Archive for the ‘Dennis Erickson’ Category

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”

“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”

Thumbing through the Arizona Republic this past week, the headline “ASU Coaches Named Staff of the Year” sparked some interest with many fans. Although, upon further review, the Sun Devil softball coaches were being honored following Arizona State’s 60-6 season, while securing the softball program’s second national championship in four seasons.

It would have been silly to think Dennis Erickson and his staff would receive an honor, especially after a 6-6 season. But many awards issued during the summer are simply talking points and hold no merit.

The football staff did not receive an award this past week. Instead, the entire Sun Devils athletic department was blindsided by a former player.

Former football standout and 2010 leading receiver Kerry Taylor volunteered his opinion on the state of Sun Devil football and the experiences during his four-year stint in Tempe.

Taylor gave a preview to Sunday’s AZ3 TV interview via a June 26 tweet: “I want ASU to win Pac-12 championships, all us ASU fans do. But in order for that to happen we need a new Head Coach. That’s all I’m saying.”

Granted, Kerry Taylor was recruited by former Sun Devil coach Dirk Koetter, but maintained his verbal commitment to the ASU football program. Although Koetter was not the coach, Taylor saw action in all 13 of ASU’s games en route to a Pac-10 championship under then-first-year head coach Dennis Erickson.

Throughout Taylor’s entire career in the maroon and gold, he was neither the scapegoat nor the star. Taylor is certainly accustomed to stardom, coming from a pedigree of NFL greatness. Kerry’s father, Keith Taylor, and uncle, John Taylor, both had extensive careers on the ultimate level of the game.

To date, Kerry Taylor is still hoping for a shot at the NFL, or an auxiliary football forum. After totaling 111 catches for 1,416 yards and seven touchdowns, his statistics did not overwhelm scouts, and his game film followed suit.

After all, Taylor never separated himself from the rest of the pack in college, why would scouts believe he would blossom at the highest level of competition?

Before Taylor’s senior season in Tempe, he only had two games in which he hauled in five or more passes. And prior to his “contract year,” Taylor never eclipsed the century mark for receiving yards.

At one point during the TV interview, Taylor made light of Erickson’s abilities to form a staff, mentioning that the coach is “helping out [Erickson’s] buddies.”

“We all know this is Erickson’s last stint in coaching. He is just trying to get some of his buddies one last paycheck,” he said.

Maybe Taylor does not understand how staff chemistry impacts the job, success and planning of an entire football program. Sure, Erickson hired “buddies,” but for the most part, these were the same assistants that have toed the line with Erickson since his coaching days in the Northwest and at the University of Miami.

Certainly, Taylor is aware of Erickson’s accolades and historical success, Erickson sports one of his two championship rings with regularity, both in the football facility and on the field.

One of the biggest blunders of Erickson’s tenure might have been the drawn out allegiance to former offensive coordinator and quarterback coach, Rich Olson. Fans that believed 2007’s success would breed new life into the Sun Devil program were sorely mistaken.

The system under Olson never meshed with the offensive roster, including Taylor.

Olson’s vanilla offense, lack of excitement inside the stadium, and lack of success on the scoreboard ultimately ended the Olson saga in Tempe. Olson was not the only faulty piece in ASU’s “Championship Puzzle.” ASU was also in the midst of juggling quarterbacks to replace Rudy Carpenter, who started 43 games as a Sun Devil.

Sure, Olson and Erickson had to find a suitable replacement at the most pivotal position, but if there is no viable solution, where do you turn?

Rightfully so, Erickson rebuilt the defense with astute and energetic defensive coordinator Craig Bray. Yes, Bray is a longtime “buddy” of Erickson, but he is a master of his craft.  Taylor failed to mention Craig Bray’s son, current linebackers coach, Trent Bray, as hires that flaunt Erickson’s nepotism.

Then again, Trent Bray was a ferocious linebacker at Oregon State in his own right. Bray’s honors in Corvallis extended much like a grocery list, rather than a player’s bio.

In Kerry Taylor’s case, Erickson had a former “buddy” coach the Chandler Hamilton standout for all four seasons.

