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August 31, 2011

Arizona State offense has punch behind Osweiler

Brock Osweiler didn't spend any time in a boxing ring or MMA octagon. His wasn't an off-season of training marked by black eyes or busted lips. Jump rope and medicine balls weren't a part of his regular routine. But make no mistake, Osweiler developed a fighter's mentality.

Due in large part to his lankly 6-foot-8 frame, Osweiler struggled with being too elongated mechanically early in his career. Fixing it, second-year offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone said, required him to think like a boxer.

The result?

Arizona State's offense, having taken its share of licks in the Dennis Erickson-era, is finally poised to punch back.

Osweiler's sparring sessions under the watchful eye of Mazzone have brought the Sun Devils to this point: when pressed, the quarterback said Monday the team has the potentially to significantly outpace last season's 32.2 point output.

"His thing is when you are compact you are going get a lot of power," Osweiler said. "Coach (Mazzone) will talk about a punch stance that is essentially like a boxer. You are in a punch stance, you are loaded up. All your weight is on your back foot and [everything] is tight, nothing is out wide. I have just tried to be more compact and get more power from my core and my legs. So far it seams to be working out. But like I said all that credit goes to Coach Mazzone. I would not be where I am today without him."

Mazzone's never going to be confused for Cus D'Amato -- he looks more like a lumberjack masquerading as a coach than a boxing trainer -- but a look at Osweiler's practice numbers this month bear out the benefits of his training regimen.

Osweiler said all of his throws are logged and recorded and he completed more than 70 percent over the last four weeks, when compared with around 50 percent in camp last year. In approximately 300 pass attempts in 11-on-11 settings, Osweiler said he only threw four or five interceptions.

To call it progress would be downplaying it. With the burden of last year's quarterback competition off his shoulders, Osweiler has looked like one of the team's most improved players. If that proves to be the case, the Sun Devils should put together an impressive 2011 season.

"I'll tell you what he's really done a good job with and I'm impressed with is the job he's done in the pocket, sliding around, playing compact and being able to get the ball off," said Mazzone, who is just as quick to point out the true litmus test will come in games, where pressure can pry away good habits -- and confidence -- from quarterbacks like a crowbar.

With a veteran offensive line retuning five capable starters, ample talent at running back led by junior Cameron Marshall, and a core group of experienced senior receivers headlined by seniors Gerell Robinson, Mike Willie and Aaron Pflugrad, it's clear that Osweiler holds the key to a door that separates the Sun Devils from the inaugural Pac-12 South title belt.

"To me, this is the first time that we're going in with a quarterback that we feel can do what we want to get done in our offense," Erickson said. "Nothing against anybody. Rudy (Carpenter) played very well the first couple years we were here. Then we were kind of in a, 'What do we have, where are we going [period].' We had some injuries. Brock hasn't started, but I'm extremely confident in how he's going to execute."

In Osweiler's 12 career games, he's completed just 52 percent of his throws. There have been neon bright signs portending future stardom, a 380 yard, four touchdown performance coming off the bench against UCLA last season as Exhibit A. In the team's very next game, however, Osweiler showed in a double overtime win over rival Arizona, that consistently good play was still elusive. He completed just 22 of 49 attempts in the game.

But Osweiler also showed something else on that memorable night in Tucson, according to his coach. Erickson counted his quarterback's leadership and determination as perhaps the intangibles that got the Sun Devils over the hump.

Now it's time to find out if the Sun Devils have truly crested the hill. They've lost close games in seemingly every way possible over the last two seasons and have performed much better in year-end computer rankings simulators than in the ledger where it actually matters: the win-loss column.

Though nobody around the football program spends much time talking about it, it's generally understood -- particularly this year following the landmark media right deal brokered by Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott that will significantly boost the war chests of all of the league's members -- that coaches must deliver a significant return on investment, or be replaced.

Erickson hasn't taken the Sun Devils to a bowl game in three years and has been allowed by Vice President of Athletics Lisa Love and school President Dr. Michael Crow to build the program to his liking. Now that he's had ample time, there can't be another season that leads to a feeling of underachievement relative to talent. ASU's coach probably wouldn't survive it.

Even with projected senior standouts cornerback Omar Bolden and linebacker Brandon Magee out of action for all or most of the season due to injury, the Sun Devil defense should continue to be a capable unit. It led the Pac-10 last season in rushing defense, a category where it's consistently done well under coordinator Craig Bray, and is a good predictor of overall success.

The Sun Devils are an experienced gap fitting defense with very good speed and the ability to run well to the football, which not only prevents running lanes from opening on the interior, but keeps opponents with perimeter speed from getting loose.

They should get better four man pressure on opposing quarterbacks due to sophomore end Junior Onyeali, a young pass rush prodigy, and tackle William Sutton, whose ability to penetrate from the interior is very rare, especially around Tempe in recent years.

The linebacking corps loses some coverage and blitzing ability with Magee out, but with junior preseason All-American Vontaze Burfict in the middle flanked by seniors Colin Parker, Shelly Lyons and/or Oliver Aaron, as well as talented sophomore Anthony Jones, it remains one of the nation's most talented groups.

In the secondary, junior cornerback Deveron Carr can be a star if he remains healthy and sophomore Osahon Irabor may have been the most consistently good performer in the defensive backfield throughout camp. Sophomore Alden Darby is a gifted third player at the position. Safety ultimately could be the telling point as to whether the defense ends up good or great, with seniors Clint Floyd and Eddie Elder the key figures.

Bray said this week that the secondary has performed a little better in this camp than the last, and though the loss of Magee will be felt, he "expects the defense to play well." Considering his definition of that word has a significantly higher burden than most, it stands to reason he thinks they should be pretty good.

Which brings us back to Osweiler. Quarterbacks are always under an intense spotlight and deservedly so, as it's unquestionably the most important position on the field, especially in a fast-paced, no huddle offense designed to get off as many plays as possible and put the signal caller in a position where he must make a lot of quick, accurate decisions.

ASU hasn't had good play from the position in the last couple years and it's been reflected in the team's record. Everywhere else you look on offense and defenses, there is the capability of being really good, or better. If Osweiler plays up to the potential he showed in camp, the Sun Devils should pack a powerful punch.


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