The moment college football teams hit the practice field, Arizona State coach Dennis Erickson believes, preseason prognostication becomes pointless.
“One thing about how they rate you — it’s over now,” said Erickson, whose squad begins fall workouts on Monday.
The 2008 crystal balls have been kind to ASU, which placed second (behind Southern California, of course) in the Pac-10 preseason media poll and is 16th in the USA Today (coaches) rankings.
The problem, however, is the Grand Canyon-sized chasm that appears to exist between the Trojans, winners of six straight conference titles, and the rest of the Pac-10. Erickson recognized that by saying, “USC has set a high standard, and that’s the reality of it. … To pick who finishes second would be difficult.”
Each of the conference schools — ASU, Oregon and California — with the best chance of unseating, or at least hanging with, the Trojans have issues.
For the Sun Devils, it is a five-game schedule stretch that is as demanding as any team in the country will face: Georgia, at California, at USC, Oregon and at Oregon State. Those schools combined to win 47 games last season.
Georgia and USC are the top two teams in the USA Today rankings. ASU is the only Division I-A squad that will play both.
“If you lose those big games you have to win, it’s nothing,” quarterback Rudy Carpenter said. “Last year, we had a golden opportunity to beat Oregon when they were one of the top teams in the country. We blew it. Then, we had another golden opportunity to beat USC. We blew it.
“Until we can win those big games against the USCs, Oregons and Georgias of the world, we’re going to be that team that’s almost there.”
The challenges of the season await, but first is four weeks of practices in which starting jobs will be won, playbooks built and questions answered.
“Our league is so competitive,” Erickson said. “That’s why it’s such a great league. Anybody can beat anyone, week-in and week-out. …
“I guess we’ll find out (about our team) starting now."
1. What will be the impact of the indoor practice facility?
The opening of Arizona State’s $8.4 million, 103,000-square-foot “bubble” structure — the first scheduled practice inside it is on Saturday — means that the Sun Devils are trading tradition for convenience. There is no longer a need to escape the Valley’s heat at Camp Tontozona outside Payson, so the team can utilize its own meeting, training and weight rooms. For players, dorm rooms on campus are much more conducive to sleeping than a cabin in the forest. It adds up to what coach Dennis Erickson expects to be a more productive camp.
2. Are the pass-protection problems fixed?
To steal a line from Sammy Hagar, the ASU quarterbacks can't drive 55 - the number of times the Sun Devils were sacked (a school record) in 2007. Erickson believes the culprits were shoddy blocking by the line and backs and quarterback Rudy Carpenter's propensity to hold the ball too long. The Sun Devils believe they remedied part of the problem in the spring by introducing an offense with more multi-receiver packages and quick drops. Erickson's belief that the line is more athletic despite losing three starters will be tested during camp.
3. How will the running backs shake out?
After Ryan Torain’s injury last season, ASU relied on a tandem of Keegan Herring, pictured below, and Dimitri Nance. Herring — who is 10th all time at the school in rushing despite being a backup for most of his career — was the first- and second-down breakaway threat, Nance a short-yardage, between-the-tackles specialist. ASU’s coaches, however, do not want as much specialization this year, as most of the snaps will go to the more complete back. Herring and Nance have competition: Shaun DeWitty, a third-down back in 2005 who redshirted last year, has perhaps the best combination of size and speed on the unit, and heralded freshman Ryan Bass could make camp noise.
4. Is one ball enough for all the receivers?
Few teams in the Pac-10 boast a show of hands better than ASU, and Erickson will sort them out in the preseason. Michael Jones and Chris McGaha are set at the outside receiver spots, but Kerry Taylor - who had a terrific spring - could unseat Kyle Williams as the primary slot receiver. Both Taylor and Williams will be on the field a lot, however, in the four- and five-receiver sets ASU plans to use. Athletic Gerell Robinson should play as a true freshman, and T.J. Simpson is looking to emerge after a redshirt season. Nate Kimbrough and Brandon Smith are also in the mix.
5. Who wants to be a starting tight end?
Projected starter Dane Guthrie was an academic casualty during the summer, leaving the tight end competition wide open. Returnees Andrew Pettes, Jovon Williams and Dan Knapp and junior-college transfer Stanley Malamala lead the pursuit. The most intriguing candidate is Knapp, a redshirt freshman whom ASU’s coaches believe could wind up as the best player in the 2007 recruiting class.
6. Can ASU develop a menacing front four?
Quick! Name the last national champion that did not possess a solid defensive line. That brain teaser exemplifies the importance of being stout at the scrimmage line, and the Sun Devils are halfway to that goal. Ends Dexter Davis, pictured at right, and Luis Vazquez are perhaps the Pac-10’s best duo, and the Sun Devils think that reserves James Brooks and Jamarr Robinson provide depth. At tackle, reliable David Smith fills one starting spot, but ASU desires a monster at the other. Sophomores Jonathan English and Saia Falahola, highly touted freshman Lawrence Guy and junior-college transfer Spencer Gasu have the chance to be that man.
7. Who will answer the call at cornerback?
Erickson said that finding a starting cornerback opposite Omar Bolden, pictured below, is the most pressing personnel issue in camp. Junior-college transfer Terell Carr, who should be ready to go after knee surgery, is atop the depth chart going in, and returnees Grant Crunkleton and Travis Smith will get a chance. It is possible that either Josh Jordan or Deveron Carr could follow Bolden’s 2007 example and make the first string as a true freshman.
8. Who will punt?
The Sun Devils are still searching for someone to relieve Thomas Weber of double kicking duties. The Lou Groza Award winner as the nation's top kicker last season, Weber averaged only 39.3 yards a punt, and Erickson would prefer that role be handled by someone else. Zach Richards, who pressed Weber for the kicking job last August, and at least one walk-on will audition at punter. If nobody punts better than Weber during camp, he will remain on double duty.
9. Which players — old and new — will emerge?
Camp does not lie. Players who have an impressive preseason often are big contributors when things count, as Jamaal Lewis was in 2005, Torain and Travis Goethel in ’06 and Troy Nolan last year. Will middle linebacker Gerald Munns build on a big spring and secure a starting spot? Has Jon Hargis found a home on the offensive line? Are Kimbrough and Smith over injury-related setbacks? Will safety Rodney Cox prove that the potential he displayed late last season was bona fide? Are such freshmen as Bass, Gerell Robinson and Guy real deals? A Sun Devil fan’s mind salivates in anticipation.
10. Will there be academic issues?
Bass and linebacker Brandon Magee have reportedly been green-lighted by the NCAA freshman-eligibility clearinghouse, and ASU feels good about Guy's status. Receiver Kemonte Bateman remains a question mark. The Sun Devils typically have the eligibility of at least one veteran player hinging on summer grades. Although summer school ends on Aug.8 - with final grades due four days later - the Sun Devils could have their academic questions, for current and incoming players, ironed out as soon as today or Monday.