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August 1, 2009Arizona State signed a combined eight offensive linemen in the previous two recruiting cycles and yet it'll still have only 14 scholarship players at the position group entering fall camp, including 12 who are returning from last season.
To put those numbers in perspective, offensive line coach Gregg Smith said that a healthy unit typically has 14 to 16 scholarship players returning every year, and 17 or 18 in total, including incoming recruits.
Two years ago, at one point in the season the Sun Devils essentially had nine scholarship players who were healthy and able to compete.
While Smith certainly wouldn't use the lack of bodies as an excuse, having a position group half stocked is as good an explanation as any for some of the problems the group suffered through in Dennis Erickson's first two seasons in Tempe.
In 2007, the Sun Devils gave up about as many sacks per game as any school in country and last season, they had modest improvements with pass protection only to finish ninth in the Pac-10 in rushing yards and time of possession.
"It's just our numbers were so fouled up here that, the first year we came in we had five or six seniors, counting Zach Krula, so when you lost that whole group of numbers, everything got decimated," Smith said. "It's taken us a while to get it back and it's still going to take another year before we're where we want to be. That's why this recruiting class, not only the one we've got coming in for the fall, but the one next year, is going to be real crucial for us."
ASU added five offensive linemen in the 2008 recruiting class, including four true freshmen, and the goal in the spring, according to Smith, was to get more developed depth through the group. That aim wasn't necessarily accomplished as well as Smith would have liked, however, due to injuries that kept youngsters Matt Hustad, Adam Tello and Zach Schlink out of action.
"That probably hurt us [with developing depth in the spring] so now what happened to us is now we're trying to force our true freshmen (from last season) to become more competitive because they really lined up as the No. 2 guys," Smith said. "They're having to realize that they would be one snap away from playing if the guy in front of them ended up getting hurt and they had to step in and play."
Even with some of the injury issues and lack of depth, there were some positives to point to coming out of the spring, primarily the consistency of a reshuffled first unit, which now features senior Shawn Lauvao at left tackle and junior Jon Hargis at left guard after the two exchanged their starting spots from last season.
"I think it's going to work out good," Smith said. "Jon's a little bit more of an inside guy anyway and I think moving him in there he felt much more comfortable playing inside and that was my conversation with him at the end of spring. Sometimes getting out there on the edge is a little frightening because you get those fast defensive ends out there and it can be intimidating. Moving Shawn out there, who is our best offensive linemen and our best athlete, he's going to be able to make the adjustment out there, especially being a senior. He did a good job all spring long.
"I think with Jon Hargis, the big thing we're going to see this fall is he's going to be totally healthy. He was another guy who was coming off shoulder surgery. But it was a tribute to him being out there and going as hard as he could given that he wasn't totally healthy."
At center, sophomore Garth Gerhart appeared to put distance between himself and senior Thomas Altieri in the battle for first-team status in the spring. Gerhart is, it appears, beginning to realize some of the potential that led to speculation last year that he could become a four year starter.
"I thought he did a pretty good job most of the spring," Smith said of Gerhart. "I think he's got to understand what his leadership role is playing that position. His personality is, he's a little bit quiet so he's going to have to turn into being more of a vocal guy. He's a lot like (former Sun Devil center) Mike Pollak. Mike wasn't real outgoing either except that when he did talk people listened and I think that's the way Garth's going to be, he's just going to have to grow into that spot."
On the right side, senior Tom Njunge is penciled in at right tackle after showing a little more consistency in spring ball. Out of the junior college ranks last year, Njunge was inserted into the starter's role at the position early in Pac-10 play with decidedly mixed results, but due to injuries, there was no real threat to his first-team status in the spring.
If sophomore Matt Hustad is healthy, he could challenge Njunge. Hustad is one of the most athletic, physically impressive linemen on the roster, but he hasn't hardly practiced in two seasons after ACL reconstruction in 2007 and a subsequent surgery to clean the knee up last year.
At right guard, sophomore Mike Marcisz ascended to first-team status in the spring almost by default, with Zach Schlink and Adam Tello out of action.
Marcisz made the most of the increased role, however, showing good energy and toughness on a consistent basis.
"He was another guy who had been playing tackle all the time that we had move inside," Smith said of Marcisz. "He was another guy who felt better on the inside, it wasn't quite as intimidating for him and so I think what that did for him, moving inside, was help his confidence level, because I've seen him grow a lot in the last three or four months, not only out on the field but in the weight room and becoming a little bit more of a leader around."
Still, the odds on favorite to be the opening day starter at right guard, assuming he's healthy and in shape, is Schlink. As a true freshman last season, Schlink showed great promise in six games, with his best effort perhaps coming in his only start, against Washington. He was injured in the second half of that game, however, and missed the rest of the season and spring ball following surgery.
Tello is another player who saw action as a true freshman last season, starting the first four games of the season at right tackle before eventually settling into a reserve role. The situation was perhaps not the most ideal for Tello, who is better suited to be an interior linemen. But he's athletic and in much better shape this season, so he could challenge for a starting role, particularly if Schlink has lingering problems with his knees.
ASU's other returning reserves along the offensive front are redshirt freshmen Kyle Johnson at tackle, Altieri at center, Andrew Sampson, who can play guard or center, and Patrick Jamison, who can play guard or tackle.
The Sun Devils will add two freshmen to the mix in the fall: Kody Koebensky, a guard out of Scottsdale Saguaro, and Evan Finkenberg, a tackle out of Tesoro High School in Rancho Santa Margarita, Calif. Both are likely to redshirt.