August 2, 2008

Camp Preview: OL

Arizona State loses five players who were seniors on last season's team. The perception around the program is, that isn't entirely a bad thing as the group was much maligned due in large part to the high number of sacks it allowed.

The Sun Devils finished the 2007 season 118 out of 119 Football Bowl Subdivision teams with 55 sacks allowed, just three better than Notre Dame, the worst team in the country in the category.

Coach Dennis Erickson consistently maintained throughout the year and into the off-season that the sack woes were the product of a number of breakdowns offensively including a lack of versatility built into the playbook and holding the football too long at quarterback, as well as communication breakdowns and mental lapses.

ASU spent the majority of spring football adding new offensive wrinkles into the playbook designed to allow quarterback Rudy Carpenter more options, and earlier options when reading defensive coverages at the line of scrimmage. The goal is to allow the offensive line a little more margin for error so its players won't be forced to hold their blocks quite as long while waiting for receivers to come open downfield.

How this group shapes up in camp and beyond will go a long way in determining how good ASU's offense will be in 2008, as the skill position talent is as good or better than last season, when the Sun Devils won ten regular season games for the first time in more than two decades.

The biggest loss along the line, indeed perhaps on the entire offense, will likely be that of Mike Pollak, arguably the top center in the college game last season. Others will certainly be missed as well, including Brandon Rodd, who leaves vacant a left tackle position where there is little in the way of proven depth.

The group took its lumps early in the spring, especially when the defensive staff put in the team's new blitz packages. After those early struggles, the unit began to come together and it finished well in the final one-third of the team's practices.

Projected starting guards Shawn Lauvao and Paul Fanaika were understandably the most steady performers after playing extensively last season. Both veterans are pretty well locked into their starting roles.

During summer conditioning work, the 6-3, 305 pound Lauvao asserted himself as a team leader, providing quite a bit of technique help to younger players on the roster, including a talented collection of four incoming freshmen. The Hawaii native is among the strongest Sun Devils on the roster, and he's likely the top pro prospect returning to the team along the line.

No player on the team has come further than Fanaika, a 6-6, 336 pound senior who walked on to the squad in 2004 and has worked his way into good physical shape and become the team's top returning run blocker. He moves very well for a big man and is very capable when he's able to pull and make blocks downfield. He's also one of the team's more intense competitors.

The real question at guard is not who will start, but who will back the starters up. As it stands heading into camp, walk-on Brent Good is the second-team left guard and redshirt freshman Matt Hustad the second-team right guard. Hustad had surgery to repair an injured knee ligament last summer, but he appeared to be completely recovered in July informal workouts.

Zach Schlink and Patrick Jamison, the top two linemen prospects in Arizona coming out of high school, signed with the Sun Devils in February and have spent a great deal of time around the program in the spring and summer months.

Schlink, 6-4, 300 pounds, is an interior lineman, while Jamison, 6-4 290 pounds, can play either guard or right tackle. Either could potentially earn playing time as true freshmen. Aurora, Colo. Product Andrew Sampson, 6-4, 280 pounds, enrolled for summer school in July, and has the look of a player who could compete for early action at guard.

While the starting spots at guard are mostly settled, there is more uncertainty at tackle heading into the fall.
On the left side, Jon Hargis showed great promise with solid athleticism and an intense work ethic in the spring after moving to the position from defensive tackle.

Hargis, a 6-4, 310 pound sophomore, will attempt to hold off Tom Njunge, a lanky 6-5, 280 pound junior college transfer out of Pasadena who was with the program during the spring. Njunge is further along as a pass blocker than versus the run, but he has shown signs of being very capable due to his length and lateral mobility.

Richard Tuitu'u performed adequately at right tackle last season, and the 6-4, 353 pound junior is the most experienced returning linemen on the roster excluding Lauvao and Fanaika. He has nice feet for a big man, but has been an unknown factor at times due to his work ethic.

Redshirt freshman Adam Tello, 6-2, 283 pounds, could compete for a spot either at right tackle, where he is second on the depth chart behind Tuitu'u, or at guard. Fellow redshirt freshman Michael Marcisz will have a shot to earn playing time on the left side. At 6-5, 292 pounds, he is lean with good length, but just needs to become more polished with technique. Incoming freshman Kyle Johnson projects as a left tackle, with a tremendous 6-7, 278 pound frame, and impressive, fluid mobility.

The center position remains the most unclear and in doubt, with neither Thomas Altieri, 6-2, 310 pounds, nor Garth Gerhart, 6-0, 305 pounds, being extremely impressive in the spring, especially when compared to the player they are competing to replace, Pollak.

What to watch in camp:

The new offensive wrinkles put in place in the spring are designed to make the job of the offensive line easier in pass protection. How much of an impact that has will be key to the success of a young group.

Depth is a concern at guard behind Lauvao and Fanaika.

There is a real battle at center between Altieri and Gerhart that will be interesting to follow.

Hargis is making the transition to left tackle, where he has never played, but either he or Njunge needs to step up and be reliable there.

Can any of the freshman step into a playing role?

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