April 7, 2008

Mid-spring report: Offensive evaluation

Here is a comphrensive position-by-position analysis of how we see the Arizona State offense performing through the first two weeks of spring football.

Quarterback

Even with 30-plus starts under his belt, Rudy Carpenter has some new things to adjust to heading into his senior year. This spring, he is working to establish a rapport with the two players competing to replace Mike Pollak at center. He's also trying to master the new offensive wrinkles being added to the team's playlist.

"We were pretty vanilla on offense last year," Carpenter said following Saturday's scrimmage. "You could pretty much tell what we were going to be doing all the time. I think to have more things going on and not be so generic is going to help us out. Just getting guys open easier, keeping the defense honest more which I think allows us to dictate to the defense what we're doing to do instead of them dictate to us what they're going to do."

Frequent practice observers are seeing an increase in the number of four and five wide receiver formations with empty backfield, an increase in the frequency of screen passes as well as in the different types of screens, and even some so-called "hot route" quick-hitting passes designed to counteract blitz schemes that gave the team trouble at times last season.

Carpenter has had a strong spring performance, at least when he's been given time to operate in the pocket by those around him who are charged with protecting him. He was comfortable and confident in Saturday's scrimmage, putting the ball consistently on target and generally doing so quickly.

Backup Danny Sullivan has practiced well throughout the spring. The game certainly appears to have slowed for him and he's showing a lot of poise in a way that transfers over to live situations. Though he had two interceptions in Saturday's scrimmage, and made a couple of throws that shouldn't have been made, he didn't have what we'd consider a poor performance by any stretch.

The third-team spot is held by Chasen Stangel. On Thursday he had perhaps the best practice performance we've seen since he arrived on campus. Stangel has very good pocket mechanics. It's just a matter of making quick and accurate reads at this point. He did that Thursday but had just so-so success on Saturday in the scrimmage. Obviously it's a work in progress, as is to be expected, but it was a very good sign.

Samson Szakacsy is still not practicing with his normal ball velocity as he attempts to return from arm surgery. He said that he continues to make gains but is still perhaps just 80 or 90 percent of full strength. As such, it's difficult to gauge where he's at. Certainly he is the most mobile of the quarterbacks on the roster. He's very elusive with lateral and straight ahead speed and makes plays with his feet on a consistent basis. He had three gains of around 10 yards on Saturday. We probably won't be able to accurate measure where he's at until summer camp, however.

Running Back

Quite simply, this is the closest competition we've seen in years at the running back position at ASU. You could come to practice four straight days and leave each day thinking that a different player had the best day at the position. In fact, that would almost be expected at this point from what we've seen.

Keegan Herring and Dimitri Nance obviously have an advantage because of their proven ability to play at this level over multiple seasons. But frankly, educated observers (read: coaches and/or scouts) without any knowledge of prior performance would probably all have different opinions as to which players are most likely to be successful.

It's difficult to watch Jarrell Woods and Shaun DeWitty practice over a multi-week period and come away thinking they aren't capable of rushing for four-plus yards per carry in the Pac-10.

Woods is less shifty than either Herring or Nance, but he's probably a harder runner than either. Herring is the best second-level thread but he's also probably the least successful in-between the tackles. Nance is an excellent inside-runner, but he does so with more finesse, agility, excellent footwork and vision than with power. He looks a bit faster this year, but still isn't on the level as Herring, or even Woods in that area. DeWitty, at 230 pounds, has something the others don't, which is size. He can be more physical than the others, but still isn't a wrecking ball of a runner, primarily because he is a bit too upright.

All of the players have situational strengths and that's part of the reason all will likely see the field on Saturdays this fall. DeWitty should provide the team with a better third-down back and pass blocker than they had at the position last season. He also may prove to be a short-yardage player. Nance and Woods are more traditional every down backs. Herring is a home-runner hitter; the closer who comes in with the blazing fastball in the ninth inning.

Wide Receiver

We really don't need to spend as much time talking about this position because of how it breaks down in terms of return players and the talent on-hand. Mike Jones is playing baseball and hasn't practiced. Chris McGaha, Kyle Williams and Kerry Taylor have set themselves apart from the other receivers in terms of consistency, which is ultimately what it's all about.

