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October 20, 2010Garth Gerhart doesn't try to pretend like he wasn't a little anxious when Noel Mazzone pulled his U-Haul truck into town.
The Sultan of Speed was about to be calling the shots on offense, and for the junior center and his teammates on the front line, that meant it was time to get in shape.
"In the offseason, [senior offensive lineman] Jon Hargis was making us run extra," Gerhart said. "We definitely had a lot more conditioning this summer. That was a big thing to get us all in shape for this fast-paced offense."
Gerhart, though, knew the greatest test of the fitness of he and his line mates would come with the beginning of the season, when the Sultan of Speed's protege, junior quarterback Steven Threet, ran the show at game speed.
"If you ever see me at practice, you know I'm on them from the first play of walk-thru to the last play of team [session]," Threet said. "I'm trying to get on them and get them to go quicker. They do a good job of putting up with me and putting up with my voice yelling at them."
The yelling and the running is paying off. The Arizona State offense has improved in every measurable way this season (see: 20th nationally in total offense), an upgrade that wouldn't be possible without the play of a front line that has harbored no shortage of criticism the past few seasons.
"We have improved a lot," Gerhart said. "We've got some young guys who are finally stepping up and hit the weight room hard this summer, and that has paid off a ton. We're more cohesive; we're gelling better."
The stability that has anchored the elevation of the unit comes from the steady, big paws of Gerhart. Now in his first full season as the Sun Devils' starting center -- he started two games at the position in 2009 -- Gerhart has started all six games, a constant in the musical-chair fluidity that has seen five different starting lineups on the front line.
Growing up in a football family, Gerhart played for his father, Todd, at Norco (Calif.) High, where he was rated the No. 7 nation center in the nation by Rivals.com. After struggling through some injuries the past two seasons, Gerhart is beginning to realize some of the potential he was tagged with when he arrived in Tempe.
"Now, as a junior he understands what is going on and really is the key to our offensive front," ASU coach Dennis Erickson said. "He makes all the calls and snaps it very well in the shotgun. The danger of being in the shotgun all the time, is worrying about where the ball is being snapped. He is the most valuable player on our offensive front and maybe our entire offensive football team."
Gerhart is charged with making all the calls for the offensive line, a task he said he is becoming increasingly comfortable with. Watching Mike Pollak and Thomas Altieri captain the line before he him, Gerhart said, provided him quality examples to follow.
"I've been here four years and I know what's going on," Gerhart said. "Having played center and both guard [positions], I know the inside and the outside and it's easy to make calls that way."
Offensive line coach Greg Smith has been impressed with Gerhart's ability to recognize the proper reads to aid a passing game that has made big strides with the new quick-strike scheme operated by Threet.
"The strengths he has are understanding our protections and what we do offensively," Smith said. "The different things we have to get into and his role in that in terms of his mindset. The more he does it the better he is at it and the more confidence he has."
Gerhart is also developing more confidence in his teammates. With a 3-3 record coming of a bye week, the Sun Devils need a win over an equally desperate Cal team to keep up their pursuit of a bowl game.
"We just have to take it like a 1-0 mentality," Gerhart said. "We just want to get out there and get a win and start the second half of the season out right."