It is about time the helmet and uniform colors change. After four weeks of battling against their comrades, Arizona State officially opens the 2011 football season on Thursday night.

The men across the line will look like Notre Dame, but don’t be mistaken, it is merely the UC Davis Aggies. Perhaps this opponent fits the “looks like Tarzan but plays like Jane” scenario with their uniforms. Still, the opponent across the line demands respect. If UC Davis can take advantage of a passive Bowl Subdivision opponent, they will.

In the past five seasons the Aggies have kicked two West Coast FBS teams out of their own stadium. San Jose State (14-13 Loss in ’10) and Stanford (20-17 Loss in ‘05), were the teams that were left embarrassed following those contests, and oddly enough, ASU fell victim to Stanford (45-35) that very same season.

ASU has felt thoroughly shocked and embarrassed on Frank Kush Field not too long ago themselves. The opponent was not a Championship Subdivision member, but the UNLV Rebels who left maroon and gold supporters wondering, “What happened?”

That September night in Tempe, an overtime debacle wrote the script on looking forward to your next opponent. In 2008 it was the Georgia Bulldogs, and it turned out “looking ahead” had nothing to do with ASU’s performance.

Eerily similar to ASU’s season opener on Thursday night, a looming nationally ranked opponent in the Missouri Tigers come to Sun Devil Stadium for a showdown.

But, this nightmare can’t unfold before Dennis Erickson’s eyes. Not this season, and not with this team.

The approach to every practice has been different. Instead of lackadaisical practice habits, the team begins practice with one goal in mind: the Bowl Championship Series. That tone has resonated for four weeks of practice.

“BCS” is the war cry. During Dennis Erickson’s inaugural season in Tempe, the team broke huddles with the next desired win count: “Eight, Nine, Ten, etc.”  It was something brand new to the football program that remembers the echoes of Dirk Koetter’s “Answer the Scratch” slogan and minimal rah-rah spirit beyond that.

The identity of the 2011 squad is entirely different. Many people believe the hype of the preseason publications regarding the Sun Devils. On the other hand, the team started the process following the 2010 season long before Phil Steele or the great Lindy’s printed a word.

As 13 players saw their eligibility run out, the maroon and gold’s core remained intact. Moreover, 27 seniors returned motivated by past failures and even deeper memories of glory. Many of the players in the starting lineup now, wore the redshirt tag during the Pac-10 Co-Championship season four years ago. They step on the front-lines now with a desire to taste their own piece of success.  

Along with 27 seniors, 20 juniors return that only know the feeling of turning in their jersey and equipment following the Duel in the Desert. Which makes it even more surprising “BCS” is the chant of choice.

Nobody wants to hear words this time of year. Now, It’s all about playing the game of football. Everything Erickson has built since his arrival in December of 2006 is hinging on the results and production on the gridiron this fall. Motivation is not thin on any coaching staff member or the players.

Mentally, the team is a year older in the offense. Emotionally, the team has areas where the reigns need to be held firmly, yet appear bold and secure with their swagger.

Physical ability against a live opponent is the only question mark remaining. Practice is practice, but the bright lights are entirely different. UC Davis will line up ready to battle looking for the upset.

On the other side of the ball, Arizona State will be ready to make their first statement of 2011, with and exclamation mark.

Get the fireworks ready on the buttes! Thursday night will be the first of many happy nights in Tempe.

Published on August 30, 2011

“Kris Francis On Sports”

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The National Football League has a timeless proven theory that stable, strong-armed passers with leadership will grace an organization with Super Bowls. Unfortunately, that theory is easier spoken than executed.

One of “The League’s” most historic franchises is struggling, to say the least, in executing a plan they wrote. Back in the 1980s Bill Walsh designed a heavy passing game with Hall of Fame quarterbacks at the helm. Joe Montana and Steve Young helped San Francisco’s finest win titles in 1981, 1984, 1988, 1989 and 1994.

