2001 Football Fall Preview
May 9, 2001
TEMPE, Ariz. - Like all coaches heading into the spring, Arizona State head coach Dirk Koetter faced the challenging task of finding the right combinations of players to fill the 22 positions of the field. But what made the task even more of a challenge for the 42-year-old first-year head coach was that his first spring practice was the first time that he had a chance to see any of his players in person on the field.
What Koetter found when he stepped out onto the green grass of Kajikawa Practice Field and rolled up his sleeves to begin his first 15 practices as the Sun Devil mentor had to please him. Instead of a rebuilding project and a bare cupboard stripped of talent, Koetter enters the 2001 season with a squad stacked with tried and true veterans and young but talented student-athletes. With 50 returning letterwinners, including eight starters on offense and eight on defense, an outstanding recruiting class and a wide-open Pac-10 Conference race, the future looks bright for the Sun Devil program in the first year of the Koetter era.
'We said going into spring ball that we had some definite goals we wanted to accomplish, and I think we are headed in the right direction on those goals,' said Koetter who took the helm of the Arizona State program after three successful seasons at Boise State. 'We wanted to find the best 22 players and identify who our playmakers are. We wanted to recommit to team football and the special teams aspect of team football. As far as identifying the players, the picture cleared up at some positions and not so much at others. The other extremely positive thing coming out of spring ball that was that we got a lot of work done without anybody getting seriously injured which would prevent them from being ready in the fall.'
But if putting together the pieces of his personnel puzzle wasn't enough of a challenge, Koetter and his staff also had to teach their players a new system, a whole new way to play that can best be characterized by its multiple looks on both sides of the ball. Acting as his own offensive coordinator, Koetter set about installing the high-flying offense that saw his Boise State teams lead the country in scoring offense and rank among the nation's best in passing. On the defensive side of the ball, defensive coordinator Brent Guy began installing an attacking style of defense that features two linebackers and five defensive backs, while assistant head coach Tom Osborne undertook the task of teaching his special teams system, a doctrine whose importance is reinforced by having each member of the staff participate in coaching.
'We had to install systems, which we did. In that respect, the defense learned their system faster than the offense, which they should. It doesn't have to be that way, but in our system, our defense is based on letting the players play. In our offensive system, while we want to let the players play, there tends to be more thinking involved,' Koetter said. 'I was very impressed with the percentage of guys who bought in and how quickly they bought into what we are doing. You're always nervous when you go into a program about whether your guys are going to come out and work hard every day. Whether it was in winter conditioning, the weight room, our running program or in spring football, we never had that issue. Those guys worked hard, and that will pay dividends for us down the road.'
Another aspect that will pay dividends for the Sun Devils can't be seen on the depth chart or in the statistics, and that is leadership. Koetter has a plethora of players who know what it takes to be successful at this level and can impart that knowledge and experience to the younger players on the squad.
'I think that we have some good, established leaders on our team. I think our leadership will continue to grow into the fall. I think back to other teams I've been on, where you talk to our coaching staff and ask who our leaders are, and nobody says anything. That's not the case here. We have players everyone can identify as leaders like Willie Daniel, Kurt Wallin and Eric Fields on defense, and Scott Peters, Delvon Flowers and Levi Jones on offense. Those are guys who aren't afraid to wear that hat.'
While they got a good start in spring practice, Koetter and his staff and players know they have a long ways to go when they return to campus in the fall. Although the Sun Devils have a number of areas to address and roles to define, Koetter expects his team to be up to the challenge.
'Coming out of spring ball, the main thing from the coaching staff's standpoint is that we made progress every day from Day One to 15. As a coach, as a staff, you are never satisfied by how much progress you make. If we could, we would start over again and have 15 more. I don't mean that negatively. That's what I like about spring ball. It's total teaching, there's no pressure of a game plan. It's just total work on the things you need to do to make your team better. We made a lot of progress, but we still have a lot of work to do.'
Quarterbacks AlphabeticallyChad Christensen 6-2 185 Fr. Scottsdale, Ariz. (Desert Mountain)Matt Cooper 6-5 240 Jr.* Pleasanton, Calif. (Amador Valley)Jeff Krohn 6-2 186 So.* Phoenix, Ariz. (Horizon)Lance Rhodes 5-11 185 Fr. Birmingham, Ala. (Hoover)Andrew Walter 6-5 227 Rs.-Fr.* Grand Junction, Colo. (Grand Junction)
Although the Sun Devils return eight starters on offense, the biggest question heading into the fall comes at the most visible position: quarterback. For Koetter and quarterbacks coach Mark Helfrich, the job of finding a signal-caller to lead the Sun Devils started this spring with a trio of current Sun Devils and will continue into the fall with the addition of a pair of talented freshmen.
