SCOUTING REPORT Arizona State players and coaches hear it from fans and pundits every spring: The team could've been great last year, "if only..."
For example, if only the Sun Devils hadn't turned the ball over 23 times last season. If only they hadn't had a game-tying extra point at Wisconsin blocked. If only they hadn't missed a potential game-winning 41-yard field goal at USC. The fact that four of Arizona State's six losses came by a combined nine points has motivated the team. "It showed us all what a fine line it is between being 6-6 and being 10-2," offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone says. "It's a play here and there."
While coach Dennis Erickson doesn't dwell on the what-ifs -- "it doesn't make a difference how close the games were ... [we] still only won six" -- the near misses have helped generate an excitement not usually felt around Tempe. The Sun Devils have 19 starters returning, and coinciding with the sense of optimism are redesigned uniforms and a new pitchfork logo on the helmet. The players have adopted the motto It's time, a reference to the fact that Arizona State has never reached a BCS bowl game.
That goal is well within reach. The offense, with all five starting linemen back, is led by arguably the conference's best center, Garth Gerhart. He'll snap to 6-8, 235-pound quarterback Brock Osweiler, who will run the team's pass-heavy spread offense. Osweiler spent the spring improving his accuracy (56.9 percent in 2010), and that could further strengthen the Sun Devils' already potent pass offense. On the ground Arizona State will rely on sophomore Deantre Lewis and junior Cameron Marshall, who combined for 5.5 yards per carry and 13 touchdowns last season.
The defense, which has eight starters back from a unit that ranked fifth in the Pac-10, will have to endure the loss of team leader and all-conference cornerback Omar Bolden, who tore the ACL in his left knee during spring practice. In Bolden's absence, junior middle linebacker Vontaze Burfict, who made a team-high 90 tackles in 2010, has stepped into the leadership void by running player meetings and setting an example with his commitment at off-season workouts.
"We just need to be consistent ... more disciplined," Erickson says of what his Sun Devils need to do if they hope to vie for the Pac-12 South title. "You just have to get a break and see what happens."
THE BIG IF Can the Sun Devils' special teams have a bounce-back season and help turn a series of close losses last year into wins this year.
TELLING NUMBER 69.6 -- Penalty yards a game assessed against the Sun Devils in 2010, the most in the Pac-10 and fourth most among BCS schools.KEY RETURNEES Vontaze Burfict, LB, Jr. -- The potential All-America has taken on a new leadership role and has worked to cut down on his penalties and mental mistakes. He's a big reason why Arizona State is considered a contender in 2011.Brandon Magee, LB, Sr. -- Magee started slowly last season but had big games when it mattered, making 13 tackles apiece against Cal, USC and Arizona. Offenses that focus too much on handling Burfict, Magee's high school teammate, may get burned by Magee.Cameron Marshall, RB, Jr. -- In the team's pass-heavy offense last season, Marshall rushed for 787 yards and nine TDs on 150 carries. He averaged 7.0 yards per rush at home, and that kind of production will be key in home dates against Missouri, USC and Arizona this year.Deveron Carr, CB, Jr. -- Now the top corner after the season-ending injury to Omar Bolden, Carr has the size (5-11, 193 pounds) and speed (4.34) to battle receivers. He leads a secondary that is the D's biggest weakness. Brock Osweiler, QB, Jr. -- The 6-8 signal-caller is often mistaken for a Sun Devil basketball player -- and last November he almost became one. But when concussions ended Steven Threet's career Osweiler inherited the starting job, completing 58 percent of his passes down the stretch. BREAKOUT PLAYER Gerell Robinson, WR, Sr. -- The 6-4, 222-pound Robinson has great potential but has struggled to meet the expectations that came with being a highly rated recruit. His 2010 stats (29 catches, 387 yards, 5 TDs) were more than '08 and '09 combined, and coach Dennis Erickson believes he and Brock Osweiler could become the Pac-12's top duo.TOP RECRUIT Mo Latu, DE, Fr. -- With eight defensive starters coming back, Arizona State won't need much from its freshmen in 2011. But Latu, a four-star prospect from Gilbert, Ariz., has size (6-3, 306), speed and strength (he bench-presses 405 pounds) that could allow him to make an immediate impact.
This team preview originally appeared in Sports Illustrated Presents' Pac-12 Preview.
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