The Pac-10 conference is known for its offense around the world of college football, and a team has to be proficient on that side of the ball to rise up in the standings.
The ASU football team has the talent, depth and experience at the skill positions on offense to contend for the Pac-10 title.
But question marks at tight end and on the offensive line will have to be answered if the No. 15 Sun Devils want to de-throne USC and earn their first trip to the Rose Bowl since 1997.
Pink shirts and emotional outbursts aside, the Sun Devils return the most experienced quarterback in the Pac-10 in senior Rudy Carpenter.
Carpenter has started 31 consecutive games dating back to his redshirt freshman season in 2005, and he could break a slew of ASU records by the end of his senior campaign. He is currently tied with Jake Plummer for second in school history in career touchdown passes (65), and he ranks third all-time in both pass completions (586) and passing yards (7,998).
“Having an experienced quarterback is huge, there’s no question about it,” said ASU coach Dennis Erickson. “He’s a guy we’re depending on ... He’s been a real leader for us since he’s been here.”
Carpenter never missed a game last season despite being sacked 55 times, and his current career completion percentage of 61.2 ranks first in ASU history.
Should Carpenter go down for any reason, junior Danny Sullivan would be next in line to take the reigns of the Sun Devil offense.
Sullivan has a big frame and a strong arm but has never had any meaningful playing time in his career.
The Sun Devils will have to replace Ryan Torain, who was drafted by the Denver Broncos after missing the final seven games of his ASU career with a foot injury. But ASU returns a number of running backs that have had their own success.
Senior Keegan Herring and junior Dmitri Nance will make up the team’s main one-two punch on the ground.
Herring is the speedy runner that can take what looks like a five-yard loss and turn it into a 70-yard touchdown, and Nance is the powerful stomper that will pound the ball up the middle and near the goal line.
With 2,234 career yards, Herring currently sits 10th on ASU’s all-time rushing list and is the Pac-10’s leading active rusher. He is also one of the most vocal leaders on the team.
Juniors Jarrell Woods and Shaun DeWitty will be the options behind Herring and Nance, and freshman Ryan Bass also has the chance to make an impact in his first season in Tempe.
The Sun Devils are even more stacked at wide receiver, highlighted by returning starters senior Michael Jones and junior Chris McGaha.
“I think our wideouts are probably the most talented group we’ve got on the team,” Carpenter said.
Jones’ height and athletic ability allowed him to be one of the Sun Devils’ biggest playmakers last season. He led the team in touchdown receptions (10) and was second on the team in catches (46) and receiving yards (769).
While Jones is arguably the Sun Devils’ biggest deep threat, McGaha has the most dependable hands on the team and is a prime example of a “possession” receiver.
His 61 catches and 830 receiving yards ranked first on the team last season, and he always seemed to make the big grab on third down.
“He’s one of the better ones that I’ve had in college football,” Erickson said. “It’s a combination of [his] hands and just making plays.”
Sophomore Kerry Taylor and junior Kyle Williams have been battling for the third receiver slot during training camp, and both could be poised to have a breakout season in 2008.
Another wide receiver that has the chance burst onto the scene early in his career is freshman Gerell Robinson.
At 6 feet 4 inches tall and 210 pounds, Robinson is a huge target and was by far the most impressive newcomer during the preseason.
Redshirt freshman T.J. Simpson, senior Nate Kimbrough and junior Brandon Smith will also see a fair share of action this season, as the Sun Devils plan to use as many as four or five wide receivers on any one play.
One of ASU’s biggest question marks is at tight end, as no returner at the position saw any significant playing time in 2007.
ASU has been spoiled in recent years because of the play of the Miller brothers.
Younger brother Zach holds most of ASU’s tight end receiving records and was a second-round draft pick by the Oakland Raiders in 2007, while the older Brent was a solid blocker for four years.
Brent’s Sun Devil career came to a close last season, as well as those of Brady Conrad and Tyrice Thompson.
The Sun Devils suffered another blow when Dane Guthrie, the projected starter, left the team in June.
That leaves senior Andew Pettes, junior Jovon Williams, redshirt freshman Dan Knapp, junior-college transfer Stanley Malamala and senior defensive line convert Wes Evans to compete for playing time.
Pettes and Williams have lined up with the first team for the majority of preseason camp, with the former being the best receiver at the position and the latter being better known for his blocking abilities.
Many believe that the level of success the ASU football team attains in 2008 will rest squarely on the broad shoulders of its offensive line.
The Sun Devils will feature three new starters on a line that allowed 55 sacks last season.
“I’m excited about our offensive front, but it is an area that’s young,” Erickson said. “That’s probably the biggest [question mark] that we’ve got right now.”
The experience lies at the guard positions, where junior Shawn Lauvao and senior Paul Fanaika are returning starters.
The Sun Devils are very green at tackle, as no player on the roster has ever played a college game there.
Richard Tuitu’u, who was projected to be the starter at right tackle, quit the team right before training camp. That opened the door for redshirt freshman Adam Tello, who will now start at right tackle.
Sophomore Jon Hargis, a converted defensive lineman, is slated to start at left tackle.
The Sun Devils will also have the task of replacing Mike Pollak at center, who made the All-Pac-10 First Team.
The Sun Devils have struggled with injuries at the center position during training camp, as junior Thomas Altieri and redshirt freshman Garth Gerhart have both missed practice time.
Altieri is back healthy and will be ready to start the NAU game.
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