Sophomore Jeff Krohn returns to the squad in 2001 after earning the starter role at quarterback last season. Despite missing a pair of games to mononucleosis and being plagued by a variety of injuries, Krohn started 10 games and set the school single-game record for a freshman with 432 yards and five touchdowns vs. Oregon. He also headed up the Pac-10's top-ranked passing offense, throwing for 1,751 yards and 12 touchdowns. Also making a strong case for the starting job is junior Matt Cooper who impressed the coaching staff with a solid performance in the spring. Cooper appeared in five games last season, completing a touchdown pass in the Aloha Bowl. Rounding out the trio of returners who will vie for the starting job at quarterback is freshman Andrew Walter who returns to the squad after redshirting last season. Walter, a tall, strong-armed quarterback, came to ASU as an honorable-mention high school All-American out of Grand Junction, Colo.
Also figuring into the mix at quarterback could be incoming freshmen Chad Christensen and Lance Rhodes. Christensen, a 6-2, 185-pounder, comes to Arizona State as an all-state selection out of Scottsdale's Desert Mountain High School, while Rhodes, a 5-11, 185-pound speedster, was selected as the Alabama Player of the Year at Hoover High School in Birmingham, Ala. Depending on what the coaches decide when he arrives in the fall, Rhodes could also be a candidate for playing time at wide receiver.
'All three of those returning guys at one time or another showed enough that we thought that he could possibly be the guy, but over Days One through 15, nobody set himself apart enough that we wanted to say that this guy is the one that we are going to live and die with in the fall,' Koetter said. 'Matt Cooper was the most consistent of the quarterbacks in the spring, and Jeff Krohn also showed at times why he was the guy who was counted on last year. I can see why they went with Jeff last year. He's a very smart, athletic guy. Coming off the collarbone injury in the Aloha Bowl, he just needs more time in the weight room. Jeff's just going to get better and better. Andrew Walter is everything he was advertised to be from a talent standpoint. Like any guy who is a redshirt freshman, he experienced his growing pains in learning his second offense in less than a year.'
Tailbacks AlphabeticallyDerick Arnold 6-1 206 So. Houston, Texas (Milby)Cornell Canidate 5-9 175 Fr. Phoenix, Ariz. (Alhambra)Delvon Flowers 5-11 196 Sr.* Los Angeles, Calif. (El Camino CC)Hakim Hill 6-0 210 Fr. Iowa City, Iowa (City)Jermaine McKinney 5-11 218 So.* Mission Viejo, Calif. (Capistrano Valley)Tom Pace 5-10 191 Sr. Mesa, Ariz. (Ricks JC)Mike Williams 6-0 193 So. Lakewood, Calif. (Mayfair)
With three players who have started games for the Sun Devils over the last two seasons at tailback, Koetter and running backs coach Tom Nordquist have depth that is enviable by any standard. At the top of the depth chart are Delvon Flowers and Tom Pace, a pair of seniors who enter the fall even in the race for the starting job. Flowers returns after missing all of the last season with a torn ACL in his left knee. A talented playmaker who scored six touchdowns and rushed for 512 yards on 80 carries en route to honorable-mention all-conference honors as a junior, Flowers led the team with an average of 6.4 yards per carry in 1999 and was on the preseason watch list for the Doak Walker Award, which is annually presented to the nation's top running back, before suffering his season-ending knee injury last year.
A walk-on who earned a scholarship midway through the season, Pace led the team in rushing last year, carrying the ball 180 times for 720 yards. Despite joining the team two games into the season, Pace scored six touchdowns on the ground and two through the air, pacing the team with 21.3 yards per catch. Sophomore Mike Williams will also challenge for significant playing time after starting three games last season as a true freshman. He finished second on the team in rushing last year with 514 yards and five touchdowns on 121 carries including a 143-yard performance against Colorado State, the first 100-yard showing by a freshman since 1991.
'I think tailback is probably the deepest position on our offensive team. We have three guys who have started at different times in their careers and proven that they can be successful runners at this level. I think we can win with any of those three,' Koetter said. 'Delvon was not quite 100 percent this spring but close to it. I was very impressed with his work habits. He never turned down a rep in the spring and always wanted more. Even though some days I thought he was favoring that leg, he never came out and took a lot of contact. I think he got his confidence back almost to a fault.
'Tom Pace got off to a great start, and it's easy to tell why he is such a solid player. He can do everything: he can run, he can catch, and he can block. A groin pull limited the second half of spring ball for him, but we saw enough of Tom to know he is going to play a lot of football for us. Mike Williams is another guy who I am very excited about his future. He has gotten stronger and faster and has a great attitude. He can do everything like Tom Pace, he's a good blocker, runner and receiver.'
Adding depth are sophomores Derick Arnold and Jermaine McKinney, while the Sun Devils will also gain the services of a pair of highly touted true freshmen in the fall in Cornell Canidate, a 5-9, 175-pound speedster from Alhambra High School in Phoenix, and Hakim Hill, a 6-0, 210-pound All-American out of City High School in Iowa City, Iowa.
