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NCAA Football Preview - Arizona State Sun Devils

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*** NCAA Football Preview - Arizona State Sun Devils ***

From The Sports Network By Brian Mason, College Football Staff Writer 2003 SEASON IN REVIEW: The Sun Devils were picked to finish second-to- last in the conference standings in 2002 and shocked the Pac-10 by going 8-6 overall and 5-3 in conference play, which was good enough for third place. Last year expectations were at an all-time high, but ASU was easily one of the most disappointing teams in college football, finishing only 5-7 overall and just 2-6 in the Pac-10. The reason for the team's collapse was uninspired play on defense and an erratic campaign for star quarterback Andrew Walter, who still managed to pass for 3,044 yards, 24 touchdowns and 10 interceptions. The 6-6 senior quarterback was hampered by injuries and a slow start in 2003, but is still considered one of the top signal callers in the nation and a preseason hopeful for the Heisman Trophy. ASU began last year with back-to- back wins and then lost their next three games. The end of the season did not finish any better, losing four of their last five contests, including an embarrassing 51-23 setback against California at home. Finding a reliable rushing attack will be crucial to taking some of the pressure off of Walter, as the Sun Devils averaged only 117.3 ypg last year, which ranked 96th in the nation. Stopping the pass will also be a major priority for head coach Dirk Koetter and ASU after it allowed the opposition to pass for 253.9 ypg in 2003 (95th in the nation). 2004 ANALYSIS: OFFENSE: Most quarterbacks would be more than happy to post the numbers that Walter put up last season, but they were not as impressive as most would think. Walter has added 15 extra pounds to his frame this year and is ready to make a resurgence as one of the top gunslingers in the country. With another year in Koetter's offense under his belt, Walter should excel by showing off one of the quickest releases and throwing arms around. Wideout Derek Hagan will be Walter's main recipient in the passing attack, as he is coming off a 2003 campaign in which he posted 66 receptions for 1,076 yards and nine scores. Hagan is an outstanding deep threat and will likely garner First Team Pac-10 honors if Walter can remain healthy. Sophomore Terry Richardson will likely start opposite Hagan and although the young receiver lacks experience, he is extremely quick and athletic. Sophomore Loren Wade returns at tailback for ASU after leading the way last year with 773 yards and five touchdowns. Wade should show vast improvement this season and may split carries with speedy sophomore Randy Hill (4.4 speed). The Sun Devils return three starters on their offensive line and come into the year as one of the top units in the Pac-10 because of their experience and impressive size at nearly every position. DEFENSE: ASU returns just one starter to its defensive line, defensive end Jimmy Verdon. With 71 stops and five sacks over the last two years, Verdon is the star of the unit and could possibly move inside to help a unit that is making the transition from a 4-2-5 scheme to a traditional 4-3 set. Fellow defensive end Ishmael Thrower is in his senior season and should finally be ready to make an impact. Thrower posted 4.5 sacks last year and has speed to be a turnover forcing machine for this athletic defensive unit. This squad's set of linebackers could be one of the most underrated in the Pac-10 this year, as Jamar Williams, Justin Burks and Matt Fawley all have superb strength and talent. Fawley is the player that has been catching everyone's eye this spring, as he makes the transition from safety to outside linebacker. Finishing third on the team with 78 stops last year, Fawley has the speed and hitting ability to dominate for the Sun Devils. A secondary that was victimized often last year should be ready to turn things around this year. R.J. Oliver is an outstanding cover corner, while safety Riccardo Stewart garnered second-team All-Pac 10 honors after making 83 tackles as a junior. SPECIAL TEAMS: Tim Parker, who was one of the nation's top punters last season, has graduated and now redshirt freshman Chris McDonald takes over for the Sun Devils. While the team's punter may be inexperienced, the kicking game will be in good hands with sophomore Jessie Ainsworth. Ainsworth connected on 10 field goals last season and has one of the best legs in the Pac-10. He made only two of six attempts from more than 40 yards last season, but should prove to be much more consistent in 2004. OUTLOOK: The Sun Devils and Walter will have learned from last year's disappointing campaign and come out of the gates this season on a mission. ASU starts the year with two very winnable contests against UTEP and Northwestern, but will quickly be met with challenges by facing Iowa and Oregon State in consecutive weeks at home. As important as Walter is to this team's success, Wade may be even more crucial in how well the Sun Devils finish this season. A consistent running attack will force opposing defenses to respect the run as well as Walter's cannon-like arm. If Wade struggles and this defense has another slow start, coach Koetter's (17-20 in 3 years) job could definitely be in jeopardy. However, that is not likely to happen as the defense on paper seems to be ready to return to its 2002 form and with a schedule that ends with contests against Stanford, Washington State and Arizona (road), a late season push to the top of the Pac-10 standings is probable.
Tagged: Arizona State

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