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September 25, 2013

Offensive line working to improve run game

It's no secret.

The Arizona State run offense is not where it should be at this point of the season.

"We have not run the ball the way we need to run the ball, that's probably the biggest concern there," Sun Devil coach Todd Graham said. "We have to be able to run the football and be able to come off the ball and move people. We haven't done very well with that so far."

The ASU offensive linemen and coaches have accepted the obvious fact they need to improve to reach their goals and have been working this week in practice to change the stigma surrounding the line.

ASU returned running backs sophomore D.J. Foster and senior Marion Grice this season. They combined for 1,202 rushing yards last season. The rushing offense was not the concern heading into the season, it was actually the passing game.

After three games it is a different story.

Foster has taken on a new role as primarily a receiver, even as his coaches have maintained he's playing the same position. He has not received as many carries and only has 32 rushing yards on six carries through three games.

Grice has been taking most of the hand-offs between the tackles so far and has only 193 yards on 53 carries. His 3.6 yards per carry average is significantly off the pace of last season, when he averaged 6.6 yards per carry.

Grice does have six rushing touchdowns but most of those have close to the goal line. The longest one has been for 12 yards against Wisconsin.

"The run game right now is not very productive obviously," offensive line coach Chris Thomsen said. "We've got to obviously improve in a big way before we play USC."

Players and coaches gave a couple reasons why the run game is stagnate at this point in the season. For Thompsen his men have to improve fundamentally and come off the ball harder.

Junior guard Jamil Douglas said the group needs to be more intense.

"Physically we're fine," Douglas said. "We just have to get the right mindset that we're going to come out and we're going to run the ball. That's what we've been working on all week is getting vertical push on the line of scrimmage. I think we will be fine come Saturday."

Because ASU has an up tempo style offense, finding a rhythm early is imperative. The same goes for the run game.

Senior tackle Evan Finkenberg believes the group did not get out to a strong start in its first three games.

"We've got to establish the run earlier in the games," Finkenberg said. "If we establish the run early, get that push with the offensive line, make sure we're directed to the right linebacker and different people like that it opens up our offense. When we're down so much, you kind of have to pass every play so it put us in a different situation."

The offensive linemen are as aware of the situation as anyone. But last Saturday against Stanford was the biggest disappointment because the offense only earned 50 yards on the ground.

After the rough performance, the offensive linemen attacked practice hard this week. Douglas even stayed late after practice Tuesday to work with Thompsen one-on-one.

"They're a resilient group," Thompsen said. "Obviously Saturday was really tough and they bounced back [Tuesday] and had a good practice. They want to make it right. They want to get back on track."

USC won't make it easy to get back on track. The Trojans have the third best run defense in the country. So far this season it has only allowed 237 rushing yards to three opponents combined.

Senior center Kody Koebensky knows the challenge USC presents but is confident the line will bounce back this week.

"We've watched USC on film," Koebensky said. "We see a lot of things that we like. They're big and athletic up front. But I really feel that we are going to run the ball this weekend very well against them."

Last week Stanford also put a lot of pressure on junior quarterback Taylor Kelly.

Thompsen said the Cardinal defense attacked the ASU offensive line with different blitzes and line stunts. The chicanery from the defense caused miscommunication between the offensive linemen and Stanford defenders were able to get into the backfield.

With USC's new defense put in place this season it is likely going to try some of the same tricks come Saturday.

During Wednesday's practice, Thompsen and the offensive linemen spent a lot of their time reading and calling out blitz protections.

Finkenberg said the linemen have to talk with each other more this week against USC.

"Big thing for the offensive line is make sure we're all communicating out there," Finkenberg said. "Make sure we're [identifying] the right guys and when everyone's communicating and everyone's on the same page it makes things a lot easier when we're passing different games off, different blitz schemes they do. It's really just studying the film and understanding what defense they're going to bring to us."

Secondary troubles

The run game concerns Graham the most offensively. On the other side of the ball he is worried about the secondary giving up big pass plays behind them.

What upsets Graham the most is most of the big pass plays ASU has given up this season are due to miscommunication between the defensive backs.

Stanford had a touchdown pass last weekend directly because of a mental breakdown in the ASU secondary.

It was the Cardinal's fourth touchdown of the game which was a 30-yard pass from junior quarterback Kevin Hogan to junior wide receiver Ty Montgomery.

ASU was blitzing senior spur linebacker Anthony Jones from the field side. Stanford had two receivers split to the field. A motion from the h-back confused the ASU secondary.

Senior safety Alden Darby did not cover the deep middle of the field. Senior cornerback Robert Nelson stays in the flat to cover the area Jones vacated with his blitz.

Nelson said Darby did not get the call indicating he was supposed to have the middle of the field and cover Montgomery. Because of the breakdown Montgomery was uncovered for a touchdown reception.

The ASU secondary is also looking to have a better performance this week against USC. Nelson said the defense took a step back and simplified the coverage strategy.

"We just narrowed some things down," Nelson said. "We were just over-thinking a little too much. The defense we run we have so much stuff in there we were just checking too much to too many things and it confused a lot of people. So we just went back to the basics that we do."

With the big play potential of USC junior wide receiver Marqise Lee coming to Tempe the secondary has to play its best game so far.

Secondary coach Chris Ball said the defense will have to adapt to contain Lee.

"You do have to change a few things with what you're doing because of their big play capability being what it is," Ball said. "You have to be aware of Marqise Lee and make sure you know where he is at all times. He's obviously a special talent who can beat you [for a touchdown] on any play if you're not all on the same page and paying close attention."

Hardison catches up

Junior college transfer junior defensive lineman Marcus Hardison has good timing.

With the injury to sophomore nose tackle Jaxon Hood last weekend, this week would be a good time for Hardison to have his best day of practice.

"For the first time [Tuesday] in practice he looked like the guy I recruited," Graham said. "He just turned it on man."

Graham said it had taken a while for Hardison to adjust to ASU practice style and intensity. He said Hardison had just been trying to survive practice.

But this week after Hood got hurt and Hardison moved back to the 5-technique, Graham said he looked impressive.

With Hood likely out for Saturday -- he was a limited participant Wednesday -- Hardison is the next player in line at the 5-technique end and possibly the 3-technique tackle because the line is so thin.

Graham also gave credit to senior defensive lineman Gannon Conway for switching to the 1-technique tackle spot after playing defensive end. Graham said most defensive linemen would rather play end because at the nose they take a beating so he appreciated the sacrifice Conway made.


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