Fullbacks AlphabeticallySteve Hoppe 6-2 203 So.* San Jose, Calif. (Oak Grove)Mike Karney 6-0 261 So. Kent, Wash. (Kentwood)Darrel Turner 6-0 259 Jr.* Bellflower, Calif. (Mayfair)
At fullback, Koetter will turn to sophomore Mike Karney who returns after playing in 11 games last season as a true freshman. A strong, multi-talented player, Karney carried the ball 14 times for 42 yards and caught four passes for 42 yards last season as a back-up to Stephen Trejo. Backing up Karney will be sophomore Steve Hoppe, who moved from linebacker to fullback in the spring, and junior Darrel Turner.
'Mike Karney is what every college team is looking for in a fullback, and they are extremely hard to find,' Koetter said. 'Here's a guy who doesn't mind doing the dirty work. Mike sees himself as a blocker first, is an excellent receiver and has very fine hands. He just goes out there and gives 100 percent every day and is an excellent special teams player.'
Wide Receivers AlphabeticallyRyan Dennard 6-4 218 Sr. Albuquerque, N.M. (Phoenix CC)Skyler Fulton 6-2 199 So. Olympia, Wash. (Capital)Shaun McDonald 5-9 168 So.* Phoenix, Ariz. (Shadow Mountain)Daryl Lightfoot 5-9 170 Fr. Phoenix, Ariz. (Maryvale)Matt Miller 6-2 180 Fr. Mesa, Ariz. (Mountain View)Donnie O'Neal 6-2 181 Sr. Olathe, Kan. (Coffeyville CC)Lance Rhodes 5-11 185 Fr. Birmingham, Ala. (Hoover)Mike Smith 6-2 202 RS-Fr.* Carson, Calif. (Carson)Justin Taplin 6-0 190 Jr.* Tempe, Ariz. (Tempe)
Arizona State will have good depth to contend with at wide receiver, depth that will be put to good use in Koetter's high-flying, multiple-scheme offense. While the Sun Devils lost their top two receivers from a year ago in All-America tight end Todd Heap and wide receiver Richard Williams, senior Donnie O'Neal and sophomore Shaun McDonald look to pick up where they left off last year. O'Neal started all 12 games last season and led the team with seven receiving touchdowns en route to honorable-mention All-Pac-10 honors. He caught 39 passes for 661 yards, while McDonald snared 22 passes for 358 yards and a score. Junior Justin Taplin, who caught 13 passes for 169 yards last season, will figure heavily into the mix for playing time, while senior Ryan Dennard, who caught the first touchdown pass of his career in the Aloha Bowl, looks to capitalize on his final season after turning in a strong performance in spring ball.
'I think this is a very solid group. There are some playmakers here and we have good depth,' Koetter said. 'When you talk about identifying playmakers, Donnie and Shaun McDonald are both guys who have the ability to make big plays. Probably the most consistent receiver day in and day out was Ryan Dennard. I am very pleased with the things that Ryan did this spring as a receiver, a route runner and as a blocker. Justin Taplin is another guy that I know has play-making ability in him. He is a really good blocker, an experienced tough guy who will also be used as a return man.'
The Sun Devils also have a number of young players who will challenge for playing time in sophomore Skyler Fulton and redshirt freshman Mike Smith as well as some newcomers to the team in true freshmen Daryl Lightfoot, a 5-9, 170-pound All-American from Maryvale High School in Phoenix, Matt Miller, a 6-2, 180-pound all-region selection from Mesa's Mountain View High School, and Rhodes.
'Skyler and Mike are two young guys who both showed the ability to make big plays,' Koetter said. 'That's where our depth comes from. I like our future at that position with those players plus the addition of Matt Miller and Darryl Lightfoot and possibly Lance Rhodes. I just think we have some nice depth at that position.'
Tight Ends AlphabeticallyLee Burghgraef 6-5 230 Fr. Corona, Calif. (Norco)Frank Maddox 6-3 249 So.* Celina, Texas (Celina)Mike Pinkard 6-5 263 Jr.* Thornton, Colo. (Thornton)
While the Sun Devils feature depth and experience at wide receiver, tight end is the team's least experienced position with just two returning players on scholarship following the departure of All-American Todd Heap one season early as a first-round pick in the 2001 NFL Draft. After catching six passes for 100 yards last season as a back-up to Heap, Arizona State's career-leading tight end, junior Mike Pinkard will have the opportunity to earn the starting nod. Also challenging for the starting job at tight end will be sophomore Frank Maddox who played in 12 games last year, mostly on special teams. Freshman Lee Burghgraef, a highly touted 6-5, 230-pounder out of Norco High School in Corona, Calif., will also get a good look when he arrives at ASU in the fall.
