April 18, 2001
Dirk Koetter brought with him to Arizona State a reputation for being an offensive whiz. Yet, if the just-concluded spring football session and Satruday's Maroon-Gold game are any indication, defense will likely be the calling card of Koetter's first ASU team in 2001.
As could have been expected, the Sun Devils' defense dominated last Saturday's intra-squad scrimmage, registering a 42--16 victory over the offense, with the defensive points coming via a unique scoring mechanism which rewarded the unit for accomplishments such as forcing turnovers and holding the offense to 'three-and-out.' (You might call it football's version of golf's Stapleford Scoring System!) Even in normal circumstances, the defense tends to progress at a faster rate than the offense at this time of year. However, the 2001 spring practices were far removed from the realm of the 'normal,' given the fact that they presented the first opportunity for Koetter and his staff to get an 'up-close' look at the team they inherited, as well as the first chance for the players to size up their new bosses' style of on-field coaching. No doubt, all the players, but especially those on offense, suffered through frequent bouts of 'information overload' this spring, trying to absorb and implement a system different from the one to which they had grown accustomed, and, in so doing, make a good first impression on the men who will oversee the immediate future of ASU football.
At no position was 'information overload' more of a factor than at quarterback, where three players are vying to be Koetter's first ASU starter at that position. Prior to last Saturday's scrimmage, Dirk told me that it was his thought that one of the QB candidates might either step ahead of or behind the others in the race for the starting job, thereby helping to delineate the depth chart at the position. That did not happen. Redshirt-freshman-to-be Andrew Walter, sophomore Jeff Krohn and junior Matt Cooper each had his moments during the spring, but each also struggled at times. Although Krohn is easily the most battle-tested of the three, while Walter is perceived to be the most talented, Cooper is the one whom Koetter said was the most consistent this spring. In Saturday's scrimmage, Krohn put up the best numbers, hitting 12-of-21 passes for 140 yards and a 20-yard touchdown to WR Ryan Dennard. Walter was 8-of-16 for 78 yards and one TD (an 11-yard swing pass to RB Tom Pace). Cooper completed 4-of-13 passes for 42 yards. This competition will continue at Camp Tontozona in August, at which time incoming freshman recruit Chad Christensen may even enter the mix. Without question, the Sun Devils' hope for immediate success in the Dirk Koetter era will depend in large part upon the quality of play they get from their quarterback. Look at any recent Pac-10 team of Rose Bowl caliber, and you'll see that all had outstanding QBs (Jake Plummer, Ryan Leaf, Cade McNown, Todd Husak and Marques Tuiasosopo being the five most recent Pac-10 Rose Bowl signal-callers).
How ironic it would be if Cooper were to ultimately win the starting job, because in the last few years under former coach Bruce Snyder, Cooper seemed like something of an after-thought at quarterback. Cooper may end up being the text-book example of a player who derives great benefit from a change in coaching staffs. Buried deep down the depth chart in the previous regime, Cooper started with a clean slate under Dirk Koetter, and is getting every opportunity to show what he can do. For his part, Koetter has gone out of his way to make it clear that Cooper is as much a part of the quarterbacking derby as his more heralded counterparts, Krohn and Walter.
Another player who strikes me as being a potentital beneficiary of the coaching change is defensive tackle James Beal. Like Cooper, Beal is in his fourth year in the program, a soon-to-be redshirt junior from Courtney Jackson's home town of DeSoto, TX. Over the past couple of seasons, Beal hardly saw the field, yet on Saturday, he contributed a sack and applied interior pressure to the quarterback on several occasions.
If Beal develops, he will only add depth to a unit that already boasts eight other returnees who saw significant action in 2000. The leader of this group, of course, is sophomore man-child Terrell Suggs, who displayed his Pac--10 Freshman of the Year form in Saturday's scrimmage, registering a pair of sacks and a forced fumble. Suggs may end up as the greatest speed pass-rusher ever seen at ASU, pure and simple. Senior Kurt Wallin (who missed the Maroon-Gold game to attend his grandfather's funeral in Washington state) brings great quickness and a non-stop motor to his defensive tackle spot. Joining Wallin in the interior of the 'D' line will be seniors Tommie Townsend (who had a sack Saturday), Paul Glass and Danny Masaniai. The latter two are one-time junior college transfers who have a year's experience (and a combined 650 pounds) under their belts! Glass and Masaniai could prove to be darn near immovable, and should be terrific run-stoppers.
