With roster that was laden with experience and a pair of veteran coordinators, the 2011 Arizona State Sun Devils were most readily differentiated from their 2010 counterparts by their all-new uniforms.
A year later, the 2012 team may only be familiar due to those uniforms.
This season is one of major change both on and off the field for the Sun Devils. More than a dozen starters have left, the entire coaching staff has changed and the culture that is ASU football has a markedly different feel to it.
Through all of these necessary changes, the ones that will be most readily apparent are the new schemes that will be featured on both sides of the football.
Todd Graham has tabbed longtime assistants Mike Norvell and Paul Randolph to head the offense and defense respectively. Their philosophies are much different than what Sun Devil fans have seen in recent years during the Dennis Erickson era.
The change begins this Tuesday, March 13th, when the Sun Devils will open their spring practices.
Let's now take a look at what the new schemes will bring, and which players could factor in heavily over between Tuesday and April 21st's spring game.
In 2011, Brock Osweiler shattered a number of school passing records, among them the mark for single season attempts. His 516 throws broke Andrew Walter's mark of 483 set in 2004.
It's only a slight exaggeration to say that it may take ASU quarterbacks two seasons to match that mark.
Norvell's offense will feature a return to smashmouth football. He has stated in a number of interviews that he envisions an ideal of at least a 60/40 run-to-pass split. By pounding the ball on the ground, the hope is to draw the secondary up to the line of scrimmage and then exploit that with play-action passes.
This philosophy has two immediate benefits for the 2012 Sun Devil team.
First off, the team will be featuring a fifth new starting quarterback in five years. The primary storyline of both spring and fall camps will be the three-way battle between Michael Eubank, Mike Bercovici and Taylor Kelly for the starting job. (Click here for a detail roundtable breakdown over the three candidates)
Regardless of who wins, they will be making their first career start--and in Eubank's case, his first NCAA game action--when the Devils take the field against NAU on September 1st. As anyone who has ever followed football knows, a quarterback's best friend is an effective running game.
That leads to the next major benefit. In order to run so much, the team will need many capable running backs, and ASU will feature several, although not all will be here for the spring.
Leading the way is returning starter Cameron Marshall. Last season, he became the first Sun Devil since 2006 to eclipse 1,000 yards in a season, and his 18 rushing touchdowns tied the school record. But behind him this spring will be many unknowns.
With newcomers and expected immediate contributors D.J. Foster and Marion Grice not on campus until this summer, and Deantre Lewis still just at "85%" in his recovery from last February's gunshot wound, the bottom-of-the-depth chart players like R.J. Robinson and Marcus Washington will see more time. It should also serve as a chance for the speedy Kyle Middlebrooks, coming off a very disappointing 2011, to begin his redemption efforts.
The wide receiver position lost most of its production in the offseason. The competition will be fierce, and our Spring Primer on the position goes into great detail on the players. The offensive set this year will not see nearly as many three and four-wide looks, and will often operate with a traditional two wide receiver set.
One player who could play a major role is Rashad Ross. With the passing game built off downfield play action passes, Ross and his elite speed could be in line for a breakout year after a strong finish to 2011. Kevin Ozier is another player who will be taking some 2011 momentum into this season, as his diligent work and production resulted in Graham awarding the former walk-on a scholarship. Ozier has good size (6'0", 200 pounds), speed and hands, and should be a factor from the start of spring.
The offensive line will be seeing a lot of rebuilding after three starters departed, but the change in scheme to one that places greater emphasis on bullish run-blocking may serve to the unit's advantage.
Evan Finkenberg and Brice Schwab are expected to start at the tackles spots, for now, as four-star recruit Evan Goodman but the interior line will be new. The key battle will be at center. Kody Koebensky saw some time there last season, and defensive tackle Mo Latu, and accomplished prep center, will see snaps there as well, along with Goodman's brother Devin.
After years of posting a middle-of-the-road pass rush and an overall bend-but-don't-break mindset under former coordinator Craig Bray, the 2012 Sun Devil defense will lean toward the other end of the spectrum and start attacking opposing offenses. However, that transition, both from a scheme and a personnel standpoint, will take some time.
After years of running a 4-3 base set, the team will feature a lot of 3-4 and 3-3-5 schemes. The 4-3 will not be completely eliminated, although that should be due to the fact of the staff using with the current players, and as the staff brings in their guys over the next few years, the 4-3 looks may disappear.
The major change in this defensive philosophy will be the need for a new type of defensive linemen, starting at nose tackle, where a big and strong player is needed to tie up the interior of the offensive line. ASU landed three such players in the 2012 class, highlighted by Mike Pennel, but they won't be here for spring practice. This gives returning players like Will Sutton and Corey Adams a chance to show the new staff they can hold down the middle.
At the end spot, it will depend on whether a three or four man alignment is used. Davon Coleman saw extensive time there and with his size (6'3", 262 pounds), he could play end in either scheme. Bigger ends like Toa Tuitea and Gannon Conway, each over 250 pounds, could see end duty in three-man fronts.
Linebacker, like wide receiver, saw a mass exodus of talent, but that leaves great opportunity for the remaining players. The position will place a much greater emphasis on athleticism, speed and the ability to create plays sideline-to-sideline than before.
Coming back from an injured Achilles that kept him out for all of 2011 is Brandon Magee, who will be the star and leader of the unit. His spring action may be limited, but his return to the defense will be a major boost. Carl Bradford has a good size/athleticism combo that should help him see time as a pass rushing force, either at linebacker or even at defensive end. Anthony Jones and Israel Marshall are two highly athletic players who will have a great chance to show the new coaches what they can do.
The linebackers in spring camp should make the most of their chances now, as this fall four intriguing prospects--Steffon Martin, Carlos Mendoza, Matt Rowe and Salamo Fiso--will hit campus this summer to challenge for playing time, and Martin in particular seems destined for a starting job.
The secondary will also see a shift towards placing a greater premium on physicality and athleticism. Another of our Spring Primers details this group, but with a new coaching staff, there are no guarantees for the returning players.
Deveron Carr and Oshaon Irabor return at cornerback, but their shaky play could open the door this spring for a player like talented transfer Robert Nelson. At safety, both starters are gone, meaning a larger role is available for athletic players like Alden Darby and Keelan Johnson.
With both sides of the ball breaking in so many inexperienced players into entirely new schemes, there will undoubtedly be substantial growing pains during spring practices and through this entire season.
However, the early returns on the foundation that Graham is laying have been very positive, so there is every reason to believe that there is a lot to look forward to in 2012 and beyond as the program begins to "speak victory". Those first words will be spoken on Tuesday.
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