'Tight end is probably our least experienced position on the team,' Koetter said. 'Mike Pinkard is definitely good enough on the line of scrimmage as a blocker, and we would like Mike to continue to develop as a receiver. Although he got off to a slow start in the spring, he did improve as a receiver and a down-field threat. One of the biggest disappointments in the spring was that Frank Maddox just didn't get to play as much because of a hamstring strain. It wasn't a major injury, but it did prevent him from getting as many reps as we wanted. Frank, from what we can tell, is exactly what we're looking for in the tight end position, but he just didn't get enough opportunities to show what he can do. I like his potential there.'
Offensive Line AlphabeticallyTony Aguilar C 6-3 307 So.* Superior, Ariz. (Superior)Adrian Ayala LT 6-4 324 RS-Fr.* Ventura, Calif. (St. Bonaventure)Regis Crawford RG 6-3 320 So.* San Diego, Calif. (Morse)Drew Hodgdon RG 6-3 325 RS-Fr.* Palo Alto, Calif. (Palo Alto)Levi Jones LT 6-6 316 Sr.* Eloy, Ariz. (Santa Cruz)Kyle Kosier RT 6-6 290 Sr.* Peoria, Ariz. (Cactus)Marquise Muldrow LG 6-3 320 Sr. Glendale, Ariz. (Glendale CC)Damien Niko LG 6-4 324 So.* Apache Junction, Ariz. (Mountain View)Scott Peters C 6-4 293 Sr.* Pleasanton, Calif. (Amador Valley)Travis Scott RT 6-6 311 Sr. Mesa, Ariz. (Mesa)
Heading into fall practice, the Sun Devils appear to be set on the offensive line. According to Koetter, ASU's group in the trenches may be the strength of the offense when seniors Scott Peters and Kyle Kosier return from injuries that limited them during spring workouts. Peters, Kosier and fellow seniors Levi Jones and Marquise Muldrow will anchor ASU's offensive line and provide experienced leadership to the younger players who will back them up.
A first-team All-Pac-10 selection last year, Peters started all 12 games at center and looks to pick up where he left off in the fall after being limited in spring practice following minor knee surgery. At the guard positions, sophomore Regis Crawford will enter the fall as the starter on the right side but can play all three positions on the offensive line, while senior Marquise Muldrow will return at left guard where he started nine games last season. Jones, a two-year starter on the offensive line and a second-team All-Pac-10 honoree last year, will resume his duties at left tackle, while Kosier, who was limited in spring ball after shoulder surgery, will move to right tackle after starting all 12 games at right guard.
ASU's offensive line also features a number of talented young players who will challenge for playing time. With Peters missing some of the spring to injury, redshirt freshman Drew Hodgdon and senior Travis Scott got valuable playing time with the first unit at guard and center. Hodgdon enters the spring as Peters' backup, while Scott will compete with Crawford at right guard but has the versatility to play at guard or tackle. Also looking to contribute on the offensive line will be redshirt freshman Adrian Ayala and sophomores Damien Niko and Tony Aguilar.
'When healthy, I think our offensive line will be the strength of our offense. You have to start with one guy who was not healthy in Scott Peters because of what he has done in the past. In just the few days that he was able to do limited things out there, you could really see his ability. We have a lot of experience on the offensive line,' Koetter said. 'We are also really excited about three guys that did not play as much last year in Travis Scott, Regis Crawford and Drew Hodgdon. Because of the injuries to Scott and Kyle (Kosier), those three had to play multiple positions this spring. Those seven players right now are clearly guys that you can win with in this league. Because of our lack of depth, some of our underclassmen got a lot of work in the spring which, even though our progress was frustrating at times, that will be a good thing for us in the long run.'
Entering spring ball, defensive coordinator Brent Guy faced the same challenges of installing a new system and identifying his personnel. And like Koetter, he found a group of veteran players and talented youngsters, including eight returning starters, willing to work hard and learn the new system. Under Guy's guidance, the Sun Devils will present a new attacking defense characterized by its movement. The team will utilize a 4-2-5 formation comprised of four down linemen, two linebackers, three safeties and two cornerbacks. While the transition took some time and the Sun Devils still have a ways to go, Guy said that he was pleased with how quickly the defensive coaching staff was able to install the new system.
'We laid out a schedule for the whole spring and hoped that we could stay on schedule. We were able to do that,' Guy said. 'We had everything and, in fact, even installed a couple of things in the last days of spring practice that we hadn't planned on doing. The kids worked really hard at studying and coming in on their own and working on some things.
'Our defense has a lot of movement. We give a lot of different looks, pre-snap looks and guys moving around. We want to try to be as deceptive as we can. That's one of the harder things to learn. Right now our players are concentrating on knowing where to be and exactly what to do. You have to be very confident to actually line up in the wrong place and be deceptive and move to where you need to be. We feel like we started to get comfortable doing that in the last two scrimmages.'
