December 10, 2008

Season Review: OL

What did you really expect from the Arizona State offensive line this season?

Before the season began there were question marks swirling around this group, and when the season ended last weekend many of those same concerns were still major issues plaguing the Sun Devils.

While the 2008 offensive front didn't allow anywhere near the school-record 55 sacks it gave up in 2007, it still allowed the quarterbacks to get brought down 34 times, ranking it 109th in the country.

Also, the ASU front five only opened enough holes for the running backs to gain a meager 89 yards per game, ranking the Sun Devils 113th in that category nationally.
Cohesiveness was a problem all season.

The coaching staff had trouble finding the right combination of guys throughout the year and as a result, the team used more than five different combinations in games.

Athletically, this group is far from where you would expect a top-tier Pac-10 offensive line to be and there isn't one player, like a Mike Pollak, who can make up for deficiencies elsewhere along the front.

Also, there is virtually no quality depth in the offensive line positions and as a result, two guys, Shawn Lauvao and Garth Gerhart, were forced to switch positions midway through the season.

Lauvao went from left guard to right tackle and Gerhart moved from backup center to left guard.

Both players were at least serviceable at their new spots, but as quarterback Rudy Carpenter said, it is extremely difficult for someone to just switch positions like that and turn out a great performance.

"You don't see (switches) with any other position like, 'Yeah you're a running back, we're going to put you at wide receive next week.' It's the same thing," Carpenter said. "I give all those guys credit because it's so hard to do."

Part of the reason ASU was forced to move players around is because there is not a true tackle on the team with the skill set and experience to start in the Pac-10.

Jon Hargis, who started all 12 games at left tackle, was a defensive tackle last season who made the switch to offense last spring.

Hargis admitted the transition from defense to offense was not easy, but he seemed to get more comfortable at the position all season long.

While Hargis did occasionally get blasted by opposing defensive ends, he showed potential and could grow into a very good, but not great, left tackle over his final two seasons in Tempe.

There is also a possibility Hargis could shift to the right tackle spot, or move inside, as there has been talk that Lauvao could get a look at left tackle next spring.

On the other side of line, three different players, Lauvao, Adam Tello and Tom Njunge, made starts at right tackle.

Tello, a redshirt freshman, started the first four games at the position before he lost the job to Njunge.

Njunge started the next three games, but was very inconsistent during that stretch.
Finally, Lauvao moved outside and started at right tackle for the final five games of the season and performed better than his two predecessors, but still not great.

Of the three, Njunge may be the only true tackle, but he was either hit or miss when he played and had too many procedure penalties called against him.

At the center position, Pollak was obviously missed.

Neither starter Thomas Altieri or backup Gerhart have anywhere near the athleticism, skill set, technique or leadership Pollak possessed and it was obvious.

No longer could the Sun Devils rely on their center to make spectacular pulls or much-needed downfield blocks.

When fall camp opened, center was one of the few positions with a seemingly wide-open competition. Altieri won the starting job, but was inconsistent throughout the season and he never appeared to be in top shape physically.

Gerhart ended up playing left guard for the final three and a half games of the regular season and showed a lot of potential, with several strong performances, though he also perhaps underperformed in rivalry game against Arizona.

Lauvao started at left guard for the first seven games of the year and was having a relatively solid season, but then he slid outside to right tackle because of the glaring problems at that position.

When Lauvao moved outside prior to the Oregon State game, true freshman Zach Schlink took over the starting left guard spot. However, Schlink suffered a season-ending knee injury after two quarters of play and Gerhart took over at left tackle.

The other tackle position had much more consistency throughout the season with senior Paul Fanaika starting all 12 games.

Though Fanaika is not the most gifted football player, his size (6-foot-6, 336-pounds) and work ethic made him a serviceable guard. He also provided some much-needed leadership to an inexperienced group of linemen.

Additionally, Schlink's injury wasn't only devastating blow offensive line took in 2008.

Tackle Matt Hustad may be the most athletically gifted offensive lineman on ASU's roster, but just as he was getting into the mix Hustad suffered a season-ending knee injury. At the time of the injury, Hustad was competing with Njunge for the starting right tackle spot. Whether he retains that athleticism after a second significant knee surgery remains to be seen.

On the scout team, freshmen Kyle Johnson and Patrick Jamison redshirted. Johnson, in particular, has promise for the future, with a huge, lean 6-foot-7 frame and quick feet.

Grade: C-, The expectations for this group weren't high and the offensive line was just below average all year long. Nobody seemed to step up and take on a leadership role up front and as a result, there was sometimes a lack of communication and assignments were missed. Athletically, this group is far from dominating Pac-10 defenses and if Erickson wants a strong rushing attack and ball control to continue to be the staple of his offense, he may need to find some junior college recruits who can provide immediate help up front. However, Hargis, Gerhart, Johnson and Hustad (if he can stay healthy) could be a nice young core of talent to build around.

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