A year ago this time, Osweiler was locked in a tight battle with fellow quarterback Steven Threet that lasted through the fall. But when Threet announced last month he would cut his career short due to the effects of multiple concussions, Osweiler knew the days of looking over his tall shoulders were over.
“I’m a lot more comfortable,” the 6-foot-8 Osweiler said. “There’s not exactly a quarterback competition, so it takes that weight off you and just allows you to play. It was definitely a good day today.”
Osweiler has the confidence of the coaching staff after throwing four touchdowns during a 55-34 win against UCLA and leading the Sun Devils to a 30-29 win at rival Arizona to end last year.
Osweiler standing tall on the Wildcats’ field and making a pitchfork sign with his hand seconds after winning in Tucson was one of the endearing images for the Sun Devils in 2010. Coach Dennis Erickson also hopes it was a look at the future.
“He’s our leader, and it showed on the field today,” Erickson said. “To do what he did against UCLA was one thing, but to find a way to win that last game gives you an idea of what kind of confidence he has in himself.”
Erickson said it will make a difference that Osweiler can focus on the playbook and not a competition this spring. Already on Tuesday, the coach said he saw his quarterback making good decisions and throwing the ball away at the right time.
Osweiler’s confidence is a reflection of how the entire ASU squad is shaping up in 2011. After starting an alarming amount of underclassmen the last three years, the Sun Devils return 10 starters on offense and nine on defense.
“Last year we were all shaky (in spring ball),” Osweiler said. “We didn’t exactly know the offense. We were trying to go 100 miles per hour. But this year, we can go 100 miles per hour. We know what’s going, so it’s a lot different.”
Last season, the Sun Devils flashed their talent but also flaunted their inexperience. ASU (6-6) lost four games by a combined total of nine points. The Sun Devils also put scares into three teams (Wisconsin, Oregon and Stanford) that went on to compete in BCS games. But ASU lost all three contests by an average of just five points.
Osweiler said having that experience has changed the team’s mindset this season.
“Last year we were thinking about being Pac-10 champions, and we were thinking about winning those big games,” he said. “This year, there is no other option but to win those games. You can see the confidence level in this team is unbelievably different than it was last year.”
Senior wide receiver Mike Willie, who led the Sun Devils with six touchdown catches a year ago, said ASU finally having experience will serve it will during its inaugural season in the Pac-12.
The Sun Devils have been picked by some national media as favorites to win the newly-formed Pac-12 Southern Division, especially with rival USC ineligible to play in the Pac-12 Championship game.
“We all know each other,” Willie said. “We’ve played together. We can communicate better. So it’s going to be way easier for us. Now we’re just worried about doing what we’re capable of doing, and that’s getting to the Pac-12 championship.”
Senior offensive lineman Bryce Schwab, a top junior college signee last season, showed up to spring ball noticeably slimmed down. Erickson said Schwab was about 305 pounds, down from 340 a year ago.
“He moves a lot better, and he has a lot more confidence in himself,” Erickson said. “He’ll be one more guy to compete on that offensive line.”
Junior linebacker Vontaze Burfict, who drew the ire of referees and coaches with a myriad of personal foul penalties in 2010, continued to repair his image Tuesday.
Burfict’s voice may have been the loudest of all players, encouraging and assisting teammates. He then stuck around after practice to sign autographs for some youngsters.
Erickson said the ferocious star linebacker continues to mature.
“He’s been in the weight room all winter and never missed a workout,” Erickson said. “He’s changed. We’ll see what happens, but I’m happy with where we’re at with him.”