August 13, 2006

Fans flock to impressive Tontozona scrimmage

In front of a large crowd reminiscent of the camp-ending Tontozona scrimmages that were the norm until Arizona State shortened its scheduled annual jaunt "up the hill" to the tall pines east of Payson, the Sun Devils unveiled to many in attendance for the first time a defense that figures to be much improved from last season, and a wealth of offensive talent at the critical skill positions.

The quarterback competition between Sam Keller and Rudy Carpenter was understandably the primary topic of discussion of the estimated 800-900 fans in attendance and everyone had an opinion about which player was the better fit for this team this season, and which signal-caller played better on Saturday.

While we suppose it is debatable as to which player outperformed the other -- Keller was credited with 11-of-17 for 93 yards with one interception; Carpenter went 15-of-23 with one touchdown -- our opinion is that Carpenter had slightly better day but neither player performed particularly well relative to what they're capable of.

Keller appeared to be pressing a bit and also forcing throws into tight spots, especially with intermediate routes and they were too high-risk for the potential reward. He also failed to pick up a linebacker in coverage underneath at least twice and was picked off once on a deep throw into triple coverage.

In a continuation of Friday's workouts, Carpenter was more accurate with his throws and he appeared to have increased poise in the pocket and also a better sense of pocket awareness in our opinion. He's less likely to force throws and more likely to tuck it and run.

There is no doubt that Keller has better arm strength than Carpenter and he's more of a prototypical pro-style quarterback but that doesn't automatically mean he's the better fit for what ASU is trying to accomplish. Of course, it doesn't mean he isn't the best fit either and the dilemma becomes quite a problem when you consider that neither player has clearly gotten the better of the other on a consistent basis.

We thought Keller slightly outperformed Carpenter in the Tempe practice sessions, but that Carpenter came back strong in the last few Tontozona outings and so all told it seems to be kind of a wash.

Considering the fact that we think either player is capable of leading the offense too a good season, we were a little more interesting in watching the younger quarterbacks in action with the third team (and beyond).

Both Danny Sullivan and Dax Crum performed reasonably well and much better than former Sun Devil Derek Shaw did by comparison in his Tonotozona scrimmages. We continue to be impressive by Sullivan's overall package of size, above average arm strength, accurate delivery and approach to the position. He appears to be very steady and would be our choice as the third-string guy at this time.

At running back, the depth is as good as it's been in many years. We know what Keegan Herring is capable of, obviously, but what stood out to us on Saturday were some smaller things that may have gone unnoticed even by many of the fans in attendance.

JUCO transfer Ryan Torain demonstrated clearly that he's capable of doing several very important things for the team out of the backfield. He is a third-down back that can catch the ball and make a play in the open field -- which he did for a 10-yard touchdown. He also showed that he's capable of running hard inside in short yardage or goal line situations with a strong body and a nice forward lean. But what impressed us the most was the most subtle thing he did: He picked up the aggressive, capable blitz of Gerald Munns and did so easily and with a great block that allowed a pass to be completed to the vacated area.

In terms of carrying the football, true freshman Dimitri Nance and Shaun Dewitty both accomplished some nice things. Nance had two touchdowns in seven carries and was the leading rusher on the day, though much of that came against a weaker defensive unit than others played against. Dewitty has been running more aggressively in recent days and he's also a capable third-down back. He had six carries for about a four yard-per-carry average.

With the talent ASU has at this position in the form of Herring, Torain and Dewitty, it appears likely that Nance and Rodney Glass will redshirt baring injuries. And that is a pretty good indicator of how good this team is at the position considering in most of the last four or five years, a guy like Nance would get a lot of carries as a true freshman.

At wide receiver, Brandon Smith had two catches for 100-plus yards, most of which came on a 70 yard deep touchdown strike on a go route from Sullivan when the quarterback delivered a perfectly thrown ball that was caught in-stride. But it was others that really stood out at the position, especially the route-running and after-the-catch ability of second-stringer Rudy Burgess, excitability of Nate Kimbrough, who had five catches, and the skills and sure-handedness of Chris McGaha and former walk-on Jeff Gray.

We can now confidently say this group has better depth than they're being credited for in various media reports we've seen. We've been high on McGaha throughout camp and he's going to make plays when given the opportunity, even if it's against the highest level of competition. Gray did a lot of his work against good defensive coverage as well and he could find his way onto the field this year in non-garbage time situations.

While the depth at receiver appears solid, we're still not entirely sold on the job some of the backup tight ends are doing. Dane Guthrie was held out of the scrimmage with a minor injury but we haven't seen much from him or Andrew Pettes or Jovon Williams that would lead us to believe they're capable of making a major impact in the passing game. As blockers, Guthrie and Pettes have peformed adequately but both of these players need to step up in the coming weeks in our opinion.

There was a bright spot at the position in the form of true freshman Lance Evbuoman, who was a very obvious standout playing with primarily walk-ons and scout team guys. Evbuoman had several nice catches and ran well. He's huge with a great body-type, long arms and big hands that are very receptive. We haven't been as impressed with a young tight end since at ASU since seeing Zach Miller in his first camp with the program.

Among the offensive linemen, the first-string tackles had a nice scrimmage, and guard Paul Fanaika has continued to look effective. Center Mike Pollak had a solid outing as well. We were less than thrilled with the job done by Richard Tuitu'u, however, and still need to see more from some of the younger guys on the roster.

In special teams play, we touched on how Jonathan Johnson has looked good recently and that continued to be the case on Saturday. Jesse Ainsworth also had a pretty practice and they both average just north of 40 yards on six attempts apiece.

Kimbrough and McGaha handled the return duties. Kimbrough is very exciting and quite an intense figure out there on special teams. He's incredibly exciting but probably tries to do just a bit too much laterally. McGaha is not quite as shifty and intentionally so. Both did a pretty good job overall.

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