It is a cliche, but it is nevertheless true: Games are won and lost in the trenches.
With that football truism firmly in mind, there was a lot of worry about how the Arizona State offensive line would hold up heading into 2012. Not only were they learning an entirely new offensive system, and not only was there a new position coach to adjust to in Bob Connelly, but they were having to replace three veteran starters from the prior year.
There were the expected rough patches, especially when facing good pass rushing teams, but all told, the line put together a very solid season. Their best work came in the running game, where they helped raised the team's yards-per-carry average a half-yard to a solid 4.5 mark, while paving the way for 2,670 yards, the program's best since 1996.
The 2013 edition of the line will have the benefit of staying in the same offensive system, as well as a year in Shawn Griswold's strength and conditioning program, but some of the issues of the previous offseason return.
Connelly was dismissed from the program earlier this offseason and has been replaced by Chris Thomsen, the twice-hired assistant coach. Among Thomsen's first tasks is figuring out who will comprise the right side of his line, as guard Andrew Sampson and tackle Brice Schwab have departed.
ASU does have the luxury of returning three quality starters, built around senior left tackle Evan Finkenberg and his 34 career starts. Left guard Jamil Douglas is an emerging star whose impressive skills may serve the team best as Finkenberg's bookend at right tackle, and center Kody Koebensky acquitted himself well at center last season, taking over for All-Pac-12 member Garth Gerhart.
Behind that trio are a host of talented players who will be vying for Thomsen's eye and playing time come the start of spring practice. One great wild card to watch this spring will come in the form of Auburn transfer Christian Westerman, and elite prospect who very likely will have to sit out the 2013 season per NCAA rules. While he likely won't see time in 2013, his time on the practice field this spring will garner a lot of attention.
If the team can do as good of a job plugging the holes as they did a year ago, the Sun Devil offense led by the quarterback Taylor Kelly and the dynamic running back duo of Marion Grice and D.J. Foster should flourish.
- C Kody Koebensky
- LG/T Jamil Douglas
- LT Evan Finkenberg
- OG Vi Teofilo
- OT Evan Goodman
- OG Sil Ajawara
- OT Tyler Sulka
- C/G Mo Latu
- C Devin Goodman
- OG Stephon McCray
- OT William McGehee
- Christian Westerman (Auburn transfer, 2013 status TBD) - Eligible for spring practice
- C Nick Kelly (2013 recruit, midyear transfer) - Eligible for spring practice
- OT Jack Powers
- RT Brice Schwab
- RG Andrew Sampson
- OT Kyle Johnson
Keep an Eye On: Evan Goodman
One of the nation's top tackle recruits in the 2012 class (16th by Scout.com), Goodman came to ASU to to play alongside his brother Devin. As a true freshman, he saw reserve action in 11 games, but figures to make a strong push for a starting job in 2013.
Goodman has an excellent frame at 6-foot-4 and 306 pounds, but it's his explosiveness and tenacity that make him an emerging star. He is very quick of the snap, and hits his assignments very aggressively with power and drive, making him an excellent run blocker and fit for the ASU offense.
He has all of the tools at hand to seize the right tackle job and be a fixture in the starting lineup for the next three years. With the path ahead of him clear, spring practice will be the first step in realizing his potential.
Biggest Strength: Athleticism
The Sun Devil offensive line is not based on size and brute force like a Wisconsin or a Stanford. Instead, they rely on tenacity and athleticism, two areas in which the unit is strong. That is critical, as only two of the players fighting for spots on the two-deep are currently over 300 pounds (three, should Westerman win the unlikely right to play this season).
Both Douglas and Finkenberg brought loads of toughness together with excellent athleticism to form a strong duo on the left side last season. Douglas' skills are such that the coaching staff could have him make the shift to tackle, which would help alleviate the guard situation.
Players looking for expanded roles such as Evan Goodman and Vi Teofilo also bring potent combinations of strength, quickness and agility to the table.
Biggest Concern: Right side
Anytime you have to replace an entire side of your offensive line, it's cause for some concern.
As mentioned above, the younger Goodman is poised to make a run at the starting right tackle job, but the position is most certainly not going to be handed over to him. Junior Tyler Sulka saw action last year as a reserve, and even played some tight end, showing off his athleticism and run blocking prowess, although at just over 270 pounds, he may be a bit light for full-time duty.
The idea of moving Douglas from left guard over to right tackle is also a possibility, and such a move would create a spot open at guard, where a trio of prospects are vying for time.
Vi Teofilo is a beastly guard who made three starts when Sampson went down with injury. He's one of the few ASU linemen over 300 pounds (314) and brings a physical presence and solid work ethic to the group. Junior Sil Ajawara, his 295 pounds, and his mean steak will be in the mix as well, after seeing spot duty over the last two seasons. Perhaps most intriguingly, the addition of center Nick Kelly (and his spring eligibility as a mid-year transfer) in the 2013 class may free up Mo Latu to see more time at guard. At 319 pounds, the former defensive tackle is among the biggest players on the roster, and has a wealth of power and skill that could be an excellent fit in the interior. Two members of the 2012 class, guard Stephon McCray and tackle William McGehee, will also get looks during the spring after redshirting in 2012.
What It All Means
Two positions (left tackle and center) are set, and three spots in the starting lineup are taken. With Finkenberg, Douglas and Koebensky, the Sun Devils have a very solid core group of players to build around. After that, it will be anyone's game.
The Sun Devil coaching staff has proven that recruiting rankings and potential mean little in getting playing time. This team is a meritocracy, and the players who can help this team win will play.
On paper, it could be easy to see Goodman taking the right tackle spot, with Douglas' move to tackle put off a year , and Teofilo, Ajawara and Latu battling to a guard spot. But few things in football are easy. Whether or not Douglas stays at the left guard spot may be the domino to watch first.
With no projected impact players coming this fall, the eventual starting Sun Devil offensive line will be on the field for spring practice. The starting five that takes the field against Sacramento State on September 5th is a long way from being decided over the course of spring and fall camp, but these next 15 practices will go a long way in clearing up the hazy picture.
2013 Spring Football Primer Series