July 31, 2008

Camp Preview: QB

In the last 15 years, 10 senior quarterbacks have led their respective teams to a Pac-10 Championship. Four others were juniors. Clearly then, this is a league that is demanding of experience and excellence at the quarterback position.

With that in mind, Arizona State fans should be glad they have Rudy Carpenter as the triggerman of the program's offense.

The fifth-year Sun Devil leads all active players in the league with 7,998 passing yards, 586 completions, 65 touchdown completions, and nine 300-yard passing games.

With 65 career touchdown passes, Carpenter is tied with legendary Sun Devil Jake Plummer for second place in school history, 20 behind career leader Andrew Walter, who finished with 85.

Carpenter's 31 consecutive starts is second most in the nation among returning quarterbacks, and the most at Arizona State since Plummer started 40 in a row through the 1997 Rose Bowl game.

Last season, Carpenter threw for 3,389 yards and 27 touchdowns with 12 interceptions, guiding ASU to its first 10-win regular season since 1986, and a share of the Pac-10 title.

When Dennis Erickson was hired in December of 2006, he publicly said Carpenter was capable of leading the Sun Devils to a BCS Bowl game, and it nearly happened in their first-season working together.

After being a semi-finalist for the 2007 Davey O'Brien Award, given annually to the nation's top quarterback, Carpenter seems poised to be among the very best players at the position nationally in the year ahead. He has an impressive collection of receiving targets to throw to and a year of experience with the new offensive system.

If he can stay healthy and have the type of 2008 season he is expected to, Carpenter will likely finish as the school's career leader in numerous passing categories. There was a time when that seemed almost an inevitability, as Carpenter had a dream-like start to his college career.

As a redshirt freshman in 2005, the Westlake Village, Calif. native replaced an injured Sam Keller and promptly led the nation in passing efficiency with a 68.4 percent completion rate, connecting on 156-of-228 throws for 2,273 yards and 17 touchdowns with just two interceptions.

Carpenter won the starting nod the following season after a hotly contested fall camp, and Keller transferred to Nebraska. It set up what many observers expected to be an encore performance in 2006.

Instead came a sophomore slump.

It certainly wasn't entirely a product of his own flaws or faults, as Carpenter lost three of his top receiving targets from the previous season and played much of the season with injuries to both hands, but it was a definite step backwards.

Carpenter appeared to struggle with his mechanics and decision making at times and his season totals of 184-of-332 (55.4%) for 2,523 yards with 23 touchdowns and 14 interceptions clearly reflected it.

The Sun Devils had no consistently reliable weapons at the wide receiver position and the anemic passing offense, historically a strength under then coach Dirk Koetter, ultimately contributed to the coach's dismissal.

With a new coaching staff in place and no quarterback controversy to distract his energy and focus, Carpenter appeared very relaxed throughout the spring and into summer camp last season.

No doubt those factors, along with the public vote of confidence given to him by Erickson, helped push Carpenter to the type of successful season he had in 2007, when he was named the team's Most Valuable Offensive Player.

Heading into camp this year, it does not appear as though any of the program's other scholarship quarterbacks will seriously challenge Carpenter for the starting nod, but the senior did have a list of areas he wanted to improve in order to take his game to the next level.

Most prominently, Carpenter has worked on moving around better in the pocket and going through his progressions more quickly, scanning for open receivers beyond his primary target on a given play. Too often, he held the ball longer than was desirable last season, and actually missed open secondary receivers in the process, which contributed to the team's abysmal sacks allowed total.

Additionally, Carpenter has worked on adding weight and strength in the off-season, as well as improving his ball mechanics prior to delivery of the football. He's made an attempt to hold the ball higher and tighter to his body so that he can get it to his release point more quickly.

With an expanded offensive playbook, the Sun Devils will utilize more screen passes to receivers and running backs, and more so-called hot route passes to counteract blitz pressure. How well Carpenter manages these new elements will go a long way in determining how successful the ASU offense will be in 2008.

Behind Carpenter, a cluster of quarterback will be jockeying for position on the depth chart. Junior Danny Sullivan will enter camp as the No. 2 player at the position, after a very solid stint late in the Holiday Bowl game versus Texas.

Sullivan is a prototypical pocket passer, with terrific size and a strong arm. As long as he is making good decisions quickly, he has a chance to become a solid replacement behind Carpenter.

Redshirt freshmen Chasen Stangel and Samson Szakacsy will likely be in the mix as well.

Stangel may have the most pure mechanics of any quarterback on the roster and he also has very good ball velocity. The game finally appeared to begin to slow down to him a bit in the spring, when he had several impressive live situation performances.

Szakacsy is coming off surgery to relieve pressure on a nerve in his elbow which limited him through much of the practice season. In camp last year he played with poise and was extremely mobile and accurate, but it remains to be seen how well he will recover from the surgery. As of late July he said his arm strength had returned to approximately 85 percent.

The Sun Devils have also added a fifth scholarship quarterback to the roster, Denver, Colo., Cherry Creek High School signal caller Jack Elway, son of legendary NFL Hall of Famer John Elway. The younger Elway is expected to redshirt in 2008 and compete to replace Carpenter next season.

What to watch in fall camp:

How improved will the ASU offense be in terms of keeping defenses off-balance due to the added offensive wrinkles built into the playbook?

There could be some jockeying on the depth chart behind Carpenter. Will Sullivan hold off the freshmen?

It will be interesting and important to see how Szakacsy comes back from off-season arm surgery.

The first-team in a program can be particularly difficult for quarterbacks. We'll closely follow how Elway holds up with all he has to learn.

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