Earlier this week, after practicing at a position other than center for the first time at Arizona State — and for the first time in his life — Garth Gerhart spoke about the experience with reporters.
Suddenly, a spirited voice came from someone not holding a microphone or note pad.
“Excuse me, I have a question. Are you going to block good for me this week?”
Running back Keegan Herring was eager to know.
“Yeah, I’m going to block great, man,” Gerhart said, smiling. “Of course.”
Unfortunately for the Sun Devils, who host Washington State today, it’s not that simple.
Especially for a unit that has been under a microscope since the 2007 season, when ASU surrendered a school-record 55 sacks, and has had personnel challenges that have roots going back years.
“We understand the stress that we’re under, because if we don’t block, the offense doesn’t roll,” left tackle Jon Hargis said.
The sacks-against total has fallen — through nine games, it is 25 — but the red-zone and run-game struggles of the offense have made Sunday film study an exercise in frustration. With three different first-string right tackles and a third starting left guard to debut today, continuity has been at a premium.
“Everything that we do as an offense is based on timing,” coach Dennis Erickson said. “When you’re changing it up here and there (on the line), that is compromised a little. But we’ll be OK.”
The latest change: Gerhart, a redshirt freshman who nearly beat out Thomas Altieri at center in the preseason before suffering a high ankle sprain, will start at left guard today.
“There’s no fear,” Gerhart said of playing a new position. “I just want to get on the field.”
Before last week’s game at Washington, ASU moved Shawn Lauvao to right tackle and put 330-pound true freshman Zach Schlink at left guard.
Although Erickson believes Lauvao’s future is at tackle, the switch broke up the guard spots, where the line has been most consistent.
Paul Fanaika, a senior and former walk-on, is the starting right guard.
“The toughest thing about the decision was getting a guard ready to take his place,” Erickson said. “We knew that Shawn would be fine moving out to tackle. If we can’t find something to work at guard, we might have to move Shawn back there.”
Schlink displayed potential in the Washington game before departing with a right knee injury. Days later, he underwent microfracture surgery that ended his season.
ASU practiced this week with two first-team lines: one with Gerhart at guard, the other with Lauvao at guard and Tom Njunge at right tackle.
“We’ve been trying to establish ourselves and find the chemistry across the board,” Altieri said. “I feel like that we’ve been getting toward that, but with Zach going down, that’s another setback we have to overcome.”
Depth has been hurt by the fact that five linemen signed in 2004 and ’05, who would likely be redshirt seniors or juniors today, are no longer with the program.
The Sun Devils likely do not want to remove the redshirts from freshmen Andrew Sampson, Patrick Jamison and Kyle Johnson, leaving them with nine viable blockers for the rest of the season. The available backups are Njunge, Adam Tello, Mike Marcisz and Brent Good, a walk-on who, with Gerhart at guard, has gotten work at center.
“We’re down to nine,” Hargis said. “You lose one guy, another has to step up. We have to keep fighting through injuries, especially this late in the season. We feel confident in the guys left. There is enough flexibility that depth shouldn’t be an issue for us.”
Despite the turbulence, the offensive line’s play has improved recently. The Sun Devils had a 100-yard rusher against Oregon State and Washington. Last week, ASU was sacked just twice, both in the first quarter.
“It’s all a learning process,” Erickson said. “Guys are getting better. For an offensive line, though, it just doesn’t happen overnight.”