Top 50 Countdown: No. 28 Arizona State

Coach: Dennis Erickson | Staff
In 2006: 7-6, 4-5; Lost Hawaii Bowl to Hawaii 41-24.
Returning starters: Offense: 10. Defense: 5.
Key losses: WR Terry Richardson, TE Zach Miller, LB Beau Manutai, S Zach Catanese, CB Keno Walter-White.
2007 breakdown: Top 10 players | Outlook | Offense | Defense | Special teams | Coaching | Schedule

Breaking down the offense

Overview: The Sun Devils averaged 367 yards and 26.8 points per game last season, and that was considered an "off" year. Quarterback Rudy Carpenter was hampered with injuries to his hands, and the receivers underachieved. On the positive side, tailback Ryan Torain had a strong showing in his first year at the Division I-A level. With 10 starters returning including a healthy Carpenter and Torain - this season promises to be more like 2005 when the Sun Devils ranked second nationally in total offense.

ARIZONA STATE TOP 10
Ryan Torain rushed for 1,229 yards in 2006.

1. RB Ryan Torain
2. S Josh Barrett
3. C Mike Pollak
4. OT Brandon Rodd
5. DT Michael Marquardt
6. DE Dexter Davis
7. OT Zach Krula
8. LB Morris Wooten
9. CB Justin Tryon
10. WR Kyle Williams
Best player: Torain. A junior college transfer, Torian rushed for 1,229 yards last season. That mark is the eighth best single-season total in Arizona State history.

Most overrated: Carpenter was excellent as a freshman, but was merely adequate in 2006. However, injuries to both hands surely contributed to the decline. He's healthy now, but tends to be streaky and needs to show more consistency.

Most underrated: C Mike Pollak earned second team all-conferece recognition and was named the Sun Devils' top offensive linemen. However, linemen - especially centers - are always overlooked.

Must step up: WR Brandon Smith. A former three-star prospect, Smith only caught six passes in 2006. He has good speed and great leaping ability, but he needs to turn potential into production.

Impact newcomer: There isn't much opportunity with 10 offensive starters returning, but there is a vacancy at tight end. Redshirt freshman Lance Evbuomwan likely won't start, but he could end up being a good fit there. A former three-star prospect, the 6-foot-4, 268-pounder had 54 receptions as a high school senior.

Position battle: Evbuomwan is by no means guaranteed the honor of replacing Zach Miller, who has gone on to the NFL. Several other players are vying for the starting job at TE. The group includes Zach's brother Brent Miller, Brady Conrad and Tyrice Thompson.

New in 2007: Offensive coordinator Rich Olson is entering his first season in Tempe. He's installing aspects of the Spread offense, but overall is simplifying the system.

Grade the units:
QB: B. Carpenter led the nation in passing efficiency and had the lowest interception percentage as a freshman, but last year was merely average. His grade will rise or fall based on his performance as a junior.
RB: A. Not only do the Devils have Torain, but backup Keegan Herring rushed for more than 850 yards two years ago as a freshman. Also, sophomore Dimitri Nance was widely recruited last season.
WR/TE: C-. No Sun Devils wide receivers had more than 20 receptions in 2006.
OL: B+. The NCAA granted tackle Zach Krula an extra year of eligibility, which basically gives the Sun Devils six linemen with starting experience. Pollak and tackle Brandon Rodd will contend for postseason honors, but depth could be an issue.

Breaking down the defense

Overview: Arizona State allowed 40 or more points four times last season. Bolstering the defense is obviously a top priority. The Sun Devils are counting on an influx of junior college transfers to expedite the upgrade, but they will also need a few backups from a year ago to prove they can perform in starting roles. Encouragement can be gleaned in the returns of safety Josh Barrett, cornerback Justin Tryon, defensive tackle Michael Marquardt and defensive end Dexter Davis.

Best player: Barrett has linebacker size, cornerback speed and academic all-conference intellect. Last season he led the Sun Devils with 82 tackles and also had three interceptions despite being hampered by a sore shoulder.

Arizona State Schedule
Date Opponent
Sept. 1 San Jose State
Sept. 8 Colorado
Sept. 15 San Diego State
Sept. 22 Oregon State
Sept. 29 at Stanford
Oct. 6 at Washington State
Oct. 13 Washington
Oct. 27 California
Nov. 3 at Oregon
Nov. 10 at UCLA
Nov. 22 USC
Dec. 1 Arizona
Most overrated: Jeremy Payton came to Tempe as a three-star prospect at safety in 2004, but has yet to make a big splash with 30 tackles and one interception in his career.