Eric Yarber, former ASU wide receivers coach, was discovered at Los Angeles Valley College by Dennis Erickson in 1983. The former Crenshaw High School star signed his national letter of intent to play for the Idaho Vandals and Erickson later that year.

Yarber then had a brief stint in the NFL with the Washington Redskins as a return specialist. Yes, Yarber was a friend, but his coaching credentials were second to none.

If Taylor objects to that, he can call the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and ask how their new wide receivers coach is holding up.

Erickson’s son, Bryce, even received some backlash from Taylor. Taylor specifically mentioned both Bryce Erickson and Jamie Christian, Erickson’s son-in-law, while exploring perceived nepotism by Erickson.

Bryce had coaching experience before he arrived in Tempe, as did Jamie Christian. Both coaches have even flourished in their roles. Bryce has upgraded recruiting locally, as well as mentoring two running backs to rush for over 500 yards each.

Christian has spearheaded the special teams game, which had a couple hick-ups, but more highlight reel touchdown plays than gaffes. Take a look at any number of the long-distance kick returns Christian’s unit returned last fall.

Taylor obviously feels slighted, in some shape or fashion. At this moment, Taylor is not in the NFL. Any athlete who signs a letter of intent for a football program has aspirations of making it to the league. Taylor did not reach that goal, yet.

Taylor is doing his best to steer his brother into the best possible path to reach that same goal, but it will not be at Arizona State.

The entire interview was not supposed to be about Kerry or ASU, but his younger brother’s recruitment. Kerry’s younger brother Kendyl, pledged to play for the University of Washington under Steve Sarkisian, not the local Sun Devils.

Erickson extended an offer to Kendyl Taylor, but the recruiting for Taylor was done in-house.

By the end of Kerry Taylor’s rant, it was clear his Sun Devil career was a sham, at least at this very moment.

Last November, Taylor reflected on his ASU career prior to his final game, but no signs of disgust or frustration lingered. “I don’t regret anything that happened at ASU,” Taylor told Devils Digest. “Everything happens for a reason, so I’m glad I got to play even though a couple of the years haven’t been as good as I would have liked. I’m still glad that it happened.”

Erickson and Taylor both reminisced about potentially redshirting the wide receiver in 2007.

“He is really developed,” Erickson said. “You look at him now and you almost regret not redshirting him but at that time we didn’t have very much depth and one thing about Kerry is that he was a very polished receiver coming out of high school.”

“Looking back at it now (Nov. 2010), redshirting would have been great but I’m still glad that I didn’t,” Taylor said. “I still got the opportunity to play in every game my freshman year, learned a lot and had a great experience. I think it was a good stepping stone into my sophomore year.”

And indeed it was a good move at the time, for both Taylor and the program. Now, the feelings have changed quite a bit.

Now, Taylor believes that ASU will not win a Pac-12 championship with Erickson as the head coach. Whether it is because of the “buddy system” taking over the football staff, unsupported mentions of recruiting letdowns on the local front, or the treatment of players while in the football program, Taylor has voiced his displeasure.

It is easy to see the frustration through three-straight non-winning seasons, especially, now, that Erickson’s 2011 squad is on the brink of competing for the inaugural Pac-12 championship, without Taylor.

This all could be a case of sour grapes, or as the season unfolds, perhaps Taylor’s bashing will hold merit?

Only time will tell.

Published July 6, 2011

“Kris Francis On Sports”

Arizona State is in a new situation. The Sun Devils are tabbed as preseason favorites in the Pac-12 South, with that carries a burden of expectations. There are certain Pacific 10, now Pac-12 conference teams that have performed well under great expectations.

Of course, the USC Trojans come to mind on more than one occasion, as well as the great Washington Husky squads of the early 90s under Don James, and even the UCLA Bruins‘ brief stint of optimism following the 1997 postseason Cotton Bowl victory, while contending for a national championship the following year.

Each team lived up to heightened expectations for their upcoming season, after triumphant previous seasons.

Arizona State is in a completely different scenario than a typical “rise to power” plot line.

