Ten days and counting…that’s how long anxious Sun Devils fans have to wait for the first fall practice of the 2005 campaign. Following their best season in the last seven years, the Arizona State football team will look to build on its momentum and sustain its success. For that to happen, many questions regarding the team will need to be answered. Devils Digest complied its own top ten issues, in no particular order, that the team and its fans are anxious to see successfully resolve this season.
1. Sam Keller – was the Sun Bowl a preview of things to come? Admit it - not even the most optimistic maroon and gold follower thought that the sophomore, starting his first ever collegiate game, would lead his team to a dramatic Sun Bowl victory over Purdue and capture the game’s MVP in the process. Skeptics may think that Keller’s performance was a flash in the pan, but the signal caller has a plethora of capable weapons at his disposal, and when used properly the ASU offense could be just as explosive as last year.
2. Will uncertainty at running back take its toll? There are many talented players in the ASU backfield. But finding a healthily, capable and proven ball carrier is a whole different matter. The team’s #1 tailback Rudy Burgess is a phenomenal athlete. His durability carrying the ball 20-30+ times a game week after week, is an aspect of his game he has yet to successfully display. Thus the proverbial running back by committee is likely to showcase itself all through 2005. It remains to be seen if injury-recovering and experienced players such as Randy Hill and Cornell Canidate can make a significant contribution, whether former linebacker Antone Saulsberry can provide more than an occasional spark, and if true freshmen Shaun Dewitty and Keegan Herring can have an inaugural season to remember. A stout offensive line can help turn ASU’s running game into a pleasant surprise.
3. Depth behind dynamic duo? The switch to a two-tight end system was a rousing overnight success. All-American freshman sensation Zach Miller drew legitimate comparisons to Todd Heap, and the ever steady Lee Burghgraef continued to prove why he’s probably the most unsung hero on the Sun Devil offense. Nevertheless, it seems that these two rarely, at least to the naked eye, got much of a breather during games. Brent Miller, Jamaal Lewis, and Andrew Pettes can go a long way in helping to establish quality depth at this position. Time will tell if they will succeed in this mission. ..
4. Keeping Burgess busy – how much is too much? It’s terribly tempting to have the most exciting ASU offensive player touch the ball dozens of times each Saturday. However, with the sophomore slated to carry a heavy load at running back, how does that impact his availability as a wide receiver and a return specialist? It’s one heck of a fine balancing act.
5. Are the gaps filled in at defensive line? The pre-season accolades bestowed on Kyle Caldwell, along with the leadership of Jordan Hill, provide a solid foundation for the defense’s front four. The question still remains who will complete that twosome and create a formidable first line of defense. More than likely the answer will come from the JC transfer ranks. Last year’s transfers Quency Darley and Dewayne Hollyfield will be counted on to step up their play. Newcomer Will Kofe, who showed encouraging flashes during his first spring practice, has the potential to be plugged in immediately. Shannon Jones, the only 300-pound player on defense, is a natural candidate for some early playing time at tackle. Out of all the returning players, Mike Talbot stands the best chance to figure seriously in the rotation.
6. Another terrific trio at linebacker? Much like the two-tight system, converting to the 4-3 defensive scheme did wonders for the team. Jamar Williams and Dale Robinson are as good as any of their peers in the Pac-10. The large shoes of departed senior Justin Burks, will be attempted to be filled in by Robert James. The sophomore only became a starter half way through spring practice, but if experience doesn’t dictate level of play, this group can once again greatly aid this side of the ball.
7. Too many new faces at safety? This unit can claim only two returning upperclassmen. One of them still in academic limbo (Emmanuel Franklin) and one eager to erase a disappointing season (Maurice London). Josh Barrett has been hampered by injuries for the last two years, but when healthy he is a true asset. Much like the defensive line, JC transfers, - namely Zach Catanese and Derron Ware, will have a chance to step on the field for quite a few snaps. The former had a nice showing in the spring, while the later brings the most experience of any newcomer, playing two years at Michigan State.
8. Corners cured and ready to go? If the cornerback unit will look vastly different than it did in the spring, rest assured that your eyes aren’t deceiving you. In fact, each and every one the probable top five players in this group has not taken even one snap in the 15-practice session in March and April. R.J. Oliver was granted a six-year of eligibility, while he tries to recover from a season-ending injury that occurred nearly a year ago. Josh Golden and Chad Green were also nursing their ailments in the off-season, but may be in better shape than Oliver going into camp. JC transfers Chris Baloney and Keno Walter-White were both brought in to provide immediate help, but how soon can they complete their transition?
9. Can special teams win a game this season? Generally in the football world, this unit is typically (and unfairly) remembered more often for their mishaps than their heroics. The Devils’ special teams certainly didn’t lose any games for the maroon and gold in 2004, but there will come a time when they will have to utilize one of their few plays to make a game breaking difference. Can they do so in 2005?
10. Is consistency here to stay? The 1996 and 1997 seasons marked the last time ASU had back-to-back winning seasons. Needless to say that bucking the peak and valley trend that has been a staple of this program for so many years, can potentially establish the Sun Devils as a Pac-10 force and a program that is a permanent resident in the upper conference echelon, as well as the nationally top 25 poll.
In the meantime, we’re left to ponder the above inquires and yearn for pleasing replies…