April 29, 2008

Spring Grades: Offense

ASU coaches built many new wrinkles into the playbook on offense this spring in an effort to keep defenses more off balance. We saw greater use of screen passes to back and receivers, more so-called "hot route" looks and empty backfield formations. Here is a review of how each offensive position group performed, with a letter grade attributed at all spots.

Quarterback

Rudy Carpenter worked on his mechanics in the off-season and it showed throughout the spring with a quicker delivery of the football. He held the ball higher prior to release, which quickened his ability to get the ball in throwing position. Carpenter played well consistently leading up to the Spring Game, where he had just an average performance. But that doesn't take away from his overall showing, which was very good, especially for a guy who was still struggling with pain in his throwing thumb due to scar tissue.
After spring ball Carpenter had surgery on the thumb to remove the scar tissue. He is expected to be throwing again sometime in June.

Backup Danny Sullivan stood out as well, giving ASU even more confidence in its backup at the position, after Sullivan had a nice showing late in the Holiday Bowl versus Texas. Sullivan also perhaps put even more space between himself and redshirt freshmen Chasen Stangel and Samson Szakacsy, both of whom were just adequate overall in the spring. Stangel had several very good practices, but struggled at times in the scrimmages. Of course, he's at a disadvantage because of less talent around him working with the third unit. Szakacsy isn't fully recovered from surgery on his throwing arm, but he's getting closer. Grade B+ (would be an A if not for the average Spring Game and mediocre showing by the freshmen)

Running Back

All four scholarship players performed very well at various points of the spring, and ultimately, none stood out from the others in the group. It became clear to regular onlookers that this is one of the deepest position groups on the roster with all four capable of playing well when called upon in the coming year, though none being of the caliber of Ryan Torain.

Keegan Herring and Dimitri Nance have each gained about 10 pounds since last season, with Nance now listed at 220 pounds. Herring is still a speed back, best used as a change of pace rusher. He struggles at times running inside the tackles. Nance is nimble more than he is powerful, but his vision and footwork allow him to find holes and make the most out of what is given him inside. He doesn't have great speed on the edge, so he provides something that is in direct contrast to Herring.

Shaun DeWitty is 230-plus pounds and the most physical inside runner; he's also the best blocking back and can catch the ball out of the backfield, which make him the most well-rounded third-down back. He's an awkward runner, and even though he tends to run a tad upright, he doesn't get hit on center as much as you might expect.

Jarrell Woods has a combination of size and speed. He's kind of half Herring and half Nance; more well rounded, but not as good as either in the areas where they excel. Still, because he's versatile with a solid work ethic, and none of the players are true standout elite rushers, he has a chance to see the field and produce.

The jockeying for position on the depth chart will continue into the fall. Grade: B- (solid but no elite performance)

Wide Receiver

Starter Mike Jones missed spring football due to baseball obligations and Nate Kimbrough sat out most of the month due to a hamstring strain. Chris McGaha hurt his toe a week before the Spring Game, but was his usual solid self prior to that. As a result, other players got the chance to show what they were capable of at one of the team's deepest and most talented position groups.

Brandon Smith played well at times, but dropped too many balls in the last two scrimmages. He's a fantastic athletic specimen with great length and speed, the only receiver on the roster who could become a Jones-like homerun threat/red zone target. But he is very inconsistent still, a mark that is beginning to define him.

Kerry Taylor was the star of the spring at wideout, and one of the top overall performers on the roster. He perhaps moved past Kyle Williams as the favorite to start in the slot as Williams did not fare as well as last spring. He was just inconsistent. What is most impressive about Taylor, besides his terrific approach to the position, is the fact he can play all three spots very well. He's perhaps the most versatile receiver on the roster as a result.

Walk-on transfer Tony Simmons, who played for one season at San Diego under then-coach Jim Harbaugh, was one of the top newcomers on the roster. Grade: C+ (high expectations not completely met)

Tight End

Dane Guthrie looked very capable at the position early in the spring, moving back to the position where he started his Sun Devil career after playing defensive end last year. He's more well-rounded then Brent Miller, the player he figures to replace as the starter. A shoulder issue and academics kept him from doing much at the end of spring.

ASU needed other returning tight ends to step up their play, and Andrew Pettes in particular answered the call. He looked better than at any point in his career, but must maintain that progress heading into the spring. Even at his best, he's only a mid-tier Pac-10 player, but rising to his potential is ultimately the best way to judge success.

Lance Evbuomwan has all the physical tools, but lacked toughness and blocking technique. He showed improvement in both areas in the spring but it has to continue and be more consistent. If he can put it all together, he has a chance to be a player.

Jovon Williams is a terrific athlete, who gained at least 15 pounds in recent months. He has a chance to fill the downfield pass catching role held by Tyrice Thompson last season. He's easily the fastest and most athletic of the players in the group. Grade: B (overall, performed above expectations)

Offensive Line

The youngest, most inexperienced and uncertain position group on the roster, ASU's offensive line took its lumps early in the spring, especially when the defensive staff put in their new blitz packages. After those early struggles, the group began to come together and it finished well in the final 4-5 practices.

Projected starting guards Shawn Lauvao and Paul Fanaika were understandably the most steady performers. Both looked pretty well locked into their starting roles. The real question is who will back them up. Look for several of the true freshmen coming in to be in the mix for those roles.

At left tackle, Jon Hargis showed great promise with his athleticism and work ethic after moving to the position from defensive tackle. Tom Njunge is progressing and has great length. Usually he either looks great on a play, or he gets completely beaten. Richard Tuitu'u performed adequately at right tackle, and the backup spot there will also be up for grabs.

The center position remains the most unclear and in doubt, with neither Thomas Altieri nor Garth Gerhart being particularly impressive on the whole, especially when compared to the player they are competing to replace, Mike Pollak. Grade C+ (would be lower if not for the meager expectations)

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