It is uncertain if Dennis Erickson has taken the following approach when talking to one of his players, but the Arizona State coach certainly could: Son, look me in the eyes. Look down at my fingers and see those two big, shiny national championship rings. Now, look me in the eyes again and listen as I talk to you about football.
Since his arrival as Sun Devil coach in December, Erickson has been many things to many people in the ASU football community. To the administration that hired him, he is a champion, the coach summoned to raise ASU to heights it has rarely ascended to. To fans and boosters, he is charming, the guy who can work a room and generate interest and excitement.
To the young men who play for him, he is, above all else, credible — the kind of stabilizing influence that only someone with his resumé provides.
“I get irritated when things don’t go perfectly, but Coach Erickson is always there, smiling and say that it will be fine and he’s been around this game a long time,” quarterback Rudy Carpenter said. “I believe him. And that makes me sleep better at night.”
With 148 victories in 18 college seasons at five previous schools — and national titles at Miami (Fla.) in 1989 and ’91 — Erickson has memorized the drill on taking over a program. He said that the feeling of ASU’s fall camp compares to his first seasons at such stops as Miami and Oregon State.
His maiden voyage with the Hurricanes culminated with a championship. The first year with Oregon State resulted in the program’s first winning season in three decades, and a year later, the Beavers won the Fiesta Bowl.
“I feel good about this team,” Erickson said. “We have to develop some chemistry offensively and continue to get better. We have a good chance to be a decent team, but …”
Then came one of the truths that Erickson has learned during his nearly five decades in the game.
“You don’t really know where you are at until you start playing games,” Erickson said, a sentence he has spoken several times during camp.
Game time is almost here.
San Jose State — along with old Sun Devil coaching nemesis, Dick Tomey — visits Tempe in the season opener on Saturday. Pac-10 play starts when Oregon State comes to town on Sept. 22.
Early-season lessons will be distributed, and ASU had better learn them before a five-game gauntlet to end the schedule: California, Oregon, UCLA and USC — teams that beat ASU in 2006 — and Arizona, where anything can happen.
Now, look Erickson in the eye as he details the Sun Devil syllabus:
“We want to compete for the Pac-10 championship and go to a good bowl game,” Erickson said. “We want to win more than we lose, be competitive every week, and make people have to play hard to beat us. There will be a learning curve involved in it, but that’s exciting.”
Thomas Weber: The redshirt freshman won a camp battle with Zach Richards to claim ASU’s kicking duties. But Erickson — well aware that in football, kickers win and lose games — has indicated that he will not hesitate to make another change if Weber struggles.
Rudy Carpenter: The quarterback is much more relaxed than last year at this time and is the offense’s unquestioned leader; however, he will be under pressure to be the Carpenter of 2005, not 2006. His performance at ASU will likely be compared with Sam Keller’s at Nebraska.
Omar Bolden: The true freshman cornerback is long on confidence, but much of the hype since his signing with ASU has come from others. It is time to see what he has got. Welcome to pass coverage in the Pac-10, kid.
Dane Guthrie: The converted tight end will have three weeks of college practice experience when he likely starts at defensive end against San Jose State on Saturday. Asked to help rescue a DE unit thinned by injuries, Guthrie has been impressive in practice, but Saturday is a different stage.
Ryan Torain: Have we mentioned that this guy is a stud? The senior has a chance to be part of the Heisman Trophy conversation and finish his career as one of ASU’s most decorated running backs.
Kyle Williams and Kerry Taylor: The young receivers could provide a much-necessary jolt to ASU’s offense. In the slot, Williams creates big matchup problems for a linebacker or safety, and Erickson calls Taylor one of the most polished out-of-high-school wideouts he has ever been around.
Dexter Davis: He came out of nowhere to become one of the best freshmen defensive linemen in the nation a year ago, posting six sacks, 10.5 tackles for loss and three forced fumbles. Now, he wants more.
