One of the shortcomings of the Dennis Erickson era of Sun Devil football was lack of production as a unit among the offensive line in the five years the coach called Tempe home. With two weeks of spring practices now behind us, Sun Devil head football coach Todd Graham is starting to get a good feel of what his options are along the offensive line and for the most part, the results have been positive as the unit looks to replace two starters among its ranks.
Graham has stated that he feels confident in four players starting on this unit when the season begins on September 5, due to prior experience in previous seasons, but finding the fifth will be one of the key pieces to the 2013 off-season puzzle to be solved in part by new offensive line coach Chris Thomsen.
Job Opening: Right Guard
Andrew Sampson was a run-block first right guard for the Devils over the course of the last two seasons. He was a team captain last year and filled the veteran leadership role among a young position group in need of experience after losing key upper classmen in Garth Gerhart, Dan Knapp, Mike Marcisz, and Aderious Simmons. He manned the position in quite a few key contests during his span of 38 starts as a Sun Devil, and that type of know-how will be tough to replace regardless of his limitations in regards to his overall athleticism.
Redshirt sophomore Vi Teofilo replaced Sampson due to injury during a three-game stretch in the second half of the season in 2012 and did not look out of place. He has taken the majority of reps as the first team right guard through the first few practices and looks to have secured the spot at this point. But should trimmed down redshirt junior Sil Ajarawa not secure the starting right tackle spot, he would provide great depth as Teofilo’s backup. He was one of the strongest players on the team coming into 2012, so one can only dream on how that attribute must have matched up with strength coach Shawn Griswold in the weight room during the last calendar year with the new staff.
With Stephon McCray recovering from knee surgery that will likely sideline him for the duration of camp, and Mo Latu trying to find an ideal playing weight teamed with whether or not he will be the backup center, there are still some reasons for concern in terms of depth once you get past the first two players.
Job Opening: Right Tackle
Brice Schwab was a reclamation project in 2012 having transformed his body during his redshirt year of 2011 from being bulky and injury prone, to a slimmed down, sleek and able bodied 6’7, 300-pounder in spring camp. His story was one of determination and inspiration and instantly became a player fans could really get behind during Todd Graham’s first season at the helm. He filled the position admirably, starting all 14 games for the Devils during the season, lunch pail in hand.
In 2013, the offense may want someone to bring a better combination of strength and footwork to the position. Far too often the Sun Devils witnessed teams rushing off the edge and beating Schwab with pass rushing moves exposing his lack of agility, forcing quarterback Taylor Kelly to flee the pocket. Enter redshirt junior Jamil Douglas, who started all 13 games at left guard for the Devils last season, and has steadily built his way up from a player with gifted attributes and potential to a producer of steady production on the field. He shows the great footwork that stemmed from being a former tight end in high school and really has the ability to showcase all that talent at right tackle, if not left tackle were it not for Evan Finkenberg and his understudy Evan Goodman. He was asked to do a lot of pulling during his first year as starter and really paved the way for the trio of Marshall, Grice, and Foster downfield, winning countless second level blocking assignments. No greater imagine resides in my mind than Marion Grice’s touchdown run against Navy where Douglas’ second level block paved the way for the first year Sun Devil on his way to the end zone some 39 yards later.
Taylor Kelly, Grice, and Foster would sleep well at night during the remainder of 2013 knowing Douglas would be starting at right tackle opposite Finkenberg on the other side. But Thomsen and Mike Norvell might want to keep status quo and not mess with a good thing, having Douglas stay at left guard and promoting Ajawara here instead.
Should coach Thomsen choose to stay with Douglas at left guard, other options in camp at this spot include sophomore Evan Goodman and redshirt junior Tyler Sulka. The latter has the more favorable resume in that he replaced 2011 starting right tackle Dan Knapp due to injury at Rice-Eccles Stadium in a win against the Utes and served as the backup throughout last season. He also served in heavy sets along the goal line and on third and short situations when the Devils went to the power football scheme. Bulking up was a goal as he came into camp hovering around with a weight around 280 pounds. But Goodman has all the high school accolades and scout chatter on his side, not to mention potential. The sophomore from Lakeland, Florida, was one of Graham’s prized recruits of the 2012 recruiting class and would begin to fulfill that promise if he is able to steal some first team reps from Ajawara before the spring is over. He looks to be at worst the Devils’ swing tackle for the second team when September rolls around.
Graham appears to have much less of a challenge along the line in his second year as head coach in this regard than he did during his first. While it is never easy to replace starters, it looks like Thomsen will be re-loading this unit more than he will be rebuilding.