1 Will fans be happy now that Arizona State is calling its base defense a 4-3?
Depends on the fan. Some are jumping for joy. The sophisticated ones are waiting to see how it performs.
Since Devil back Matt Fawley has drawn a one-year suspension by the NCAA, the defense has made a dramatic shift from spring ball. Fawley was a safety playing a pseudolinebacker position at Devil.
In his absence, ASU, for now, will line up with a trio of pure linebackers, as is done at schools like Miami, Florida State, Michigan and Ohio State. Junior college transfer Dale Robinson is in the starting lineup at strong inside linebacker, with Jamar Williams, a starter at inside backer, sliding over to Devil.
Robinson will try to become that rare JC transfer — one who starts from the outset without the benefit of spring ball. Having three "real" linebackers on the field will stir the memories of those critics who remember the first year of the 4-2-5. That year either Mason Unck, Eric Fields or Solomon Bates had to be on the bench because only two of them could play. But again, performance is the bottom line.
2 How important is freshman tight end Zach Miller?
Very. The red carpet has been rolled out for him to be the starting lineup at H-back. Coach Dirk Koetter has been putting Miller and former ASU standout Todd Heap in the same sentence. Miller is supposed to be the guy to make the two-tight end formation go. A standout linebacker at Desert Vista High School, Miller has some toughness. He can catch the ball. He spent a lot of time watching spring practice, so he’s eager to go.
3 Is defensive line coach Ted Monachino feeling better these days?
He certainly is. He was trying to make chicken salad out of, well, you know, in spring ball. The arrival of JC transfer tackles Quency Darley and DeWayne Hollyfield gives Monachino guys who at least look the part. Pumped up linebackers can only get you so far. Still, this group is awfully thin. Jimmy Verdon’s move from end to tackle leaves ASU with only two proven ends. Verdon may have to play inside and outside, or ends Ishmael Thrower and Kyle Caldwell will be worn down by midseason.
4 Is the offensive line set?
Not quite yet. There’s still competition at right guard and left tackle. Redshirt freshman Brandon Rodd and Mike Pollack are challenging veterans for starting positions. With veteran Grayling Love being limited because of post-spring shoulder surgery, Stephen Berg gets the opportunity to show he’s starting material. The five best guys will get on the field. And as usual crosstraining will help depth.
5 Who replaces Jason Shivers at free safety?
First, it’s still to be determined if there will even be a free safety. In the spring it was basically left and right. Strong safety, weak safety, free safety, the Devils don’t know yet if they’ll use that terminology. Riccardo Stewart has one safety spot, and it’s dogfight at the other. Emmanuel Franklin, Daniel Varvel and junior-college transfer Maurice London waged a spirited battle in the spring. Redshirt freshman Josh Barrett, who sat out the spring because of an injury, will make it a fourway battle. This position won’t have the same duties it had the past three seasons when things were set up for the free safety to make the most tackles. Whatever the setup, the safeties will need to be more active in pass defense.
6 Is the two-tight end offense something unique?
Here’s something interesting. Every Pac-10 school lists its offense as "multiple" in the Pac-10 media guide. Arizona goes one name better, calling its offense "multiple pro." Whatever that means. Judging from that, everybody in the league is running the same offense! Much of the time, that’s true. Multiple means spread, which in the old days basically meant the one-back offense. For ASU it’ll have multiple receivers, it’s just that one or two of them will be tight ends. Koetter said the offense won’t change that much. The big difference could be an improved running game. Koetter said he erred being fair to the combatants last year, but there’s no doubt what the pecking order is. Andrew Walter will be much more productive if the running game can get to an average of 150 yards per game. With all those tight ends out there, maybe it can.
7 Will the kicking game improve?
Redshirt freshman Chris MacDonald is the new punter and an unknown. He’s got a tough job, needing to be versatile enough to deliver hang time when needed, directional boots when called upon and placement shots inside the 20 and 10 when asked. There are three walk-ons behind him, so the job is his. Sophomore kicker Jesse Ainsworth didn’t provide the longdistance boost last year that was hoped for. He was 2-of-6 on his 40-plus kicks and wasn’t allowed to attempt of field goal of 50 yards. ASU would settle for more consistency in the 40-to-49 yard range. Redshirt freshman Rudy Burgess is expected to upgrade punt returns. Kickoff returners could be new, also. The kicking game is a work in progress.
8 So what’s all this talk about leadership?
There was a feeling that last year’s team lacked a mental toughness to fight through adversity. Time has shown that just because everyone stays around for the summer it doesn’t necessarily equate to a strong sense of unity. Koetter has let the players define leadership, giving them more responsibility for their success. One-fifth of the squad is part of the leadership council. The question is, is it all rhetoric or is it meaningful? At the very least it should mean the Sun Devils won’t be trailing a bad team like Stanford by 25 points as they were last year. But then if it’s all empty words, nothing will change.
9 How’s the schedule?
It’s laid out to win. For a team that has 14 starters returning there should be no excuses for a poor performance in the Texas-El Paso opener. The Miners have a good coach in ex-Washington State boss Mike Price, but it’s an entirely new system for the players. The Miners should be a good team to "practice" against before heading to Northwestern. The Wildcats will be a good physical test as a prelude to an even more physical and talented team, Iowa. This won’t be cute football playing the likes of NAU and Utah State last year. This will be manhood testing time. If the Devils are lacking in that, it’s going to be a long season.
10 What impact will new assistants Brent Myers and Mark Carrier make?
Myers has a more aggressive personality to coach the offensive line. Generally speaking, its rare for an offensive line coach to be as low key as Jeff Grimes was. O-line coaches are supposed to have a little more personality than other assistants. It remains to be seen if this group will be more physical. Carrier is a rookie coaching in the secondary, but he works hard. He’s brought that USC arrogance. Now he’s got to instill USC confidence and performance.