BearTerritory caught up with ASUDevils.com publisher Chris Karpman this week for a brief Q&A on Arizona State.
BearTerritory: How much do you feel the defensive game plan for the Sun Devils will key in on stopping the run?
Chris Karpman: That's the key for the Sun Devils in seemingly every Pac-10 game and when they have success in that regard, they usually win. The conference is filled with high profile running backs and ASU coach Dennis Erickson put Shane Vereen in the same category as others, including LaMichael James and Jacquizz Rodgers in terms of talent and ability. ASU typically has a lot of success against the run, after leading the conference in the statistic last season and limiting Wisconsin, Oregon and Oregon State rushing attacks through much of their games this season. James called ASU's run defense the best he's faced in his career. If ASU can have success in this regard against Cal, it would put a lot of pressure on the Cal passing attack, which has been a little unpredictable this season.
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BT: What role will Vontaze Burfict play in that plan, and what kind of role has he played in pass coverage this season?
CK: Burfict is at his best coming up against the run, especially in lateral pursuit outside the tackle box. He's an intimidating player who has tremendous speed and hitting ability. Against the pass he's less effective and can occasionally be exposed at depth, though he's not a substantial liability.
BT: How quickly has Steven Threet picked up the offense since transferring from Michigan, and what kind of difference does that kind of veteran hand have for an ASU team that had Rudy Carpenter around for quite some time?
CK: Threet is very cerebral and understands the concepts well because he's a gym-rat-type student of the game. It's a difficult offense to learn with a lot of nuances, but overall, Threet has done well, leading the Pac-10 in passing yards per game. He's not the most talented quarterback out there but he's plenty skilled to be effective at this level. If there is an issue to watch, it's his tendency to not account for underneath defenders in zone coverage on passes in the middle third of the field. He's overly prone to throwing interceptions on these passes.
BT: In that vein, the Sun Devils have some pretty experienced personnel on the edge. Talk a little bit about the wide receivers' performance this year.
CK: ASU's improvement at receiver is largely due to the new offensive scheme put in place by first-year offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone. It's a very fast-paced offense with explosive ability in the passing game. The Sun Devils hit for more 10-plus yard receptions in the first five games than all of last season. Senior Kerry Taylor has emerged due to his route running ability, junior college transfer Mike Willie is a big, sure-handed weapon with athleticism who moves around from the slot to the outside spots. Junior Gerell Robinson is finally showing some of the promise that led to him being a Rivals100 recruit out of high school.
BT: We've all heard about Lawrence Guy and Burfict, but who else is standing out on defense that Cal fans should keep their eyes on?
CK: True freshman rush end Junior Onyeali has emerged as the team's best pass rusher and potential future star. The linebacking corps is filled with speed and athleticism, rotating six players, but those capable of the biggest athletic impact are Oliver Aaron, Brandon Magee and Shelly Lyons. Colin Parker is extremely assignment-sound in the mold of now-departed Mike Nixon, who was the heart of ASU's top-ranked Pac-10 defense last year. Junior corner Omar Bolden has huge upside, which he flashes occasionally, but a little too inconsistently still.
BT: Dennis Erickson has had limited success in his tenure with ASU. Is he turning a corner, or do you see more of the same going forward?
CK: The Sun Devils are much improved from a talent quotient standpoint, and finally have an offense in place capable of effecting success. They lost at Wisconsin due to a blocked PAT and several blown calls by Big Ten officials, had seven turnovers but still lost to Oregon by only 12 points, and took Oregon State to the wire on the road. Any or all of those games could have gone either way. They are coming off a win at Washington where they clearly outplayed the Huskies on the road. What's important to note is that ASU has only a couple senior starters on the entire team, so it will likely be very competitive in the race for the Pac-10 title next year.
BT: What do you think enabled this team to bounce back after three straight losses to beat a pretty good Washington squad?
CK: ASU arguably outplayed all three opponents -- it definitely outplayed Wisconsin and Oregon -- it lost to, but shot itself in the foot with turnovers and penalties (the Sun Devils rank at the bottom of the Pac-10 in both categories) and red zone inefficiency. ASU has moved the ball easily for the most part only to not get it done in the red zone. The Sun Devils are 20th in the nation in total offense and in the bottom 20 percent in red zone efficiency. The players believe in what they're doing conceptually and have known they were close to breaking through and it's kept the atmosphere positive around the program, which paid off at Washington.
BT: Any injuries that may affect the way that the Sun Devils do business?
CK: Sophomore corner Deveron Carr was looking like one of the top young stars in the Pac-10 before hurting his shoulder several weeks ago and he's been replaced by Osahon Irabor, a promising redshirt freshman, but one not as tested or capable as Carr quite yet. Junior receiver Aaron Pflugrad has been battling turf toe and it kept him out against the Huskies. Coming off a bye week, ASU appears in relative good health otherwise.