Since Young placed his helmet in his locker for the last time, the quarterback play in Candlestick Park has been dreadful to present day.

Jeff Garcia was the most successful of the signal-callers in the Bay Area, but even he struggled to win playoff games.  Garcia led to Tim Rattay in the gun. Then came Ken Dorsey, Alex Smith , Cody Pickett, Trent Dilfer, Shaun Hill, Chris Weinke, Hill—again, Alex Smith—again, and finally Troy Smith.

Alex Smith was drafted as the next great San Francisco 49er gunslinger. With the revolving door of team leaders has been far from executing the plan of developing prosperous quarterbacks to be crowned Super Bowl champions.

The first good move was made in the offseason by hiring former Stanford coach and Pro Bowl quarterback, Jim Harbaugh. As a former player, Harbaugh knew what it took to be successful in the professional ranks. Although he never raised the Vince Lombardi Trophy, his desire as a coach has not wavered since he hung up the pads.

Thus far in the preseason, the 49ers have still struggled at the quarterback position. There are plenty of areas on the gridiron where less than stellar players can avoid the spotlight, but when a quarterback struggles, the entire stadium witnesses the rough day at the office.

Alex Smith has gotten the nod from Harbaugh at a 17th or maybe even an 18th opportunity at owning the starting position for San Francisco. In three preseason games, Smith has yet to pass for a touchdown, while tossing two interceptions and conceding four sacks.

His career numbers look relatively similar, drawing relentless concern from the Niners faithful. Anticipating another collapse by Smith, Harbaugh opted to draft Colin Kaepernick, a 6-foot-4, 230 pound mobile and “heady” quarterback with mobility.

Steve Young had plenty of success with mobility, and a better than above average arm in the 90’s. Kaepernick is a taller, right-handed “poor man’s” version of Young.

Kaepernick has looked comfortable in two preseason games, including a 6-for-8 passing performance against the Oakland Raiders. On the rookie’s two offensive possessions, both drives ended with touchdowns.

That might look like a solid indication on what the future holds for the former Nevada star, but the preseason can be deceiving. As of this moment, Kaepernick looks to be the more superior, and polished, passer in the 49ers crop.

If Smith picks another injury—which over his seven year career as been predictable—Kaepernick will get a shot at the starting job.

Hopefully injuries don’t become a problem, because Jim Harbaugh might be the next best option under center. He is only ten years removed from his last plays in the NFL.

And in the end, who knows the offense better than the Head Coach?

Published on August 29, 2011 

“Kris Francis On Sports”

“Leadership” is a term that has been tossed around very loosely this offseason in Tempe, Ariz. Coming off a roller-coaster ride of near misses, fumbled opportunities and late-game meltdowns resulting in a 6-6 record, leadership and direction is an area of need.

Naturally, the centerpiece on offense carries the weight of a starving football community. The Sun Devils fan base is thirsty for a winner. After all, it has been a few years since ASU has had a winner.

Tampa Bay Buccaneer quarterback Rudy Carpenter was the closest signal caller to a true winner, but even maroon and gold fans never fully embraced the school leader in all-time completions.

The ASU community has, however, already embraced Brock Osweiler. Although he is nowhere near 43 consecutive starts or 800 completions, Osweiler is writing his own story in the pocket.

His name was chanted as a true freshman while then-starting quarterback Danny Sullivan struggled with elite defenses. Head coach Dennis Erickson echoed the thoughts that the Montana product was “not ready.”

Once Osweiler got his shot against USC, his performance spoke volumes. However, Osweiler was still an inexperienced freshman.

With inexperience on the gridiron, Osweiler also dabbled with the thought of lacing up the high tops and playing basketball at ASU.

The decision was ultimately made for him as Steven Threet suffered a career-ending concussion against UCLA.

The bandwagon began to form for Osweiler and everyone in the valley was trying out for the lead guitarist role. However, more than a handful withheld judgment until Osweiler passed the test against in-state rival Arizona.

