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April 7, 2011Arizona State coach Dennis Erickson has heard the murmurs.
He has heard the whispers that it's "win or else" when it comes to his job. He also knows some early prognostications have his Sun Devils winning the Pac-12 South.
"Being picked and doing it are two different things," Erickson says. "You always like to be recognized. We have some players. But being picked first or last doesn't make any difference. It's what you do when you have an opportunity. And I think we have an opportunity to compete for that championship."
In some respects, this looks like Erickson's best team in the desert. Arizona State welcomes back seven starters on offense and eight on defense from a team that went 6-6 last season.
It's a good thing this looks like a banner season because Erickson certainly needs one. After a 10-3 debut in 2007 that saw the Sun Devils capture a share of the Pac-10 title and earn a trip to the Holiday Bowl, Erickson has served up three mediocre seasons. From 2008-10, ASU has gone 15-21 overall and 10-17 in the Pac-10, with no bowls. The last time the program missed the postseason in three consecutive seasons was during an eight-year drought from 1988-95.
While this could be a make-or-break season for Erickson in Tempe, he isn't flinching.
"We have some experience coming back," Erickson says. "We will be able to play guys who have played and had some success. That is the biggest thing. We have been playing with a lot of young players the last few years. They have played and learned and [now] they are juniors and seniors."
Arizona State almost broke through last season but was hexed in close games, losing by one to Wisconsin and Oregon and by four to Stanford; each of those opponents went on to a BCS bowl. The loss to the Ducks was especially galling, as the Sun Devils committedseven turnovers.
"Probably more than anything, turnovers hurt us," Erickson says of last season. "In the Oregon game, we turned it over seven times and still had a chance. Stanford, we turned it over a couple times at the end. Same thing at SC. And there were two games we had two extra points blocked that cost us games. The little things that end up being the big things."
As has been the case in recent seasons, the Sun Devils' defense again looks tough. Vontaze Burfict will be one of the nation's top linebackers, but the unit received a big blow with a spring ACL injury to star cornerback Omar Bolden. That leaves the Sun Devils with just three experienced scholarship cornerbacks.
Bolden hopes to be back at some point in 2011 and thinks he can end his career on a high note.
"The sky is the limit for us," said "All we have to do is stay focused, positive and hungry. I don't want to make any predictions or anything like that, but we could be pretty good."
The key to Arizona State getting over the hump is quarterback Brock Osweiler, a 6-foot-8 junior from Montana. Steven Threet started for most of 2010 but had to give up football after suffering four concussions. Osweiler – at one point in high school, a basketball commitment to Gonzaga – started the final two games, closing victories over UCLA and Arizona that offer hope.
"We like the way Brock has progressed," offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone says. "He is maturing and continuing to get a better grasp of the offense. I like his command and improved decision-making."
Mazzone arrived in Tempe before last season and has made an impact. In 2009, Arizona State's offense ranked ninth in the Pac-10 overall (334.4 ypg), eighth in scoring (22.3 ypg), seventh in passing (215.2 ypg) and eighth in rushing (119.3 ypg).
Last season, the Sun Devils ranked third in the Pac-10 in scoring (32.3 ppg), second in passing (286.4 ypg) and fifth overall (425.7 ypg), But the unit still struggled to run, ranking seventh (139.3 ypg). Short-yardage and goal-line situations were especially problematic.
To help, Mazzone has tweaked the attack by installing a hybrid wishbone formation. The scheme features three running backs, including tight end/H-back Trevor Kohl, a former walk-on who excels at mashing people. The scheme can be run from the shotgun or under center, and a quarterback also can use play-action out of the formation, giving it another dimension.
"It has been fun," Erickson says. "Our players like it. It isn't unlike the things I have done in the past, back when I was at Miami and Washington State, when we were spreading them out and nobody else was.
"But it's different now being in the no-huddle and shotgun. The stuff we are doing I really like. It has re-energized me offensively, and [Mazzone] does such a wonderful job that I don't have to run the offense. I can sit back and offer my 10 cents. But we have to make sure we don't get too far ahead of ourselves sometimes, which can be the nature of this offense."
How many wins will it take for Erickson to keep his job? Seven? Eight? Nine? No one is saying. Erickson has the support of athletic director Lisa Love, whose department is about to undergo a rebranding as the school moves into a new era in the Pac-12. And having a surging football program would enhance the makeover.
But Erickson, 64, has to prove he belongs if he wants to be part of the process. He signed an extension in 2008 that runs through 2012, and the Sun Devils' recent recruiting class – which ranked ninth in the league – looks to have suffered because Erickson has so few years left on his deal. Erickson must win to get another extension.
"I feel like we are where I thought we should be four years into it," he says. "Maybe it took a year longer than I hoped. We have guys we recruited to do what we want. I am excited with where we are at and the type of athlete we have. Now it is a matter of doing it on the field.
"As much as I hate to say it, we played well a lot but just lost a lot of close games. We have to find a way to win those."