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April 9, 2010

Sun Devils hope for resurgent offensive line

By definition, the offensive line consists of tackles, guards and a center who all must work in sync in order to give an offense a reasonable chance at achieving sustained success in the win column.

In recent Arizona State history, a strong, imposing offensive line has not been on display. Last year's team saw improvements with a reduction in sacks allowed and increase in yards per rushing attempt, but still left much to be desired, with injuries and inexperienced, young players on the line a contributing factor.

With the start of spring, the offensive line has largely healed, blossomed, and is showing potential for significant improvement according to one important onlooker.

"I like where they're progressing," Sun Devils coach Dennis Erickson said. "The guys who have been there are getting bigger, stronger and faster. Garth (Gerhart's) been around, Patrick Jamison's playing pretty well, (Evan) Finkenberg's doing a good job, obviously Brice (Schwab's) doing a good job. We've got some depth, some guys that can play. (Adam) Tello's finally growing up and playing. It's nice to see, as opposed to starting as a true freshman at right tackle, you're going to be in your junior year competing for a job at strong guard, I think that kind of speaks about where we've come from."

An injury that hindered the offensive line at last season's onset was center Gerhart suffering turf toe. Mentally and physically, Gerhart was unable to overcome the setback, and the injury affected him throughout most of last season.

"It just sucks because I watched film from before I hurt it to when I hurt it, and it was completely different," Gerhart said. "Before, I felt like I was going to be a good player that year and after I had no confidence in anything. People were bull rushing me, I couldn't stop them. I couldn't run right, I was running outside my feet. I just felt slower as a player out there on the field."

Gerhart was not alone on the injury list. Tackle Matt Hustad and guards Zach Schlink and Mike Marcisz each missed all or most of the team's games.

With the exception of Hustad and Macisz this spring, all of the unit's players are recovered and ready to contend for their respective positions, and there are two new mid-year junior college additions in tackle Brice Schwab and guard Chris De Armas.

"A lot more competition this year," said Gerhart. "Our tackles are better now. We've got Schwab out there, Kyle (Johnnson's) starting to do a lot better, Patrick's doing real good too and (Evan) Finkenberg's doing great out there too. The guards, Tello's finally stepping it up, (Zach) Schlink's knee is starting to get a little bit better but I still think he can do a lot better as long as he knee gets better. Jon (Hargis) tearing it up on the right side and we've got some new guys coming in."

The Sun Devils have a new scheme this year, one that will employ much less stretch zone run blocking, a hallmark of the team last season, and be a good fit for the types of running backs on the roster according to several of the team's coaches.

"Right now all we have in is the inside zone, right off the center, right off each center's hip and the outside G and outside real fast sweep, whatever you want to call it," Gerhart said. "It's all inside and a lot of quick (throws). We have a lot of keys off to the receivers, a lot of quick passes. We've got a lot of good players, (Slot receiver Aaron) Pflugrad and a bunch of smaller players, Jamal Miles, Kerry (Taylor). That just helps us too. I think it's going to be good. Hopefully [Gerell Robinson] steps up this year and does something good. I think we'll be good as long as we can get our quarterbacks going too."

Every portion of the offense is connected, and a revived offensive line playing at a high level together as a unit should provide new offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone with a key tool to implement his vision; one that he has a tendency to get very excited about.

"Mazzone's bringing a whole new energy to us," Gerhart said. "He's out there running routes, getting us fired up, telling us a bunch of different quotes trying to get us riled up for practice. It's helping a lot. It's getting the offense motivated to want to do something good and get us going each and every day to get better."


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