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Debriefing: Arizona State stares down a new level of expectations

Matt Hinton
Dr. Saturday

The least you should know about the 2011 Sun Devils. Part of Pac-12 Week.

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No more Mr. Nice Guy. As a physical specimen who can take on blockers between the tackles and rove from sideline to sideline, junior linebacker Vontaze Burfict is the closest thing college football has at the moment to Ray Lewis. With Burfict patrolling the middle as the team's best run defense for the second year in a row. Burfict was voted All-Pac-10, picked up the first of many All-America nods from the Sporting News and moved to the top of the list of underclassman linebackers bound for the 2012 Draft, where he should easily become the first Sun Devil to land in the first round since Terrelle Suggs back in 2003.

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As a cool-headed role model in the clutch, it's a different story. Burfict's many dumb penalties over the last two years (not to mention the ones that don't get called) aren't just dumb — at various points, flags on Burfict have backed the team into a corner and left him visibly flustered. At one point last October, Burfict was briefly removed from the starting lineup after a dead ball head-butt on Oregon State quarterback Ryan Katz; in November, he helped extend game-winning drives by both USC and Stanford in consecutive weeks — the latter when Burfict was flagged for not one, not two but three critical penalties on what proved to be the game-winning touchdown drive for the Cardinal in the fourth quarter.

At his best, Burfict's the engine at the center of the league's best run defense, and with all-conference cornerback Omar Bolden likely out for the year with an ACL tear, it also falls to him to pick up more of a leadership role. Predictably, Burfict is already preaching growth and maturity as an upperclassman, but after two years of veering dangerously close to becoming the next LeGarrette Blount, the only proof will be the flags that stay in the officials' pockets.

We know the drill. Even after quarterback Steven Threet's concussion-related retirement in February, spring practice opened with twenty-four Devils who started at least five games in 2010, 18 of them seniors or fourth-year juniors. It didn't take long, though, for their ranks to begin thinning out: By the end of the spring, ASU had lost Bolden, who could have been battling for a starting job in an NFL training camp right now if he'd decided to declare for the draft last winter, and fellow ACL casualty T.J. Simpson, the team's leading returning receiver. Another rising senior, defensive end Derrick Brooks, left the team last month.{YSP:MORE}

One area that hasn't been hit by attrition, "natural" or otherwise, is the offensive line: Every lineman who set foot on the field last year is back, including eight guys who have combined for 84 career starts to date — 22 of them by all-conference center Garth Gerhart.

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The Brock starts here. If Threet had hung around for his final season of eligibility, odds are he would have been relegated to the bench, where he spent the last two games of 2010 watching emu-like sophomore Brock Osweiler sew up the job. Osweiler, a 6-foot-8 high school hoops star, bombed UCLA and Arizona for 647 yards and five touchdowns with no interceptions in back-to-back wins to close the season, the Devils' best two-game outburst in Pac-10 play since early 2007.

For the year, ASU somehow cobbled together the No. 3 scoring offense in the conference despite the absence of anyone resembling a consistent home run threat, and the egalitarian approach should continue: Even with Simpson and leading receiver Kerry Taylor out of the mix, six different receivers are back who caught at least 20 passes.

No pressure or anything. The persistently high expectations from the preseason pundits are a double-edged sword for coach Dennis Erickson, who would have a hard time surviving four straight non-winning seasons under any circumstances. Practice opens next week with fans looking forward to a division title in a watered down Pac-12 South and an outgoing starter essentially calling for Erickson's head in the local press; if Erickson doesn't deliver the former (or at least come reasonably close), the latter may get his wish.

Frankly, there's no good reason Arizona State can't deliver on the hype, such as it is. It has as veteran a lineup as any team in the league, and the top competition in the South, USC, is ineligible for the Pac-12 Championship Game. If the soon-to-be 64-year-old is going to take another team around the corner before he's eligible to begin drawing Social Security, this is obviously the one, with a depth chart composed overwhelmingly by Erickson's first two recruiting classes to Tempe in 2007 and 2008. This time next year, the prevailing theme will be the mass exodus of those seniors. If this outfit can't push through to the championship game with its experience and a middling lineup of division rivals, it might well be another decade before the next opportunity cycles back around, and it won't be Erickson who's there to greet it.

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Matt Hinton is on Twitter: Follow him @DrSaturday.

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