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August 29, 2006

'This is your team'

One of Swami's favorite sports movies is "Hoosiers." It's a wonderful tale of hard work, loyalty, perseverance and the triumph of the underdog. Gene Hackman, Barbara Hershey, Sheb Wooley and Dennis Hopper, among others, give outstanding performances in this multilayered and dense film.

Early in the film there is a scene in the Hickory High School gym which defines a conflict in the story. It is the pre-season pep rally and the basketball team has just dribbled its way onto the floor. The assembled students, however, are calling for an additional player not on the floor or in uniform. They want Jimmy Chitwood, the talented swingman who may, or may not, transfer to a rival school. First-year coach Norman Dale (Hackman) finds himself standing at the microphone in the gym admonishing the students to honor and support the six players standing on the floor. Those six individuals, he notes, have sacrificed their time and have given their effort to represent Hickory in Indiana high school basketball, which, as we all know, is second only to Sun Devil basketball in the Herb Sendek era for excitement and promise.

Coach Dale finishes with a simple statement. He says, "Thisis your team," and then falls silent.

Much has been said and written about the Arizona State University Sun Devils football team and their head coach as they approach their first football game this Thursday evening against Northern Arizona University's Lumberjacks. Much has been said and written about Head Coach Dirk Koetter's decisions first to name Sam Keller the starting quarterback and then to name Rudy Carpenter the starter.

The Swami himself will admit to being initially concerned and irrational about the timing of the move, the reasons behind the move and the possible effect it might have on the Devils' upcoming season. In the end, though, having discussed the matter with some of those involved, having thought about the underlying reasons for the change which will never be disclosed, it seems to Swami that the proper approach is that taken by most of the media outside Arizona: Coach Koetter, for reasons he'd prefer to keep to himself, decided to change his mind and one of the affected players chose to leave the program. End of story. The mob, represented in "Hoosiers" by the smarmy local banker and his cronies who think he should be running the Hickory team and represented in the Valley of the Sun by some of the smarmy local print media, fades away into the background and the real story finds its way to the front page.

The real story, folks, is the Sun Devils and, as Coach Koetter has said - "This is your team."

Questions abound as to what this team really is. The most nagging of those questions, whether the 2006 Sun Devils have enough defense to be playing in 2007, may not be answered until the fourth or fifth game of the season. The final Friday scrimmage was possible evidence that top-flight Pac-10 offenses might well dominate the 2006 Sun Devil defense.

The infusion of talent along the front four was designed to solidify those positions and make the defense stouter, but we're going to have to wait to see. Michael Marquardt appears to be a consistent, solid performer at one tackle position. Jordan Hill likewise at the other. Oft-injured Kyle Caldwell appears to be healthy and ready to go, more so than at any time the previous two seasons. That makes three. The contributions of Dexter Davis, Will Kofe, David Smith and Kellen Mills will, we hope, go a long way towards making this unit decent instead of dreadful. Swami respects what appears to be a patient attitude towards the eventual contributions of Tranell Morant and Loren Howard. Their presence is needed in three to four weeks against the likes of California, Oregon and USC, not against Northern Arizona, Nevada or even Colorado. However, it is, Swami admits, getting harder and harder to wait for those guys.

Also, it will be interesting to see the effect that new coach Grady Stretz, with a new philosophy and teaching different techniques, will have. During the first weekly press conference, Coach Koetter was asked about Davis' continued improvement. Koetter noted that Davis was an accomplished wrestler and since the defensive line has gone from looking to slant and find angles to more hand-fighting players like Dexter (used to using his hands against opponents) are finding it easier to make plays. We certainly hope so.

The questions which abound regarding the linebackers and defensive backfield are well-documented elsewhere, even by the local Valley media. Swami won't spend much time on those topics other than to say that intuition tells him that there is more there than meets the eye.

Overall, the defense looks to be improved over 2005. How much is an open question.

Offensively, there appears to be no question about production. Coming out of camp there are questions about depth at tight end and offensive line. Maybe, but Swami would like to focus on the quarterback issue. Valley media keeps telling us it has been nine years since a Sun Devil quarterback played an entire season injury-free. That's a convenient statistic, isn't it? The last time the Sun Devils played in the Rose Bowl was ten years ago. Swami doesn't remember anyone other than a smallish, mobile quarterback taking a single snap from center that entire 1996 season. Jake survived, and Rudy can as well.

