August 29, 2008

Season Preview: OL

In the last eight months there has been a hyper-focus on the Arizona State offensive line among the school's fervent fans, after the Sun Devils gave up 55 sacks last season, more than any other team in the nation save Notre Dame.

The general consensus among those fans seems to be this: With a core nucleus of proven offensive skill position players returning, and a defense that figures to be at least as good as last season, the ASU offensive line is the make or break unit on a team trying to earn another double digit win regular season.

But is that perception true? Sort of.

The fact of the matter is that simply blaming last season's sack woes on the offensive line alone is an oversimplification. Protection issues along the line were just glaring symptoms of a much larger issue.

ASU's offensive system wasn't specifically designed to mitigate the weaknesses of the group or take full advantage of other teams' relentless blitz tactics. Additionally, other positions' weaknesses significantly contributed to the problem, especially the inability of the running backs to pick up blitzes effectively and quarterback Rudy Carpenter's tendency to hold onto the football too long in the face of pressure.

Nevertheless, the offensive line's overall performance was sub-par, certainly, and a major contributing factor to the largest weakness on the 2007 team.

What ASU's coaching staff -- an excellent staff to be sure -- has done in the off-season, is to build upon the base offense put in place last season in an effort to make the job of the offensive line easier.

When you look at the individual pieces, it's doubtful the Sun Devils are better than last season. They lost one of the nation's top centers, Mike Pollak, and a multi-year starter at left tackle, Brandon Rodd and replaced them with players that have little to no experience. A redshirt freshman with no game experience is the projected right tackle.

But surprisingly, despite this reduction in experience, the first-string offensive line group is protecting better than last year's team heading into the season opener. Sure, the true test is yet to come, but our guess is ASU will give up significantly fewer sacks this season.

Here is why:

First, they've all been around the team and have a better idea of what is expected of them, and also have greater familiarity with the scheme.

Second, those around them will do better, we believe. Rudy Carpenter will make decisions more quickly and not hold on to the ball as often or as long. The running backs, especially Dimitri Nance, will do a better job in max protection.

Third, the are not being asked to be as perfect. Look for a lot more roll outs and screen passes, as well as hot route looks off blitz pressure. You aren't ever going to give up the same number of sacks off roll outs and shorter quarterback drops as you did when you took a deep drop on every passing play.

Teams won't be able to blitz as consistently, or at least if they do, they'll be more easily punished on short-to-intermediate passing plays. Last season, ASU led the Pac-10 in yards per passing attempt because of the scheme. That isn't likely to be the case this year. It's a trade off the program should be more than willing to make for more consistency in the passing game.

Senior right guard Paul Fanaika has lost 15 pounds and is playing the best football of his career. Junior left guard Shawn Lauvao had a tremendous off-season and is one of the strongest and most athletic players on the team pound-for-pound.

At left tackle, sophomore Jon Hargis has made an excellent transition from defensive tackle. He more than held his own in camp against an excellent right defensive end, Dexter Davis.

The most questionable positions are center and right tackle. At center, junior Thomas Altieri battled redshirt freshman Garth Gerhart and the two were neck-and-neck before Gerhart suffered an ankle sprain last week. Neither player has been particularly consistent to this point in terms of playing at a very high level. Gerhart might have more upside than Altieri, but has less experience and obviously needs to be completely healthy before having a legitimate chance.

At right tackle, Adam Tello is perhaps a bit undersized, but he moves relatively well laterally and has performed adequately at the very least. Backup Matt Hustad is extremely athletic with great potential, but he's out of action for at least the first week with a knee issue.

The team's third tackle right now is junior college transfer Tom Njunge and the true freshman who will play is Zach Schlink at right guard.

Camp Grade: B- Better than expected at the top but beyond that very shaky. If this group can stay injury free, we actually have reasonable confidence it will hold up a little better as a unit than last year's team. The positions to watch are center and right tackle. We would give the group a higher grade if the depth had shown more potential to be at least decent but with four redshirt freshmen and four true freshmen it's just not there yet.

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