Arizona State led the Pac-10 in three of four major statistical defensive categories last season -- total defense, rushing defense and pass defense -- and yet still finished with a losing record at 4-8 overall and 2-7 in league play primarily due to an utterly ineffective offense, with quarterback play a particularly glaring weakness.
In order to address the program's festering offensive woes, coach Dennis Erickson replaced former coordinator Rich Olson with Noel Mazzone in January and the Sun Devils implemented a new pass-oriented spread offense in the spring.
Quarterbacks Steven Threet and Brock Osweiler began a competition to replace last year's primary starter Danny Sullivan, with fellow signal caller Samson Szakacsy unable to practice fully as he recovered from surgery to address arm troubles which have persisted for several years.
Sullivan completed just 53 percent of his passes last season, which placed him ninth in the Pac-10 among majority starters for each team, and averaged 193.9 yards per game with 10 touchdowns and nine interceptions.
A zone-read offensive scheme based largely on the system run by Texas was implemented prior to last season and failed to deliver the results ASU's coaching staff hoped for. Sullivan wasn't the type of quarterback capable of maximizing the benefits of the zone-read due to a lack of mobility, and the offensive skill position players weren't dynamic enough to help overcome that drawback.
The scheme in place now is much better designed for the talent on hand at quarterback, and though neither Threet nor Osweiler put forth an excellent overall performance in the spring, the Sun Devils appear much closer to getting serviceable play at the position moving forward.
After sitting out the 2009 season post-transfer from Michigan, Threet appeared to enter spring ball as the odds on favorite to replace Sullivan. Program sources privately suggested they believed he was a little more likely to emerge victorious in the fall, especially with Osweiler still possessing a redshirt year which would allow the two to be spaced two years apart.
Threet, a well put together 6-foot-5 pro-style passer, has earned rave reviews for his year-round work ethic and football IQ. But the junior signal caller was relatively hit-or-miss in the spring, displaying a tendency at times to throw balls into too much traffic and force the issue with his primary target.
A better athlete than he appears at first glance, Threet has a pretty good arm and a lot of the intangible qualities that would make for a lead-by-example type, but he'll need to take his play up a notch in camp if he's going to emerge as the player clearly deserving of a starting nod. While he looked to be the favorite entering the spring, that's no longer the case, and it's more of a dead heat at this point.
Judging the month-long spring period overall, it was our opinion that Osweiler had the better performance of the two. Certainly the 6-foot-8 Montana-native made the most significant strides out of the quarterbacks on the roster during that time period.
As a true freshman last season, Osweiler played in six games with one start and completed 24-of-55 attempts for 249 yards with two touchdowns and two interceptions. There were moments which hinted at potential greatness, but even more moments which demonstrated an underdeveloped understanding of how to play the position successfully at the highest college level.
Osweiler benefited significantly from the arrival of Mazzone, as he gained a much better idea of what specifically he needed to work on technically and mentally in order to become the quarterback he felt he could be. And that in turn contributed to an improved work ethic and heightened sense of confidence, which presented clearly in the form of improved leadership qualities in the spring.
Though he has been somewhat out-of-sight, out-of-mind this year, Szakacsy certainly shouldn't be viewed as out of contention. In five games last season, the 6-foot-4 junior completed 32-of-50 pass attempts for 362 yards and four touchdowns with one interception. His 147.22 efficiency rating was easily the best among the three quarterbacks who played, and he appeared to be the most dynamic in the ASU offense due to his athleticism and mobility.
Szakacsy's main drawback was ball velocity, a problem caused by arm issues which have plagued him for the last several years. Those troubles may be finally resolved, however, following off-season surgery on his throwing shoulder, a procedure which allowed greater flesibility and range of motion in the joint.
The surgery kept Szakacsy from participating fully during the spring, but in recent months, he's been throwing the ball at full strength without a hint of arm trouble, and the new ASU offense appears well suited for his skill set, with a lot of screens and quick hitting routes.
Erickson said at Pac-10 Media Day Thursday that he'd like to have a quarterback in place by the season opener but that it's possible one could be declared the starter as soon as a week into camp. Our guess is that won't happen, especially if Szakacsy is able to squeeze into the middle of the picture.
The good news for Sun Devil fans is that it appears out of the three options, at least one should be able to be more productive than what the team had at the position last season, especially when coupled with an offensive scheme that should be adequate at the very least.