TEMPE, Ariz. — On the first night at Camp Tontozona, Arizona State offensive line coach Chris Thomsen confronted his rebuilt unit with some direct questions.
“Have you all heard it enough yet — that we’re the ones that are holding everything back?'” Thomsen asked a group that will feature four new starters this season. “How sick of that are you? Are you ready to go prove that wrong?”
ASU’s men in the trenches will have to hear it a while longer with the season opener against Northern Arizona still three weeks away, and the Pac-12 opener against Cal six weeks down the road. With so many fresh faces dotting the line, the external concern is more than hyperbole. It’s warranted.
While more of the offseason attention has been focused on who will win the quarterback battle between Manny Wilkins, Brady White and now-injured Bryce Perkins, the offensive line may be ASU’s greatest worry heading into the 2016 season.
The performance of the front five (plus tight ends) will dictate how much offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey can open his play book. It will also play an enormous role in the new QB gaining confidence and staying healthy, and as much as the Devils like to think they can rely on a deep and talented running back corps that features Demario Richard and Kalen Ballage. If the guys in front of them aren’t opening up holes against defenses that know ASU’s strength, the Sun Devils offense could struggle.
“That’s a challenge and I feel that we’re going to rise to that challenge and surprise everybody’s expectations,” said senior left tackle Evan Goodman, the only returning starter on the unit. “We have a lot of talent that nobody knows about. Maybe they didn’t get to play or maybe they were injured last year, but they’re quality guys on and off the field.”
Goodman was quick to note that while the other starters are new, they aren’t exactly green. Left guard Sam Jones made three starts at tackle in his redshirt freshman season, Stephon McCray made one start at center in 2014 and backed up now-departed Nick Kelly for two seasons, and right guard Quinn Bailey played in five games last season. That leaves current right tackle Zach Robertson (redshirted last season) as the only lineman without game experience.
Further buoying ASU’s confidence is the type of recruit the Sun Devils have brought in the past couple of seasons. They still need to prove it on the field, but in football parlance, ASU’s line sure looks good getting on the bus. They’re athletic, they’re long (McCray is the shortest at 6-3) and they’re big. All five current starters are around the 300-pound barrier or better with Robertson (325) and McCray (319) topping the group.
“Coach Thomsen is breeding monsters in that lineman room,” Richard said. “They’re tall and they’re strong and they can run.”
“You see the type of athletes we’re bringing in at every position — top of the line athletes that look great and they’re doing great,” Goodman added. “It makes you very excited about the future.”
How quickly the five can form the type of cohesion that is critical for offensive lines will dictate how much the offense can do, and both coach Todd Graham and offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey have admitted they will have to simplify the offense.
“We don’t have five returning starters on the O-line. We don’t have an experienced quarterback so it wouldn’t make sense for us to come out and really throw a whole lot at them,” Lindsey said. “When you get into game planning you have to tweak things, week to week, and you’ll add a wrinkle here and there, but we want to make sure we get really good at our base offense and be able to execute our foundation plays.”
Thomsen said having Lindsey calling plays is an unanticipated advantage in that regard.
“Coach Lindsey is a little bit different in his approach in that he doesn’t carry quite as much volume — in the run game especially as what (former offensive coordinator Mike) Norvell did,” Thomsen said of Lindsey’s playbook. “Having some guys who haven’t played as much transitioning into an offense that doesn’t do quite as much — the timing is pretty good on that I think and will help us.”
Thomsen admits he is hoping for “a lot” of leadership from Goodman on an otherwise young unit, but he stopped short of placing that entire burden on Goodman’s shoulders.
“I tell guys that you lead yourself so I don’t want to say Evan Goodman is the only guy with a bunch of starts so he’s the leader,” Thomsen said. “Evan Goodman needs to lead himself. The rest of the guys need to lead themselves. If Evan will lead himself and do what he’s been doing for eight or nine months, he’ll evolve into a guy that provides leadership for our team.”
Even with junior college transfers Tyson Rising and A.J. McCollum currently injured, Thomsen is striking a positive tone about the direction of the group, which may include freshman reserve Cohl Cabral if recent practices are an indication.
“They kind of picked up where they left off (in the spring) so I’m excited about what I see,” he said. “I think there are enough guys in that group that are hungry. At the end of the season, they want to be evaluated as an asset, not a liability. That will be a process and I know that, but I think we’ve got the right group of guys.”