Guy is also pleased with the leadership he found among his veteran squad, something that will pay off for the Sun Devil defense down the road, especially in the secondary where a number of redshirt and true freshmen will get the opportunity to play this fall.
'With guys who have played a lot of snaps like Kurt Wallin, Solomon Bates, Eric Fields, Willie Daniel and Alfred Williams, they understand how important it is to get things right in practice and pay attention to details. They know how those small things can become big things in a game,' Guy said.
Defensive Line AlphabeticallyJames Beal DT 6-1 289 Jr.* DeSoto, Texas (DeSoto)Ben Fox DE 6-2 260 So.* Clovis, Calif. (Buchanan)Paul Glass DT 6-6 335 Sr. Carson City, Nev. (Bakersfield CC)Chad Howell DE 6-4 239 So.* Mesa, Ariz. (St. Mary's)Danny Masaniai DT 6-2 315 Sr. Pago Pago, American Samoa (Foothill CC)Brian Montesanto DE 6-5 248 So.* Simi Valley, Calif. (Royal)Terrell Suggs DE 6-3 232 So. Chandler, Ariz. (Hamilton)Tommie Townsend DT 6-3 294 Sr.* Las Vegas, Nev. (Bonanza)Kurt Wallin DT 6-2 270 Sr. Mesa, Ariz. (Mountain View)Jared Wolfgramm DE 6-5 218 RS-Fr.* Tempe, Ariz. (Tempe)Jimmy Verdon DE 6-3 260 RS-Fr.* Pomona, Calif. (Pomona)
Like their counterparts at tailback and wide receiver, Guy and defensive line coach Ted Monachino have a situation that any coach would envy when they look over their depth chart. Arizona State's defensive line is stocked with experienced veterans, including four seniors at defensive tackle, a quartet led by Kurt Wallin. Wallin started all 12 games last season at right tackle and finished eighth on the team in tackles, including 12 for a loss. He also forced three fumbles which ranked fifth in the conference. Joining Wallin on the defensive front line will be Tommie Townsend, Paul Glass and Danny Masaniai. That trio, which weighs in at over 900 pounds, split the starts at the position last season and will once again challenge each other for the starting job and playing time in 2001.
'At defensive tackle, we have a lot of depth with guys who have played a lot of games. Iwe have a senior group of tackles who have all played. That's the one position for us that has the most depth and experience. They were very productive for us this spring,' Guy said. 'The front four for us is where it all starts. Those players have to be tough, veteran guys. It's hard to play down there in the trenches. We like to call them the `war dogs' because it's hand-to-hand combat every snap. You've got to have tough veterans in there.'
The Sun Devils' depth at defensive end comes in the form of a crop of four sophomores and two freshmen, led by Terrell Suggs who returns after a stellar rookie campaign. Suggs burst onto the national scene last year as a 17-year-old phenom, becoming just the second true freshman in school history to start the first game of the year. The Pac-10 Freshman of the Year and a Freshman All-American selection by The Sporting News, Suggs paced the Sun Devil squad and ranked among the Pac-10's best with 16 tackles for loss and 10 sacks. He also showed the ability to make the big play by finishing second in the Pac-10 and tied for first on the team with four forced fumbles.
Complementing Suggs at the other end will be sophomore Brian Montesanto who played in all 12 games with four starts last year. Backing up Suggs will be sophomore Ben Fox, a solid athlete who moved from tight end to defensive line one season ago, while sophomore Chad Howell will return as a back-up at the other end after playing in 10 games with two starts last year before he suffering a torn ACL at Stanford. Also figuring into the mix at defensive end will be redshirt freshmen Jared Wolfgramm and Jimmy Verdon, who moves to the position from linebacker.
'With four sophomores and two freshmen, we are really excited about those players. We have young talent there that I think will grow with us and grow with the defense,' Guy said. 'Obviously Terrell Suggs was our big-play guy this spring. He's a very exciting player with the types of plays he can make. He can go in there and sack the quarterback on any snap and he runs plays down even when they're going away from him. Most offenses don't count on having to block that guy. You have to contend with him on every snap because of his speed.'
Linebackers AlphabeticallyJosh Amobi 6-2 214 Jr. Phoenix, Ariz. (Shadow Mountain)Jamall Anderson 6-1 251 Sr.* Hitchcock, Texas (Long Beach City CC)Connor Banks 6-2 239 RS-Fr.* Richmond, Calif. (St. Mary's)Solomon Bates 6-2 257 Jr. Moreno Valley, Calif. (Canyon Springs)Eric Fields 6-3 235 Sr.* Las Vegas, Nev. (Western)Zach Mims 6-2 221 RS-Fr.* Kingwood, Texas (Kingwood)Mason Unck 6-2 235 Jr.* Ogden, Utah (Bonneville)
Linebacker is one of the positions that Guy and his staff had to restructure as they installed their new defensive system. Instead of three linebackers, the new-look Sun Devils will employ two who will play off the line of scrimmage. While the Sun Devils will look to replace Pac-10 Defensive Player of the Year and All-American Adam Archuleta, a first-round choice in the 2001 NFL Draft who was their leading tackler from one year ago, ASU appears to be well-stocked with depth and experience at linebacker.
