NCF Nation: Omar Bolden
His biggest problem now, however, is his apparent inability to run fast. Harris clocked a 4.64 40-yard dash Tuesday, a pedestrian time for a prospective NFL cornerback.
Writes ESPN.com's Steve Muench:
Former Oregon CB Cliff Harris played in just six games in 2011 before being dismissed form the team, so he needed a solid week both on and off the field. No word yet on how he interviewed, but Harris did not perform as well as expected during drills. He stumbled early on, didn't show great body control overall and failed to field the ball cleanly, including two double-catches in the final drill.
It's also worth noting that the defensive backs end their session with a ball-skills competition, and an excited Harris punted the ball after that second double-catch. While it's good to see competitive spirit coming out and it's important not to exaggerate here, Harris should be more careful and avoid drawing any kind of attention that could be viewed as negative. He needs to show teams he's not going to be a distraction going forward.
Harris wasn't the only Pac-12 DB to run poorly. Former California safety Sean Cattouse ran a 4.74.
Former Arizona CB Trevin Wade ran a middle-of-the-pack 4.59. Former Arizona State CB Omar Bolden didn't run the 40, but did lead all defensive backs with 24 reps at 225 pounds.
Harris will get an opportunity to run again during individual workouts with NFL scouts, as will Bolden, who's status on draft boards won't be established until he shows how well his surgically repaired knee is responding.
Commandment VI: "Thou shall not take any opponent lightly, for thenst thou surely will get thou butt kickest."
(Note: We prefer to use the Codex John McKay, as translated by the Venerable Bede, instead of the Codex Fielding Yost, translated by Alcuin, per a directive from Charlemagne).
Woe to the team that overlooks an apparently weak foe. Ask any team that's lost to an FCS program. Or USC in 2007 against Stanford. Or Oklahoma last weekend.
Of the Sun Devils five remaining opponents, just one -- 4-3 California, which must come to Tempe for the season finale on Nov. 25 -- owns a winning record at present.
Further, the Sun Devils, 3-1 in Pac-12 play, appear to be in complete control of the conference's South Division. USC also is 3-1 in the conference but is ineligible for the postseason. Three of the four remaining South Division foes already have four conference defeats. The lone team in striking distance? UCLA, at 2-2.
Who believes UCLA, a 48-12 loser at Arizona last Thursday, is going to win the South? Anyone? [Crickets] Anyone? [Crickets].
So it would be very easy for the Sun Devils to start looking ahead to the Pac-12 championship game on Dec. 2.
Colorado coming to town on Saturday? Pfftt. The Buffaloes are 1-7 and have surrendered 145 points in their past three games. Just about all their good players -- receiver Paul Richardson, linebacker Doug Rippy, running back Rodney Stewart, etc. -- are hurt. Heck, QB Tyler Hansen is questionable after suffering a concussion in the 45-2 loss to Oregon.
At this point, one should re-read Commandment VI.
“I think in the game of football, sometimes you’ll see a team looking past another team," Sun Devils quarterback Brock Osweiler said. "[This week] it will be a good test for us."
No doubt. The entire five-game stretch will be a good test of ASU's focus, which, if true, could yield substantial rewards. And things are looking up in other ways, too.
Sure, the 41-27 loss at Oregon still smarts, but as solid as the Sun Devils have been so far, they might bring a substantially better team to the championship game (sportswriters have no such prohibition on looking ahead). Recall how injury ravaged this team once was? Well, it's getting healthier after a bye week.
For one, defensive end Junior Onyeali, only the team's best pass-rusher, is expected to play against Colorado, his first action since hurting his knee at Illinois on Sept. 17. Offensive tackle Evan Finkenberg (knee) could be back this week but more likely will be ready for the trip to UCLA on Nov. 5. Further, running back Cameron Marshall and offensive tackle Aderious Simmons, who both have ankle injuries -- Marshall has continued to play through it; Simmons returned for the Oregon game -- used the bye week to get healthier.
Finally, there's the Omar Bolden question. Bolden, perhaps the best defensive back in the conference, who has not played this season after tearing his ACL in spring practice, has been cleared by doctors to practice.
"He was actually on the scout team the other day," coach Dennis Erickson "He’s moving around pretty well. I don’t know if or when he will play. It’s up to him and the doctors."
Adding an A-list cornerback -- he was a unanimous first-team All-Pac-10 pick last year -- to an already solid Sun Devils defense would be, well, huge.
You can follow Omar's progress on his Twitter page, where he Monday tweeted: "Cleared by my doctor from a medical standpoint..... Now I gotta get my #Swagger back!!!" And "I won't play unless I'm just as effective as I was 6 months ago.... Refuse to damage stock!"
So stay tuned.
As for not taking teams lightly, Erickson said the good news is his team is mature and senior-laden. And if they need a reminder of what can happen when they give a less-than-focused effort, they can just reference the Sept. 17 trip to Illinois, a 17-14 loss to a team that had no business being within two TDs of the Sun Devils.
