ASU Football Recruiting: Sun Devils taking chances on the offensive line

Matt Kartozian-USA TODAY Sports

Arizona State's offensive line had its ups and downs in 2013, and it looks like the Sun Devils could be headed a similar route in 2014.

As soon as Todd Graham and Mike Norvell brought their "left lane, hammer down," philosophy to Tempe, the Sun Devil football program has had no difficulties recruiting athletes and playmakers.

The Arizona State offensive meeting room has become a mecca for some of the country's most versatile recruits and its most exciting players over the last two seasons.

This recruiting cycle, Graham and Norvell helped land two quarterbacks, three running backs, and three wide receivers that could all potentially start for the Sun Devils sometime within the next two to three seasons.

Having playmakers who excel in the open field is always a positive, but one issue the Sun Devils began to run into against their toughest competition last season was finding their offensive players running lanes. Against Stanford, Texas Tech, and even in the second half against UCLA, the Sun Devil offense struggled because its offensive line was overmatched.

In 2014, the Sun Devils will have the athletes to turn every game into a track meet, but will they have the physicality to make it past the starting blocks? That's a question that can't be answered just yet.

What we do know is that this fall, the necessary changes and improvements along the offensive line are going to have to come from within. On Signing Day, Arizona State landed just two offensive linemen and each of these players looks to be a year away from contributing.

At his Signing Day press conference, Todd Graham accomplished a rare feat for a college football coach by admitting that Arizona State would have preferred to sign another offensive lineman.

"Going into our offense, offensively our biggest need there, we graduated three offensive linemen," Graham said. "Obviously we wanted to sign three."

Graham was ecstatic with the two offensive linemen that Arizona State signed, but his brief moment of candidness reflected the Sun Devils' dire need for immediate help up front.

"That's something that from a numbers standpoint kind of hurt us a little bit because you guys probably know how all the juggling goes and there was quite a bit,"

As a defensive-minded coach, it's no surprise that Graham and his staff put an emphasis on recruiting immediate-impact players on defense because the Sun Devils lose nine starters on that side of the ball. With Arizona State limited to 26 scholarships in 2014 (which is still a large number), Graham admitted there were some challenging decisions to make and ultimately, offensive line was the unit the Sun Devils decided to gamble with.

"Whenever you're competing and you have great people, we had a lot of people that we weren't able to take, that we could have taken that we couldn't, and at the end of the day, just one thing we have to do is make the decisions what's best for our program, and with graduating 16 players on defense and nine starters, we had to really make some tough decisions down the road," Graham said.

Last season, the Sun Devils started two seniors along the offensive line in First Team All-Pac-12 left tackle Evan Finkenberg and center Kody Koebensky. Though some Pac-12 schools will graduate more talent up front, the Sun Devils lose players at arguably the two toughest offensive line positions to fill.

Finkenberg was a rock on Taylor Kelly's blind side, and Koebensky was a critical component to reading defenses and changing protection schemes. Koebensky didn't match Finkenberg from a physicality or technique standpoint, but turnover at the center position always has the chance to have an adverse effect on an offense.

The two players that Graham recruited for the Sun Devils' offensive line look promising. Sam Jones, a high school offensive tackle from Colorado, had an offer from Oregon and repeatedly told Graham that he intends to step in and earn playing time early in his Sun Devil career.

"Sam Jones, this guy epitomizes toughness. Love this guy," Graham said. "This guy is a guy that makes no bones about it, tells me, Coach, I'm coming in and playing. Unbelievable passion for training."

For Jones, coming in and playing right away is going to be a difficult task and it's not just because the Sun Devils have players who have patiently worked up the depth chart. Arizona State intends to move Jones to the interior offensive line to play guard, and coupled with the transition to the college level, changing positions and learning new techniques is going to make the learning curve steeper.

"You see the third ranked player in the state, a guy that's going to play guard for us and a guy that I think will come in and have an opportunity to compete to be in the depth," Graham said. "If you ask me the hardest position to play as a freshman, it's offensive line, but I'm really excited, and again, you see that he had an opportunity there with Oregon, and again, we're excited to get him to come here."

The other offensive line signee is local prospect and Higley High School senior Quinn Bailey. Bailey has the size that college coaches dream about, and his highlight film reveals a tenacity that's hard to find at the high school ranks.

"We're really excited about Quinn," Graham said. "Again, smart, bright, physically tough, a guy that came in, I think he was 6-foot-9, his wingspan across, and then 6-foot-6, 302 pounds."

Bailey has the size and athleticism to be a starting tackle for the Sun Devils, but he will likely need an additional year to adjust to the rigors of facing college defenders daily. Bailey didn't play in one of Arizona's top high school divisions, and he didn't get to face the elite competition that players like Casey Tucker (Stanford) out of Hamilton did on a game-by-game basis.

Physically, Bailey and Jones are two impressive signees for Arizona State. The Sun Devils needed to add bulk up front to compete with the Stanfords of the world, and they are beginning to build the foundation for the future. Unfortunately, it looks like the future of the offensive line is still at least a year away.

One reason the Sun Devils were able to make offensive line the unit to take a chance with is the presence of Auburn transfer Christian Westerman. Westerman will be eligible in 2014, and projects to slide right into a starting spot up front. A 5-star recruit out of high school, Westerman can help ease the transition from the days of Finkenberg and Koebensky to the future with Bailey and Jones.

On Signing Day, Graham and the Sun Devil coaching staff knew that they stocked up on skill position players. They understood the chance they were taking, and the embraced the possibilities that lie ahead. Now, only time will tell if the gambles that Arizona State took will pay off.

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