A leader, and a rising star, was born in Tucson.

Still inexperienced, Osweiler played like a poised veteran as the clock ticked down into overtime. Whether by ground or by air, Osweiler had the answers.

Now Osweiler has been celebrated for his leadership. Through his production and motivation, he has earned the title of team captain.

He is the frontman this Sun Devils band needed.

This team has witnessed countless misfortunes in heartbreaking fashion and Osweiler has been present for much, if not all of them.

Now, the results will be tabbed on his watch, and Osweiler wouldn’t have it any other way.

Since he picked up a football, Osweiler wanted to be a starting quarterback at a major Division I football program. His childhood dream is unfolding as he is writing each page with each snap.

The first chapter of his junior season will unfold against UC Davis.

From the first coin toss at Sun Devil Stadium, Osweiler will walk across the 50-yard line flanked by seniors Garth Gerhart and Colin Parker. The decision of heads or tails will be the easiest of the season.

After all, Osweiler is a natural born leader. Once the first snap is taken, all his decisions will be second nature. He has already made the passes and scored the touchdowns.

He is the voice of ASU’s rebuilding process. But will Osweiler be the voice of championship celebration?

Published on August 24, 2011

“Kris Francis On Sports”

Football fans within the Pac-12 Conference borders know the names Andrew Luck, Matt Barkley, Darron Thomas and even Nick Foles of Arizona. Those are the stars at quarterback.

There appears to be a “giant” rising star in the desert with whom many are taking a wait-and-see approach. He is the 6’8″ Brock Osweiler, poised for a showcase season. After all, Osweiler has accepted the role as the face of hope in Tempe.

Osweiler was better than good in relief of Steven Threet last season.

His performances against UCLA were borderline heroic. But he is not a star yet.

Every west coast hurler wants to be mentioned with the greats, even the newcomers. But as we know, football is a team sport.

Stanford has a Heisman Trophy favorite calling the signals, but without Stepfan Taylor leading the way for the Cardinals rushing attack, Luck would be missing his sidekick.

Osweiler could brag about one advantage he has over Luck, excluding the difference in stature—a full stable of offensive linemen returning.

In fact, no other conference foe can boast as much.

Even in the pass-happy Pac-12, the game of football is still built with dominant offensive line play.

Dominance has not been on display consistently, but one cannot doubt the chemistry of Arizona State’s front wall.

One man at Stanford can’t win alone, and neither can Osweiler.

The Sun Devils have the most under-the-radar backfield in the conference. No one rushed for over 1,000 yards, and the quarterback has two starts in his career.

Even Washington State has a more widely-known passer than Osweiler. And Washington has a budding star in tailback Chris Polk.

Ball carriers in Tempe are speedy, agile, and yet still carry the physical punch. Speed can balance a game or blow it wide open.  Oregon has made a living off of that philosophy, with far more results in the blow-out column.

Arizona State’s backfield can be a two- or even three-headed monster. Perhaps the “can” in that statement is “under-the-radar” at its finest.

But Cameron Marshall, Deantre Lewis and Kyle Middlebrooks are the ideal combination of every coach’s dream backfield.

Marshall has the physicality and breakaway speed of the ideal every-down running back. Deantre Lewis, if healthy and physically recovered from a bullet wound, is prolific every time he touches the ball.

In 2010, Lewis showed he could not only pound the ball against the stiffest of defenses (122 yards vs. Wisconsin), but also show off his speed against Oregon with a 53-yard scamper.

Osweiler has plenty of options in the backfield, but none are more difficult to tackle than Kyle Middlebrooks. As a return specialist, he can blow a game wide open with one touch of the ball. As a tailback and a receiver, Middlebrooks brings that same style to the offense. 

There is no doubt Osweiler has the proper tools at his fingertips to succeed this season.  A 6-6 team turned preseason favorites is not rare, but Osweiler is shouldering the load of expectations.