There's no escaping the reality of the schedule. The Sun Devils should win their next five games and finish at 10-2, a record that should have them within striking distance of the top-10.
And who knows what could happen in one-game playoff to get to the Rose Bowl?
"We have some goals that we can achieve," Erickson said. "We will not achieve them if we do not win the next game and the next game and the next game."
And, of course, it all starts with THE next game, and nothing else.
Arizona lost starting cornerback Jonathan McKnight for the season after it was announced he tore his ACL during Wednesday's practice. The true sophomore, brother to former USC tailback Joe McKnight, has a redshirt year available.
That's not a total disaster because McKnight was one of three good cornerbacks, but his injury makes Shaquille Richardson and Trevin Wade the starters with little margin for error, and bumps true freshman Cortez Johnson up the depth chart. Redshirt freshman Jourdon Grandon becomes the nickelback.
McKnight is the third member of the Wildcats' defense to suffer a knee injury this offseason: Safety Adam Hall and linebacker Jake Fischer were hurt in the spring. Hall and Fischer could return to action in October.
Up I-10 in Tempe, Arizona State also has struggled with injuries, most notably cornerback Omar Bolden and linebacker Brandon Magee.
"That started before the game, though. He was on the sidelines talking and everything," Katz recalls.
He takes a pass. Said Katz, "It's just competitive juices flowing. I don't take it personally. Things happen. I know he's an emotional player. He was just trying to get in our head."
Just about everyone who has played or coached against Burfict has a story. Many are about his breath-taking skills that rate the 6-foot-3, 252-pound true junior perhaps the nation's best linebacker, one with an NFL All-Pro future. But others are about him being unhinged, his intensity so overwhelming his self-control that he often hurts his team with his antics.
The head-butt to Katz, in fact, convinced Dennis Erickson, a coach not typically thought of as a strict disciplinarian, to take away Burfict's starting job last fall (albeit briefly).
A few weeks later, in a tight game with Stanford, Burfict was called for a critical face-mask penalty. It was a bad call, but Burfict couldn't resist the urge to point that out to officials, which earned him an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty on top of the face mask, which gave Stanford the ball on the Sun Devils' 7-yard line. Shortly thereafter, Stanford pushed in the game-winning score, foiling a potential major upset that also would have earned the Sun Devils bowl eligibility.
In a highly competitive game with Oregon, Burfict spent a lot of time focusing on the Ducks' sideline, including mocking coach Chip Kelly's well-publicized method of signalling plays with random graphics on a large poster board.
Want more? Go to YouTube. If you search Vontaze Burfict, you'll find a long list of great plays and dubious behavior caught on film -- both noticed and unnoticed by officials.
"A lot of people ask about Vontaze -- from Oregon, from other places," said former Ducks and current Sun Devils wide receiver Aaron Pflugrad. "They are like 'What's up with this guy?' He's a shy, quiet guy off the field, but he's just a monster on it. That's the only way to explain it. I've never played with anyone like him before."
While Burfict loves to talk, intimidate and get inside opponents' heads, he's not so chatty or revealing about his own state of mind off it. After a spring and offseason when he worked with the school's sports information office and granted more interviews than he did his first two years, he has turned down interview requests -- including one from the Pac-12 blog -- this summer.
While part of that is because Burfict is reclusive and insecure with public speaking, another part involves things he doesn't want to talk about, including a locker room fight with 200-pound receiver Kevin Ozier, which the school attempted to downplay. Since that incident, reports of other off-field skirmishes, including a practice altercation with receivers coach Steve Broussard -- which Erickson told reporters was "totally ridiculous" -- have surfaced.
All this has clouded a storyline that Erickson and ASU officials had been working on since the spring: Burfict as team leader, a role even more required of him after cornerback Omar Bolden and linebacker Brandon Magee went down with season-ending injuries.
Said Erickson at Sun Devils media day, which Burfict chose not to attend: "He's matured a whole heck of a lot. I'm really proud of how he's matured." That was just days after the locker room fight.
Fellow linebacker Shelly Lyons, like Magee a former Burfict teammate at Centennial High School (Corona, Calif.), was asked what Burfict needs to work on this season.
"I would say when he gets frustrated," Lyons said. "He really has all the attributes as a player -- size, speed, he can hit. So I'd just say that when he gets frustrated to take it easy. The referees have a target on him. He's got to hold it back this year."
Last season, Burfict led the Sun Devils -- and was ninth in the Pac-10 -- with 90 tackles, including 8.5 for a loss. He also forced two fumbles. While there are some holes in his game -- his frenetic style sometimes gets him out of position -- physically, he's a finished product, one whose ability screams he's a certain top-15 NFL draft pick.
But the lack of self-control, on and off the field, will be an issue with NFL general managers.
