March 19, 2011

Sunnier days may be ahead for Sun Devils

Near-misses raise hope, but sooner or later, close calls must become wins.

If not, even proven coaches such as Arizona State's Dennis Erickson will be replaced.

There were some calls for Erickson's dismissal after last season's 6-6 finish, in which Arizona State endured one-point losses to Wisconsin and USC and failed to reach a bowl game for a third consecutive season.

But as the Sun Devils head into spring practice, there is an optimistic feeling that the worst is behind them.

The Sun Devils have explosive running backs, good receivers and a solid defense. The problems and injuries that have plagued the offensive line look to be over. Now, if they can make progress at quarterback this spring, they could be on the way to ending that three-season stretch of disappointment.

Here's a look at Arizona State at it readies for spring drills.

ARIZONA STATE AT-A-GLANCE
LB Vontaze Burfict is among the best -- and most intimidating -- in the country.
THE BASICS
Coach: Dennis Erickson
Last season: 6-6 overall, 4-5 in the Pac-10.
Spring dates: March 22-April 23.
RETURNING STARTERS
(minimum seven starts last season)
Offense (7): T Evan Finkenberg, C Garth Gerhart, G Mike Marcisz, TB Cameron Marshall, G Andrew Sampson, WR T.J. Simpson, WR Mike Willie.
Defense (8): CB Omar Bolden, E James Brooks, LB Vontaze Burfict, S Eddie Elder, S Clint Floyd, CB Osahon Irabor, E Jamaar Jarrett, LB Brandon Magee.
Special teams: None.
Positions of strength

The Sun Devils are loaded at linebacker. Vontaze Burfict may be the best in the nation; at the least, he's the most intimidating. Brandon Magee was the Sun Devils' second-leading tackler. They also have good depth there. Running back is solid, too. Cameron Marshall rushed for more than 800 yards and Deantre Lewis had more than 550, and each averaged more than 5.0 yards per carry. The Sun Devils' receiving corps is in good shape. WR Mike Willie, who had 36 catches in 2010, heads a group of four returning receivers with at least 29 catches last season. Now, if ASU can find someone to get them the ball consistently. The Sun Devils are good on the corners, too. Omar Bolden has all-conference credentials, and Deveron Carr, who will sit out contact drills while recovering from shoulder surgery, has talent, as well. Sophomore Osahon Irabor got some valuable experience last season and was solid.

Help is needed

Quarterback has been an issue since Rudy Carpenter left ... years ago. Last season's starter, Steven Threet, had to give up football after sustaining multiple concussions; former backup Samson Szakacy left the team to pursue other interests. That leaves 6-foot-8 junior Brock Osweiler as the only returning quarterback on the roster with any playing experience. Osweiler played well in closing wins over UCLA and Arizona. Inadequate play at safety was a major factor in Arizona State ranking 101st in the nation in pass defense. The Sun Devils must get better there.

3 guys to watch

CB Osahon Irabor: The former four-star prospect started seven games last season after Carr was injured. Irabor responded by posting 40 tackles and an interception. The feeling is he could make the step from solid contributor to standout. He'll need to raise his game to keep his starting job when Carr is fully recovered.

T Aderious Simmons: He did not play high school football, but the former junior college transfer has great size (6 feet 7/310 pounds) and impressive athletic ability. He made six starts last season and could become a fulltime starter if he makes progress in technique. In fact, word out of Tempe is he could develop into a dominating tackle.

DT Will Sutton: DT Lawrence Guy's early departure to the NFL is a setback, but Sutton's presence lessens the blow. A third-year sophomore, Sutton started two games as a true freshman but was academically ineligible last season. He needs to show this spring that he can handle the starting job.

The pressure is on

S Keelan Johnson: Ever since Johnson arrived on campus three years ago, Sun Devils coaches have been waiting on him to parlay his great athleticism into great performance. But he hasn't been able to break into the starting lineup and has just one career interception and 33 tackles. If he doesn't show some significant progress this spring, the Sun Devils may get tired of waiting on him.

The buzz

Memories of a strong November heighten the enthusiasm around spring practice. Although the Sun Devils were just 2-2 in the final month of the season, the losses were by one point to USC and by four to Stanford before back-to-back victories over UCLA and Arizona. Osweiler's play in the final two games raised hope that the mediocre quarterback play of recent seasons will improve. The defense figures to be stout. The Sun Devils haven't managed a winning season in three years, but there is optimism that they will be a legitimate contender in the South Division of the new Pac-12.

Olin Buchanan is the senior college football writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at olin@rivals.com.


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