Headlining that crew are senior Eric Fields and juniors Solomon Bates and Mason Unck. Fields has started 23 games in his career, including all 12 last season at outside linebacker. He was seventh on the team in total tackles last season and disrupted opponents' offenses with 11 tackles for loss and a pair of forced fumbles last year. A freshman All-American two years ago and an honorable-mention all-conference selection last season, Bates finished second on the team in total tackles with 99, including four games in double digits. He also tied for second in the Pac-10 with four forced fumbles and wreaked havoc with 12 tackles for loss, three sacks, eight pass deflections and a pair of interceptions. Unck will also look to pick up where he left off last season. He played in the last six games of the year as he recovered from a torn ACL suffered in spring practice but started 10 of 12 games and was fourth on the team in tackles as a freshman the season before.
In addition to its experienced players, the Sun Devils' linebacking corps features a number of young players who will look to make their mark. Junior Josh Amobi played in seven games after suffering a broken ankle in the spring, while freshmen Connor Banks and Zach Mims return to the field after redshirt seasons, while junior Jamall Anderson will add depth.
'We have almost as much depth and experience at linebacker as we do at defensive tackle,' Guy said. 'That's the position where we re-tooled and had to restructure because both of our linebackers play off the line of scrimmage where traditionally Eric Fields and Mason Unck had been on the line of scrimmage. Solomon Bates has big-play ability, and Eric Fields and Mason Unck will play a lot. I like to rotate those guys around and keep them fresh because they are involved in special teams a lot. Josh Amobi and Connor Banks are two other guys who made a lot of progress in the spring. We are very pleased with that.'
Safeties AlphabeticallyWillie Daniel 6-0 205 Sr. Phoenix, Ariz. (St. Mary's)Davaren Hightower 6-1 208 Sr.* Dallas, Texas (Lake Highlands)Mike Holloway 6-0 200 RS-Fr.* Los Angeles, Calif. (Saint Paul)Brandon Falkner 6-0 202 Jr.* Peoria, Ariz. (Peoria)Montï¿½ Franks 6-1 206 Sr. Sacramento, Calif. (Sacramento CC)Riccardo Stewart 5-11 197 RS-Fr.* La Verne, Calif. (Bonita)Alfred Williams 6-1 200 Jr.* Irvine, Calif. (Irvine)Patrick Wilson 5-10 198 Jr.* Glendale, Ariz. (Ironwood)
In contrast to the depth at linebacker and defensive line, Arizona State's secondary features the least amount of playing experience and depth. Shoring up his defensive backfield and putting his young players to the test will be of great importance to Guy and his safeties coach Dan Fidler in the fall, especially given the fact that ASU's new-look defense calls for three safeties.
Fortunately for Guy and Fidler, senior Willie Daniel and junior Alfred Williams are veteran safeties who can lead their young players in the right direction. Daniel looks to make the most of his senior campaign after starting all but one game at strong safety and finishing fourth on the team in tackles one season ago. Williams, an honorable-mention All-Pac-10 selection who started all 12 games at free safety last year, was third on the team in total tackles and had a pair of forced fumbles and an interception.
Also adding to the veteran experience is senior Davaren Hightower who will challenge for playing time after making the move from tailback this spring. Last season, where he finished third on the team in rushing last year. At the other safety position, a trio of veterans will figure into the mix for playing time in junior Brandon Falkner, senior Montï¿½ Franks and junior Patrick Wilson, who started one game last year in place of an injured Willie Daniel.
The third safety in Guy's defensive scheme is a free safety, and a pair of redshirt freshmen, Riccardo Stewart and Michael Holloway, have come on strong and will compete for the starting position. Stewart came to ASU as an highly decorated all-state selection out of La Verne, Calif., while Holloway is a highly touted versatile athlete from Saint Paul High School in Los Angeles.
'Our safeties have to be big-play guys. They have the opportunity to make a lot of tackles,' Guy said. 'We blitz some and bring them off the edges, so they have to be guys who have the ability to make open-field tackles. At safety is probably where we had the least amount of playing experience and depth. We do have Willie Daniel and Al Williams who have played a lot. Having players with a lot of experience, like Willie Daniel and Al Williams in the secondary with those young cornerbacks, has a calming effect. We also moved Davaren Hightower over, and he really showed some progress toward the end of spring ball. Both Riccardo Stewart and Michael Holloway have really grasped our defense. The free safety has a pretty tough job because he has to make a lot of calls, and Riccardo probably grasped it faster than we've had anyone do it.'