If Burfict can fully focus his ability and intensity on what happens between the whistles, he could win the Butkus Award as the nation's best linebacker. And the Sun Devils' defense, despite injuries, could become one of the top units on the West Coast.
If that happens, Burfict and the Sun Devils will have a happy ending: Perhaps a Pac-12 South Division title and a high draft pick.
"Hopefully this year it's controlled insanity and he doesn't go after a player or anything," Pflugrad said.
If it isn't, well, it's still likely to be great theater.
And no team is dragging more with injuries than Arizona State, which lost senior linebacker Brandon Magee for the season Saturday due to a ruptured Achilles tendon.
Magee is not only a returning starter, there's also this from the Arizona Republic:
Defensive coordinator Craig Bray recently told The Republic that Magee was the team's best defensive player last season.
Over the past week, Magee had seemed to take a greater leadership role on the field, barking at the first-team defense to get to the ball and to work through fatigue.
Magee also is one of the "Centennial Threesome" with fellow LBs Vontaze Burfict and Shelly Lyons. He and Lyons keep pretty busy helping the volatile Burfict maintain an even keel.
Perhaps no team in the county expected to contend for a national ranking has suffered as much roster attrition as the Sun Devils since the end of 2010. QB Steven Threet (retired due to recurrent concussions), QB Samson Szakacsy (left team), DT Lawrence Guy (entered NFL draft), CB Omar Bolden (knee), WR T.J. Simpson (knee), DE James Brooks (left team) and RB Deantre Lewis (gunshot wound). And since the beginning of camp, linebacker Oliver Aaron suffered a high-ankle sprain, backup defensive tackle Joita Te'i suffered a foot injury that will sideline him for seven weeks and cornerback Devan Spann dislocated his left shoulder two times in the first week of practice.
And now Magee.
Despite all this, the Sun Devils still have the makings of a good team. Just not as good of a team as they had when they walked off the field Dec. 2 after beating rival Arizona.
If you did it this week, you get 85,900 results (in 0.23 seconds! Technology rocks! Though it doesn't seem as if all the matches are relevant, Google).
In 2008, we wrote, "If a Pac-10 team has a chance to break USC's choke-hold on the conference title -- or at least to regularly challenge the Trojans for the top spot -- it's the Sun Devils."
We were wrong. Somehow I want to blame Chip Kelly.
We are considering programs that are "teases" in the Pac-12, which my new boss, Ruthless Reynolds, described as "teams that always look great in the preseason only to underwhelm when play starts."
Sun Devils, why can't we quit you?
Well, lots of reasons.
You have the only coach in the conference who's won a national title in Dennis Erickson. As a resident of north Scottsdale living in the shadow of Black Mountain, I can confirm that the weather -- though a bit toasty in the summer -- is just about perfect eight months of the year. Tempe is just a short flight from the recruiting hotbed of Southern California. The, er, scene at Arizona State strikes this codger as something that might appeal to an average 18- or 19-year-old male. Academic standards don't typically limit recruiting options.
And the program has been there before, becoming a national power in the 1970s under Frank Kush and then again in the 1996 season, when it lost a national title in a thrilling Rose Bowl defeat to Ohio State.
Still, it's one of the great questions in college football: Why doesn't Arizona State win more consistently?
Of late, the Sun Devils have typically underperform compared to expectations. In four of the past six years, they've finished below where they were picked in the Pac-10 preseason media poll, most notably in 2008 -- that year! -- when they were picked second in the conference but finished sixth with a 5-7 record.
To be fair, though, they've eclipsed their preseason prediction in two of the four years -- 2007 and 2010 -- under Erickson.
And so we have 2011.
The Pac-12 blog started touting Arizona State as a 2011 contender before last season was done. Why? It wasn't just that the Sun Devils went nose-to-nose with some of the best teams in the country -- Oregon, Wisconsin, Stanford -- it was coaches from other teams specifically noting how talented the Sun Devils were.
Then you looked at the 2010 depth chart: Everyone was coming back. Seriously: The only senior starters last year were receiver Kerry Taylor and defensive tackle Saia Falahola.
Wow. To be honest, my thought process immediately saw 6-6 in 2010 and thought Rose Bowl shot in 2011.
But after a nice finish to the 2010 season, little has gone right for the Sun Devils. Defensive tackle Lawrence Guy made a poor decision and entered the NFL draft. Quarterback Steven Threet was forced to retire due to concussions. Fellow quarterback Samson Szakacsy left the team. Unanimous All-Pac-10 cornerback Omar Bolden blew out his knee at the beginning of spring practices, followed shortly thereafter by top returning receiver T.J. Simpson. Starting defensive end James Brooks quit, and the status of talented running back Deantre Lewis (gunshot wound) remains up in the air as he might redshirt this season.
That's five starters, a co-starter (Lewis) and an experienced backup quarterback. So, Sun Devils fans, you have a ready-made excuse if the season falls short of expectations and you end up only wondering what might have been.
