1 Sam or Rudy?
Coach Dirk Koetter restored Sam Keller — who missed the last five games of 2005 with a right (throwing) thumb injury — to the No. 1 spot on the depth chart before spring practice. But there was always a caveat: Being No. 1 in preseason and starting the first game are two different things.
As a result, the Sun Devils will use the 18 practices before the end of Camp Tontozona to evaluate Keller and Rudy Carpenter, who led the nation in passing efficiency last year and was the better QB during the spring.
“Plain and simple, the guy who plays best and gives us the best chance to win will be the starter,” Koetter said.
2 Does it matter who the quarterback is?
The way both Keller and Carpenter played last season would suggest that it does not. And those who have called the signals in Koetter’s offense have said that the system makes the QB, not the other way around.
More important, if the defense continues to be sieve-like, Joe Montana would have a hard time quarterbacking the Sun Devils into contention for the Pac-10 title.
“We only have four starters back on defense, and when you were 113th in the nation in defense, that might be a good thing,” Koetter said.
3 Is the defensive line worth the hype?
The Sun Devils desperately need muscle up front after mustering just 22 sacks last season, lowest in the Pac-10 and two more than Louisville’s Elvis Dumervil had by himself.
ASU has spent a lot of time talking up transfers Tranell Morant (Florida), Michael Marquardt (Brigham Young) and Loren Howard (Northwestern), and now is the time for them to justify the high praise. And Koetter is hopeful that Kyle Caldwell’s body is together after he battled injuries for all of 2005.
If Caldwell, Howard and Morant can form an effective end rotation and Marquardt, who had an excellent spring, takes double teams away from fellow tackle Jordan Hill, the Sun Devil line should be able to get better penetration — and change the dynamic of the entire defense.
4 How will the linebackers help shape the defense?
Dale Robinson and Jamar Williams moved on to the NFL, and the most experienced returnees, Beau Manutai (ankle surgery) and Robert James (family matter), missed most or all of spring practice. As a result, the first string is up for grabs.
“I have no idea who our three starting linebackers are going to be, and I love it,” Koetter said.
ASU signed five linebackers — Jeff Bereuter, Travis Goethel, Garrett Judah, Gerald Munns and Jamarr Robinson — during recruiting. Mike Nixon, a 22-year-old walk-on who formerly played minor league baseball, is also in the mix.
5 Can Keegan Herring hold off a parade of running backs?
Herring was brilliant at times during his freshman season, but it could be said that he has three Keegan Herrings — that is, newcomers with lots of athletic ability — behind him.
Dmitri Nance, who rushed for 2,000 yards as a Texas high school senior, and Rodney Glass, a California state track champion, are hotshot freshmen. Ryan Torain is a highly regarded junior-college transfer, and JC transfers are not brought in to sit on the bench.
Herring has risen to the challenge, Koetter said, working hard during the offseason. His biggest objective is mastering the playbook, as ASU had to take him out of the game on many passing downs last season because he did not have full knowledge of pass patterns and blocking assignments.
6 Who will emerge in the cornerback chase?
Keno Walter-White, who had memorable camp duels with receiver Derek Hagan last year and, when healthy, usually covered the opposing team’s best wideout, is back. He missed last year’s Insight Bowl with a foot injury and is by no means guaranteed a starting spot.
Cornerback will probably be the position with the fiercest, most crowded competition for playing time.
Junior-college transfers Justin Tryon and Chris Baloney are both highly regarded, and redshirt freshmen Grant Crunkleton and Travis Smith had their moments in practice as scout-teamers a year ago.
Chad Green boasts experience but has had problems staying healthy, and Littrele Jones is a former walk-on who has played mostly on special teams.
7 Will the punting unit find some stability?
Punting was an adventure for the Sun Devils at times last season, with four kicks blocked and a demotion that led to a transfer. Chris MacDonald, replaced by kicker Jesse Ainsworth in October, is now at Division I-AA Texas State.
Ainsworth had no blocks but averaged just 35 yards a boot.
Enter JC transfer Jonathan Johnson, who averaged 37.8 yards a punt in 2005.
He has three years to play two, meaning that if Johnson cannot win the punting chores from Ainsworth, he will redshirt this season.
8 How is Terry Richardson’s head?
The talented but often-tardy wide receiver and kick returner has driven his head coach batty at times, as Koetter said during the summer that his status “depends on what day it is.”
Koetter sent Richardson a wake-up call by suspending him for spring practice. The senior, who has spent hours in post-practice disciplinary running, needed to get the message, for two reasons:
A receiving unit in which he is, by far, the most experienced player, will be aided by his presence. Also, Richardson has the body (6-foot-1, 188 pounds) and talent to make a living in the NFL as a fourth or fifth receiver and kick returner, so he’d be wise to afford himself a chance to do that.
9 What will Jamaal Lewis’ role be?
Despite Lewis being big, athletic and owning good hands, the Sun Devils have had a dilemma on where to play him.
He will not unseat Zach Miller at tight end or Brent Miller at H-back, and Lewis has not shown the consistency necessary to be an every-down wide receiver. However, his big-play ability (he averaged 19.6 yards a catch in 2005) dictates that ASU needs to find a position for him.
Lewis worked on the outside this spring, to less-than-glowing reviews. The likely options for Lewis — who Koetter has implored to apply himself more — are filling the slot-receiver role on passing downs or giving the Millers a rest at their respective positions.
10 How much responsibility will Roy Wittke earn?
For the first time in his head coaching career, Koetter does not have the title of offensive coordinator. Wittke, who comes to ASU after serving as an assistant at Arkansas, now has that distinction.
But how much of the job Wittke has is to be determined. Former QBs coach Mark Helfrich gradually assumed most of the play-calling before becoming offensive coordinator at Colorado, and Koetter has said that some of Wittke’s game day responsibilities will be determined at camp.
“For Roy to come in here — and yes, he’s the offensive coordinator — he needs to have a picture of how everything works and keep everything going,” Koetter said. “There’s been a learning curve for him, but I’ve been impressed with with how Roy is a quick study, how hard he works.”