Saturday's spring game will mark the end of Todd Grahahm's first slate of on-field action as Arizona State's head coach. Over the prior 14 practices, he and his staff have not only installed new offensive and defensive schemes, but also a new culture and attitude of "Speaking Victory". This has been a challenging time, but throughout this spring, the indications have been positive and optimistic.
The culmination of these early efforts will kickoff at 1:00pm on Saturday when the team heads to the field for the final time before fall camp opens in August. With so much time off and the majority of the 2012 recruiting class coming over the summer, this will be a great chance for many players to make a lasting impression on the coaches. It will also be a tangible measuring stick of how well the coaches have brought the program from the ashes of last December.
To preview the event, we're going to break down five major areas to watch for both the offense and the defense. First up, the O.
1) Will any QB separate from the pack?
The headline story throughout this offseason has been and will be the three-man quarterback battle between Mike Bercovici, Michael Eubank and Taylor Kelly. Each player has seen roughly equal time rotating with the starters, with all three having their great performances and their struggles.
It will be interesting to watch how each is able to move the offense. The scheme run by offensive coordinator Mike Norvell is a run-heavy one, with designed quarterback runs accounting for a large portion of the play calls. Being the most talented runner, we've seen Eubank be called upon to do more running than the other two. Conversely, Bercovici is the most polished passer, but doesn't add the running threat of his counterparts. Kelly's skillset lies in the middle.
This is a battle that will go deep into fall camp, but the spring game will give each player a chance to leave a lasting and important mark on film and in the minds of the coaches. Graham has stated that the player who gives ASU the best chance to win will get the job, and at this point the race is wide open.
2) How fast can high octane be?
In 2011, ASU ran an up-tempo offense that featured a quick-strike mindset. This approach led to the Sun Devils only averaging a little over 28 minutes of possession per game, with about 20 seconds between plays.
Now with the "high-octane" philosophy of Graham and Norvell, this new offense would like to take about four seconds off that already blazing pace. That is an Oregon Duck pace.
How well will the team be able to approach or maintain that standard, given it has only run that offense 14 prior times? Likely, we'll see glimmers of excellence and potential with a lot of rough edges and mistakes. The players are still adjusting to this new scheme and mindset, and this is a long-term project.
We will get an idea of how long that term will be come Saturday.
3) Who will be the downfield threats?
Even with an offense designed to run 60% of the time, the losses at wide receiver from last season are unsettling. Gerell Robinson, Mike Willie, Aaron Pflugrad and George Bell are gone, taking with them over two-thirds of the 2011 receiving yards.
This leaves a stable of talented, yet unproven targets.
Jamal Miles is the name every fan knows, and his game-breaking ability is second to none. But can he be a full-time wide receiver and not just a swing pass option? Kevin Ozier has quietly emerged as the best all-around target, but can his lack of elite athleticism hold up in a featured role? Rashad Ross can outrun just about anyone, but can he be more than a one-trick pony?
4) Can the offensive line continue to gel?
One of the primary sources of concern heading into this year was along the offensive line, where several key components, such as Garth Gerhart, Mike Marcisz and Dan Knapp departed. With a new offense being installed, a new quarterback behind center and a bevy of new starters, how would the line react?
So far, pretty well.
Kody Koebensky has done well in fighting off Mo Latu's attempts to take the center job, Brice Schwab came to camp in much better shape and has been playing very well, and Evan Finkenberg continues to develop into a good tackle. The unit has done well during practices, especially in the run game.
For ASU to do well in 2012 in spite of all the transition elsewhere, the offensive line will need to become a strong, stout and stabilizing force.
5) Can field goals no longer be a source of panic?
When ASU lines up for a field goal, chances are most Sun Devil fans get all kinds of nervous. That's because of Alex Garoutte's maddening inconsistency. Last year, he connected on just 15 of his 22 kicks, including a damning 0-for-3 against UCLA in the season's defining game.
This spring, he has been just as shaky, missing routine kicks while later on connecting from great distance. These struggles have allowed other players a chance to kick, but they have not done any better. Therefore, this job is Garoutte's for this season.
Repairing the damage to his confidence, and the confidence of the fans, will take a long time and many made field goals. So too will learning the trust of Graham. Those redemptive efforts can take a major step forward with a productive spring game.
Check back for the spring game defensive preview, coming at 11:30am PST today
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