Come September 9 against Missouri, the truth will be revealed regarding how far ASU can ride the train of momentum.

As with the other great quarterbacks in the conference, Osweiler is the conductor.

He showed as much versus UCLA, throwing for 380 yards and four touchdowns in a comeback victory that soon turned into a blowout.

And a national audience witnessed a leader grow before their eyes, as Osweiler gathered the Sun Devils in Tucson, AZ, last December proclaiming “Victory.”

Motivational speeches help build confidence, but real confidence and respect is earned on the field.

So far, the preseason publications have shown ASU respect with Top 25 rankings, but the leader is still relatively untested.

Osweiler, who became the first Sun Devil freshman to start at quarterback since Jake Plummer, has only two starts under his belt.

Needless to say, UC Davis will be the first measuring stick for Dennis Erickson’s squad, but not a true test.

When the bright lights of Friday night turn on at Sun Devil Stadium and the Missouri Tigers come to town, then “under the radar” will no longer be a phrase associated with Brock Osweiler’s Sun Devils.

Published on August 20, 2011

“Kris Francis On Sports”

As die-hard football fans, we all love the contact within the game. We jump out of our seat when pads and helmets collide on the gridiron. On the other hand, a major drawback inside the sport revolves around player safety and the injuries that follow.

It is always concerning when the training staff jogs onto the field, towel and water bottle in hand. Within a moment, the serious nature of the injury is observed. No matter what, positive or negative, a gesture to the sideline is passed along.

With each passing second, coaches, fellow teammates and all of the fans in attendance hold their collective breath.

Unfortunately, when a cart enters the playing surface, the news is never good.

This same scenario has played out far too many times in Tempe, Ariz. Dating back to spring practice, All-Conference shutdown cornerback and senior leader Omar Bolden injured his knee and is in danger of missing the entire 2011 season.

Along with Bolden, wide receiver and deep threat T.J. Simpson also tore an ACL during practice in preparation for the upcoming season.

Leaving spring ball, Erickson and the Sun Devils still felt confident with their squad. Although the key injuries during spring hurt, the depth Dennis Erickson recruited was expected to step up.

Although, much of the high praise Erickson’s Sun Devils have garnered this offseason stems from their experience and strength in numbers—especially the upperclassmen.

With each passing practice, another key contributor or slated starter has picked up an injury. Some players’ injuries are not as severe as the aforementioned names, but over the weekend, another big name for Arizona State found himself surrounded by sports medicine personnel.

Brandon Magee, starting linebacker and “backbone of the defense” according to quarterback Brock Osweiler, tore his Achilles tendon early in fall camp’s first scrimmage.

Magee’s injury certainly hurts the Sun Devils’ plans at dominating the Pac-12 on defense. Yet ASU still has quality talent to fill the void at outside linebacker.

The Sun Devils starting linebacking corps was set to read “No. 6, No. 7, and No. 8” in terms of jersey numbers. Now, Magee’s No. 8 will likely be filled by Oliver Aaron’s No. 18.

Maroon and gold fans might remember Aaron from his highlight moment against in-state rival Arizona, where the Gainesville, Fla. native forced and recovered a fourth-quarter fumble.

Aaron’s intensity and ferocious style of play fits well with the other defenders, but Magee’s knowledge, nose for the ball and composure will need to be replaced.

Brandon Magee and fellow Corona Centennial High School (Calif.) teammates Vontaze Burfict and Shelly Lyons had a chemistry that no other linebacking corps in the nation could match.  Magee also played an integral part in calming Burfict in crucial in-game situations last fall. As we all know, Burfict can occasionally boil over. Magee played a good Dr. Phil in many of those moments.

Aaron can try his best, but Burfict has to control what is above his shoulders. Although he is not the most senior member on the defensive side, or the roster—in fact he is not even 21 yet—Burfict will be forced to lead. Everyone knows he can speak with his pads and his hard-hitting tackles, but motivation comes in many forms.

