A year ago, Arizona State headed into spring practices with lots of questions, and most projected the Sun Devils were bound for the bottom third of the Pac-10. This week, the Sun Devils begin spring practices with few questions and expectations that they should win the first Pac-12 South title.
Expectations do not win football games, but 18 returning starters from a team that went 6-6 and pushed three top-10 teams to the brink -- Wisconsin, Oregon and Stanford -- is a reasonable foundation for optimism.
Of course, there are still issues, starting with quarterback Brock Osweiler asserting himself as the leader of the offense after Steven Threet was forced to retire due to recurrent concussions. Threet is serving as a student assistant this spring.
"I'd love to have Steven, but without having him, I think it kind of identified who our leader is," coach Dennis Erickson said.
Who's out: Arizona Republic writer Doug Haller was at the first practice Tuesday and provided this list of players who were out or limited: "... defensive end Junior Onyeali, receiver Mike Willie, safety Keelan Johnson, safety Eddie Elder, cornerback Deveron Carr, receiver Aaron Pflugrad and running back Deantre Lewis. Linebacker Brandon Magee was with the baseball team and didn't practice."
Haller also provided a depth chart from the first day.
Osweiler then who? With Threet, Osweiler and Samson Szakacsy, the Sun Devils had three quarterbacks with starting experience. Without Threet and Szakacsy, who left the team to pursue other interests, the Sun Devils have a first-team quarterback with two career starts and no experience behind him. Redshirt freshman Taylor Kelly and big-armed true freshman Mike Bercovici are competing for the backup role, which is often a key spot seeing how often starters get hurt and miss action.
O-line competition: If you're looking for a major reason the Sun Devils have high hopes, look no further than the line, which welcomes back, well, just about everybody from the two-deep. This will be a veteran unit led by senior center Garth Gerhart, younger brother of Toby. More than five guys have starting experience, so there may be some mixing and matching and shuffling as players fight for first-unit spots.
DT is the question: Both starting defensive tackles, Lawrence Guy and Saia Falahola, are gone. The ideal rotation would be Corey Adams and Will Sutton starting, with Bo Moos and Toa Tuitea providing depth. But can Adams stay healthy? Sutton was academically ineligible last year, so he's high on talent and low on experience. Developing depth this spring will be critical. And might the Sun Devils use more three-man fronts? Said Erickson, "We're a 4-3 team," while still leaving the option open.
Can Burfict be perfect? Of course, no one can be perfect, but Burfict, a junior linebacker likely spending his final season in Tempe, will play himself into becoming a first-round NFL draft pick in 2012 if he saves all his nutty behavior for between the whistles, not after. He needs to lead in word and deed, which means growing up and acting and playing like a man. The way-early returns this offseason are positive. "I'm trying to get us to a national championship," Burfict told the Republic, "and to do that, I feel like I need to become more of a leader."
Just for kicks? The Sun Devils must replace kicker Thomas Weber and punter Trevor Hankins. Alex Garoutte and Parker Flynn are competing at kicker, with Garoutte the front-runner. JC transfer Josh Hubner is expected to win the punting job. Will the Sun Devils get quality or merely warm bodies here?