College Football has no offseason. Every coach knows that the preparation for September begins now, in Spring Practice. So we here at the Eye on College Football will get you ready as teams open spring ball with our Spring Practice Primers. Today, we look at Arizona State, who started spring practice on Tuesday.
Spring Practice Question: Are Brock Osweiler and Vontaze Burfict ready to step up and lead the Sun Devils?
Oh what a difference a year makes.
Coming out of spring practice a year ago, Arizona State was picked to finish in the bottom half of the Pac-10 and faced issues at just about every position group. Entering the spring this year, the Sun Devils are now considered the favorite to win a Pac-12 South title thanks to 18 returning starters from last year's squad that played top ten teams Oregon, Stanford and Wisconsin tough.
"I thought last year we were really close, now I feel like we're here," head coach Dennis Erickson said at his pre-spring press conference. "Now we've got to do it on the field. Numbers wise, even though we've got a lot of seniors, we do have a lot of young guys playing. We're finally at a place, where if we have the success we think we're going to have next year, that we can plug guys in the year after that and the year after that and the year after that."
One starter returning is junior quarterback Brock Osweiler but it might be a bit of a stretch to actually call him a returning starter. Osweiler played in just five games last season but came on strong in two starts at the end of the year, a blow out of UCLA and an upset win at archrival Arizona.
"Yes, without a question, he is the guy," Erickson said. "Now who is two...that's kind of where we are going into spring football."
In addition to refining the 6-foot-7 quarterback's game this spring, finding a backup (important considering the revolving door at the position recently) is an unexpected challenge for Erickson and staff. Former starter Steven Threet had to retire due to concussions and Samson Szakacsy left the team to pursue other interests. Despite the vacancy at backup quarterback, Erickson still feels as though he has a talented group of quarterbacks with Osweiler, redshirt freshman Taylor Kelly and early enrollee Michael Bercovici.
"It's the best I've ever been around in college, or any place I have ever been, I've never had it that deep," Erickson said "Three of them are unproven, of course. But physical talent...from what you can see is pretty amazing."
Quite a statement for the fifth-year head coach to make considering some of his stops in college and the NFL, such as with the Miami Hurricanes and the San Francisco 49ers. All three quarterbacks have strong arms and can throw it anywhere on the field but Osweiler's maturity and experience have him firmly planted atop the depth chart. The lack of a quarterback battle has allowed him to focus less on beating another player and more on just being himself.
"It's a lot different," Osweiler told the Arizona Republic. "I'm a lot more comfortable. I've been in the offense for a year, and it's a little different. There's not exactly a quarterback competition, so it kind of takes that weight off you and just allows you to play."
Fans in Tempe are hoping that he can duplicate his numbers from the games against UCLA and Arizona, where he threw five touchdowns and no picks in helping the team reach the .500 mark on the year. With the expectation that Osweiler can successfully pilot the offense, Arizona State is undergoing a few minor tweaks this spring in order to help him get the ball in the hands of playmakers like running back Cameron Marshall.
"I think we'll add a few things. It might even be simpler than it's been," Erickson said. "I think one thing we can do right now is line up and run the football without having to trick people. I don't know if that's more complex or simpler. But we're not going to change a lot of things. I think that happens sometimes when you look at this offense is you have success and start putting too much in and they don't become as good."
On the other side of the ball, personal foul machine Vontaze Burfict is expected to - and we're not joking - take on a leadership role as an upperclassman this year. Though he has typically been known for a lack of self control on the field, the recent offseason program has given the talented middle linebacker a chance to help his team instead of hurt it.
"It's amazing his change in the last three months. Now, he doesn't miss workouts, ever," Erickson said. "He's a leader out there doing all sorts of stuff. He's in the best shape I've ever seen him in. He's a big time leader out there.
"The light just came on. I think the light came on at the end of last year. I think from the Stanford game on. I think having some success and winning, and saying maybe that gray-haired (coach) knows a little bit about what's going on."
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"I'm trying to get us to a national championship," Burfict said, "and to do that, I feel like I need to become more of a leader."
In addition to leading by example, Burfict will have to get used to playing behind two new defensive tackles following the departure of Lawrence Guy and Saia Falahola. Oft-injured tackle Corey Adams is talented but needs to stay on the field and Will Sutton will return after being academically ineligible last season. Despite a few new parts on defense, all eyes this spring will be on how the new and improved Burfict plays.
"I don't know why he had that chip on his shoulder. Maybe it was immaturity," Erickson said. "But it's totally different now."
The head coach hopes spring practice is totally different from years past as well. In addition to seeing Osweiler and Burfict step up their roles on the team, Erickson understands how much this spring means for the future of the program.
"I mean this is my fifth year. I have been going at this for four years," he said. "For me, I think it's a very important season for this program, no question about it."
If the Sun Devils are going to take the leap this upcoming spring and lay the foundation for a run, they'll have to hope Osweiler and Burfict take the necessary leap as leaders. The talk is certainly encouraging and there's no doubt that Osweiler is top dog on offense and Burfict has a better head on his shoulders on defense. But if Arizona State wants to see success in the fall, the next few weeks of spring practice are all about seeing if the two can start walking the walk and not mearly talking the talk.