Cornerbacks AlphabeticallyLamar Baker 5-11 190 Fr. Avondale, Ariz. (Agua Fria)Emmanuel Franklin 5-11 184 RS-Fr.* Houston, Texas (Jones)O.J. Hackett 5-10 165 Jr. Fontana, Calif. (Chaffey CC)Josiah Igono 5-10 183 Jr.* Tempe, Ariz. (Tempe)R.J. Oliver 5-9 168 RS-Fr.* Escondido, Calif. (Escondido)Courtney Sterling 5-8 165 Fr. DeSoto, Texas (Carter)Adrian Thomas 6-0 185 So.* Albuquerque, N.C. (Eastern New Mexico)
At cornerback, Guy and position coach Ron English have to find replacements for both of the starters from one season ago, honorable-mention all-conference selection Nijrell Eason and Kenny Williams. Similar to the youth movement at free safety, redshirt freshmen R.J. Oliver and Emmanuel Franklin have emerged as the leading contenders to start at cornerback. Oliver came to ASU out of Escondido (Calif.) High School, while Franklin, who made the transition from wide receiver to defensive back while redshirting last season, hails from Houston, Texas, where he was an all-region selection at Jones High School. Junior Josiah Igono is the only returning player on the depth chart from last season at cornerback and will be in the mix for playing time after starting two games for the Sun Devils last year following Williams' season-ending knee injury. Igono appeared in 11 games with three pass deflections and an interception in 2000. Sophomore Adrian Thomas will also add depth and look to contribute at the position.
ASU will also gain the services of a trio of newcomers in the fall who will may figure heavily into the mix at cornerback in junior O.J. Hackett and true freshmen Lamar Baker and Courtney Sterling. The lone junior college transfer in this year's recruiting class, Hackett, at 5-10, 165 pounds, comes to ASU from Chaffey Community in Fontana, Calif., where he was an all-conference selection. Baker, a 5-11, 190-pounder who earned the distinction as the first player to commit to ASU in the class of 2001, is an all-state honoree from Agua Fria High School in Avondale, Ariz., while Sterling, a 5-8, 165-pound speedster, heads to Sun Devil country as the top 'cover' cornerback in the state of Texas out of Carter High School in De Soto, Texas.
'Our two young freshmen Franklin and Oliver did a great job for us this spring. Those guys had to get better because they almost had to take all of the reps. Cornerback is probably the thinnest position we have,' Guy said. 'Josiah Igono has started a couple of games, but other than that, we don't have any one who has played in a game. But those are very talented, young kids, so we are very excited about that. They have great attitudes and great work ethics and they are going to be very good football players for us.'
Specialists AlphabeticallyMike Barth PK 6-0 213 Jr. Phoenix, Ariz. (Mountain Pointe)Brian Biang P 6-0 203 Jr.* Hacienda Heights, Calif. (Los Altos)Jay Breckenridge LS 6-2 227 Jr.* Bisbee, Ariz. (Bisbee)Travis Cloyd PK 6-0 190 RS-Fr.* Englewood, Colo. (Cherry Creek)Delvon Flowers KR 5-11 196 Sr.* Los Angeles, Calif. (El Camino CC)Shaun McDonald PR 5-9 168 So.* Phoenix, Ariz. (Shadow Mountain)B.J. Miller LS 6-2 208 Sr. Ventura, Calif. (Ventura JC)Nick Murphy P 6-0 185 Sr. Scottsdale, Ariz. (Scottsdale CC)Scott Peters SS 6-4 293 Sr.* Pleasanton, Calif. (Amador Valley)Greg Pieratt PK 6-1 178 Jr.* San Diego, Calif. (Patrick Henry)Tom Pace KR 5-10 191 Sr. Mesa, Ariz. (Ricks JC)Justin Taplin PR 6-0 190 Jr.* Tempe, Ariz. (Tempe)Mike Williams KR 6-0 193 So. Lakewood, Calif. (Mayfair)
Football fans always talk about offense and defense, but if Koetter and his assistant coach Tom Osborne have their way, the Sun Devil faithful will also talk about special teams. Winning the battle of the special teams is as important to Koetter and his staff as anything that happens on offense or defense, and that emphasis is reinforced each day with the involvement of the entire staff in the coaching of special teams.
'I think one of our strengths is that our players' attitudes about the importance of special teams in winning games has improved,' said Osborne who comes to ASU after leading the league's top-ranked special teams unit for six seasons at the University of Oregon. ' It has been a change because we need to make that the reason we win games. That's an on-going, everyday process for their five years in college because they don't sign their letters of intent here with the idea that they are going to be the left guard on the punt return team.'