That said, Arizona State, despite these major personnel losses, is still good enough to win the South Division. It also helps, by the way, that USC's ineligibility means it's only a five-team race among squads that each have significant holes.
But every time you start to think they'll be OK, something else happens, such as All-American linebacker Vontaze Burfict fighting a receiver he outweighs by 50 pounds in the locker room last week, or linebacker Oliver Aaron suffering a high ankle sprain, or backup defensive tackle Joita Te'i suffering a foot injury that will sideline him for seven weeks.
Still, 28 seniors back in the locker room, five starters back on the offensive line, Burfict leading impressive talent in the front seven, an underrated running back in Cameron Marshall and a quarterback in Brock Osweiler who looks ready to lead.
Sun Devils, why can't we quit you?
3. George Farmer, WR, USC Trojans:
If, as many Trojans insiders insist, Farmer is even more talented than his buddy Robert Woods, Matt Barkley is going to have a startling array of firepower to work with (don't forget about former blue-chip WR Kyle Prater, who redshirted in 2010). Farmer has blazing speed, and at 6-foot-2, 205 he has a very strong, sturdy frame to go with it. With him in the lineup, defenses will be seriously tested, having to cope with Farmer's speed and Woods' explosiveness at the same time.
Woods was dominant this spring, but many expect Farmer to be Woods' equal this fall. We'll see. If so, Barkley and the Trojans might not need much of a running game with their patchwork offensive line. What about the other 11 Pac-12 teams? Who is the most likely impact freshman for each? Because of our "heck yeah!" attitude, we've decided to take a stab at this query. Understand that it's not just about highly rated, it's about who might help immediately.
Arizona: The Wildcats signed three touted linebackers, but we're tapping Rob Hankins as the one who will make the most impact -- and by impact, we mean start. While Hankins is a pure inside linebacker, the Wildcats need immediate help on the outside due to Jake Fischer's knee injury.
Arizona State: With so many returning starters, the Sun Devils won't need a true freshman to start immediately. But after the knee injury to Omar Bolden, cornerback went from a position of strength to a questionable one -- at least in terms of depth. So the best guess is Rashad Wadood will get an early opportunity to work his way into the rotation.
California: The Bears reeled in an outstanding class, particularly on defense. A number of those guys are going to play. But a need area next fall for Cal is running back, where 5-foot-7, 188-pound junior Isi Sofele is atop the depth chart. So we're tapping running back Brendon Bigelow as the impact freshman, with the caveat that he is coming back from a knee injury. If not Bigelow, then perhaps it will be Daniel Lasco.
Colorado: The Buffaloes lost two starting corners to the NFL and struggled against the pass in 2010. They need help in the secondary, and Sherrard Harrington looks like the best bet, either at cornerback or perhaps at safety.
Oregon: Colt Lyerla is going to play for Oregon next fall, likely as a hybrid tight end/H-back sort. But the Ducks are solid at tight end. They need either Devon Blackmon or Tacoi Sumler to step up as an outside receiver. We're going with Sumler who has special speed and is more polished as receiver.
Oregon State: Rusty Fernando was penciled in as a starting defensive end at the beginning of spring practices, and it appears it will remain that way. But he's a junior college transfer. So, in the interest of focusing on incoming freshmen, we're going with Terron Ward, a grayshirt freshman running back who flashed ability this spring. At least one of the three true freshmen running backs figures to get touches.
Stanford: Linebacker James Vaughters is a beast. His film will give you goose bumps. He's going to play. But in terms of need, receiver is a far more questionable position for the Cardinal this fall. So watch out for Ty Montgomery.
UCLA: A lot of UCLA fans would say quarterback Brett Hundley. He finished No. 3 on the depth chart after spring practices and, while he's the quarterback of the future, it likely would be better to redshirt him, if possible. But Kevin Prince's inability to stay healthy and Richard Brehaut's inability to be consistent might make that impossible. And the Bruins recruiting class doesn't include any other obvious impact guys for this fall.
Utah: This one is easy -- running back Harvey Langi was No. 2 on the post-spring depth chart behind John White, and that competition is ongoing. Langi is going to get plenty of carries.
Washington: Another easy one -- Austin Seferian-Jenkins finished spring as a push with Michael Hartvigson as the Huskies starting tight end. Nothing suggested that he won't live up to the considerable hype he received during recruiting.
Washington State: Outside linebacker Logan Mayes has great Cougar bloodlines; he's the son of former Washington State All-American running back Rueben Mayes. He has the athletic ability and football smarts to work his way into the mix immediately, mostly likely at strong side linebacker.
No defensive player who earned first-team All-Pac-10 honors in 2010 is back -- Arizona State cornerback Omar Bolden blew out his knee this spring. But that doesn't mean there aren't a plethora of returning defensive stars. Expect at least a couple of Pac-12 players to earn All-American honors.
