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August 13, 2008
Arizona State still has improvement to make
» MORE: No. 16 Arizona State | Pac-10 Conference preview | ASU backfield leads Pac-10 unit rankings
Preseason camp has a different feel at Arizona State this year.
It's not just because the Sun Devils are skipping their traditional trip to Camp Tontozona, a practice facility where legendary ASU coach Frank Kush first took the team in 1960. Arizona State plans only one trip to the remote practice facility for a scrimmage this preseason.
Rather than spending a week or so at Tontozona, located about 100 miles northeast of campus, coach Dennis Erickson is keeping his team in Tempe at the school's new indoor practice facility. As Arizona State moves into its new practice bubble, the Sun Devils are hoping it helps them become permanent residents among the conference's elite.
The Sun Devils took the first step in 2007. In their first season under Erickson, the Sun Devils went 10-3, marking their first season with double-digit victories since 1996.
By the end of the season, though, Arizona State's flaws had been exposed in its three losses. The Sun Devils' defense allowed an average of 43.7 points in losses to Oregon, USC and Texas. Arizona State also allowed 18 sacks in those three games.
Besides the on-field problems, Arizona State made the critical error of being satisfied with the regular season when it faced Texas in the Holiday Bowl. While Arizona State patted itself on the back, Texas jumped to a 24-point halftime lead on the way to a 52-34 victory.
"I think we went to San Diego just happy to be there," Arizona State quarterback Rudy Carpenter said at the school's media day. "We were on vacation. We went there thinking, 'We finished with 10 wins. We're good, we're great.'
"Those guys were disappointed to be in that game. The expectation level is different, and for us to compete with those teams, we have to set loftier goals like they do."
Indeed, outsiders expect more out of Arizona State this season, too. The Sun Devils were picked to finish second in the Pac-10 behind USC, a team they shared the conference title with last season despite a 44-24 loss to the Trojans on Thanksgiving.
The Sun Devils face a critical five-game stretch from Sept. 20 to Nov. 1, when they face Georgia, California, USC, Oregon and Oregon State. They need to win at least three of the conference games to have a shot at the Pac-10 title. Challenging for that prize last season was a change of pace for a program that went only 66-55 in the previous decade.
Playing in high-pressure games - like a top-five matchup with Oregon and a Thanksgiving night game with the Trojans - was a learning experience for Arizona State, Carpenter said.
"We played in a lot of big games," Carpenter said. "When you win games like that, guys buy into what coaches are trying to do a little more. For a lot of us that have been around, we bought into it faster because (Erickson) has (two national championship) rings on his fingers."
Carpenter once again will be the offensive focal point for Arizona State. He has started 31 consecutive games, enduring ups and downs along the way.
He was the nation's most efficient passer as a redshirt freshman in 2005. Before his sophomore season, then-coach Dirk Koetter named Sam Keller his starting quarterback before backtracking and selecting Carpenter days later.
Carpenter struggled as a sophomore, and Koetter was fired after the season. As a junior, Carpenter passed for 3,202 yards and 25 touchdowns.
Though Carpenter catches some criticism for his emotional on-field demeanor, few quarterbacks are as dedicated, Erickson said.
"He's grown up in all aspects," he said. "He's a gym rat. He spends all kinds of time in the film room. He knows football as well as any quarterback I've ever had. All the other things like technique and getting (the ball) off, he's getting better at that."
If Arizona State is to be competitive in the Pac-10, the Sun Devils must find a way to keep Carpenter upright. Carpenter was sacked an average for 4.23 times per game last season, including eight against USC.
The problem wasn't just the line's fault. Erickson said backs also missed blocks and Carpenter held onto the ball too long. This season, with both starting tackles and standout center Mike Pollak gone, Arizona State will try anything it can to keep opponents from getting to Carpenter. The adjustments will include more I-formations, shorter passing routes and four-receiver sets.
"A lot of sacks we had last year (were) on play-action pass," Erickson said. "We didn't protect well up front, we didn't protect well behind him, we didn't get it off as quick as we should have. To us, it's a temporary problem we hope will be solved."
An additional reason for optimism is Erickson's track record of producing in his second seasons. Including one-year stints at Wyoming and Idaho, Erickson is 40-32-1 in his first year at a program. In year two, he's 38-9.
"We know the players, and the players know what we want," Erickson said. "In the first year, everybody's not really sure. Now they know what we demand and what we ask. We have a feeling of the guys that want to do that. The second year becomes that year when everyone buys into what you want to do."
David Fox is a national college football writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.