Erickson’s seat warms as fourth season begins

By Randy Hill

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As we’ve come to expect of these issue-defining intersections, a Devil has been registered at a major crossroads in Tempe.
But ASU head football coach Dennis Erickson is not here to negotiate the meteoric rise and eternal free fall of an under-employed blues musician. No, he’s arrived with a (sort of) new tactical sidekick and three auditioning quarterbacks. And while these guys don’t quite qualify as saviors of Erickson and Sun Devil football, they do represent potential separation of the 63-year-old head coach and the proverbial highway.
Before checking in with the members of this well-meaning quartet, let’s take a look at where Erickson currently stands (or sits). In this business, it’s often clumsily presented as the hot seat. It should be noted that — now beginning his fourth season at ASU — Erickson is on the contractual books through the 2012 campaign. Financial considerations could prevent the school and its benefactors from booking a ticket out of town should the Sun Devils flop for the third consecutive season. But they won’t stop Erickson’s chair from being upholstered in charcoal a few months down the road.
“It’s not my first time,” Erickson, addressing these doomsday considerations head on, said during Saturday’s media-day mixer at ASU. “I’ve been on the hot seat a lot.”
He’s also done his share of kicking back in the thrill-of-victory love seat. With a career record of 167-83-1, Erickson — who coached the Miami Hurricanes to a pair of national championships — is one of the more accomplished coaches in the country. Sure, he inherited the ‘Canes from Jimmy Johnson, who had steered the U to four consecutive 10-win seasons before Erickson stepped in. But Erickson also managed to post an 11-1 mark in his second season at Oregon State, where a 7-5 finish one year before was the Beavers’ first winning season in 29 years.
So instead of batting around the legitimacy of any hot-seat presumptions, the more compelling notion is this: how in the heck did he get anywhere near this seeming predicament? Right, ASU has lost 15 of its 24 games the past two seasons. What we’re still wondering is why. Holy cats, the guy came in and coached survivors from the Dirk Koetter Show to a 10-3 record. That was ASU’s first 10-win season since 1996. Although subsequent recruiting did nothing to wow the big thinkers at the scouting websites, Erickson did begin bringing in more highly touted prospects.
Unfortunately, a lack of legitimate depth (too many freshman were sacrificed for the greater bad) everywhere helped torpedo his second ASU season (5-7) and a heroically tragic offense made it 4-8 last year. How tragic were the Devils when they had the ball? Well, let’s go with 91st nationally in red-zone efficiency and give you time to chew on that.
This is where Noel Mazzone comes in. Mazzone is the new offensive coordinator who happens to be an old name on Erickson’s Rolodex. When Erickson needed an OC in Corvallis back in 2002, Mazzone — who now has worked as an offensive assistant at nine different schools (with two stints at Ole Miss) — was hired. Along with a few mixed reviews at places like Auburn (where he was the OC for Tommy Tuberville), Mazzone brings with him the blueprint for a fast-paced, frequent-chuckin’ spread offense … right, sort of like Koetter’s jazzy scheme.
“It’s just fast,” returning junior quarterback Samson Szakacsy said of the Mazzone attack plan. “It’s going to keep defenses guessing.”
For now, ASU’s early opponents first have to figure out which of the three contestants in ASU’s quarterback derby will take the field. Joining Szakacsy in this chase are Michigan transfer Steven Threet and returning sophomore Brock Osweiler.
“All three of them have their pluses,” Erickson said. “All three of them have their minuses.”
Ah, but do any of them have the chops to make ASU viable on offense and team up for relative glory with some really talented pieces from the Pac-10’s best statistical defense? We’ll have to wait and see, of course. But rather than feed those low expectations (league reporters and other assorted smarties pick the Devils to finish ninth), let’s take a look at the positives.
All three have starting experience. The 6-foot-8 Osweiler had some nice moments as a freshman. Szakacsy, who missed most of spring practice with a bum shoulder, is healthy now and has some wiggle outside whatever pocket the ASU blockers, who — in recent years — have invited turnstiles to define their line splits, can provide. Threet started eight games for the Wolverines and was behind center when they knocked off Wisconsin.
Erickson said he’s hoping someone “jumps up” to claim the top spot on the depth chart, but didn’t rule out proceeding into the season with Quarterback 1 and Quarterback 1A.
Making sure ASU is ultimately armed and dangerous is job No. 1 for Mazzone, who at least grades out high for jacking up the level of offensive energy in Sun Devil practices.
“He’s awesome,” Szakacsy, an engaging kid who seems perfectly capable of finding the silver lining in root canal, said of his new OC. “His passion for the game is so obvious. He’s just unified the entire offense.”
If Mazzone and at least one of the QBs can find multiple routes to the end zone, ASU could be in business. Erickson, who has seen too much, accomplished too much and endured to much to be coaxed into hyperbole or intimidated by toasty chairs, is taking a reasonable approach to season four.
“We know where we’re at,” he said. “Two losing seasons in a row; that’s not in my DNA. We know where we’re picked and we know what has to be done.”
And if it isn’t done, at least he’ll be standing where a good blues man might show up at any moment.

Updated August 7, 2010