The first question is who's the best inside linebacker? Arizona State's Vontaze Burfict might be the most fearsome defensive player in the nation, but by the end of the 2010 season few were better than Stanford's Shayne Skov.
Of course, neither matched the numbers put up by California's Mychal Kendricks -- 8.5 sacks, 15 tackles for a loss -- last year.
While he USC safety T.J. McDonald was a bit under the radar because the Trojans defense struggled in 2010, that defense is expected to dramatically improve and McDonald is a big reason why.
But, really, what happens if Oregon's big-play cornerback Cliff Harris becomes consistent -- while still maintaining his ball hawking ways?
Lots of good choices. But who's going to be the best?
"It matters what times you're talking about," he said of the myriad flags he's drawn for extracurricular activity during games over the previous two seasons. "They are totally different times. Some calls are bull crap."
Fellow linebacker Brandon Magee, a Centennial High School (Corona, Calif.) teammate, is sitting nearby. He offers his take on Burfict, who may be the nation's best inside linebacker.
"I wouldn't trade the fouls. Personal fouls are going to come," Magee said. "The way he plays out there, it doesn't matter to me. That's the way he plays. Great players, you might not like everything about them. But the one thing you can say is he gives it his all on every down."
One analyst, Petros Papadakis, called Burfict the "scariest" player in the country last year. In a not unrelated matter, it seems like an opportune time to change the subject, so Magee is asked if he thinks some players are scared of Burfict.
"They better be scared," said Magee, with just a hint of Don King showmanship. "We're not trying to be nice out there. We're not your friends. We're nobody's friends out there. I hope they know that, too. We try to make enemies. We don't want friends."
Burfict cracks up while Magee is talking.
Magee is told that some folks in the Pac-12 think Burfict is crazy. Does Magee ever hear that in games?
Replied Magee, "Oh, yeah, and I say, 'Yep. See if you can stop him.'"
Few can stop Burfict, a speedy, instinctive 6-foot-3, 252-pound package of football fury. Burfict more often has stopped himself after the whistles with personal foul and unsportsmanlike conduct penalties. Coach Dennis Erickson took away his starting job -- briefly -- last season after Burfict head-butted Oregon State quarterback Ryan Katz. A few weeks later, in a tight game with Stanford, Burfict was called for a critical facemask penalty. The call, to use Burfict's term, was "bull crap," but Burfict couldn't resist the urge to point that out.
He was slapped with an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty on top of the facemask, which gave the Cardinal the ball on the Sun Devils' 7-yard line. Shortly thereafter, Stanford pushed in the game-winning score.
Burfict, you might have gathered, isn't a fan of interviews. He doesn't like the spotlight. He doesn't like to talk about himself. He just wants to bust heads and win games. At 4:30 p.m. ET -- 1:30 p.m. PT -- Tuesday, a video interview of Burfict will appear on the Pac-12 blog. You probably haven't seen many of those. Roy Firestone won't be jealous of its penetrating insights. It took a handful of takes to get through (hey, I messed it up once, too). But Burfict was a good sport and did what the folks at Arizona State asked. He's trying to take on a leadership role this season for a team with lofty aspirations, and that often includes stuff that isn't fun, such as being the superstar fronting the team for the media.
"I've got to lead by example, going to everything on time, being 10 minutes early," he said.
The public is probably not going to get to really "know" Vontaze Burfict, at least until he's ready to let them do so. But it's pretty clear that there's some distance between the Tasmania Devil on the field and the quiet, guarded dude off it.
"A lot of my friends from back home ask about him: 'How is Vontaze? Is he crazy? Is he a nice guy?'" offensive tackle Evan Finkenberg said. "He's actually really quiet outside of the football field. He's a really nice guy. He hangs out in my apartment sometimes."
The second-team All-Pac-10 selection earned a number of All-American honors last fall after leading the Sun Devils with 90 tackles, including 8.5 for a loss and two forced fumbles. His ability has never been a question since he was a touted recruit who was once committed to USC. More than a few folks will tell you a comparison to Ray Lewis, of whom Burfict said he models his game, is apt. But his big-picture development as a mature player has been a gradual process, learning self-control, becoming a leader instead of merely being a contact-seeking missile.
For Erickson, there's been a fine line between keeping Burfict from drawing too many flags while not muting his intensity, which is contagious for a defense.
"He's a boisterous guy on the field and in the locker room," Erickson said. "He is what he is. He's going to play with great enthusiasm and that sometimes gets you in trouble. During the spring, he was a real leader. He's matured."
And with the knee injury to first-team All-Pac-10 cornerback Omar Bolden, Burfict is the leader the entire defense will turn to.
Burfict can get better, and not just by staying on good terms with the officials. He sometimes misses his gap assignments. He could improve his drops in pass defense. But the expectation is the junior will enter the NFL draft after this season, when he'll likely be a first-round selection.
But, as for this season, Burfict wants to change the subject from himself and from the yellow flags of the past. What does he want to talk about?
