushing touchdowns and an average of 3.7 yards per carry.

With Dimitri Nance gone, look for Cameron Marshall to emerge as the top ball carrier. He's a jack-of-all-trades back with a thick, muscular build. Still, this offense will succeed or fail based on the play of the quarterback.

"We are going to have a lot more motion, a lot more four-wide, a lot more formation changes," Erickson says. "In the passing game, we want to be able to get rid of it a little bit quicker.

"We know what we have to do. And we are confident that we will get it done."

Tom Dienhart is the national senior writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at dienhart@yahoo-inc.com.


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