August 31, 2006

Gameday: 10 things for ASU fans to watch tonight

In no particular order, here are the 10 things we'll be most interested in observing tonight when Arizona State takes on Northern Arizona at 7 p.m. on Frank Kush Field at Sun Devil Stadium.

Intensity Level -- If you've been following the team closely in recent years you know that there have been "tune-up" games where the Sun Devils came out flat and were, for the most part, unimpressive. The 2003 home game against Utah State is a good example of that. ASU won 26-16 against a team it was much more talented than. It would be a good sign for the season if the Sun Devils come out against the Jacks tonight and dominated them from the first whistle on.

The emotion of Rudy Carpenter -- Make no mistake about it, even though he's only a sophomore, this is now Carpenter's team. Depending on how one looks at the situation, that means that the pressure is now completely on Carpenter, or completely off of him. What really matters though, is how he is affected by this development. Our guess is he'll approach it with ice water in his veins because that's his natural personality. Playing against a team like NAU that Carpenter should light up should make it easier.

TE/WR play -- We know Terry Richardson is capable of big things as a receiver and not just as a special teams player but we need to see it in a real game. We know that tight end Zach Miller is healthier than he's been in the last couple years, and he's capable of being the most productive tight end in the country, but we need to see him have a big "I'm still here" game. With Jamaal Lewis out of action, this is a nice night to see what Rudy Burgess is going to be able to accomplish early on at the position, and the overall depth will be something we watch closely with guys like Nate Kimbrough and Chris McGaha. At tight end, how is Brent Miller after the scare with his knee? Is the depth here going to be OK?

D-Line presence -- We've said over and over that this group was the weak link last season. The good news is, that's now over and this is a new opportunity to excel on the playing field. The front four has to be more productive and the best way to do that is to set the tone in these early games against inferior talent. With Loren Howard and Tranell Morant out, this is a good opportunity for others like Dexter Davis, Kellen Mills and Wes Evans to show what they're capable of and establish some confidence.

Youth at LB -- We're confident that the MIKE position is in pretty good hands with Beau Manutai and Mike Nixon and we believe there is a lot of untested talent elsewhere but how quickly that will translate into largely mistake-free play is an unknown. This is a big first test for guys like Gerald Munns, Garrett Judah and Travis Goethel. At least two of those players will be critical to the team's success this season and at some point it has to become more about production than about learning.

CB opposite Justin Tryon -- There is no doubt in our minds that Tryon will be among the best ASU corners to ever transfer to the program from the JUCO level. He's got the potential to be an all-league player. We also are very confident that Keno Walter-White has all the physical tools needed to make a major impact opposite Tryon. But Walter-White needs to be more consistent and focused on every individual play. If you have five good plays and one bad play at cornerback, and your bad play is exploited, you've failed. If Walter-White doesn't provide stability, ASU needs someone else -- maybe Chris Baloney -- to step in and be reliable.

Offensive play calling -- ASU has a new offensive coordinator in quarterbacks coach Roy Wittke, a man who comes to the program from run-oriented Arkansas. Then there is the addition of running backs coach John Wrenn and the tremendous depth and talent the Sun Devils have in the backfield. Adding it all up, it could lead to increased emphasis on the run game, especially in a game like this where ASU could have a big advantage early. This will be watched closely throughout the season, but it'll be a nice first glimpse tonight. We know Dirk Koetter is still the primary play-caller and that won't change but a slight philosophical move is possible, as the Sun Devils have increasingly trended toward more of a run game in the last year.

Running Back depth -- This has to be the most talented group of players at the position in the last 10 years. The ability of Keegan Herring to be a big-play threat and huge impact is known. And he's a more consistent player by all accounts. The Sun Devils added a very good JUCO player at the position, Ryan Torain. He's a bigger-bodied back who is a great third-down option and he balances Herring out well. Additionally, there is an improved Shaun Dewitty, a capable Preston Jones and freshman standout Dimitri Nance. It will be fun and interesting following the play of this group from the opening snap.

Key Depth -- The starters on the offensive line are very good but the depth is extremely young and untested. We'll likely see a lot of these guys in action tonight and it'll be very telling as to how capable they'll be down the road this season if needed. The tight end and wide receiver depth will also be important to watch, as we noted above, and on defense, the play of the backup linebackers and defensive backs will be very critical, if not tonight, some game soon. Who will look good? And who will look not-so-good?

What about Danny Sullivan -- OK, so you're a true freshman, the only other scholarship quarterback on the roster, and you'll probably be brought into the game tonight with a 30-plus point lead if things go as hoped for your squad. How do you handle that? Are you ready to help this team down the road if need be without too much drop-off? We'll probably get a first look at Sullivan and begin to form a more educated opinion tonight.


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