Said Burfict, "Everybody is talking about national championships."
Arizona State is no exception to the universal spring optimism, but there's some momentum behind the good feeling after a strong finish in 2010. Expectations are high in Tempe. How high? Buckle up.
Osweiler isn't talking about the Allstate Sugar Bowl, though. He's talking about the BCS title game. Really.
Arizona State hasn't posted a winning season since 2007, when it went 10-3 in Dennis Erickson's debut and inspired false hope that things would be easy under a pedigreed coach. Not so. Over the past few seasons, the Sun Devils have found ways to lose, and they were typically creative in doing so. Missed field goals and extra points, turnovers on the goal line, turnovers in extraordinary bunches, missed tackles, missed throws, missed opportunities. It was sometimes great theater, though redundant tragedy from the Sun Devils perspective.
In 2009, they lost four games by five or fewer points. In 2010, they lost four games by four or fewer points, including squandered opportunities versus Wisconsin and Stanford. They somehow managed to stay within 11 points of Oregon -- one of three teams to do so -- despite seven (seven!) turnovers.
But from that manure pile sprouts the flower of hope. The Sun Devils welcome back 17 starters that includes depth on the offensive line and loads of speed and skill on both sides of the ball. They look like a slight favorite in the first year of the Pac-12 South Division, even though two returning starters, cornerback Omar Bolden and receiver T.J. Simpson, went down with knee injuries this spring.
"Everybody has to be optimistic before the season starts, but this year it's like everybody just knows," receiver Gerell Robinson said. "It's not like a hope or a feeling. Everybody just knows that if we do what we're supposed to do, we'll get to where we want to be."
That high expectations are the top story is good news for Erickson, who would be the subject of hotseat talk otherwise. His fast start hid some roster shortcomings -- most notably a dearth of offensive linemen -- and fans had started to turn away as the mediocrity piled up. In 2007, the average attendance in Sun Devil Stadium was 62,875. Last fall, it was 47,943.
The players are aware there's pressure to win in 2011.
"It's like some negative energy that we're turning into a positive on the field because nobody wants to see a coaching staff change," cornerback Deveron Carr said.
Beyond returning a majority of starters from 2010, the Sun Devils are a veteran team: They will feature a 30-man "senior" class (players in their final year of eligibility). The offensive line welcomes back all five starters and many of the backups even have starting experience. The top-six rushers from last fall are back, as are four of the top-six receivers. On defense, the top-three tacklers are back as are the three leaders in sacks and tackles for a loss.
And these aren't just hacks. The Sun Devils averaged 32.2 points per game in 2010, which ranked third in the Pac-10, and ranked fifth in total and scoring defense.
"We have some experience coming back and we have a lot of confidence in what we are doing," Erickson said. "Our players have been through a lot the last three years, lost some close games. Now it's their chance to step up and make some plays."
The biggest question: Is Osweiler up to the job? After starter Steven Threet went down with his third concussion against UCLA, Osweiler was brilliant coming off the bench and then overcame a bad first half to beat arch-rival Arizona. It was expected to be a tight quarterback competition this spring, but Osweiler won the job by default when the recurrent concussions forced Threet to retire.
The offense struggled early in spring practices, but Osweiler inspired confidence with five touchdown passes in the spring game as the offense dominated.
"He made some great throws that make you go, 'Wow, that was amazing,'" left tackle Evan Finkenberg said.
While losing Bolden and Simpson was a big blow -- both could return by mid-season -- the pieces still appear to be in place for a run at the first Pac-12 title game. And one of those pieces is confidence.
"I think this team knows it's our time now," Finkenberg said. "We have the pieces in place to have a big season and do the things we want to do."
The 2011 list of 42 (Lott's uniform number) includes 19 defensive backs, 14 linebackers and nine defensive linemen. There are 11 players from the ACC, eight from the SEC, seven from the Big Ten, seven from the Pac-10, six from the Big 12, one from the Big East, one from the Mountain West, one from the Western Athletic Conference and one from Notre Dame.