Linebackers: The engine of the Sun Devil defense. Morris Wooten in the middle, Robert James on the weak side and Travis Goethel on the strong side will be the epicenter of Erickson’s aggressive, fly-around approach. The backups at this position are also strong.
Start thinking Rose Bowl if: Running back Ryan Torain is the man among boys he has been during preseason workouts. Arizona State develops a passing-game synergy that was not present in 2006, which with a productive running game would make the offense a near-unstoppable force. The defense develops speed and pressure off the edge with the defensive ends and outside linebackers. Consistency at the cornerback spot opposite Justin Tryon is found. ASU remains relatively injury-free.
Home for the holidays if: The receiving corps suffers from the same inconsistency and injury problems that haunted the unit last season. Multiple, simultaneous injuries strike any unit other than running back or linebacker. There is not much of a pass rush.
Most likely scenario: The schedule stiffens during the second half of the season. But with eight home games and coach Dennis Erickson’s reputation of hitting the ground running at a new school, eight victories is realistic and would make for a successful year. And for Sun Devil fans, a trip to the Las Vegas Bowl is a fun, inexpensive pre-Christmas vacation.
REMEMBER THESE NAMES
James Brooks: ASU is planning to redshirt the true freshman defensive end, but injury or performance problems could press him into service. He is big (6-foot-4, 271 pounds), athletic and gaining confidence after a strong camp.
Jonathan English: The massive (320 pounds) true freshman could provide valuable depth at defensive tackle.
Gerald Munns: The sophomore middle linebacker is behind Morris Wooten on the depth chart, but he has gained the experience and poise to be an impact defender whenever he steps on the field.
Travis Smith: Heretofore buried on the depth chart at cornerback, the sophomore showed signs of getting it during camp. He could be a contributor on the corner or at nickelback.
Tyrice Thompson: The tight end/wide receiver has not been as noticeable in camp as he was during the spring. But the senior could be an occasional factor on offense, creating matchup problems with his speed and size. He is also a special-teams standout.
Gotta-have-it game: Arizona. It goes without saying that the Territorial Cup contest against Arizona is an annual must win, for obvious reasons. However, ASU’s bowl fate — win, or it’s home for the holidays — has ridden on the game the last two seasons, so it is not farfetched to think that could be the case again.
Upset special (good): California. The Golden Bears play at UCLA, which is expected to contend for the Pac-10 title, the week before visiting Tempe. The Sun Devils will be coming off an idle week.
Upset special (bad): San Jose State. The Spartans will bring an experienced, confident squad into Sun Devil Stadium to start the season, and ASU might have some offensive inconsistencies remaining to be ironed out. Remember, last year’s opener against Division I-AA Northern Arizona was tied after three quarters.
Biggest challenge: Southern California. The Trojans could bring a 10-0 record and No. 1 ranking to Tempe for an ESPN-televised game on Thanksgiving night. The Sun Devils are the only Pac-10 squad to give USC a tough game in both of the last two seasons.
BY THE NUMBERS
100 — Percent of Arizona State’s 2,206 rushing yards in 2006 — by nine players, including punter Jonathan Johnson — that returns this season.
4 — Teams in the nation with a running back unit consisting of a 1,000-yard rusher and 500-yard rusher in 2006: Arkansas, Clemson, ASU and Western Michigan. The Sun Devil pair is Ryan Torain (1,229 yards) and Keegan Herring (549).
1,475 — Combined yardage in receptions by eight ASU wide receivers last year. The leader, Michael Jones, had 318.
1,178 — Average yardage in receptions by Derek Hagan himself from 2003-05.
4 — Current or former Sun Devil quarterbacks expected to start for their teams this season: Rudy Carpenter (ASU), Max Hall (Brigham Young) Sam Keller (Nebraska) and Derek Shaw (Fresno City College).
3-21 — ASU’s record against ranked teams since the start of the 2000 season.
26-15 — Coach Dennis Erickson’s record against ranked teams since the start of the 1987 season.