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August 26, 2009

Hustad in position to earn starting nod

About the only thing the Arizona State offensive line needs now is some crazy carnival music and one less chair.

With the amount of injuries the front line has endured since the beginning of camp, coach Dennis Erickson has been forced to mix and match to find the best available five.

Wednesday brought more bad news on the injury front, as junior tackle Tom Njunge was held out of action due to a torn biceps muscle. Erickson said Njunge, who has been in competition with sophomore Matt Hustad for the starting right tackle position, should return by Tuesday.

"Our offensive front is beaten to hell," Erickson said. "We're down to the nitty gritty. It gets to a point where, yeah, you can make improvements, but if you don't have some guys there it is hard to practice."

But Njunge's injury wasn't Wednesday's only setback. Senior center Thomas Altieri suffered a concussion during practice and was limited. Sophomore Andrew Sampson, usually the team's third center, had to deal with an extra-heavy workload in the absence of sophomore Garth Gerhart who is still trying to recover from turf toe.

"It's a work in progress," Hustad said of the offensive line. "People are really going down right and left right now. We just really got to band together and make it through and try to get as familiar with each other as we can."

Though the injury bug has plagued the offensive line so far this camp, it's been nice enough to stay away from Hustad for a change. Since coming to ASU as a redshirt in 2007, Hustad has spent nearly his entire college career on the sidelines due to injury.

But after two knee surgeries and two years without practicing, 2009 has been much nicer to Hustad. He's been able to get out there and hit some people for once, an opportunity he relishes.

"I'm already past the soreness stage," Hustad said. "That happened at about two weeks [into camp] I was feeling it then. But I'm really catching my second wind pretty fast here in practice. I'm feeling pretty in shape."

On Wednesday, Erickson said Hustad has been the offensive line's most improved player. He also said he would feel comfortable to give the starting nod to Hustad, saying "right now he's the No. 1 right tackle."

It certainly is new territory for the 6-5, 300-pound Montana native. He's gone through camp unscathed and said he feels "100 percent" with the season opener 10 days away.

"It's something new," Hustad said of being healthy. "I'm enjoying every minute of it. It's kind of funny, I haven't been practicing the past couple of years. For the most part, even these practices and stuff, I'm enjoying going out there and playing. I can't even imagine what I'm going to feel like when I go out for a game."

Hustad is among a host of sophomores and redshirt freshmen that make up a majority of this season's offensive line unit. Many were forced into action and into unnatural positions last season, but Hustad said the adversity should pay dividends down the road.

"This is a crucial camp for us," Hustad said. "This is going to be the base of the offensive line for the next couple of years. We're just really trying to build the foundation for this year and a couple years down the line too."

Over the next few years, Hustad is sure to hear plenty of yelling from offensive line coach Gregg Smith.

But intense coaches aren't a new thing for Hustad. Between the fifth and eighth grades, Hustad said he was coached by an ex-army veteran who was as tough as they come.


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