Here's the entire Watch List:
Emmanuel Acho, Texas, LB,
Ray-Ray Armstrong, Miami, DB
Mark Barron, Alabama, S
Jake Bequette, Arkansas, DL
Omar Bolden, Arizona State, CB
Nigel Bradham, Florida State, LB
Brodrick Brown, Oklahoma State, CB
Tank Carder, TCU, LB
Quinton Coples, North Carolina, DE
Jared Crick, Nebraska, DL
Lavonte David, Nebraska, LB
Matt Daniels, Duke, S
Tony Dye, UCLA, S
Stephon Gilmore, South Carolina, CB
Cliff Harris, Oregon, CB
Aaron Henry, Wisconsin, DB
Donta Hightower, Alabama, LB
Joe Holland, Purdue, LB
Jayron Hosley, Virginia Tech, CB
Delano Howell, Stanford, DB
Brandon Jenkins, Florida State, DE
Janois Jenkins, Florida, CB
Mychal Kendricks, Cal, LB
Jordan Kovacs, Michigan, S
Luke Kuechly, Boston College, LB
Travis Lewis, Oklahoma, LB
Chris Marve, Vanderbilt, LB
T.J. McDonald, USC, S
Matt Merletti, North Carolina, S
Chase Minnifield, Virginia, CB
Tyler Nielsen, Iowa, LB
Kendall Reyes, Connecticut, DT
John Simon, Ohio State, DT
Shayne Skov, Stanford, LB
Jacquies Smith, Missouri, DE
Sean Spence, Miami, LB
Kenny Tate, Maryland, S
Brandon Taylor, LSU, S
Manti Te'o, Notre Dame, LB
Prentiss Waggner, Tennessee, S
Billy Winn, Boise State, DE
Jerel Worthy, Michigan State, DT
Bolden, a unanimous pick for first-team All-Pac-10 in 2010, is a particularly big loss. He opted to return for his senior season instead of entering the NFL draft and was an All-America candidate. The Sun Devils are deeper at receiver than at corner. Further, Bolden, whose career has taken a number of twists and turns, including a season-ending knee injury in 2009, was one of the team's best leaders.
Both will undergo surgery next week.
Deveron Carr, who's sitting out spring after shoulder surgery, and Osahon Irabo will likely be the Sun Devils' starting cornerbacks. Coach Dennis Erickson also said that Alden Darby, presently playing free safety, could switch to corner. Redshirt freshman Devan Spann was Bolden's backup on the spring depth chart.
Redshirt freshman Kevin Anderson was Simpson's backup at the "X" receiver spot.
Arizona Republic columnist Paola Boivin writes that the Sun Devils will need a leader to step up, and she suggests that linebacker Vontaze Burfict is a good candidate.
Here's the tally from last season, if you are interested.
1. Arizona State
DE Junior Onyeali, LB Vontaze Burfict, CB Omar Bolden
The Skinny: No question on No. 1 here. Onyeali was the Pac-10 Defensive Freshman of the Year. Burfict is the nation's best inside linebacker. Bolden was unanimous first-team All-Pac-10.
DE Matt Masifilo, LB Shayne Skov, SS Delano Howell
The Skinny: Masifilo, the lone returning starter on the Cardinal defensive line, was honorable mention All-Pac-10, as was Skov, who was playing as well as any linebacker in the conference over the final third of the season. Howell was second-team All-Pac-10.
DE Trevor Guyton, LB Mychal Kendricks, S Sean Cattouse
The Skinny: Guyton had 8.5 tackles for a loss and 4.5 sacks despite being a part-time starter. Kendricks was second-team All-Pac-10. Cattouse earned honorable mention.
DE Terrell Turner, LB Josh Kaddu, CB Cliff Harris
The Skinny: Two solid returning starters and a second-team All-Pac-10 cornerback who figures to be a preseason All-American after earning second-team honors from the Associated Press and Walter Camp Football Foundation in 2010.
DT Alameda Ta'amu, LB Cort Dennison, FS Nate Fellner
The Skinny: Ta'amu earned honorable mention All-Conference honors and seemed to find himself over the latter half of the season. Dennison had 93 tackles, 8.5 tackles for a loss and two interceptions. Fellner tied for second in the conference with five interceptions.
DT Justin Washington, LB Paul Vassallo, CB Trevin Wade
The Skinny: Washington's numbers fell off when he got banged up, but he still had 11.5 tackles for a loss and six sacks as a redshirt freshman. Vassallo was honorable mention All-Conference. Wade had an off year last fall, but was second-team All-Pac-10 in 2009.
DE Armond Armstead, LB Chris Galippo, FS T.J. McDonald
The Skinny: This actually could be one of the best threesomes in the conference, but Armstead and Galippo have injury issues and only put up middling numbers last fall. McDonald was second-team All-Pac-10 in 2010.
8. Washington State
DE Travis Long, LB Alex Hoffman-Ellis, SS Deone Bucannon
The Skinny: Long was honorable mention All-Conference, Bucannon, who started as a true freshman, and Hoffman-Ellis were the Cougars' top two tackles in 2010.
DE Datone Jones, LB Patrick Larimore, SS Tony Dye
The Skinny: A solid threesome that is down here more because it gets an "incomplete." Jones missed all of last season with a foot injury, but, if healthy, he's an All-Conference sort. Larimore was solid in seven games before suffering a shoulder injury. Dye led the Bruins in tackles and earned honorable mention All-Pac-10.
NG Will Pericak, LB Jon Major, FS Ray Polk
The Skinny: Pericak earned honorable mention All-Big 12. Major was the Buffaloes leading tackler before he blew out his knee in Game 7 (a knee injury also killed the junior's true freshman season). Polk was the second-leading tackler.
