OVERVIEW: The offense made great progress last season in the first go-round under coordinator Noel Mazzone. The Sun Devils ranked 29th nationally in total offense, and they could be even better this season if quarterback play is sound. The line, often a liability in recent seasons, returns four starters. The running backs and receivers appear solid. That leaves the Sun Devils counting heavily on junior QB Brock Osweiler, who has limited experience but performed well in the last two games of 2010. The Sun Devils' base scheme is a pro-style attack but with elements of the spread; it is heavier on the pass than on the run.
AN INSIDE LOOK
THE LINGERING QUESTION: Can the Sun Devils win close games? In the past two seasons, Arizona State has endured eight losses by five or fewer points. Two or three may be bad luck. Eight indicates other factors may be involved - a lack of leadership, intestinal fortitude or just plain toughness. Last season, mishaps on extra points cost Arizona State in losses to Wisconsin and USC. The talent level appears to be improving, but the Sun Devils have wilted in close games.
BEST-CASE SCENARIO: With QB Brock Osweiler playing efficiently and LB Vontaze Burfict leading a stout defense, the Sun Devils get off to a strong start and set the tone for the season with a September victory over USC. They perform well in big games at home and show they can make the key plays to win close games. Consequently, they live up to expectations and represent the South Division in the Pac-12 championship game.
WORST-CASE SCENARIO: Osweiler is inconsistent and coverage problems persist in the secondary. A rebuilt kicking game is unsteady, too. The Sun Devils still fail to make the big plays in close games and stumble to another lackluster season, which leads to coach Dennis Erickson's ouster and a coaching search.
STAT TO KEEP AN EYE ON: The Sun Devils must execute better in the red zone. They ranked 92nd in the nation in red zone offense last season, scoring just 44 times on 57 chances. Of those 44 scores, 13 were field goals. They also must be more disciplined. The Sun Devils were penalized an average of 69.6 yards per game in 2010, and only six FBS teams were penalized more.
BACKFIELD: Repeated concussions forced QB Steven Threet to end his career, which leaves Osweiler as the only quarterback on the roster with college playing experience. Osweiler, who is 6 feet 8 and 235 passes, attempted just 109 passes last season. But he passed for 647 yards and five touchdowns in the final two games, which he started after Threet was hurt. Despite his size, he's a good runner, too; his mobility isn't surprising, considering he was a Gonzaga basketball commitment for a while in high school in Montana. Osweiler looked good in the spring. Depth at tailback suffered a major blow when sophomore Deantre Lewis, who rushed for 539 yards in his debut season, was hit in the leg by a stray bullet while at home near Los Angeles during the offseason. His availability for this season is unclear. But the Sun Devils still have junior Cameron Marshall, who rushed for 787 yards and has breakaway ability. Sophomore Kyle Middlebrooks, who has been used at receiver, will provide depth. Marshall and Lewis combined for 44 receptions last season and are effective safety-valve receivers, too.
RECEIVERS: Deep threat T.J. Simpson, the second-leading returning receiver, was lost to a knee injury in spring drills and may not play this season. Yet the Sun Devils still have four receivers - seniors Mike Willie, Aaron Pflugrad and Gerell Robinson and junior Jamal Miles - who had between 25 and 36 receptions a year ago. Willie is a big receiver (6-4/215) who creates coverage mismatches and had a team-leading six touchdown catches a year ago. Sure-handed sophomore J.J. Holiday had a strong spring and figures to have a significant role in the offense.
LINE: After a few lean seasons, the Sun Devils now are talented and deep up front. C Garth Gerhart - Toby's brother - will contend for all-conference honors and senior T Aderious Simmons is a legitimate pro prospect. Sophomore T Evan Finkenberg has good feet and played well as a freshman. Junior G Andrew Sampson is physical and ornery, while incumbent starter Mike Marcisz hopes to stave off a challenge from senior Adam Tello at the other guard spot. While there was improvement last season, the Sun Devils still allowed 31 sacks - a total that must be reduced. Osweiler's mobility will help.
OVERVIEW: A spring injury to CB Omar Bolden raises major concerns for a secondary that already has issues. But the Sun Devils' front seven has a chance to be among the best in the country. LB Vontaze Burfict is arguably the best in the nation at his position, while sophomore E Junior Onyeali provides a consistent pass rush and sophomore T Will Sutton has drawn raves. Improved safety play is a must. Coordinator Craig Bray is underrated nationally.
