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July 16, 2008
THE SCHEME: Arizona State runs out of a one-back, one-tight end formation, occasionally using an H-back for blocking purposes. The Sun Devils plan to add more short passes and passes to running backs because of deficiencies on the line.
STAR POWER: Rudy Carpenter begins the season as one of college football's grizzled veterans. He is the active national leader with 31 consecutive starts, dating to 2005 when he took over for Sam Keller. He's a fiery competitor who has been through it all – from a quarterback controversy to playing through injury to leading Arizona State in '07 to its best season since 1996.
IMPACT NEWCOMER: Sophomore Jon Hargis isn't a newcomer to Arizona State, but he is a newcomer to the offense. Hargis started two games at defensive tackle last season, recording 20 tackles. But the Sun Devils were so starved for offensive linemen, they moved Hargis to the other side of the ball. Hargis, a 6-foot-4, 310-pounder, ended spring ball as the projected starter at left tackle.
IT'S HIS TIME: Junior Dimitri Nance was forced into the No. 2 running back role after the season-ending injury to Ryan Torain. Nance, a tough, between-the-tackles runner, will be fighting senior Keegan Herring for more carries this season after running for 500 yards and seven touchdowns last season. He's also trying to hold off junior Shaun DeWitty.
STRONGEST AREA: Carpenter can take his pick among a deep group of wide receivers. Chris McGaha (61 catches, 830 yards, one touchdown) is a crisp route-runner who may have the best hands in the conference. At 6-4 and 203 pounds, Michael Jones (46 catches, 769 yards, 10 TDs) is an end-zone target and a deep threat. Kyle Williams worked in the slot, and six of his 26 receptions went for touchdowns last season.
BIGGEST PROBLEM: Only Notre Dame and Syracuse allowed more sacks per game last season, and drastic improvement doesn't seem to be on the way. Both tackles and center Mike Pollak, a second-round NFL draft pick, are gone. Look for junior college transfer Tom Njunge and redshirt freshmen Garth Gerhart, Adam Tello and Matt Hustad to put pressure on some of the veterans. That the left tackle spot will be manned by a player who moved over from the defensive line in the spring has to be somewhat scary to coaches.
OVERVIEW: The Sun Devils are loaded with experience at the skill positions. Among Pac-10 teams, only Arizona and Arizona State return a player who was in the league's top 10 in rushing, passing and receiving. And in a league where quarterback experience is at a premium, Arizona State has one of the most experienced in the country in Carpenter. The Sun Devils have ample depth at running back and wide receiver. If the line improves, Arizona State will have an elite offense.
THE SCHEME: Arizona State ran a vanilla 4-3 defense last season, but promises to mix things up a bit with new blitz packages - including some zone blitzes.
STAR POWER: A Rivals.com second-team freshman All-American last season, Omar Bolden is on his way to becoming one of the best cover corners in the Pac-10. He became a starter five games into his college career and finished with 33 tackles, six pass deflections and an interception return for a touchdown.
IMPACT NEWCOMER: Between Bolden and fourth-round pick Justin Tryon, Arizona State had an impressive duo at cornerback. Joining Bolden this year is junior college transfer Terell Carr. He had elite speed at the junior college level, with seven interceptions.
IT'S HIS TIME: Senior strong safety Rodney Cox, a former walk-on, has spent the past three seasons clawing his way to a major role for the Sun Devils. He has been a special-teams contributor and played a more prominent role when Josh Barrett was injured last season. He had 15 tackles and an interception over the last three games, putting him in the running for the starting spot at strong safety.
STRONGEST AREA: Maybe practicing against the Arizona State offensive line gave the Sun Devils' ends added confidence. Dexter Davis and Luis Vasquez finished with a combined 15 sacks and 25 tackles for losses last season. Both return, and the duo should be one of the best end tandems in the league - and maybe the nation.
BIGGEST PROBLEM: While Arizona State is in good shape at end, the interior of the line needs work. Losing Michael Marquardt was a big hit. Veteran David Smith - who started 13 games last season - is back, but the other spot is unsettled. Former walk-on David Bertrand was a first-teamer at the end of spring. Jonathan English, a 5-11, 304-pounder, played in every game last season as a true freshman and is competing with sophomore Saia Falahola. Arizona State also is looking for junior college transfer Spencer Gasu to make an impact.
OVERVIEW: Arizona State has some strong spots on defense, starting with the ends and half of the secondary. Free safety Troy Nolan had six interceptions and two touchdowns last season. There are solid-but-unspectacular linebackers, headed by junior Travis Goethel. Still, the Sun Devils were exploited by top teams last season (Oregon, USC and Texas), and the same could happen again if some of the rough edges aren't smoothed over this year.
All Thomas Weber did as a redshirt freshman was convert 24 of 25 field-goal attempts and win the Lou Groza Award. He also handled punting duties. Arizona State would like to find someone else to punt, probably redshirt freshman Zach Richards. Williams will be the punt returner after averaging 9.7 yards per return last season. McGaha, Williams and Herring will vie for the vacant kick-return job.
As he has everywhere he has gone, Dennis Erickson has revived a program. The Sun Devils went 10-3 last season, his first in Tempe, and he won his third Pac-10 coach of the year award - each at a different school. Erickson is a combined 41-31-1 in his first season at a school and 38-9 in his second season, including 9-3 at Washington State and 11-1 at Oregon State. He has surrounded himself with familiar faces, with all but two of his assistants serving with him in previous stops. While the Sun Devils enjoyed a turnaround as a whole, coordinator Craig Bray's defense in particular took a step forward in 2007.
Arizona State received an assist last season from a fairly easy schedule. Not so this season. While Arizona State won't play a road game until October, one of those early home games is against Georgia. The road schedule is brutal, with back-to-back games against Cal and USC, then consecutive away games against Oregon State and Washington two weeks later. For good measure, the finale against rival Arizona is in Tucson. Consider this: Between Sept. 20 and Nov. 15, the Sun Devils play one home game.
Arizona State claimed a share of the league title last season, and the staff's work on the recruiting trail drew the ire of Arizona coach Mike Stoops. The two losses of 2007 are tempering the optimism though. Arizona State lost to USC and Texas by a combined 96-58. Arizona State has a chance to redeem itself early this season with a game against Georgia, and a victory would put Arizona State in the national championship picture. The Sun Devils' experience on offense should enable them to finish in the top three or four in the league. If the defense tightens up a bit, a second-place Pac-10 finish is within reach.
David Fox is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.