When covering the 2011 Sun Devils, one of my regular features would be to tweet a "Swing Pass Counter" during the games. Nary was there a game in which the tally did not hit double digits. With the elevated view from the press box, it was beginning to get easy to tell when Arizona State was going to run yet another dump off pass.
That swing play became the defining image of the Noel Mazzone offense. Over his two season's as the school's offensive coordinator, Mazzone transformed the Sun Devils into a pass-first-pass-second-maybe-run-third offense. Another defining characteristic, personified by the swing pass, was the tendency towards quick and short passes outside. In essence, the Sun Devils often employed a horizontal passing game.
Take a look at Jamal Miles' stat line. His 60 receptions were a robust total, ranking 76th in the nation. However, his 6.0 yards-per-reception ranked 419th.
Time after time, the cannon armed Brock Osweiler was asked to throw within a few yards of the line of scrimmage, rather than unleash his powerful arm downfield. As the season went on, the team did take some more shots downfield, primarily to Gerell Robinson during his torrid finish, but by and large, "short" and "quick" were the orders of the day.
That gameplan is now in Westwood, where Mazzone is now UCLA's offensive coordinator. Taking his place in running the Sun Devil offense is Mike Norvell, who is flipping the script in both major ways.
First off, ASU will be going from throwing the second-highest amount of passes in school history in 2011 to a run-heavy team in 2012. But when the team does throw the ball, it will strike deep at the heart of the defense.
Wide receiver Kevin Ozier laid it out succinctly when he told me, "I feel like we're going to take more shots down the field. Run it, run it, run it, take a shot and hopefully get a big gain or touchdown."
That's a sentiment supported by quarterback Mike Bercovici.
"This offense is based on getting four yards every single down, then taking a shot 50 yards down the field," the sophomore signal caller said.
While the receiving corps certainly has it's share of questions, it is well suited to this new role of making plays down the field thanks to an abundance of one key quality: speed.
2012 ASU Season Preview
Said Bercovici, "Using our speed, which I feel is our greatest strength as a wide receiving corps, I feel like this offense is absolutely perfect for the style of wide receivers we have."
Senior Rashad Ross is among the fastest players in Pac-12, and showed great promised in the season finale by hauling in a pair of passes over 35 yards and topping 100 yards for the game. Despite not having a catch yet in his career, junior J.J. Holliday runs a 4.4 40 and has followed up a great spring with a very good start to fall camp. Junior college transfer Alonzo Agwuenu has a great frame at 6-foot-4, good speed and can make the tough jump ball reception. And of course, every Sun Devil fan knows the kind of explosive speed that Jamal Miles brings to the table. It's got the wide receivers excited.
"I was a big fan of last year's offense, but this year I feel is a better offense. You can get more done. It's more productive and we can score more often," said Holliday.
Beyond the speed at the wide receiver spot, the team's make-up as a run first offense is something they hope to exploit for major gains in the passing game.
"It will open up a lot more holes and bring the defense in closer, so the deep passes will be open a lot. That's definitely our gameplan this season," said redshirt freshman quarterback Michael Eubank.
This shift will most certainly not make ASU fans forget the days of J.D. Hill and John Jefferson terrorizing opponents deep downfield, but it should serve as a welcome change in philosophy that provides some game-changing highlights.