The Dennis Erickson era at Arizona State begins, oddly enough, in the same place his tenure as coach of the Idaho Vandals came to an end -- with a game against San Jose State. Erickson concluded his one season stint with the program in a 28-13 home loss to the Dick Tomey-led Spartans.
Erickson will hope for a more favorable outcome on Saturday, as he looks to make a first-impression on Sun Devil fans who are no doubt hoping he can bring to their program the type of success he achieved at Miami (two National Championships) and Oregon State (Fiesta Bowl Victory).
"We have a plan for this program down the road, and this is just the start of it, so it's an anxious time for all of us," Erickson said. "We're all nervous, and I've always said when I'm not nervous before a game, I better get out of the business."
Fortunately for the coach, this squad should be significantly better than the one he inherited at Idaho.
The Sun Devils return 10 starters on offense and six on defense from a team that went 7-6 last year and played in a bowl game for the third consecutive season.
ASU athletic director Lisa Love decided it wasn't enough success to allow Dirk Koetter to remain as head coach, but there is little doubt Koetter left enough talent in place in Tempe for Erickson to guide the program to its fourth consecutive bowl game for the first time in its Pac-10 history.
The schedule is extremely favorable, with four consecutive home games to start the season and a real chance at being somewhere between a 5-2 and 7-0 heading into late-October. That's when the schedule gets really tough, with Cal (home), Oregon (road), UCLA (road), USC (home) and Arizona (home) as the final five games of the regular season.
But you can be sure Erickson isn't allowing his team to look ahead. The Spartans are a quality opponent, coming off a 9-4 season, and are led by one of the more veteran, savvy coaches in the country in Tomey. Among active Division I coaches, Tomey is fourth with 170 wins, and he turned the San Jose State program around from a 3-8 record in 2005, his first at the helm.
Erickson and Tomey's head coaching careers have been uniquely intertwined over the last 20 years. Head-to-head, Erickson's teams have a 5-5 record against Tomey's teams dating back to their first matchup in 1986, and including the 1995 East-West Shrine Game.
Erickson has coached Wyoming, Washington State, Miami, Oregon State, and Idaho against Tomey-led squads at either Hawaii or Arizona.
"It is kind of amazing," Erickson said of the connection. "We're looking forward to this game against him, but like I said, I have nothing but great respect. His football team is going to come in, and this is huge for them, and I've been in that situation. They've got talent, they've got a lot of players coming back, a lot of players that we played against last year when I was at Idaho. This is a football team that's pretty darn good. They should have beat Washington last year in the opener, did beat Stanford, so I told our players yesterday that you better have your you-know-what ready to play because it's going to be a hard-fought football game."
The Spartans are led on offense by 6-foot-2 senior quarterback Adam Tafralis and 5-foot-7, 185 pound senior running back Yonus Davis.
Tafralis will become the first signal caller in school history to start at the position in four consecutive season openers. Last season, Tafralis set a school record with his 65.6 percent completion percentage in the 2006 campaign. He has been named to the Manning Award watch list.
Davis rushed for 1,007 yards last season, becoming just the 11th player in school history to go for over 1,000 yards in a season, and he's one of just two Division I players in the nation to return to school after averaging more than 6.0 yards per carry in each of the last season seasons, the other being Patrick White of West Virginia.
The Spartans may elect to, or perhaps be forced to rely heavily on Davis, especially early in the season as the team's top two receivers from last season, James Jones and John Broussard have moved on to the pro ranks, and backup running back Patrick Perry has been lost for the season due to a knee injury.
The team does not return a single receiver who had more than eight catches last season, and will attempt to bring several junior college transfers, a couple of inexperienced youngsters, and a converted safety quickly up to speed.
Tight end Jeff Clark had seven starts last season totaling eight receptions.
Along the offensive front, the Spartans return several veteran starters, led by John Booker, who is moving to left tackle after 25 career starts at guard and right tackle, and center Justin Paysinger, a starter since 2005 who has been named to the Rimington Trophy Watch list.
Anticipated starting right tackle Bradis McGriff is a former Sun Devil who transferred to San Jose State and started the final three games last season as a redshirt sophomore after sitting out the 2005 campaign.
Defensively, the Spartans have one of the nation's top cornerbacks in 6-foot-1, 185 pound senior Dwight Lowery, a first-team All-American last season who led the team with nine interceptions and three fumble recoveries.
On the opposite side of the field, Christopher Owens also returns as a starting cornerback. He had four interceptions last year, which combined with the nine from Lowery, led the nation (13) among starting cornerback tandems.
Erickson said the Spartans will likely play Lowery in man coverage on one side against his receiver, and zone out the rest of the field. The cornerbacks are far more experienced than the projected starting safeties, one of whom Jonathan Harris is a JUCO transfer who just joined the program at the start of fall camp.
San Jose State also features one of the top linebackers in the WAC conference in 5-foot-10, 228 pound senior Matt Castelo, who has started 28 straight games coming into the ASU contest. He has tallied 10 or more tackles in 15 career games. 6-foot-1, 230 pound senior Demetrius Jones is another returning starter at the position group. He was fifth on the team with 78
Up front, the Spartans have 6-foot-6, 280 junior Jarron Gilbert, the team's leader in sacks last season with five, returning at one end spot. Sophomores Justin Willis, a 6-foot-1, 305-pounder, and Adonis Davis, a 6-foot-1, 295-pounder, are expected to start at the tackle positions. Davis started five games last season, including one which came a day after his 18th birthday. At the other end spot is Carl Ihenacho, who is expected to make his fourth career start.