The Sun Devils did not win a hotly contested bowl game, nor share the conference title crown with another program. Dennis Erickson’s squad was not permitted to play in a postseason bowl because ASU beat four, only four, bowl-subdivision teams.

Yet, ESPN, Fox Sports, and virtually every preseason magazine or online publication, has the Sun Devils in the top 25. Recently, this is a foreign territory for the Devils.

Playing as the favorite is normally reserved for early-season games vs. San Jose State, Louisiana-Monroe, Washington State and Nevada-Las Vegas, and the latter ASU managed to choke away in overtime.

Even just last fall, the Sun Devils hoped to come away with victories on the road at Wisconsin, against Oregon, and at the L.A. Coliseum vs. USC. That is hoped, not a “take it to the bank guarantee.”

After all, it has been a while since good old Sparky has been ranked. In fact, since the debacle that the UNLV Runnin’ Rebels laid on ASU in 2008, Erickson’s men have yet to sniff the polls.

But that was back then. Now, everyone is taking note of the Sun Devils, without a touchdown to be made, or a game to be decided.

Moreover, digital gaming kingpin Electronic Arts NCAA Football 12 rates ASU in the top 25. Credibility in the digital age matters, and the Sun Devils are accepting of the gracious “preseason honors.”

Fans in the desert can now play the game with their beloved Sun Devils as they always envisioned, an elite top 25 program.

The end result on the field is what counts, and the results last fall were encouraging, but still far from desirable. A 6-6 record is never ideal, especially when the previous two seasons ended with losing records.

Still, the aspirations of reaching a BCS bowl game emerge from the players. Before any plans are made for a Pac-12 championship game in the Valley of the Sun, fans must recognize that ASU still needs to learn how to win.

Sure, the Sun Devils ended the 2010 season in style with two wins against UCLA and hated rival Arizona, but those two contests are a small sample size of ASU’s success.

Those two wins were carried over through winter workouts and spring ball, and built a sense of confidence within the locker room. How much confidence is yet to be seen.

Playing with confidence helps, but if the players are thinking about all the kudos and preseason predictions on the field, another pedestrian performance will be scripted in 2011. Never has a team won a championship in a preseason magazine.

On the other hand, the desire to live up to expectations, and in a sense, prove the critics wrong is a motivating tactic. Long has Arizona State been considered a “sleeping giant” for more reasons than one, but has never sustained the fully-functioning, albeit frightening giant of the college football world. 

Sure, the Frank Kush days in Tempe were nothing but sunshine, conference titles, and beating the best from the Midwest every chance he got, but no one then knew what an iPod was, or ever would be, let alone an iPhone.

The times have changed, and so too has the philosophy at Arizona State. The old guard, or at the very least the old garb, has been tossed aside for a new style.

This fall, ASU will don new home and away uniforms, complete with a new helmet logo.

With the new uniforms, a new identity can be born. The past is the past, and will always be remembered. In the world of athletics, it is all about “what have you done for me lately?”

Lately, the Sun Devils have been all the talk. The only problem is, the score will not count until September. By then, all these preseason rankings and predictions will hold the weight of a penny.

Arizona State’s mentality in the 2011 season opener will be very telling. Sure, the opponent is only UC-Davis, but the Sun Devils should not worry about the opponent. After all, Sun Devil nation witnessed far too many games fumbled away by “user error” on the part of the maroon and gold.

The losses were not in dominating fashion, as the constant reminder of four losses by 10 points, and a fifth loss by 11 points to national runner-up Oregon, complete with seven Sun Devil giveaways.

The look might have changed at Arizona State, but that can only fool a few. The rankings certainly have respect for the Sun Devils, but has it been earned yet? No matter what, come Sept. 1, respect will be earned, not handed out.

Published on June 19, 2011

“Kris Francis On Sports”

Head coaches and offensive coordinators can scheme and gameplan until they are blue in the face, but the success on gameday normally boils down to quarterback play. After all, only two players touch the ball on each offensive play—the quarterback and the center.

Before the play even starts, the Arizona State Sun Devils should feel confident. The first person to touch the ball on ASU’s first offensive play in the fall is a preseason 1st team All-Pac-12 center, Garth Gerhart.