Some would say that Brandon Smith has surprised, because he's looked very good in practice, but it's not a surprise to us. We really thought he was one of the top receivers on the team last spring, when he looked very good on a regular basis even as he would occasionally drop what should have been routine catches. But his package of size and athleticism are as good as anyone on the roster. He just needs to do it.

Nate Kimbrough strained a hamstring the first week and hasn't practiced since. Rodney Glass isn't with the team as he deals with academic issues.

For the fall we would expect Jones, McGaha, Williams and Taylor to be the top four players with possibly Smith or Kimbrough factoring in as well. One thing that should be pointed out is that Gerell Robinson has been to seven of eight practices by our count, the most of any incoming recruit. He's closely observed what is going on and as a result of that and his size -- he will immediately be the biggest receiver on the roster -- has to be the most likely to have a chance to break into the playing rotation.

Tight End

Dane Guthrie is the only guy we've seen at the position that has been somewhat impressive in all the facets of play. He's a much better blocker now than he was prior to playing defensive end last season and probably as a result of that position move and learning from the other side of the ball. He's probably the best downfield receiver also. It doesn't appear there will be much of a drop off, if any, at the position when Guthrie is in the lineup.

Beyond Guthrie, it's very unsettled. Andrew Pettes is quietly having a decent spring, though he's not much of a receiving threat. Dan Knapp is less indoctrinated than most of the freshmen because he didn't practice almost all last year due to elbow surgery. He has a huge frame, has gained 20 pounds and looks the part. He shows flashes of being potentially very good mixed in with a lot of shaky moments. But again, that's to be expected. His potential is very clear.

The most positive sign has been the improvement of Lance Evbuomwan as a blocker. For his size, it took longer than it probably should have but Evbuomwan has come a long way and what that improvement means is that it allows him to have the opportunity to impress coaches with his ability in the passing game. He's always had nice feet and great hands but just couldn't be considered because of the blocking issue. That's beginning to change.

Jovon Williams passes every eyeball test imaginable, especially now that he's gained probably 15-20 pounds. He's listed at 231 on the most recent handout but there is no way he weighs less than 245. He has a chance to fill the Tyrice Thompson role if he can pull it all together. He's the fastest and most athletic of the tight ends away from the line of scrimmage and it's not close.

Offensive Line

Prior to Thursday, it would have been difficult to term this group's performance over the first two weeks as anything other than a poor. Tasked with holding up against all of the new blitz packages in a live speed/hitting segment on Wednesday, the group failed miserably. It looked bad.

Somehow, the group took made great strides by Saturday's scrimmage. While not performing at a level that could be called good, they were at least somewhat decent, which was quite surprising. Other than one play, where Dexter Davis used Jon Hargis like a turnstile, the first and second-team offensive line held up reasonably well. Granted, there wasn't a ton of blitzing and David Smith did not play on the inside and walk-on David Bertrand was getting first-team reps with Saia Falahola, but it was still pretty good.

The most consistent players so far, as would be expected, are returning starters Shawn Lauvao and Paul Fanaika, both of whom have been consistently solid.

At right tackle, Richard Tuitu'u has been just so-so this spring. He has pretty good feet but his upper body agility is not as impressive. We pointed out on more than one occasion last season that he was in better shape physically, but we actually think he would be well served to lose even more weight, maybe another 20-25 pounds, down to the 330-335 pound range. Adam Tello has had his moments there. He's more agile laterally in space than Tuitu'u while still having good strength. He just needs more technical consistency and practice time.

On the left side, Hargis looks to be one of the more promising linemen on the roster. This move, we believe, is a very good one. One he gets his technique down, he'll have a chance to be a pretty consistently above average player at this level. Tom Njunge is long and lean. He's a natural tackle and is also quite promising. If defensive ends don't get the best of him at the immediate start, he is usually very difficult to cleanly beat with his long arms and nice lateral mobility.

The center position is perhaps most uncertain. Thomas Altieri has performed adequately, Garth Gerhart less so. Gerhart has been getting daily lessons from David Smith (at least until Smith's concusion) about playing in the trenches of bigtime Pac-10 football and they haven't always been pretty. Replacing Pollak is a difficult task, certainly. Both of these players have a ways to go. As one example, on plays where the center pulls, it's clear that Altieri struggles to get to the spots where he'll need to be in order to make blocks like the ones Pollak made a habit of. Our guess as of right now is that if there is a clear drop-off at any position on the offense this season, it will probably be center.

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