DE Derrick Shelby, LB Chaz Walker, CB Conroy Black
The Skinny: Honestly don't know how to rank the Utes here. Shelby and Walker are returning starters -- Walker earned second-team All-Mountain West honors. Black was the top backup cornerback last season. But Star Lotulelei might be the Utes' best defensive lineman, and Brian Blechen has moved from strong safety, where he was very good, to linebacker. How highly do the Utes think of him? They list him as an All-American candidate.
12. Oregon State
DE Dominic Glover, LB Rueben Robinson, S Lance Mitchell
The Skinny: Three returning starters, but none of them even earned honorable mention All-Pac-10 honors. Mitchell was the Beavers' third-leading tackler, Glover had 2.5 sacks, and Robinson split time with Tony Wilson.
Bolden announced at a news conference Friday that he will return next fall and not enter this spring's NFL draft.
Bolden had 52 tackles and three interception this season. He missed all but four games in 2009 after a disappointing 2008 season.
ASU continues to await word from defensive tackle Lawrence Guy.
With both Bolden and Guy returning, the Sun Devils would welcome back 20 starters from a highly competitive 6-6 team from 2010.
USC already has lost two: Defensive tackle Jurrell Casey and offensive tackle Tyron Smith.
Many of the upcoming decisions -- both to stay or to go -- are going to be surprises. Some certain early draft picks opt to return for whatever reason, including the fact that they will never -- ever -- have as much fun as they did in college. And a handful of obscure players annually decide to enter the draft for whatever reason, including getting bad advice from a know-it-all "acquaintance" who doesn't know a darn thing.
This will not turn out to be a complete list. And our speculation is intentionally vague because it can be nothing else: We don't know what's going on inside these young men's heads.
Note: Though some players have indicated they plan to return, they are included here because, well, you never know -- they might change their minds.
You can review Mel Kiper's "junior" rankings here.
QB Nick Foles, Jr.: Foles would benefit from returning for his senior year and could improve his stock considerably. But his knee injury this year and questions about the Wildcats' offensive line might give him pause.
WR Juron Criner, Jr.: Criner is the best receiver in the country few folks have heard of, but he might want to look at this year's receiver class, which is loaded.
CB Trevin Wade, Jr.: Wade needs to return for his senior season after taking a step back as a junior.
CB Omar Bolden, Jr.: Bolden rejuvenated his career this fall, earning first-team All-Pac-10 honors. He also knows what it's like to get hurt and miss a season. The Sun Devils could break through in 2011, and that could greatly benefit his status.
DT Lawrence Guy, Jr.: The general thinking is Guy wants to return for his senior season. He faces a tough choice.
RB Shane Vereen, Jr.: Mel Kiper ranks Vereen No. 5 among junior running backs. The Bears' questionable supporting cast on offense next year might sway him to the pros.
OLB Mychal Kendricks, Jr.: Lots of potential, but he's not ready.
OG Ryan Miller, Jr.: Miller has already said he plans to return next fall, though Kiper ranks him No. 2 among junior guards.
RB LaMichael James, RSo.: Kiper ranks James as the No. 3 "junior" running back. The Ducks' first unanimous All-American must choose between college glory -- Heisman Trophy, (another) national championship -- or getting paid now. Probably won't get picked until the second round because of size and middling skills as a receiver, but his top-end speed is enticing.
TE David Paulson, Jr.: Kiper ranks him No. 4 among junior tight ends. Good bet to return.
RB Jacquizz Rodgers, Jr.: Rodgers has indicated he plans to return because his brother, James, is likely to get a fifth year via medical hardship because of a knee injury this past season. But Beavers fans are rooting for it to be Jan. 18.
WR James Rodgers, Sr.: It's likely the Rodgers are a package deal: Both stay or both go.
QB Andrew Luck, RSo.: If he enters the draft, he's almost certain to be the No. 1 overall pick. More than a few folks, however, believe he's seriously considering a return for his junior year, particularly if coach Jim Harbaugh remains at Stanford. We'll see.
LB Akeem Ayers, Jr.: Odds are that Ayers will enter the draft. A likely first-round pick.
FS Rahim Moore, Jr.: Odds are that Moore will enter the draft. A likely first-round pick.
DL Armond Armstead, Jr: Armstead has said he plans to return. He should. A healthy season could send his stock skyrocketing.
CB Brandon Burton, Jr.: Burton, second-team All Mountain West, is No. 5 on Kiper's list of junior corners. He's definitely on the NFL radar.
OT Tony Bergstrom, Jr.: It would make sense for the second-team All Mountain West player to return for his senior year.
WR Jermaine Kearse, Jr.: Kearse is highly productive but dropped a few too many balls this year. While he'd benefit from another year, he might be worried about the Huskies breaking in a new quarterback.
RB Chris Polk, RSo: Polk eclipsed the 1,000-yard mark for a second consecutive season. He's admitted that entering the draft is a possibility.
DT Brandon Rankin, Jr.: It would be wise for Rankin to return for his senior season.