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November 30, 2013

Finkenberg example resonates through program

Calm. Confident. Quiet. Consistent. Uncommon.

Those are the words mostly commonly used to describe Arizona State senior tackle Evan Finkenberg.

In games, he never gets too high or too low with emotion. During practice he consistently goes about his work giving the same full effort every day. And after a head coaching change and having multiple new offensive systems implemented, Finkenberg has been a reliable fixture at the left tackle position.

Finkenberg's excitement may rarely elevate but he has raised the impact of his veteran presence in his senior season.

According ASU players and coaches, Finkenberg has become a better leader for the Sun Devils by simply being himself and being a reassuring force for the ASU offense.

Finkenberg has focused on keeping the mood around the team tranquil especially in his senior season.

"I think it's my job to make sure all the guys are calm," Finkenberg said. "A lot of guys are always like, 'How are you so calm during games?' I've played a lot of games. It's kind of one of those things I try to make sure all those other guys don't freak out. Maybe they make one bad play and but hey you got to forget about it go to the next play and just keep playing on. That's something I've been trying to teach the younger guys."

Confident

Finkenberg's reassuring attitude is derived from the confidence he has in himself. It comes for the years of experience he has as a Sun Devil.

He did not always have the self-assurance he has now.

Fink got his first start as a Sun Devil when he was a redshirt freshman. He had to admit in those first couple games he was not calm and felt nervous going up against older players, often future professionals.

His mindset changed when he looked back at his first year. He said he felt he competed well against veteran players and it gave him self-assurance going forward because he knew he was only going to improve in the years to come.

Junior quarterback Taylor Kelly puts more trust in Finkenberg simply because he is the left tackle. When asked about his most experienced lineman, Kelly said he also notices his poise during the game.

"His confidence, just how he is as a person and I'm very blessed to have him, to be playing with him and for him to be protecting my blind side," Kelly said.

Quiet

Finkenberg is deceptive. He is deceptively strong and deceptively quick for man of his size.

He stands 6-foot-4 and 298 pounds which is actually small for a college left tackle. But under his shoulder pads he hides broad shoulders and strong core that he uses to contain some of the best defensive ends in the country like UCLA senior linebacker Anthony Barr.

Also he moves quickly for a guy weighing close to 300 pounds. The speed of his feet is important when blocking explosive edge pass rushers.

His cleats do not move nearly as fast as his lips when he talks. Fink can say a lot in a short amount of time usually ending each rapid-fire sentence with a small chuckle after saying a little joke.

One-on-one Finkenberg can be a little chatty but it's not the case in games or on the practice field.

"He doesn't say much, doesn't get much credit, doesn't want it any, just wants us to win games," ASU coach Todd Graham said.

Kelly and offensive line coach Chris Thomsen also said Finkenberg is not the type of player to talk a lot or make speeches at halftime. Thomsen said because Fink does not speak up a lot makes him a different and still very influential person on the team.

"He doesn't have to say a lot and that's the thing about leadership," Thomsen said. "The thing I've learned about great leaders is most of them don't say much honestly. You've got a few Ray Lewis's that work really hard and are very vocal but most of the great leaders they don't say much. Just his presence and the way he carries himself, the way he responds to adversity that's everything."

Graham choose the team captains a little differently this year. Two players, Kelly and senior safety Alden Darby, are the permanent captains for every game. That can be expected since Kelly and Darby are the most vocal leaders for the offense and defense.

Also for every game, one player from offense and one from defense is chosen to join Kelly and Darby for the coin toss.

Graham said Finkenberg was the second player his teammates selected to be an offensive captain even though he is quieter.

"That's kind of how our players and we feel about him," Graham said. "He's a big time team leader for us and the offensive line is the key to the success of our offense and the key has been being able to run the football. So he's very talented and a guy that's been very consistent for us."

Consistent

Fink's teammates have respect for him because of obvious reasons. They respect the experience he has after being a starter for four seasons. They also respect his talent. Even Graham said he is no doubt the best offensive lineman on the team.

There are other less obvious reasons why Finkenberg has earned the players' reverence. The work he puts in at practice every day has caught the attention from players and coaches.

Thomsen said Finkenberg had to practice with a consistent effort during his entire senior year to be an example for younger players.

"What a leader means to me is every day you come out and do it," Thomsen said. "You come out with a great mental focus. You give great physical effort. You bring everything you have to the team every day. And that was the challenge now that some of those older guys have moved on, you're that guy now and we'll go as you go. I can scream and yell all I want but if the best players are working their tails off and then the other ones will follow and he's done that."

Practicing every day with the same intensity is not an easy thing to do, especially at ASU. Graham and offensive coordinator Mike Norvell believe repetition is key for individual players and for the team overall to improve.

Therefore, ASU practices follow a strict schedule and Finkenberg will do a lot of the same drills every day even far into the season.

So every time Finkenberg gets off the tram for practice, he'll work on every individual step in a blocking pattern for every play with Thomsen. He'll have to squat down and block a defender through a shoot so he can work on staying low on run blocks. And every day he has to stay mentally focused when the linemen walk through different blitz packages the opposing team will run.

It has been a difficult, but Finkenberg knows the endless, tedious drills will be crucial when the game is on the line.

"I think the guys know that every day I'm always going full-speed," Finkenberg said. "I'm always trying to get better reps especially during individual work. Sometimes it might get monotonous by this time in the season but that little individual work, coach always talks about muscle memory. You want to make sure you're getting your quick feet and different things like that because when stuff's hitting the fan out there on the field then you're going to revert back to what you've been practicing all week."

Besides the individual work, the starting offensive linemen face off against the starting defensive front multiple times during practice.

This is another instance in which Finkenberg has to bring his best game not only to help his offensive unit improve but also help his defensive teammates get better as well.

One player in particular, senior defensive end Gannon Conway, has benefited from taking on Finkenberg's blocks every day.

Conway had a very different path to becoming a starter compared to Finkenberg. Finkenberg was recruited out of high school and won a starting job outright after only redshirting one season.

Conway was a walk-on junior college transfer, spent time on the scout team, watched the games from the sidelines a junior, earned a scholarship and finally, a starting spot in his senior season.

Conway said Finkenberg was one of the main reasons he has gotten to play in his last year.

"He's the one that's made me good," Conway said. "If it weren't for him, I would be as good as I am today. He makes me better because he's a really good offensive lineman. His hands, his footwork I mean everything he does, every block that he does, every pass set it's just so technically sound that it's really good."

Uncommon

Finkenberg has three more guaranteed games left in a Sun Devil uniform. Where he plays his last game is still uncertain.

Fink and his teammates have a chance to make his last season his best, by playing their last game in the Rose Bowl.

In his four years as a starter, Finkenberg has not ever been this close to a BCS bowl. In fact, ASU has not played in the Rose Bowl since 1997.

In recent years, it has been rare for ASU to be competing for a Pac-12 title this late in a season. It is also very rare for a team to have one player hold down a starting position for four straight years.

ASU finds itself in a new position that even its seasoned left tackle has not experienced.
It might be uncommon times for the ASU football team but it still has its uncommon tackle who has stepped up his game even more now that he has a chance to play for a BCS title.

"We talk a lot about, do you want to be common or do you want to be uncommon?" Thomsen said. "I think he's taken an uncommon approach. Common meaning, you have up and down days. A lot people come out and some days they can really do it, some days they can't. Uncommon players they do it every day. He's done it every day and in the last couple weeks I've seen him even step that up a little bit more just the intensity. He can feel it. He wants to leave his mark on our program and he's doing that."


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