As the anchor and elder statesman of the offensive line, Sun Devil fans finally feel at ease with the five-man group affectionately known as “hog mollies.” Perhaps returning all five starters from last fall, as well as four other game-tested reserves, lays a comfort blanket across the fan base, but chemistry is key in an offense, and the line is one unit with abundance.

With solid protection in front of Sun Devil quarterback, Brock Osweiler, time should not be a problem in 2011. Finding a target could be.

In 2010, 279-passes were completed by Steven Threet and Osweiler, including one to Garth Gerhart. However, 54 of those completions went to graduated receiver, Kerry Taylor. No longer will Taylor be in the repertoire of Osweiler’s receiving corps.

Even further, the Sun Devils’ second leading receiver from a season ago, T.J. Simpson,  is recovering from a serious knee injury suffered in spring drills. Simpson could return by November, but nothing is certain.

Although it is not June gloom in Arizona, only a select few are worried about the losses on the receiving end of pass patterns.

When key catches in clutch situations were needed, Mike Willie (6’4” 220 pounds) seemed to be there.

Other than Sun Devil running back Cameron Marshall, no other ASU player scored more touchdowns in 2010 than Willie’s eight touchdown grabs.

Erickson’s staff is not mulling other options at receiver to fill the voids of Taylor and Simpson, simply because of Willie’s potential to be a No. 1 receiver, and the Sun Devils already feel like they have an All-Pac-12 receiver on their roster.

Gerrell Robinson, a highly-touted recruit from Chandler, Arizona’s Hamilton High School, was initially projected as a program changing player in 2008, eerily similar to Vontaze Burfict’s future on the defensive side of the ball.

Needless to say, Robinson’s hype was short lived. As a freshman, Robinson totaled just three catches for 26 yards. During G-Rob’s sophomore season, the former play-making quarterback became a stranger to the end zone, catching a pedestrian 26 passes for 261 yards.

After battling numerous leg and ankle injuries for much of his early career, 2010 was poised to be breakout season for Robinson. For the first time in his Sun Devil career, Robinson found the end zone in Corvallis, OR, against the Beavers. His health was back, and a map to the end zone was no longer needed.

After getting that monkey off his back, Robinson exuded himself as a go-to target for Threet and Osweiler down the stretch. Robinson even scored twice on USC’s All-Conference cornerback, Nikell Robey at the Coliseum.

Many analysts say, “speed kills,” but size can be the deciding factor between a touchdown and an interception. Amazingly enough, ASU found the ultimate combination of size and speed at receiver.

With Robinson and Willie on the outside, ASU’s offense has two potent 6’4” 220-pound receivers that like to play physical. Not many cornerbacks in the conference are even 6’1”, so Osweiler will be looking early and often for the mismatches on his receivers.

Can anyone say, “Go-to receivers”?

But the Sun Devils don’t just have tall, sure-handed receivers on the inside. ASU boasts precise route runners and possession driven receivers Aaron Pflugrad and Jamal Miles in the slot.

Combined, both Miles and Pflugrad hauled in 54 passes for 532 yards and six touchdowns. Those totals are sure to rise in the second season under Noel Mazzone’s offensive system.

And perhaps the “X-Factor” for ASU’s offense is wide receiver George Bell. Entering last fall camp, Bell was thought to be a sure bet to start for the Sun Devils at wide receiver. Bell contributed early in the season, but was removed from the line-up after a case of the “dropsies” broke out. A trip to the sideline was the treatment Bell’s illness, instead of warm soup, and lots of fluids.

Maybe Bell had an issue translating his production from the junior college level to Rose Bowl competition each and every week. No longer will Bell be excused for his shortcomings at receiver; that time has passed.

Now, all the receivers play through the routes, not think about the routes, then perform. There is fluidity in the ASU offense. A new chemistry and understanding is evident, not just on the offensive line, but the entire offensive unit.

Defenses might win championships, but without a solid and consistently productive offense, the opportunity to take home a championship will be out of reach.

It will be up to the offense to take the Sun Devils to new heights in 2011.

Published on June 5, 2011

“Kris Francis On Sports”