Two years ago, Dennis Erickson found himself squarely on the hot seat at Arizona St. Things had started well with the Sun Devils, as Erickson's team went 10-3 in 2007. However, he went 5-7 in 2008 and 4-8 in 2009. In order to save his job, Erickson was essentially forced to let go of longtime offensive coordinator Rich Olson. Olson had coached with Erickson at the University of Miami, as well as with the Seattle Seahawks and San Francisco 49ers, and it was evident that Erickson did not want to let Olson go at the time. Enter Noel Mazzone
After springing back to 6-6 last year, Arizona St. started the season with high expectations due to narrow losses @ Wisconsin, @ Oregon St., @ USC, and vs. Stanford the year before. They gathered all sorts of attention by unveiling new uniforms and have not disappointed this year, although the close loss @ Illinois is looking worse than before. The Sun Devils currently sit atop the Pac-12 South and are gearing up for a spot in the inaugural Pac-12 Championship game.
Erickson became famous with his singleback offense at the University of Miami where he won two national championships in the late 1980's/ early 1990's. The offense was predicated on the inside zone/outside zone/vertical routes. When Rich Olson was let go, Erickson found a coordinator that ran a similar offense. There is plenty of details for my fellow football nerds at www.brophyfootball.blogspot.com, but the gist of the story is that Erickson found a way to "modernize" his offense without throwing out his principles.
The year before coming to ASU, Noel Mazzone was coordinating a high school offense. Now, he's selling his offense. Prior to ASU, Mazzone was not a "spread" coach. He had about 30 years of collegiate and NFL experience, none of which would have led you to believe that he would coordinate an uptempo, shotgun based attack. Yet Arizona St. is 17th in passing offense (294.2 ypg), 30th in total offense (438.8 ypg), and 22nd in scoring (35.9 ppg).
As good as their offense is, Arizona St.'s defense may be more impressive. Defensive coordinator Craig Bray is in his 5th season at ASU as defensive coordinator. The defense may give up a lot of yards, 240 passing ypg, 140 rushing ypg, but they only allow 21.5 ppg (29th nationally). This is partly due to the speed the offense plays with and partly due to the fact that Oregon and Missouri both racked up over 500 yards of offense. However, for the most part the defense has been good when it counted. The Sun Devils have forced 12 more turnovers than it has given away, as well as recorded 18 sacks and 46 tackles for loss.
The announces will probably mention this 100 times on Saturday, but QB Brock Osweiler (6-8 240 Jr.) is big. He's 6'8. There aren't that many quarterbacks as big as Big Brock. He's really, really, REALLY big. In fact, he's so big that his skills might get overlooked. On the season, he is completing 65.9% of his passes for 284 ypg and has 17 TD's to 8 INT's. He might not be Andrew Luck, but he's better than Case Keenum or Nick Foles, and they both destroyed our soft defense.
Sitting in Osweiler's outrageously large shadow are backups Mike Bercovici (6-1 205 Fr.) and Taylor Kelly (6-1 202 RS-Fr). Highly touted QB Michael Eubank is redshirting this year.
Cameron Marshall (5-11 223 Jr.) is Arizona St.'s leading rusher with 632 yards and 12 TD's. Deantre Lewis, last year's freshmen firecracker is redshirting this year after suffering a gun shot wound in the offseason, and Marshall is getting more carries per game as a result.
Kyle Middlebrooks (5-8 175 So.) is part slot receiver, part running back. He has 32 carries for 101 yards and 13 catches for 90 yards and has speed to burn. He is listed as Marshall's primary backup. James Morrison (5-11 214 Jr.) is the third running back, but has only 9 carries on the year.
The third leading rusher is F Jamal Miles (5-10 183 Jr.). Although the position is technically a receiver in Mazzone's offense, Miles will often line up in the backfield or motion out of the backfield. On the season, he has 23 carries for 193 yards as well as 36 receptions for 257 yards and 5 touchdowns.
Gerell Robinson (6-4 222 Sr.) and Mike Willie (6-4 220 Sr.) start outside with Aaron Pﬂugrad (5-10 180 Sr.) and the aforementioned Miles inside. Robinson leads the team with 36 catches for 612 yards and 4 TD's, but Plufgrad is the prototypical collegiate possession receiver. Plufgrad has 30 catches for 446 yards and 4 TD's. While Robinson wows you with size and talent, Plufgrad makes the annoying 13 yard receptions on 3rd and 12 that drive defenses crazy.
When you focus on Robinson and Plufgrad, Willie will burn you. He was a JuCo transfer and doesn't get as much attention as Robinson, but he has 24 catches for 347 yards and 3 TD's.
As mentioned above, Miles will often have some sort of backfield motion. One play to watch for is a zone read play in which Miles will vacate the backfield in motion. Osweiler will read the MLB and either run an inside zone run if the MLB vacates or swing it to Miles if the MLB stays home. The same motion can also be used to set up vertical routes if the defense begins to use safety help.
Backing up Robinson and Willie are Chris Coyle (6-3 235 So.), Kevin Ozier (6-0 201 So.), and Rashad Ross (6-0 164 Jr.). They have 6, 7, and 6 receptions, respectively. Plufgrad is backed up by George Bell (6-3 203 Sr.) andJarrid Bryant (6-5 180 So.). Bell has 10 receptions on the year while Bryant has 1. Miles is backed up by A.J. Pickens (5-10 176 Jr.), who has 8 receptions and only 1 rushing attempt.
The Sun Devils do have tight ends on their roster for short yardage. Trevor Kohl (6-1 245 Sr.) is the listed started and is backed up by Max Smith (6-2 248 So.).
Arizona St. starts seniors at 4 of the 5 starting positions, and a junior at the other. Despite the experience, the Sun Devils have had some problems in pass protection this season, which is to be expected given the number of pass attempts and need for Osweiler to wait while their vertical routes open up. Arizona St. has given up 20 sacks this season, including 6 to Illinois and 4 to Oregon in losses.
C Garth Gerhart (6-1 300 Sr.) is the leader of the line and is responsible for making the correct slides on protection. Kody Koebensky (6-4 300 So.) and Trent Marsh (6-2 320 Sr.) will backup Gerhart.
Guards Mike Marcisz (6-5 300 Sr.) and Andrew Sampson (6-3 300 Jr.) return as starters, with Sil Ajawara (6-3 297 RS-Fr.) and Adam Tello (6-3 292 Sr.) listed as backups.
At tackle, LT Dan Knapp (6-5 277 Sr.) starts in the place of injured Evan Finkenberg. He's backed up by Jamil Douglas (6-4 284 RS-Fr.) and Kyle Johnson (6-7 292 Jr.) RT Aderious Simmons (6-7 310 Sr.) battled with Knapp for the starting RT spot in the offseason.
That concludes Part I of the Arizona St. Sun Devil Preview. Fire away with any additional comments and observations, and be sure to check back in tomorrow for Part II of the Preview, where we'll take a look at the Sun Devil defense and special teams.