With five returning starters, Arizona State knew its offensive line would be more experienced than it was last season. Midway through spring practice, a reasonable case can be made this is the most talented the group has been at the school in years.
"It's looking good, we've been able to keep everyone healthy," Sun Devil coach Dennis Erickson said. "They've played together, about seven of them, for a couple of years now so they know each other and that makes a huge difference. It's the best we've been since I've been here."
During his first four years in Tempe, Erickson's offensive lines have progressed from underwhelming to respectable. After giving up a nation-worst sack total in his first season despite it being a 10-win campaign, the Sun Devils improved modestly in that category in 2008 but finished ninth in the league in rushing.
Scholarship depth was severely depleted following the departure of six seniors at the conclusion of Erickson's first season, as the team returned 12 scholarship players in the spring of 2008, only nine of whom were healthy.
Offensive line coach Gregg Smith likes to have approximately 15 scholarship returnees, so it took several recruiting classes to approach that number, and several more before players in the program were mature enough to be consistently effective at this level.
That time, it appears, is upon us.
Featuring seniors Garth Gerhart and Adam Tello, who were in Erickson's first recruiting class at ASU, signed less than two months after he was hired, the unit returns eight players who accumulated a combined 60 starts last season.
Led by Gerhart a center, the lone player to start all 12 games and a likely all Pac-12 candidate, the familiarity with the other linemen has led to better communication up front.
"We're two deep everywhere with talent which is the first time we can say that since I've been here," Gerhart said. "We've played together, everyone is back from last season and most of us have been here a few years so we know what we're doing and how to do it. We should be pretty good."
Increased depth and talent allows for heightened competition and players know that save Gerhart, no starting spots are carved in stone this early in the year. Listed on the depth chart with the second team, left guard Adam Tello was ahead of Mike Marcisz this week. Expecting a battle that will continue throughout spring practice, Tello said he's a better pass blocker, but Marcisz is a slightly better run blocker.
"I think we're pretty back-to-back right now," Tello said. "He does stuff some better than I do and I do stuff better than he does."
A left knee injury sidelined senior right tackle Dan Knapp this week, giving senior Aderious Simmons an opportunity to practice with the first team. The two men are locked in a fierce contest to earn a starting nod that will likely continue through August and perhaps beyond.
Lacking the experience of playing in high school, Simmons feels the work he put into understanding the game will prepare him for a possible starting spot.
"I'm starting to learn how football goes," Simmons said. "It's a system. [Knapp] finished the season and I guess he had to start this season or was suppose to start. But right from the jump, it was a battle for the spot anyways. So it was never his spot this season as far as I was concerned. It was a battle between me and him to see who the spot belongs to."
Offense introduces new formation
The ASU offense practiced a play out of a wildcat formation for the first time Thursday. Expanding his role, receiver Jamal Miles ran a play out of the shotgun at quarterback while sophomore quarterback Brock Osweiler lined up as an outside receiver.
Senior safety Clint Floyd and redshirt freshman defensive end Joita Te'i were excused from practice due to family deaths. They will not be available for Saturday's scrimmage. With Floyd out, senior Jonathan Clark worked with the first team alongside sophomore Alden Darby.
Traveling to Corvallis, Ore. with the baseball team, senior linebacker Brandon Magee was not at practice on Thursday and senior Colin Parker filled in as a starter.
Posting on his Facebook page that he was planning to practice fully this week, running back Deantre Lewis did not participate in contact drills, though he was in pads for the first time this spring.
Bell stepping it up
For a second consecutive practice, senior wide receiver George Bell had an impressive showing. He ran his routes with great energy and appeared focused with better body control and ball skills. During 11-on-11, he stretched the offense downfield making a number of deep catches. With senior T.J. Simpson's season in question with a torn ACL, Bell could play a vital role in Noel Mazzone's pass heavy offense if he shows consistency.