Each year I make a prediction about the look and feel of the team before Tontozona. I don't look at the schedule. No analysis is done on the level of competition or any other external factors. I merely look down the roster of the team and come up with a number of wins I think the team is likely to produce.
Last year I said the team looked like a 7-win team. I had concerns about the lack of identity among the receivers, the lack of speed among the front 7, and the lack of experience in the secondary. In hindsight, there were many more problems facing the team, but I still felt I had the right notion about the team before the season began.
Before I get to this year, allow me to explain why I do this. I used to read all the magazines before a season, tried to analyze every little factor, every team in every major conference. This led to a good working knowledge of coaches and traditions, but it did little for my ability to predict winners and losers. College football is one of the more unpredictable sports in America. The regular season is a playoff, with one game a week, and it sets up nearly impossible to predict factors that affect a game beyond what we consider measurable dynamics. However, I did begin to see a pattern of winning based on very simple factors:
- Historical success of the head coach
- Returning starters, particularly 4th- and 5th-year seniors
- Relative strength of the units
OK, so it's not as simple as finding the team with the most returning seniors playing for a marginally successful head coach. A 3-8 team returning a lot of senior starters doesn't stand much of a chance of improving dramatically the next season. However, a team with 6 or 7 wins, returning a lot of starters/seniors, and with three or more strong units stands a very good chance of improving their status for the next season. This is especially true when there is senior leadership at QB.
ASU looks like an 8-win team to me this year. Keep in mind, I'm not looking at the schedule, and I'm making the probable assumption they will lose a game they shouldn't lose and win a game they shouldn't win. That's just college football.
Forget this is his first year. Dennis Erickson is one of the most successful active head coaches in college football. He resurrected Idaho, turned around Wazoo, maintained Miami, and built on his predecessor's success at Oregon State. What seems to be most true about Erickson is his allegiance to letting athletes be athletes. His schemes aren't new -- the playbook may not have changed much since he was an assistant for Jim Sweeney (to be fair, Sweeney was well ahead of his time innovating one-back schemes). What he does is try to put as much speed on the field as possible and put that athleticism in a position to make plays. He makes things fairly simple for his linemen. You won't find complex blocking schemes or defensive linemen being asked to hold gaps for linebackers to fill. Just beat the guy in front of you and get up or downfield. This bodes well for ASU and would seem to eliminate the problems of a new coach trying to overcoach a new team.
The returning starters/seniors
ASU will have 16 players (some redundant) with starting experience to fill 22 positions, with 13 seniors returning to the two-deep. The better number here is the latter, because it speaks to the production of the future graduating class, while leaving some question marks about 2008. Four of those seniors made the pre-season all-Pac-10 team, joined by sophomore defensive end Dexter Davis. It's a good sign of forward motion from last year.
General unit strength
The offense is strong across the board, and there are only three real question marks here:
(+ = major strengths, / = adequate, ! = major concerns)
QB (/): Can Rudy Carpenter recapture his accuracy and decision making of 2005? The likely answer is, "Yes," because the offense is no longer a strict downfield passing game. Erickson's offense is catered to Carpenter's style, allowing him to utilize the shotgun to see over the linemen, eliminate problematic drop-back footwork, and put more emphasis on shorter timing routes that lets the receiver do the work rather than the QB trying to deliver passes requiring major-league arm strength and timing. The concern here is the lack of depth and experience. If Carpenter is injured, the team can likely expect to take at least one step backwards in expectations. More if one of the youngsters doesn't grab the No. 2 job early and get some snap work with the first unit early in the practice season.
RB (+): Probably the strongest this position has been since Bruce Snyder's years, and perhaps the most talented since Frank Kush left Darryl Rogers a stack of talent in the early 80s. Torain will probably finish his two-year career among the best ever RBs at the school. Keegan Herring and Dimitri Nance are starter-capable backups with change-of-pace skill in the second and fourth quarters.
WR (!): Stands to be the most improved position, and look out for the youngsters, but someone will have to emerge as an every-down type receiver at the X and Z positions for this unit to solidify. It is potentially every bit an asset as the RB unit, but the Devils will need Mike Jones, Nate Kimbrough, and Chris McGaha to combine for at least 80 catches to open up the field for the talented slot receivers and tight ends. Without that kind of production, the defenses will shorten their safety coverage again and make it difficult to move the ball in larger chunks. The trio collected a meager 51 last year.