Most underrated: Even though defensive end Dexter Davis lacks great size and speed, he is so tenacious he led the Sun Devils with six sacks and 10 tackles for losses as a redshirt freshman in 2006.

Must step up: CB Chris Baloney. He started two games before injury forced him to miss half the season. The Sun Devils need a successor to Keno Walter-White, and Baloney is the most likely candidate. Baloney's role will be important because Chad Green will likely miss the 2007 season after being injured in a horrible auto accident in the offseason.

Shoes to fill: Either Payton or junior college transfer Troy Nolan must step in to replace safety Zach Cantanese, who led ASU in tackles in 2005 and was second in 2006.

Impact newcomer: Defensive end Luis Vasquez notched 31 sacks in his junior college career and will be counted on to bolster the Sun Devils' pass rush.

Position battle: Payton and Nolan will have an interesting competition at safety. If Nolan emerges as the starter, Payton could get a shot at cornerback.

New in 2007: Four junior college transfers are expected to make significant contributions to the defense. Two of them Morris Wooten and Vasquez - are expected to be in the starting lineup.

Grade the units:
DL: C. DE Dexter Davis is solid and DT Michael Marquardt has earned all-conference honors. But the other prospective starters are unproven. Depth on the line is also a question mark.
LB: C. Wooten was a junior college All-American last season, but Ryan McFoy is moving up from safety. Other starting candidates Travis Goethel, Gerald Munns and Chad Lindsey - are unproven sophomores.
DB: B. CB Justin Tryon is a good one and Barrett will contend for postseason honors. The Sun Devils feel good about their prospects at the other safety spot, but the uncertainty at corner opposite Tryon is a concern.

Breaking down the special teams

Overview: A high-octane and experienced offense suggests the Sun Devils won't punt often, but when they do they can count on excellent results from Jonathan Johnson. Unfortunately, punting is the only special teams area in which Arizona State is proven. A redshirt freshman will handle place-kicking duties and the return teams were merely average in 2006.

Season outlook with bowl forecast
If home field is indeed a significant advantage, a big year should be in store for the Sun Devils. Arizona State plays eight games in Tempe. Adding to the advantageous schedule is that two of their four road trips are to Stanford and Washington State. It wouldn't be a big surprise if Arizona State were 7-0 or 6-1 heading into a four-game stretch against California, Oregon, UCLA and USC. That group of games will likely define whether the Sun Devils have a good year or a great one. Figure on something in between, and expect a slight improvement from last season with an 8-4 or maybe 9-3 finish and another trip to a mid-level bowl game.
Best player: Johnson averaged 41.5 yards on 54 attempts, and Arizona State ranked second in the Pac-10 in net punting last season.

Grade the units:
K: Incomplete. Walk-on Thomas Weber showed a strong leg and good accuracy during the spring, but has not yet kicked in a collegiate game.
P: B+. Johnson is a two-step punter, so his kicks don't get blocked. He also gets plenty of hang time, which results in frequent fair catches.
KR: B. The Sun Devils ranked second nationally in kickoff returns last season. However, Terry Richardson - who averaged 33.6 yards a return - is gone. Four players remaining on the roster returned kickoffs last season, but none returned more than nine. Rudy Burgess averaged more than 23 yards on six returns.
PR: C. Kyle Williams averaged just 5.5 yards on 14 returns last season.

Breaking down the coaching

Overview: New coach Dennis Erickson has won at almost every collegiate stop he's made in his career. There is little reason to think that streak won't continue in Tempe. Offensive coordinator Rich Olson has an impressive resume, which includes stops with four NFL teams and several collegiate programs. Defensive coordinator Craig Bray reunites with Erickson. Bray coached under Erickson at Oregon State from 2000-2002.

Grade the coaches:
Head coach: A. Erickson won two national championships at Miami (1989, 1991). He was also named Pac-10 Coach of the Year at Washington State in 1988 and at Oregon State in 2000. He has posted a 148-65-1 record in 18 years as a collegiate head coach.
Offense: A. Olson spent 10 of his last 11 seasons in the NFL, but was the University of Miami's offensive coordinator from 1992-94. In that span the Hurricanes posted 30 victories.
Defense: B. Last season Bray was the secondary coach at Minnesota, which coincidentally also allowed four opponents to score more than 40 points. However, he was defensive coordinator at Oregon State from 2000-2002. During that time Oregon State ranked 11th nationally in total defense in 2002, 31st in 2001 and 20th in 2000.

Special teams: C. Al Simmons and Jamie Christian will share supervision of the special teams, which were pretty good in 2006. But they will have to find new kick returners and tutor a new kicker.

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

Rivals.com is counting down our Preseason Top 50. Coming tomorrow: No. 27.


 

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