by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor

There was a time when subpar seasons at ASU were tolerated less than flight delays at Sky Harbor Airport. Through the years, the Sun Devils have hit the eject button on a series of distinguished coaches who mostly won, but just not as often as the boosters wanted. Indeed, more than a few longtime Arizona State football followers believe that the bar for the Sun Devils was set unrealistically high in the ‘60s and ‘70s by legendary HC Frank Kush, during an era in which ASU emerged as a national force while dominating an early-day incarnation of the WAC. And while the Sun Devils have mostly held their own since moving into the Pac-10 (now Pac-12) in 1978, and a generation has passed since Kush’s glory days, they’re still dreaming big in Tempe.

Which is why the 2011 season will be a crossroads for ASU and veteran HC Dennis Erickson, who could be in the last roundup of a decorated coaching career if the Sun Devils don’t make a move back above .500 and into the bowl mix (preferably the upper end of the bowl mix) this fall.

To that end, ASU has pulled out all of the stops, even borrowing a page from the Oregon Ducks and changing the look of the team (in a sartorial sense, we mean). The old Disney-created “Sparky the Sun Devil” logo has been demoted to second string in favor of a new pitchfork design that will appear on ASU’s helmets and most of its new merchandising. The uniforms have changed, too, introducing an all-black change strip (helmet included) to the traditional maroon-and-gold combinations. Hey, if it worked for the Ducks, why can’t it work for the Sun Devils?

Of course, Erickson is finding himself in a pickle not because of the uniforms, but because the program has backslided alarmingly since his first ASU edition took the conference by storm in 2007, staying undefeated into November and triggering BCS talk in the Valley of the Sun. But after that 10-win campaign and Holiday Bowl trip, ASU has failed to crack the .500 barrier or get back to the postseason while more and more fans have come disguised as empty seats to Sun Devil Stadium. Indeed, many regional observers thought Erickson was likely to walk the plank after last season’s exasperating 6-6 mark and another bowl-less campaign, thanks in part to San Jose State buying out of its trip to Tempe at a late date and leaving the Devils no option but to add a second FCS entry, Portland State, to the schedule. Which, in the end, cost ASU a bowl berth because only one of those FCS wins (the other vs. Northern Arizona) counted toward the six wins necessary for postseason eligibility. When adding in four losses by four points or fewer (including especially painful setbacks vs. BCS entries Wisconsin and Stanford, both games the Devils could easily have won), you can see why exasperation was a proper reaction to last season’s developments.

The fact ASU seemed so close to a turnaround campaign, plus the fact 16 starters were returning in 2011, as well as budgetary concerns prompted school president Michael Crow and AD Lisa Love to give Erickson one more chance to put the program back on track. And though Erickson is signed through 2012, no one expects him to be retained again unless the Devils get back into the bowl picture this fall.

Prospects, however, are encouraging, with ASU even a trendy pick to win the newly-created Pac-12 South and perhaps even cause a commotion on the national scene for the first time in four years. But despite all of the experienced manpower, the Sun Devils appear quite fragile at the most important position in which to forge a resurgence.

Specifically, we’re talking about the QB spot, where what figured to be a spirited competition in spring between three gunslingers with starting experience has instead turned into a victory by default by the lone survivor of the football wars. Two of those former starters expected to compete for the starting role, ex-Michigan transfer Steven Threet and the pony-tailed Samson Skakacsy, were forced to retire because of concussion and shoulder problems, respectively, handing the job to 6'8 junior Brock Osweiler, who is now Erickson’s only QB who has taken a snap in a college game. As long as the strong-armed Osweiler stays healthy, the worst-case scenario at QB can be avoided, but it’s worth noting how pass protection issues along the OL too often made Threet a sitting duck last year and contributed to the concussion problems that have ended his career. Osweiler’s feet aren’t in concrete, but he’s not Michael Vick, either, so there is extra urgency in upgrading the pass protection component along an OL that returns all five starters from a year ago.