Swami would point out that hardly anyone other than a complete college football geek would be able to name the backups to the following players in 2005: Notre Dame's Brady Quinn, Stanford's Trent Edwards and Texas' Vince Young. Koetter will get roasted if Rudy does go down, Danny Sullivan can't handle the load and the season goes into the toilet, but as he noted to a silly question on Monday, this is football and people are out there trying to knock people down, especially the quarterback.

Besides, folks, this is what all of those speed and power demons with moves are all about. We are more excited about the likely contributions of Keegan Herring, Shaun DeWitty, Ryan Torain, Preston Jones and Dimitri Nance than we've been about the possibilities of any tailbacks group in many, many years. If there is a Flash and Thunder pairing, or pair of pairings, among that five, there will considerably less pressure on the Sun Devil quarterbacks to put the ball in the air.

It is a well-established historical fact that Pac-10 teams with seasoned senior quarterbacks are the most potent in conference play. Even the Swami has rolled out that bromide in the past. We're singing a different tune this season. Always the contrarian, Swami hopes that the 2006 Sun Devils follow the 2005 USC Trojan example and run the ball to set up the pass, not pass the ball to set up the pass. It appears that the Devils have the horses to do it.

We won't discuss special teams. The Sun Devils have to be four or five plays better than last year. Period.

To round out this rambling take on the 2006 Sun Devils Swami would like to note this.

There has been considerable change among the assistants in the Koetter era at ASU. Swami chooses to believe, for many reasons, that for the most part the moves have been additions and upgrades reflected a couple of ways in the program. Technique and continuity.

At the beginning of the Koetter era, there was significant and reasonable concern about the play of the offensive line. Pad levels were too high, linemen were out-leveraged, the units were simply not getting the job done in this conference. Since the arrival of Coach Brent Myers, those issues have been resolved. Front-line players are well-coached and play well in game situations. Additionally, there is adequate depth, which is reflective of effective recruiting and evaluation of talent.

We feel that the coaching changes on the defensive side of the ball must eventually have a similar effect on the program. The addition of Bill Miller was, we believe, huge overall, but his work must be bolstered by those assistants working the defensive side of the ball. The contributions of Stretz and Al Simmons will be observable within weeks.

It will be interesting to see how this staff meshes come game time. Will there be effective game-planning and game management? Can this staff communicate what is needed to the players? Most importantly, can this staff motivate the team to be efficient and effective from the get-go?

Most troubling to the Swami in the Koetter era has been the near-complete ineffectiveness of the Sun Devils on the road in difficult environments. We cringe, but point to the 21-2 embarrassment by Iowa in 2003. We can't bear to look, but point out the opening quarters of the 2004-season games at #1 USC and #7 Cal. With the latter two games the Sun Devils' yield curve came out inverted as those games started nearly identically with false-start penalties followed by turnovers. Last season, the Sun Devils won their first-ever road conference game in the state of Washington in the Koetter era - an overtime struggle against a mediocre Washington State squad. The Sun Devils in the Koetter era have never, and we repeat NEVER, won a road conference game in the state of California. Rose Bowls aren't played by poor road teams and in recent years, at least, the road to glory in the Pac-10 goes through California. Do ASU's failures in that regard reflect coaching preparation and motivation, lack of talent, lack of personality?

Whatever the reason, this season presents a wonderful opportunity. Swami believes that there are the pieces available to do it - solid, even spectacular quarterback play supported by a talented offensive line, multiple and multi-talented tailbacks and a wide array of receiving options. On the defensive side of the ball, there is significant, if untested, talent, and the beginnings of a solid defense (the freshmen linebackers, Justin Tryon, the d-line transfers) appear to be there. Moreover, while the Sun Devils face the Trojans and Bears in their stadiums, both teams appear to have unanswered questions of their own at quarterback. Both USC and Cal, in fact, appear to have quarterback questions similar to, though even more troubling than, ASU's. If a talented but inexperienced John David Booty or Nate Longshore goes down…what then?

In his summer prognostications, Swami predicted Sam Keller would take the first snap of the 2006 season. He was sort of correct. Keller snapped, alright. Swami also predicted that the Devils would finish 2006 with a 9-3 record (conservatively) and more likely a 10-2 record (intuition). Swami stands by the 9-3/10-2 prediction. The emergence of many of the newcomers on both sides of the ball, the promise of the D-line transfers and the promise of offensive firepower are encouraging signs. Strength of schedule is intriguing and the timing of games is also encouraging.

And so, after months of speculation, weeks of watching practice and the angst of apparent turmoil, the games are upon us. The 2006 Sun Devils are a few days from donning Maroon and Gold and taking the field for real for the first time. It's an exciting time.

This is your team.


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