With the entire right side of the offensive line graduating after last season, ASU had a few questions to answer up front entering the spring. Who would move into starting roles? Where might certain linemen shift? How much depth is there behind the starters?
Those questions would be answered under new direction after offensive line coach Bob Connelly was not retained. He was replaced by Chris Thomsen, who had been hired to coach running backs after coaching the offensive line at Texas Tech last season.
ASU’s offensive line was solid last season, helping the Sun Devils finish the year averaging 205.5 rushing yards per game, the program’s second-best total in the past 25 seasons, but opponents got to the quarterback almost three times per game on average.
With all that in mind, here’s how things developed on the offensive line this spring:
SPRING SPOTLIGHT: Jamil Douglas, right tackle.
Douglas, a redshirt junior, started every game at left guard last season but this spring moved to right tackle. Coaches believe Douglas is a better fit there because of his athleticism. The move allowed redshirt junior Sil Ajawara to slide into the starting role at left guard.
Douglas had to use spring practice to begin adjusting to the new spot, where he will likely face greater challenges from opposing defensive linemen.
“It’s been a little challenging,” Douglas said. “I think I’m improving in the big sense and then with my footwork and everything. So it’s going good.
“I’m becoming more of a student of the game, learning different things.”
Coaches again and again pointed to Douglas’s athleticism as his greatest asset, and his physical tools should be an even greater asset after Douglas bulked up. Listed at 284 pounds at the start of last season, Douglas is now listed at 303 pounds. He credits strength and conditioning coach Shawn Griswold’s winter program for getting him in better shape for spring but says there is more work to be done before fall camp.
“I can’t even explain it,” Douglas said. “We’re not even in the right condition now and we’re moving pretty fast, but come summertime, coach (Griswold) will get us right. That plays a big part in our tempo and getting guys lined up in the fourth quarter.” POST-SPRING DEPTH CHART
Left tackle: Evan Finkenberg, Evan Goodman Left guard: Sil Ajawara, Devin Goodman, Billy McGehee Center: Kody Koebensky, Nick Kelly Right guard: Vi Teofilo, Christian Westerman (ineligible in 2013) Right tackle: Jamil Douglas, Tyler Sulka, Chip Sarafin
HELP ON THE WAY
ASU’s 2013 recruiting class was thin on offensive linemen. It included Nick Kelly, a junior-college transfer who enrolled early to participate in spring practice, and former five-star recruit Christian Westerman, who won’t play in 2013 after transferring from Auburn. The only other offensive lineman brought in was Salinas (Calif.) Palma tackle Jack Powers, who could also end up on the defensive line but likely will redshirt in 2013.
Returning three offensive line starters, including two seniors, is a pretty good place to start for any line. In the Sun Devils’ case, that Finkenberg is one of those seniors puts them in even better position. Even as a junior, Finkenberg was a leader on the line, and he has already taken on a greater role.
“Evan Finkenberg has kind of seized the leadership role of that group,” Thomsen said. “The way he’s done that is primarily just by his work ethic, his day-to-day consistency. That’s what I really admire about what he does. He does a lot of good things as a player, but the biggest thing is when you’re the most accomplished player in your group and your work ethic is at a consistent level, people follow that.”
Thomsen also said center Kody Koebensky has stepped into a greater leadership role, and coach Todd Graham praised the group’s leadership and unity on more than one occasion this spring. Cohesiveness is a big part of any offensive line, and ASU’s seems to have developed it already.
Further, ASU is in good position with experienced players taking over the vacated offensive line spots. Douglas started every game last year, Teofilo started three games and played often as a backup, and Ajawara played in four games. All three players impressed this spring, and with that kind of experience on the first line, the learning curve should be flatter.
Ultimately, ASU has to be happy with where the offensive line stands ahead of fall camp. It should be better than it was in 2012. The greater concern is depth, which Thomsen called the group’s “biggest question mark.” Sulka and Evan Goodman are the only second-team players with significant experience, though Goodman was hampered by an ankle injury this spring and did not compete as expected for a starting spot.
If Goodman gets right health-wise and challenges for a spot on the starting line, Thomsen said, depth starts to become less of a question mark. Kelly will contribute right away, which helps, and Devin Goodman began to progress late last season. The depth will also get a boost from Stephon McCray’s return in the fall after a torn meniscus sidelined him this spring. Mo Latu, originally an interior offensive lineman, moved to defensive line but still provides a depth option if needed.
Thomsen on what the offensive line must improve most going forward: “I’d say pass protection. That was an area that last year they kind of struggled in. Right now, in the spring, I can say I’ve seen some improvement, but we’ve still got to come on, because third-and -medium or third-and-long, you’ve got to be able to drop back and throw the football against the blitz. We’re making progress there, but we’re not where we need to be. We need to really develop. Our communication has to be better and the technique in the pass game has to be better.”