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August 5, 2010

Sun Devils spirited in first session

The Arizona State football team knows it will take more than one practice to simmer the boiling frustrations cooked up by back-to-back losing seasons.

But this wasn't a bad start.

From the moment the Sun Devils broke out of calisthenics during their opening practice of fall camp inside their indoor practice facility Wednesday, the echoes of emphatic hooting and hollering reverberated off the walls, sounds of a squad eager to get back on a winning track.

It was a spirited first day, the Sun Devils preparing to embark on a season they and their fans desperately hope will end with a berth in a bowl game for the first time since 2007.

The misery of two straight disappointing seasons has brought the team together as close as its been in several seasons, players said.

"I feel like part of it has to do with losing," said junior cornerback Omar Bolden, who is coming off a stellar spring and appears to have found the same form that made him a freshman All-American in 2007. "We're working that much harder and we're out here putting in the extra time together. We're bonding as a team and we realize that's what it's going to take for us to win."

Added senior wide receiver Kerry Taylor: "We're a big family. When your family gets punched in the mouth year after year, you just have to come together even more. We're doing a good job of building each other up and having that confidence, and I feel like our confidence is going to be real high going into the season."

That's not to say the session went off without a hitch. Missed assignments, dropped passes and overthrown balls were part of the scene, to be expected in what was the first official practice for a number of freshman and junior-college transfers.

Still, coach Dennis Erickson, entering his fourth season at the helm, liked what he saw.

"It always is [spirited] the first day," Erickson said. "[There was] lot of enthusiasm and it was fast-paced, as it had been all spring. We just have to keep that going all the time. You can have your dog days, no question about that, but the biggest thing we've got to do is just get better every day."

The speed of practice picked up where it left off during the spring, with new offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone's fast-paced scheme being quickly adapted to by a number of fresh faces. Freshmen Deantre Lewis (running back) and Kyle Middlebrooks (running back/wide receiver) and junior-college transfer Michael Willie displayed impressive speed and quick grasp of the new system.

Junior quarterback Steven Threet, battling for the starting job with sophomore Brock Osweiler and junior Samson Szakacsy -- who missed spring practice with a lingering arm injury but may have been the sharpest signal-caller Wednesday -- said he was impressed with the new talent.

"I think they did a great job," Threet said. "Obviously it's the first day for them; they weren't here for spring ball. They did a good job of coming in during the summer when they could, and they did a great job for the first day."


Going deep

Despite the loss of its top two receivers from a season ago (Kyle Williams and Chris McGaha), ASU appears to be as loaded at the position as it has at any point during the Erickson era.

In addition to Willie, transfers George Bell (Southwestern Community College) and Aaron Pflugrad (Oregon) appear ready to make an immediate impact on offense, the latter a likely candidate to carve out a spot as the slot receiver in Mazzone's system, one that relies on receivers to make defenders miss in the open field.

Seniors Taylor and Brandon Smith and juniors T.J. Simpson and Gerell Robinson, who was the offensive star of the opening session and its most vocal figure, make up an experienced unit. Redshirt freshman J.J. Holliday had an excellent spring and was on the receiving end of a 50-yard touchdown pass from Threet on Wednesday.

The weapons, should they be able to learn the offensive scheme effectively, appear to be abundant.

"It's ridiculous," Bolden said of the depth of the receiving corps he will be squaring off against in fall camp. "As I was watching them do their drills before practice it looked like they were 15-, 17-deep over there. That's good for us because no one gets tired and they can get quality reps."


Lining up

The name Evan Finkenberg was not one most ASU fans were familiar with before he jumped on the scene with an impressive spring. The 6-foot-6, 290 pound redshirt freshman lined up with the first team at left tackle and Erickson has raved about the progress of the Rancho Santa Margarita, Calif., native.

"I've just been listening to my coaches and my teammates, too, they give good feedback," Finkerburg said.

Now his sights are set are solidifying his role as the team's starting left tackle.

"It's not good to sit on the sideline," Finkerburg said. "It's no fun."

The rest of the starting line on Wednesday included juniors Matt Hustad (left guard), Garth Gerhart (center), Adam Tello (right guard) and transfer Brice Schwab (right tackle).


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