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August 2, 2011Many media outlets have included Arizona State among their respective Preseason Top-25 rankings in consideration of the team's large number of returning starters and how closely it played a few of the nation's best teams last season.
With five returning offensive line starters, ample experience at running back and receiver and a defensive front seven that could potentially be among the best in the country, there are a lot of things the Sun Devils can have great confidence in.
Ultimately, whether ASU lives up to its own expectations and those widely held by media will likely be largely determined by how successful it is in the following five key areas:
All of the offensive position groups on the team are established to be above average to very good with the exception of quarterback, where junior Brock Osweiler hasn't had enough playing time to be declared a known entity.
Across the country and particularly in the Pac-12, quarterback play is critically important to the success of college football teams. Inexperienced quarterback have very rarely led teams to BCS appearances from this league, so it's clear that Osweiler will generate the most scrutiny of any offensive player on the team in camp and through the season.
A natural and easy leader, Osweiler's seminal moment in that role came when he rallied the Sun Devils on the sidelines late in a win over rival Arizona on the road last season. He didn't play particularly well in that game but emotionally put the team over the hump.
Osweiler doesn't need to have consistent performances like the jaw-dropingly efficient one he had against UCLA in his first start last season, he simply needs to be a game manager. Smart play and protection of the football combined with his downfield playmaking ability and the quick game scheme of offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone should be enough to earn the team a lot of wins.
Avoid mental mistakes
ASU shot itself in the foot repeatedly last season with undisciplined play most commonly presented in the form of untimely 15-yard penalties and special teams lapses. Loses against Wisconsin and USC, and perhaps others, can be directly attributed to these types of inexcusable lapses.
The Sun Devils are now a veteran group who say all the right things but their maturity will ultimately be determined by their composure in high visibility situations. It's going to be especially under the spotlight this season with the NCAA's new and controversial excessive celebration penalty considering ASU has a well established love for celebration.
Coach Dennis Erickson said at Pac-12 Media Day these types of mistakes could cost a team a touchdown or even a game. Considering his team needs to have a strong season to ensure his return in 2012, those are the types of things that can't happen.
Stay healthy at key spots
Most teams around the country don't have the ability to absorb numerous personnel losses to significant players and before this season even starts ASU has had its share. Projected key players Omar Bolden, James Brooks and T.J. Simpson won't be on the field for most or all of the season and the status of Deantre Lewis is uncertain.
In previous years, those things would be more debilitating to the Sun Devils than they are now, a sign of the improvement to the depth and breadth of talent accumulated by Erickson over the last few years. But now ASU is thin at certain positions, at least in terms of proven reliability. At cornerback there were very few healthy scholarship players practicing in the spring. It's been solidified now with the position change of junior college addition Rashad Ross and sophomore Alden Darby, but additional injuries there and at safety could be a real problem.
At defensive end, only sophomore Junior Onyeali is a proven high level pass rusher. Incoming junior college transfer Davon Coleman is expected to be another, but that has yet to be demonstrated on the field. And with ASU's preference of playing two-deep along the defensive front with full line shifts to keep players fresh, there is some uncertainty.
Production in the secondary
Bolden was a big loss but it will be significantly mitigated if junior Deveron Carr can stay healthy because he's a potential star in the making. That's no guarantee because Carr has had two significant shoulder injuries already.
ASU also needs someone else to step up at the spot opposite Carr, where several players will compete including sophomore Osahon Irabor, who started seven games last season when Carr went down for the rest of the season.
At safety, senior Eddie Elder made strides as the season wore on and should be more stable after a year of adjustment but that remains to be seen. The other starter, be it senior Clint Floyd or Keelan Johnson needs to be more consistent. Safety was perhaps the position that most underperformed on the team last season, with a sign of position coach/defensive coordinator Craig Bray's dissatisfaction being a depth chart constantly in flux.
Gap fitting and lateral speed in the front seven isn't a concern with this defense, but it showed a tendency to give up too many big plays. Most of those came on breakdowns in the secondary, typically with blown assignments. Cut those in half and the defense should be excellent.
Being committed to the run
Mazzone's offense uses a lot of quick hitting passes and screens in replace of more traditional run plays and with some of the perimeter athletes ASU has like Lewis, junior Jamal Miles and sophomore Kyle Middlebrooks, it's understandable.
At the same time, there were sequences of action last season where it had been well established there was no answer for between the tackles running with junior Cameron Marshall and an ever-increasingly effective offensive line. Occasionally, the play calling went a little too much away from that when it didn't need to.
With five returning starters along the offensive front, an inexperienced quarterback and a physically imposing and dynamic player like Marshall, a little more of a workload situationally couldn't be a bad thing.