And when the exuberant Osborne talks about special teams, he doesn't just mean the player who catches a punt or kicks a field goal. For ASU's new coaching staff, the emphasis on special teams is about all 11 players on the field. Like the offensive and defensive coaches, Osborne spent the spring identifying his personnel and teaching his new schemes, looking for his specialists and finding some players he calls his 'warriors.'
'We're always concerned about the 10 guys blocking, not the one catching or kicking the ball,' he said. 'I think we've done a good job of evaluating those players in the spring time, trying to get the best 11 guys on the field for special teams. One person might have been the third-team right guard when spring ball started, but now he's the starting left tackle on the punt team. There's a great deal to teach between now and when we play our first game. The question is how much can we get accomplished. The learning curve, how quickly they grasp those things will be the key. They have to understand how hard they have to play on special teams as a whole in terms of coverage units and blockers.
'Four guys that stick out are Willie Daniel, Alfred Williams, Eric Fields and Tom Pace. I would go to war with those guys any day,' Osborne said. 'They do a great job with their effort, their efficiency and their performance. They understand what it means to go full-tilt, 100 miles an hour. I get more fired up when I see those guys making tackles and blocking people than when I see the returner running with the ball. He should be able to run with the ball if we block all of those people. We're going to win with those guys. We've got a few more players who are close to that and are hoping to get more in that category.'
One area where the Sun Devils seem to be solid heading into the fall is the kicking game with the return of honorable-mention All-Pac-10 punter Nick Murphy and placekicker Mike Barth. A semifinalist for the Ray Guy Award, which is annually presented to the nation's best punter, Murphy handled the punting responsibilities last year for the second consecutive season, booting 86 punts for an average of 41.3 yards per punt. The 6-0 senior turned in a terrific spring which was punctuated in the annual spring game by boots of 54 and 63 yards. Finding a back-up punter will be an area of concern for Osborne, and the likely candidate is junior Brian Biang who will move to punter after handling kickoffs on a limited basis last season in place of an injured Mike Barth.
'Nick Murphy did a great job in the spring,' Osborne said. 'I was concerned because we changed some of the things he's done, but Nick adapted and accepted that very well. Nick has done the best job of any of the specialists in the spring. The thing with Nick that was encouraging was that he was very consistent. He was consistently awesome every day this spring. I just hope we can cover him now.'
Barth returns in 2001 after handling the kickoff and place-kicking responsibilities last season. He connected on 65.2 percent of his field-goal attempts, winning two games with a pair of last-second 48-yarders against then No. 25 Colorado State and at Washington State in overtime. Barth, who missed most of spring practice after having his appendix removed, also connected on 32 of 34 PAT attempts. Junior Greg Pieratt will also challenge for kicking duties after turning in a great performance this spring, while freshman Travis Cloyd will also return to the field after redshirting in 2000.
Finding a consistent snapper is often a concern for coaching staffs, but ASU seems to have that area covered by senior B.J. Miller and junior Jay Breckenridge. Senior Scott Peters will continue to handle the short snapping duties, backed up by fellow senior Travis Scott.
'One of the things that I was very pleased with is that our long snappers, B.J. Miller and Jay Breckenridge, drastically improved in the springtime,' Osborne said. 'That's very encouraging.'
On ASU's punt and kickoff return teams, Osborne's task will be continuing to develop the 10 players who block for his runners in addition to working with the return specialists. A trio of players will combine to handle the kickoff returns including senior Delvon Flowers and Tom Pace and sophomore Mike Williams. Flowers returns to the task after bringing back 21 kicks for an average of 22.3 yards in 1999, while Pace hopes to pick up where he left off before transferring to ASU when he led the nation in return yards while at Idaho. Sophomore Shaun McDonald and junior Justin Taplin split the punt return responsibilities last season and will once again be counted on in that role in 2001. In his first season, McDonald quickly proved himself, returning 28 punts for an average of 9.4 yards which included an 81-yard return for touchdown vs. USC, while Taplin brought back 24 punts for an average of 6.7 yards last year.
'Delvon is a shake-and-bake guy. He has the ability to make people miss. Obviously, as he got healthy and got more confident this spring, you could really see that he demonstrated some great skills. Mike and Tom have also shown great skills on the punt return team,' Osborne said. 'Another one of our strengths is that we identified a lot of guys who can play what we call `inside the box' on our punt return team, the guys who play the line of scrimmage, but we need to improve the performance of the outside gunners. On our kickoff return team, I think we've identified the guys that will probably be our best guys in terms of blocking. With Shaun and Justin, we're still working on all of their mechanics in fielding the ball and their decisions, but Shaun's got good speed and good quickness to make people miss, and Justin is also a guy with big-play ability. I thought those guys made some good progress in the spring and responded very well.'