TEMPE, Ariz. — When Arizona State scrimmaged at Camp Tontozona recently, more than 5,000 fans crowded around the practice field for a glimpse of what’s to come this season.
They cheered for explosive runs, roared for touchdown catches and gasped at hard hits. What elicited little reaction from the crowd was the group coach Todd Graham singled out afterward as the best of the day: the offensive line.
Offensive lines are generally overlooked by fans and media but never undervalued by coaches and teams. As many weapons as ASU has this season, the line may be the key to the team’s ability to deploy them with success.
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With the season approaching, here’s an overview of the Sun Devils’ offensive line:
LT Evan Finkenberg, LG Jamil Douglas, C Kody Koebensky, RG Vi Teofilo, RT Tyler Sulka
Coaches hoped Sulka would have a strong camp and seize a spot on the starting line, and that’s just what he did. Within two days of practice beginning, Sulka had worked his way into the first-team right tackle position.
The biggest reason for Sulka’s emergence, offensive line coach Chris Thomsen said, was a productive summer in the weight room.
“They did a great job with him physically,” Thomsen said. “That’s translated into a lot more confidence. He’s a more physical player, in pass protection he’s got a better punch to him, and in the run game he’s got more explosiveness. That’s all just adding weight and adding strength in the offseason.”
Replacing the entire right side of the starting offensive line from a year ago may have seemed a tall task, particularly with a new position coach also trying to impart his methods and philosophies, but the situation was resolved rather quickly.
Thomsen, who spent last season at Texas Tech and replaced Bob Connelly at ASU, had the spring to lay down a fundamental base with the returning players, including 2012 starters Finkenberg, Douglas and Koebensky. He was also able to evaluate the pieces in place and how best to position them for the fall, with Douglas spending time at right tackle and Sil Ajawara at left guard.
Sulka’s quick emergence did two things: It allowed Douglas to shift back to left guard, pushing Ajawara out of the starting lineup, and settled the competition to start on the line with little hand-wringing.
“We’ve come a good ways (since the spring), just in terms of them understanding what we’re doing,” Thomsen said. “We play so fast, so they’ve got to think fast. That’s what takes time is doing it all at a fast tempo.”
Now, the group has to get it done. As well as quarterback Taylor Kelly and ASU’s running backs played last season, the offensive line hindered them at times. The line allowed 2.92 sacks per game, which ranked 102nd out of 120 Division I teams, though ahead of four Pac-12 opponents. Technique alterations have been made to help address the problem, but the starting line’s improved size and strength could be the real difference.
In the Tontozona scrimmage, running backs D.J. Foster and Marion Grice appeared to have more holes through which to run. That’s a testament to the line, though it will have to carry over into games. Kelly and the other quarterbacks also seemed to have ample time to work, a particularly good sign against a defense as adept at getting to the quarterback as ASU’s. Giving Kelly more time to work would be a huge boon considering the increase in weapons at his disposal in the passing game.
ASU has also been able to develop some depth on the line this fall, though the position remains one of the team’s thinnest. Despite missing the spring with a knee injury, redshirt freshman Stephon McCray has impressed coaches, as has redshirt sophomore William McGehee. Ajawara remains furthest along of the reserves. Auburn transfer and former local star Christian Westerman may be the best scout-team lineman in the nation as he sits out a mandatory season of ineligibility.
“Some of those guys are getting closer to being ready to play,” Thomsen said. “Some of those other guys have to step up.”
ONE TO WATCH
At the start of camp, Ajawara was in line to be a starter, but his broken toe made it hard to hold down a spot. Once he’s back to full speed and gets the reps he would have gotten with a healthy camp, Ajawara could make an in-season push for a starting job. He at least gives ASU a solid, experienced option on the second team who should keep a couple starters on their toes.
“We’ve been able to solidify a starting group, and then I think some of those guys in backup roles have developed some. So we’ve got a little better feel for how we’re going to play it with the group we have, and I think we’ve made some strides.” — Offensive line coach Chris Thomsen