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March 30, 2010

Sun Devils to go on the offensive in spring

Defense supposedly wins championships. Arizona State would respectfully disagree.

Last season, Arizona State led the Pac-10 in total defense but finished next-to-last in the conference standings.

In fact, that was the second season in a row the Sun Devils endured a losing season despite fielding one of the best defenses in the Pac-10. Therefore, the locals are understandably anxious about the offensive prospects.

There are reasons for cautious optimism. Young quarterbacks have gained experience and a transfer with starting experience is eligible. A running back with big-play ability could be ready to break out, and the receiving corps and offensive line could get quick fixes from the junior college ranks.

The spring focus will be developing those players and meshing them into a cohesive unit. If the Sun Devils run into any snags in that quest well, the defense should be good again.

Here's a look at the Sun Devils as they begin spring drills.

ARIZONA STATE AT-A-GLANCE
LB Vontaze Burfict returns for Arizona State.
THE BASICS
Coach: Dennis Erickson
Last season: 4-8 overall, 2-7 in the Pac-10
Spring dates: March 30-April 24
RETURNING STARTERS
(minimum of six starts)
Offense (4): C/G Garth Gerhart, G Jon Hargis, TE Dan Knapp, WR Kerry Taylor.
Defense (4): E James Brooks, LB Vontaze Burfict, T Saia Falahola, T Lawrence Guy.
Special teams (2): P Trevor Hankins, K Thomas Weber.
POSITIONS OF STRENGTH

The Sun Devils fielded one of the top defenses in the country in '09, and it should be good again. Guy heads a list of three returning starters along the line, a group that was a big reason the Sun Devils ranked 19th nationally against the run. The pass rush needs to pick up, though. The Sun Devils again project to be good at linebacker even though Burfict, who made every freshman All-America team, is the only returning starter. Junior Brandon Magee was a backup last season and has NFL ability. Shelly Lyons also has had plenty of experience as a backup and is ready to move into the starting lineup. Burfict, Magee and Lyons were high school teammates at Corona (Calif.) Centennial. Redshirt freshman Anthony Jones also is highly regarded. Senior Gerald Munns, a former starter, was granted a sixth season of eligibility. He'll likely back up Burfict.

HELP IS NEEDED

Giving up 27 sacks isn't cause for bragging, but at Arizona State, it represents progress. The Sun Devils had allowed at least 34 in each of the previous four seasons. Three starting jobs are open up front. Tight end is a position of concern, too. No returnee had more than four catches in '09, and Knapp is coming back from a knee injury that forced him to miss half of last season. There also is uncertainty at safety, where the Sun Devils need two new starters.

THREE GUYS TO WATCH

WR George Bell: He was the nation's No. 3 junior college receiver and already is enrolled. Bell has deep-threat ability and averaged more than 19 yards per catch on 54 receptions last season. The Sun Devils' top two receivers from '09 completed their eligibility, so Bell needs to make an immediate impact.

RB Cameron Marshall: He is coming off a solid freshman season in which he ranked second on the team in rushing and showed breakaway potential with a 75-yard touchdown run against Washington. Marshall only carried 64 times in '09, but he figures to get many more this fall - if he demonstrates this spring that he can handle the load. Arizona State hasn't had a 1,000-yard rusher in three years.

QB Steven Threet: Arizona State's quarterback play was dismal in '09, when the Sun Devils used three starters. Two of those starters return, but Threet has a great shot at winning the job. He transferred from Michigan, where he was the starter in Rich Rodriguez's first season. His drop-back style wasn't conducive to the spread, so he left the Wolverines. Threet, a junior, will be a better fit in coordinator Noel Mazzone's system.

THE PRESSURE IS ON

WR Kerry Taylor: Taylor, a senior, gained some YouTube fame with an amazing behind-the-back catch in spring practice last season. The Sun Devils, however, would rather he make more routine catches. Taylor has 57 career receptions, 22 of them coming last season. With some highly regarded transfers and young receivers on the roster, Taylor has to prove this spring he can be more productive and reliable or risk becoming a forgotten man in the offense.

THE BUZZ

In each of the past two seasons, Arizona State has been hampered by mediocre quarterback and offensive line play. Now that Threet is eligible and Samson Szakacsy and Brock Osweiler have experience, there at least is hope the Sun Devils can make significant improvement at quarterback. Of course, much of that will depend on how effective the line can be. Only two starters return, but three junior college transfers were signed to bolster that area. If progress is made at those positions, the Sun Devils can rebound from back-to-back losing seasons.

Olin Buchanan is the senior college football writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at olin@rivals.com.



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