Osweiler, despite just two career starts, has nonetheless flashed plenty of upside, including the last two games of 2010 when replacing an injured Threet. All Osweiler did was pass for 647 yards and 5 TDs in wins over UCLA and Arizona, confirming the faith shown in him by Erickson, who made Osweiler something of a personal project as soon as he decided to quit his basketball dreams and make football his main emphasis at ASU. The backups are all newcomers, including touted frosh Michael Eubank and Michael Bercovici, one of the stars of spring work after enrolling early. Juco Kipeli Koniseti could be another option if Osweiler goes down.

Moreover, the Devils are now in their second year of o.c. Noel Mazzone’s faster-paced, spread attack that goes into no-huddle mode about 90% of the time. Plenty of options are available for Osweiler at the skill positions, featuring a trio of senior wideouts in Mazzone’s 3-WR looks. Included therein are established king-sized 6'4 targets Gerell Robinson and Mike Willie (the leading returning receiver with 36 catches LY), and a crafty underneath threat, ex-Oregon transfer Aaron Pflugrad, providing plenty of receiving options at a school renown for producing top-quality pass catchers since Kush’s days when the likes of Charley Taylor (better known as a RB in college), Ben Hawkins, Steve Holden, and the incomparable John Jefferson (known as John Washington for part of his ASU career) performed in Tempe. The explosive TB tandem of punishing 223-lb. jr Cameron Mitchell and quick-hitting 193-lb. soph Deantre Lewis combined for over 1300 YR and better than 5 ypc in 2010. So as long as Osweiler stays upright and away from the injury list, expect ASU’s offense to carry its end of the bargain in fall.

In addition, the graduation of sr. PK Thomas Weber is not going to be as much of an issue as Devil fans once feared after he won the Lou Groza Award as a frosh in 2007 when nailing all but one of his 25 FG attempts. Nagging injuries curtailed his effectiveness in subsequent years, however, and RS frosh PK Alex Garoutte, a local product, looked very capable in spring work.

Like the offense, eight starters are also back on defense, an area that has emerged as an unexpected strength for the last two ASU editions. But d.c. Craig Bray has some reason to fret with potential injury concerns in the secondary, namely at the CB spots where all-conference sr. Omar Bolden suffered a serious ACL tear in spring, threatening his availability for the fall. When considering that his partner at the other corner, jr. Deveron Carr, has had his last two seasons cut short by shoulder injuries and missed spring work, depth issues suddenly become more of a concern in the secondary. Meanwhile, thanks in a part to DT Lawrence Guy’s decision to skip his senior year and enter the NFL Draft (where he was a late-round selection by the Packers), Bray is replacing the interior of his DL in the Devils’ 4-3 looks, although playmakers return at the end spots, including hybrid sr. DE/edge rusher Jamaar Jarrett. The strength of the platoon is a robust linebacking corps led by intense jr. MLB Vontaze Burfict, who is generating lots of All-American mention after emerging as the main force of last year’s defense that ranked a very respectable 16th nationally against the rush, permitting foes to gain only 3.2 ypc.

Let’s also see if the Sun Devils continue their noteworthy pointspread form of a year ago when posting an impressive 10-2 mark vs. the number, which came as a bit of a surprise after ASU had covered just 9 of its previous 26 from late in the ‘07 campaign thru 2009.

Summary...If there were ever a year for ASU football to get back on track, this is it, with the new Pac-12 South looking very winnable and a truckload of experience at the Sun Devils’ disposal. And providing QB Osweiler stays healthy, ASU might even have a chance to storm the rankings with its various playmakers and senior-laden platoons on both sides of the ball. But Dennis Erickson is also not going to get any more mulligans in Tempe, so it really is now or never for his regime. Be prepared to hear the Mike Leach-to-ASU rumors begin to surface in the fall if the Sun Devils continue to find ways to lose close games as they did a year ago.

Return To Home Page