For two years, the Arizona State Sun Devils have been on the brink of breaking out on the football field. And for two years, they've fallen short in big games. The common denominator in those losses? A glaring lack of size up front, especially on offense.
Not anymore. Help has arrived.
For the first time since Todd Graham arrived in Tempe in 2012, the coach finally feels that his offensive line will be a strength of the team, allowing the Sun Devils to battle with the Stanford's, Notre Dame's and Texas Tech's that gave Arizona State so much trouble last season.
Left tackle Jamil Douglas, right guard Vi Teofilo and right tackle Tyler Sulka return and will be joined by a pair of transfers in left guard Christian Westerman and center Nick Kelly. The additions of two big, strong and physical offensive linemen give the Sun Devils line a presence lacking in recent seasons.
Last season, the Sun Devils started the same five linemen in every game. Evan Finkenberg and Kody Koebensky gave the team a pair of reliable and smart players, but neither oozed football talent like Kelly and Westerman.
"I'm really excited about Nick Kelly," Graham said at Pac-12 media day. "He's explosive, smart, physical. Kody's experience last year, you know he was very smart, but physically Nick gives us an opportunity to be much better (at center) this year. And then Christian is a road grader. He's a physical, dominating presence in there.
"Our offensive line is bigger, more physical, it's stronger. We've just got to get them playing together, but I've got a lot of confidence in that group."
Westerman spent his first two seasons at Auburn, but after one year decided to return home to Phoenix and enroll at Arizona State. The former five-star recruit out of Hamilton High School in Chandler weighs over 300 pounds, and the teams current weight room star, Douglas, says Westerman is going to surpass his staggering lifting numbers.
"He's a phenomenal athlete," Douglas said. "You guys are going to be hearing about his numbers over mine soon."
Westerman was recruited as a right tackle, but has moved inside to guard, kicking Douglas out of the spot he has occupied his entire life. Despite his inexperience at the position, Douglas' strength and athleticism make him a strong candidate to stay at tackle in the NFL.
"It's a little new for me to work at tackle, but it's something I've been working on all summer," Douglas said. "I'm really comfortable there, it's just a matter of getting my timing down, and that comes with full speed reps."
The entire line weighs at least 295 pounds, and Kelly is the shortest at 6-feet, 2-inches. The reserves are all massive as well; only Devin Goodman stands less than 6-foot-2 or weighs less than 295 pounds.
Douglas talked highly of Finkenberg and Koebensky, but also acknowledged a simple fact: Westerman and Kelly are just better athletes.
"The additions of Christian and Nick allow us to do so much more from a scheme standpoint," Douglas said. "Evan and Kody were great players, great teammates and very smart, but Christian and Nick are bigger, they're quicker and more physical."
If you don't trust Graham and Douglas, you should trust quarterback Taylor Kelly. After all, nobody sees more of what the offensive line does than the man they are all protecting.
"(The offensive line) is a huge advantage for us this year," Kelly said. "Nick is so athletic that he can come off the ball, punch a guy, stone him real quick and then switch his hips and pick up a twist. He's also just so smart. That's a big key, he's already running that offensive line."
Kelly has also been impressed watching Westerman work in the ground game, something that should help open up big lanes for running back DJ Foster.
"To see Christian pull on a power play is just unreal," Kelly said. "The whole line is killing it in the weight room, too. I'd be really scared to go against those guys."
Kelly also said the offensive line will be the best he's ever played behind, and that's going to help the senior quarterback improve on an already outstanding career at Arizona State.
"We turned the ball over too much last season, and Taylor's got to take better care of the football, throw less interceptions this year," Graham said. "But at the same time, that's a product of protection, and we've got to protect the quarterback and run the football. This line is going to allow us to do both.
"This will be the best offense I've ever coached in my football career, I know it."