OL (+): It would be easy to panic about the lack of a true left tackle with all-conference pass protecting ability. Fact is, the line hasn't been a great pass blocking line since the start of the 2006 season. Since then, injuries have redefined this group. They've suddenly become a massive run-blocking group that opens holes for Torain. It doesn't look to change identities, with Brandon Rodd, Robert Gustavis, Mike Pollack, Paul Fanaika, Richard Tuitu'u, and Shawn Lauvao all showing strong run-blocking abilities. What should change is this line's ability to pick up blitzers with better line calls and technique. The loss of Carnahan to injury was especially difficult and exposed a line strong at guard and weak at tackle. This year positions are more settled and there won't be so much guessing taking place from week to week. A less stated but bigger concern is the mental toughness of the line, which was guilty of numerous false starts at critical junctures last year. Again, experience and position stability allows the assumption of improvement.
DL (!): The Devils appear to not have made any progress from last year. Once again they start the season with a strong half of a line, and two question marks on the other half. This year Dexter Davis and Michael Marquardt look to be strong anchors. It's a good start. Unfortunately injuries and inexperienced left the starters on the other side undecided heading into Tontozona, and it's never a good sign to start a season with questions at this unit. It stands to be a smaller, quicker unit, and if things don't go well to start the season, the staff may find it easier to tinker with 30 alignments with some hybrid looks from quick OLBs than trying to force a 40 front when personnel doesn't match.
LB (/): I actually like the talent here, and there's no shortage of depth. What I'm waiting on is for someone to show star ability at the position -- absolutely necessary to field a good defense in college football. Perhaps the corps will be quicker with Ryan McFoy making a move to OLB, but he will have to earn that position among strong, instinctive players like Travis Goethel and Gerald Munns. Goethel may end up being that star, with a Tillman-like tendency to read angles and make sure tackles. Morris Wooten in the middle gained some kudos during the spring, but nothing is ever certain when a transfer is starting his first year at MLB. Mike Nixon appears to be the utility backer who will move where depth requires him.
DB (/): CB Justin Tryon and S Josh Barrett return to put ASU secondary on solid ground for once in a long time, and the emergence of S Troy Nolan could make this unit one of the strongest in the conference. The question mark remains who will start opposite Tryon, and while decent candidates return, it appears JC transfer Jarrell Holman is lightly penciled in as the starter. The relationship between DL and the secondary is inseparable. They may be the two most integrated units in the game. A great shut-down secondary can create coverage sacks. A great all-around DL can force teams to throw when they don't want to and force QBs to make bad decisions. ASU honestly doesn't have either, though the secondary appears capable of making a strong showing if the defensive line can at least be effective against the run and allow Dexter Davis to avoid double teams in obvious passing situations.
ST (/): Punting looks relatively strong, kicking is a big question mark, but the return game is potentially better than the last year's strong effort. One hopes a return to conventional special teams looks improves the kick and punt coverage teams. Some talent, some question marks, but nothing so glaring to raise concerns going into the season. Freshman kicker Thomas Weber showed very good ability during the spring with the occasional hiccup. You never know how a kicker will perform until they take the field, though.
The team is better positioned to produce this year than last year. There's no controversy, no lingering off-the-field issues, and the players have a pretty good idea who will start where at most positions. Erickson is human and he's not going to turn this team into a BCS contender overnight. The talent just isn't quite there. However, the general schemes aren't changing (one-back offense, 4-3 defense), and if anything everything's been easier to learn for the players than if Koetter and staff had stuck around another year. Whether you believe in leadership or simply the best players giving a team a strong identity, it is a positive sign to see so many productive seniors on the two-deep. The offense won't have to guess who they are and what they want to do -- Torain and the OL will be featured, with Carpenter and the receivers allowed to play pitch and catch without having to do complicated adjustments on the fly. The defense needs starters to self-identify quickly at Tontozona to avoid players moving into positions by default. If players like Saia Falahola, Luis Vasquez, and Jonathan English can produce on the weakside of the defensive line, the entire defense has an opportunity to excel. But those are big ifs, and productivity there remains to be seen.
It's why I'm pegging the 2007 win total at 8.25, with the Devils giving themselves a chance to compete for a Holiday Bowl bid.