How he chooses to lead should be very telling for the fans in the valley of the sun.

This Sun Devil team has high expectations for their future. Even through these impactful injuries, the goals are still far reaching. And that mentality has to remain consistent within the locker room. Another injury, at any position, could fracture that confidence, but the belief must be rock solid.

Injuries occur throughout all levels of football. Fortunately for college coaches, 85 scholarship players and nearly 40 invited walk-ons are at the staff’s fingertips.

Moments such as these should not be considered “red flags” or a time to press the “panic button.” A door is opening for a younger player to rise to the occasion and perform.

All of these players snapping on their chinstraps with a pitchfork on their helmet want to play football at the highest level. Now, they have their audition.

It’s time to step into a new role.

Published on August 15, 2011

“Kris Francis On Sports”

Homegrown talent moving throughout the ranks is tough to find on the West Coast. Try and think of your favorite state, their high school stars moving on to the college within the borders and then earning acclaim as professionals, all in the same market. It is difficult to name a handful, especially within the last decade.

Dating back, Marcus Allen comes to mind, although a San Diego native, he still erupted at USC and drafted by the Los Angeles Raiders. Seattle Seahawk fans call Warren Moon their own, but even he is not a homegrown Apple state native. If John Elway became a 49er or ironically enough, a Raider, perhaps that would be a story for the ages.

As we know, history is written for a reason, and Elway wrote his chapter in excellent form.

For the fans, watching homegrown talent rise through the ranks as preps, than wear their university’s colors and finally wear the badge as ultimate competitors in the NFL within state borders is a rarity.

Drafting players from in-state colleges is not unique, but finding the trifecta within your border is a dime a dozen.

Arizona fans have that right in front of their eyes. Todd Heap has returned to the valley of the sun, and the fans already love it. With nearly 13,000 fans in Flagstaff for Arizona Cardinals training camp, the chant of “Heap” echoed through the woods.

Heap is not Jake “The Snake” Plummer or Pat Tillman, but with each catch, the former Sun Devil and Mesa Mountain View High School stud knew he was home. Smiling from ear to ear, the fans extended their arms, and vocal chords, to reciprocate.

With Kevin Kolb arriving from Philadelphia to revive the Cardinals passing game, Todd Heap will have an impact on both the passing game and ground game. But, that is nothing new with Heap.

After helping Mesa Mountain View win the first back-to-back Arizona state championships in football, he later became known as the “Golden Retriever” by Sun Devil fans.

His alias fit him very well. The combination of Heap’s blonde hair, Velcro hands and keen sense of the overall play, he shattered the previous ASU records for the tight end position. After all, Heap’s first catch was of the one-handed variety for a touchdown against the Washington Huskies.

Two seasons later, Heap was a two-time All-Pac-10 honoree and a first round draft pick with a year of eligibility remaining. Ten seasons after first suiting up with the Baltimore Ravens, the All-Pro tight end has ditched the purple and black for the red birds’ sleek look.

And the colors of Heap’s home state suit him well. Perhaps, it was a match made in heaven, or simply nature coming full circle.

It is always a player’s desire to perform at the highest level in front of the greatest fans a player could know: “the homers”.

Heap had the attention of maroon and gold supporters from day one in Tempe. He was a hometown hero before he left for the east cost, and fans surely have not forgotten.

Many athletes in today’s game go for the clearest path to their NFL payday. Sometimes that includes venturing off to college campuses and football programs that seem foreign in these parts, or others tryto earn their stripes at another historic institution outside of state lines.

Either way, players want to play on the grandest of stages with the biggest spotlight shinning down on them. Todd Heap proved stardom could be achieved within city limits. Heap’s style proved that it is not where you play, but how you produce.

With Heap’s return to the desert, perhaps a new generation of athletes will witness his actions both as a football player and a community member in Phoenix.

Published on August 11, 2011

“Kris Francis On Sports”

Soccer and the United States normally are not associated together. However, the sport that so many bash because of the most humorous score line in athletics, “Nil to Nil,” is not foreign to common fans in the states.