LINE: The front four has a chance to be one of the best in the Pac-12. Sutton, a sophomore who sat out last season to work on his academics, looks like a future star. He has superb quickness and can get a strong push from the interior. He'll play alongside senior T Bo Moos, who is good against the run; Bo's dad, Bill, is the athletic director at Washington State. Onyeali is undersized (5-11/233), but is an efficient speed rusher and posted 6.5 sacks as a backup last season. Senior E Jamaar Jarrett is capable on the other end. The Sun Devils will miss senior E James Brooks, who left school in mid-July; he was a potential starter who, at the least, would've seen key minutes.
LINEBACKERS: Any linebacker corps with Burfict in the middle would be formidable, but Arizona State's crew is among the best in the country. The Sun Devils have talent and depth. Burfict has shown for two seasons that he has excellent range and can hit with wrecking-ball impact. He has had some issues in the past with late hits, but coaches say he is maturing and had a great spring. Senior Brandon Magee is coming off a 73-tackle season at one outside spot. An intense competition between seniors Shelly Lyons and Colin Parker will decide the other starter. In addition, sophomore Anthony Jones has impressed the coaches to the point they may be forced to find a way to get him on the field.
SECONDARY: Last season, Arizona State ranked 101st in the nation in pass defense and surrendered 18 touchdown passes. Clearly, the Sun Devils need to get better in coverage. But they sustained a major setback when Bolden, their best defensive back and a potential All-American, tore an ACL in the spring and will miss most - if not all - of the season. The Sun Devils now turn to Deveron Carr, who is coming back from shoulder surgery, and sophomore Osahon Irabor at corner. Redshirt freshman Devan Spann will get action there, too. Safety play has been disappointing. Seniors Eddie Elder and Clint Floyd likely will start, but Elder missed springs drills while recovering from a shoulder injury and Floyd needs to improve his coverage skills. Sophomore Alden Darby impressed in the spring and could challenge for a starting role at free safety.
Kicking duties will be handled by newcomers, and the Sun Devils hope to continue last year's success on returns. P Josh Hubner is a junior college transfer who earned All-America recognition at that level after averaging 40.2 yards on 41 punts. Redshirt freshman K Alex Garoutte aims to make a successful transition to the college game. He converted three times from more than 50 yards at Phoenix Brophy Prep and was an all-state selection. The Sun Devils had the nation's second-highest average on kickoff returns last season and weren't bad bringing back punts, either. Miles could handle both duties. Last season, he had a touchdown on a kickoff return and averaged nearly 9.0 yards on punt returns. Middlebrooks also is dangerous on kickoff returns. Punt coverage was poor last season, but kickoff coverage was solid.
THE RECRUITING SIDE
Average national ranking past five years: 38th
Buzz: Dennis Erickson is in a somewhat precarious position with the 2012 recruiting class because while he and his staff have done an outstanding job landing some quality commitments, especially out of southern California, some of those "commitments" are staying open in their recruitment. The Sun Devils have landed four commitments from Long Beach Poly, one of the most respected programs in California. - ADAM GORNEY
With a depth chart teeming with returning starters and veteran players, there doesn't appear much opportunity for newcomers. But four of Arizona State's six losses last season were by four or fewer points, which would seem to underscore the importance of Garoutte. Reports are that he's improved his leg strength and showed more accuracy in the spring. If he can carry that over into the fall, he'll play a vital role.
Last season, Arizona State failed to qualify for a bowl game; it had six wins total but two were over FCS opponents. That won't be an issue in 2011 with tough non-conference games against Missouri and Illinois. The Sun Devils have the advantage of playing Pac-12 South Division rivals USC, Colorado and Arizona in Tempe. They also avoid Stanford and Washington from the North Division, but must travel to Oregon on Oct. 15.
"Sparky," the pitchfork-welding Sun Devil mascot, has been removed from the Arizona State helmets in a uniform change and replaced by a pitchfork head. Perhaps that's appropriate because the Sun Devils may be coming to a fork in the road under coach Dennis Erickson. Arizona State is 15-21 over the past three seasons. Would a fourth consecutive lackluster season be tolerated? It may not come to that, though. This should be Erickson's strongest team in Tempe since ASU went 10-3 in his first season at the school. Osweiler must prove himself over the long haul and there are concerns in the secondary, but the Sun Devils are talented enough to win the Pac-12 South, especially with USC ineligible. But if they come up short, Erickson may join "Sparky" on the scrap heap.
For more on Arizona State now and throughout the season, check out ASUDevils.com