SAN DIEGO - A Holiday Bowl loss against Texas showed Arizona State how long the road is that it must travel to become one of the nation’s elite college football programs.
The 18-point setback Thursday did not deter Dennis Erickson’s belief that he can guide ASU to that destination, a conviction fueled by the 10 wins the team posted in his first season as coach at the school.
“We’ve made a lot of strides with what we’ve done, and one game winning or losing won’t change that,” Erickson said. “What we’ve done and where our program is at and where people believe we can take it is probably the biggest thing we did this year.”
The Sun Devils’ shortcomings were exposed against top-flight teams Oregon, Southern California and Texas, but ASU believes it has built assets to attract recruits that will bridge the talent and athleticism gap including:
• Double-digit wins, the program’s first since the 1996 Rose Bowl campaign.
• It’s status as Pac-10 co-champion.
• Most important, an $8.4 million indoor practice facility. Initial construction is scheduled for April and the facility should be finished in time for the start of the 2008 season.
That is the kind of immediate impact that school officials had in mind when hiring Erickson a year ago.
“There was no shortage of interest (among coaches) in the Arizona State football job,” athletic director Lisa Love said. “But there aren’t many people that could bring Dennis Erickson’s experience with elite programs, the quality of (assistant) coaches around him, and the respect he commands from players.
“This season has shown that he has been a very good fit.”
In an urban legend that has circulated during tailgate parties and on fan message boards, Erickson, in one of his first ASU team meetings, told a player he caught staring at the national championship ring on his finger, “If you want one of these, you need to listen to what we tell you.”
Although the incident never happened, its symbolism is appropriate because the ASU players bought what Erickson was selling.
“Our players really bought into what the coaching staff was trying to do,” quarterback Rudy Carpenter said. “I think that in the past, we didn’t have guys buying into what was happening. A lot of that goes to where Coach Erickson and his staff have been before. That carries a lot of instant credibility. Guys wanted to listen and be coachable and get to that next level.”
That discipleship intensified as ASU won eight straight games to start the season.
“When you start having success and the players start believing what you tell them, then you are over the biggest hurdle,” Erickson said. “That carries over to the younger guys. They’ve seen it work. And that really helps in recruiting, because when kids come on campus, they spend a lot of time talking to players.”
ASU is compiling a 2008 recruiting class — which currently consists of two junior-college transfer signees and 15 commitments — that could wind up rated among the top 25 in the country. Defensive tackle Lawrence Guy of Las Vegas, rated among the top five nationally at his position, is considered the prize catch.
Erickson has said that ASU plans to offer the maximum 25 scholarships. With 64 scholarship players with eligibility remaining, that means there would have to be attrition for the Sun Devils to get down to the NCAA limit of 85.
“We’re so far ahead of where we were a year ago,” Erickson said. “We’re talking to (the level of) athletes we probably haven’t talked to before, and we’ve gotten some commitments that are unbelievable right now.”
Erickson, who while at Miami (Fla.) had perhaps the nation’s most fertile high-school football ground in his backyard, wants to increase ASU’s presence in the big three recruiting hotspots.
Southern California, as always, is vital to the Sun Devils. But Erickson said that his staff is recruiting about 10 players in Texas, and the coach hopes that ASU true freshman linebackers Oliver Aaron and Derrall Anderson are the start of a reliable Florida pipeline.
Aaron and Anderson are part of a group of young players, many of whom spent 2007 on the scout team, who will help shape how the Sun Devils attack opponents, especially on offense, next season.
Offensive linemen Garth Gerhart, Mike Marcisz, Matt Hustad and Adam Tello and tight end Dan Knapp could contribute on offense next season. Rush end James Brooks is another potential contributor on defense.
Fourteen returning starters — seven on both sides of the ball — will serve as the engine when the Sun Devils resume their drive toward elite status.
“We have a chance next season to do great things,” Carpenter said. “It will be a fun offseason because we’ve been together a year, and we have the playbook down. The players and coaches know what we’re capable of, so we can go into the offseason with a plan.
“We know what our identity is as a team, so we know what we need to do to get better.”
ASU offseason checklist
Bolster the blockers: Arizona State gave up 55 sacks this season, which is sobering considering that three offensive-line starters graduate. The pursuit of better pass protection will be led by returning starting guards Paul Fanaika and Shawn Lauvao. Sophomore tackle Richard Tuitu’u, who coach Dennis Erickson said is constantly improving, should get a chance to start full time. Sophomore Thomas Altieri will battle freshman Garth Gerhart for the center duties. Adam Tello, Mike Marcisz and Matt Hustad redshirted this season, and junior-college transfer Tom Njunge arrives in the spring.
Running back roles: How best can ASU replicate what Ryan Torain gave it before his October foot injury? Can Keegan Herring or Dimitri Nance provide both the between-tackles and open-field running? If not, how can the Sun Devils more effectively alternate the two? Where do Jarrell Woods, who finally made his ASU debut (and scored a touchdown) in the Holiday Bowl, and Shaun DeWitty, who has two years of eligibility after redshirting this season, fit in?
Tight end time: Brent Miller, Brady Conrad and Tyrice Thompson depart, creating an opportunity for freshman Dan Knapp, a 6-foot-5, 230-pounder who redshirted this season. The ASU coaches feel he could turn out to be the top player in the ’07 recruiting class. Redshirt freshman Lance Evbuomwan and sophomore Jovon Williams will also make their cases.
More work for the wideouts: Five of ASU’s top seven wide receivers return, and coach Dennis Erickson said that the Sun Devils could line up in more four- and five-WR packages next season, depending on the personnel. Chris McGaha, Michael Jones and Kyle Williams have become a reliable starting trio, and true freshman Kerry Taylor has a season of learning experience. Nate Kimbrough will be more than a year removed from knee surgery, and T.J. Simpson is available after redshirting.
Linebacker quickness: Even though starters on the strong side (Travis Goethel) and middle (Morris Wooten/Mike Nixon) return, speed becomes an even bigger issue with the unit’s most gifted player, Robert James, graduating. In the Holiday Bowl, Texas took advantage of ASU’s linebackers, beating them to the outside and running through arm tackles. Ex-safety Ryan McFoy was supposed to help fill the speed bill when he moved to the position, but he did not play much. Freshmen Jamarr Robinson (who was limited this year due to a knee injury during the spring), Oliver Aaron and Derrall Anderson should get a look.
Fill defensive holes: Freshmen Jonathan English, Saia Falahola and Jon Hargis will likely get first crack at succeeding defensive tackle Michael Marquardt. The other tackle, David Smith, and ends Dexter Davis and Luis Vasquez — who both played well in the Holiday Bowl — all return, so the front four should be a strength. At free safety, Rodney Cox, who started the last two games, and Jeremy Payton will likely compete for the spot vacated by Josh Barrett. Justin Tryon’s departure leaves a huge hole at cornerback, with Travis Smith or Jonathan Clark likely getting the first dibs.
Special-teams stuff: Lou Groza Award winner Thomas Weber will have a new long snapper (possibly freshman Clay Davie) and holder (possibly backup quarterback Danny Sullivan) next season. Weber will also punt, though Zach Richards and likely a recruited walk-on will get a chance. Starting cornerback Omar Bolden has been groomed as a kickoff returner and will probably add that role with the graduation of Rudy Burgess.