Even the typical football junky, who lives and breathes for the bone-crunching NFL, gets excited for the World Cup every four-years. Yet, until a winner is crowned in red, white and blue, the average Joe and Josephine will note be enthralled to watch.

Baby steps have been taken both on the national team landscape, as well as the Major League Soccer platform. Once the United States got their shot at hosting the World Cup in ’94 that was the catalyst to announce the game’s presence.

Still, it wasn’t too long ago when MLS games were relegated to Spanish broadcasts. Now, soccer fans have options to watch league games on multiple platforms on cable and satellite providers—including primetime slots on ESPN. However, when a great moment in U.S. soccer history is made, sometimes the Spanish announcers tell the story the best.

The jubilation that “neutral” commentators possess in moments like that, are timid compared to fans across the fifty-states.

Soccer is spreading, whether the general public takes note, or not. Remember the videos that went viral capturing American fans erupt when Landon Donovan scored against Algeria.

Fans understood the moment and what was at stake, even though the opponent was Algeria. That one moment propelled U.S. soccer, to where it presently sits.

Major League Soccer is more popular than ever. With that popularity, also brings stability for the entire soccer federation. League expansion has unfolded with new teams in Philadelphia, Seattle, Portland and Vancouver, as well as the construction of multiple soccer-specific stadiums.

Looking across the league, ten of the 17 MLS stadiums are soccer-specific complexes built after 1999. Thirteen of the league’s stadiums were built after 2002, including Gillette Stadium, the home of the New England Patriots, and Qwest Field in Seattle, where the Seahawks and Sounders both call “home.”

State-of-the-art stadiums are a necessity in any sport. Although, just like the mainstream sports, the classic mainstay stadiums are an attraction in their own right.

Take the NBA’s Madison Square Garden or the NFL’s Lambeau Field; those bleachers are always packed due to constant tradition within the community. And winning isn’t required, with the Chicago Cubs proving their ineptness at Wrigley Field since 1916.

The MLS has a similar keystone stadium in Portland, OR. Jeld-Wen Field (formerly known as Multnomah Stadium) opened in 1926. However, prior to the MLS expansion of the Portland Timbers, Jeld-Wen Field underwent a $31 million renovation in 2010.

Upgrades are nice, but the fans still need to pile into the barn each home game. Capacity tops out at 22,000 patrons, but the anthems and overflowing support in Portland is eerily similar to the English Premier supporters.

The Timbers home stadium isn’t the Rose Bowl or “The Meadowlands” yet on an average Wednesday night, Portland Pride was a 12th, maybe a 13th man.

A team and a fan base outmatched national superstars and world-renowned athletes Landon Donovan and David Beckham. The same backdrop has been present in Los Angeles at the Home Depot Center, Chicago, Philadelphia and all the MLS stadiums.

Many might not believe 20,000 fans at a sporting event is subpar compared to the other professional heavyweight leagues in the states, but the contingency is strong for soccer.

Baseball might appear strong in the major markets, yet the Florida Marlins pull in 3,000 fans on an average night. In the MLS, the stadiums are averaging 13,000 fans per game across the 18 organizations.

And sellouts are up 62% from the 2009 season. People are flocking to the new sparkling facilities across the states, and even the women’s game has lured eye balls to watch.

ESPN drew 13.5 million viewers for the final between the U.S. and Japan, the net’s largest audience ever for a soccer match — outperforming Major League Baseball’s All Star Game, which had averaged an audience of 11 million five days earlier.

The Women’s Professional Soccer league won’t be booming to those numbers anytime soon, but the World Cup still exposed viewers to the league.

Fans in the United States are still missing the one aspect of a sport that every fan enjoys: the sweet satisfaction of victory. Once the United States wins the World Cup, fans will fully accept soccer as a national sport.

Published on August 6, 2011

“Kris Francis On Sports”