Dirk Koetter's defense, coordinated by Brent Guy, features two linebackers and five defensive backs. As was the case last year, the linebackers figure to be a Sun Devil strength. Junior Solomon Bates (ASU's top returning tackler from a year ago) had an oustanding spring, and teams with athletic Eric Fields, a now-healthy Mason Unck and Josh Amobi to give the Devils four experienced backers. A pair of talented redshirt freshmen, Zach Mims and Connor Banks, as well as senior Jamall Anderson, provide depth at the position.
The Devils will employ three safeties in their defense, with last year's starting duo of Al Williams and Willie Daniel likely to be joined by the likes of Brandon Falkner or converted running back Davaren Hightower (who had himself a sack in Saturday's scrimmage). A couple of names to keep in mind: Riccardo Stewart and Michael Holloway, both redshirt freshmen safeties who were singled out by Koetter for their outstanding play this spring.
The biggest question mark on defense figures to be at cornerback, where the Sun Devils lack experienced depth. In fact, it's possible the two starters will both be redshirt freshmen. R.J. Oliver (whose parents were both ASU athletes in the '70s) and Emmanuel Franklin are talented, they simply lack experience. If/when he returns from a late spring suspension (which, by the way, had nothing to do with academic or legal matters), junior Machtier Clay will figure in the mix as well.
Offensively, the return of Delvon Flowers will provide an instantaneous boost to the Devils' running game, which (minus Delvon) was one of the Pac--10's poorest in 2000, averaging a mere 116 yards per game. Flowers looked good this spring, several times displaying moves that even Delvon couldn't explain or describe! Former walk-on Tom Pace, ASU's top rusher last year with 720 yards, should thrive as a situational back, as should talented sophomore Mike Williams. 260-pound fullback Mike Karney returns, and likely will be utitlized in various ways in the Koetter offense.
With Koetter's passion for the passing game, the Sun Devils' receivers will once again be prominent in 2001. Senior Donnie O'Neal, ASU's co-offensive MVP a year ago, had a terrific spring, and along with Shaun McDonald, Justin Taplin and Ryan Dennard, figure to be the primary targets for whomever emerges as the Devils' QB. Two younger players who may become contributors are talented Skyler Fulton (a running back last year, now working with the wideouts) and redshirt freshman Mike Smith, a Carson, CA. product who has the prototypical receivers' build at 6'2' and 200 lbs.
The offensive line should be a strength, with four returning starters including All-Pac-10 center Scott Peters and second-team all-conference tackle Levi Jones. However, the unit was victimized by a series of nagging injuries in the spring, so the line's development will have to be closely monitored in the fall. The up-and-comer in this group would appear to be redshirt freshman Drew Hodgdon, who can play guard or center.
The departure of All-American Todd Heap, in and of itself, weakens the tight end position, where ASU returns only two scholarship players, junior Mike Pinkard and sophomore Frank Maddox. If incoming freshman Lee Burghgraef shows anything at Camp Tontozona, he would be a likely candidate for immediate playing time this season.
Though sidelined the latter part of spring ball by an appendectomy, kicker Mike Barth should be good to go this fall. It's not often that a coach will single out a punter for his spring work, but Koetter's list of the five top Devils over the past month includes senior Nick Murphy, an honorable mention All-Pac-10 selection in 2000 who averaged over 45 yards on six punts Saturday. Murph's one problem a year ago: he had three punts blocked! The addition of special teams coach Tom Osborne (whose Oregon kicking teams were consistently among the Pac--10's best) hopefully will result in more secure punt protection.
Watching Dirk Koetter and his staff go about their work this spring, the Sun Devils' new coaches appear to be disciplined, highly organized and thorough. Hardly an idle moment went by during spring practices, players always had a place to be and a drill in which to participate. For the most part, the Devils' players, even those loyal to the previous staff of Bruce Snyder, seem to have bought into the Koetter way, and are no doubt in more of a comfort zone now than they were a month ago. Evidence of the anticipation that is building for the 2001 ASU football season could be seen in the surprisingly large crowds (100 or more) that frequently gathered at the Bill Kajikawa practice field to watch many of the 15 spring practice sessions, or in the spring game crowd at Sun Devil Stadium last Saturday (estimated at between 4,000--5,000, which would make it one of the largest spring crowds in recent memory).
A lot of work remains, and numerous questions must be answered, before the Sun Devils can be declared 'battle ready,' but you get the sense that baseball isn't the only sport in which hope 'springs' eternal at this time of year.
Tim Healey is the radio play-by-play voice of ASU football for the Sun Devil Sports Network.